VIth Sense: Paid Media Defines the Modern-Day Ad Agency

Author: Tim Berney
Posted: Nov 2, 2023

Topics: The VIth Sense

I was happy to see Judy Pollack’s (@judy_pollack) Ad Age article about the J. Walter Thompson (JWT) agency and its long legacy of great work. The JWT name is being retired altogether as holding company WPP is merging Wunderman Thompson with VMLY&R, which were four distinct and renowned agencies just five years ago. Some of JWT’s most famous works include ‘I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner’ and ‘I’m a Toys R Us Kid;’ two jingles that still run around in my head today.  



While this merger of brands is newsworthy, how and why WPP decided it was a necessary business move is what is more (timely) to me. The two merging brands originally merged themselves because of digital media. There is a lot to unpack there, and I am committed to a relatively brief blog here, so I’ll concentrate on just a few subjects here. However, it is notable that the surviving brand that all four will be called now is VML. VML was the first traditional advertising agency that made a successful pivot to digital – a move that took them from a respected regional shop to an international phenomenon.  


First, paid media is much more complicated and difficult to master today than it was just a few short years ago – even more so than in 2018 when JWT and Wunderman merged. My agency is not on the scale of these behemoths of course, but we are large enough to realize and capitalize on the benefits of media specialists. In no particular order, today’s media department needs digital and traditional media strategists, SEO, paid search, paid social, digital display and programmatic specialists, and finally ad operations.   And of course, within traditional media channels, specialists in broadcast, out-of-home, and others if your client mix demands it. To be really good at all in paid media, an agency needs personnel in at least eight (8) disciplines – all of whom know other disciplines so they can collaborate and strategize how they can best work to maximize results for a given client. There is no such thing as a ‘Digital Specialist’ or ‘Media Specialist’ in today’s fragmented media landscape.  


Second, digital media, and social media specifically, has created a need for quick-turn-around and short-lived creative content. It still needs to be strategic, but it needs to be less expensive to create when it has a short shelf-life. The agency world recently operated on long campaigns with long lead times for creative development. Digital media has changed that. And therefore, changed the agency model. In fact, there is plenty of debate about where content should live in an agency: media, creative, social, or independently.  WPP merged creative, driven and digital shops to force the issue and appears to be still working it out. The same is true of the agencies that I meet with regularly – nobody seems to have the perfect solution. We do know that those who generate content are generally in a hybrid role. They must have a keen understanding of the channels through which the content will be delivered. They must know what types of content are being consumed within the various channels. And they still must support the brand while being strategic.  And the content must be good enough for the audience to consume, engage with, or share. All produced very quickly! 


This is what makes marketing fun – there are challenges to be solved on a regular basis. When you are good at it, your agency name will carry on forever. Unless it's owned by WPP ;) 


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