Media agencies have been quietly working on something for years that most clients will never see or even know about. These agencies have been pumping resources into building automated workflow processes that they hope will release them from the daily grind of Excel-sheet grunt work and free up time and resources needed to diversify into more creative streams.
“Our definition or vision is to be able to use technology to optimise or improve the way we work and to essentially automate a lot of mundane things so we can repurpose our talent,” explains Sean Seamer, MediaCom’s chief business development officer for Asia-Pacific.
The pressures driving agencies to invest in these platforms range from satisfying client-side procurement demands for greater efficiencies, increasingly narrow margins on fees that clients don’t want to pay any more and the need to appear more attractive to high-quality prospective staff.
“The talent coming out of university today doesn’t want to sit in a media agency and work on Excel sheets every day. To get someone to join us, instead of a bank or a technology company, we have to improve a lot of our processes,” says Seamer.
Mediabrands too has found it easier to attract “non-Excel experts” with the adoption of an automated workflow process. “Instead, we’re hiring talent with more of an understanding of the digital media industry, of BI [business intelligence] capabilities and data management skills,” says Nick Hippolyte, SVP of infrastructure systems at Mediabrands Audience Platforms (MAP).
Arun Kumar, MAP president for G14 countries, agrees. Nobody likes inefficiency, but that’s what agencies have been asking talent to put up with. “The process now is, call the sales guys, do the deal, then book it for each campaign using an internal agency planning system that does not talk to the TV station’s planning and buying system, forcing you to re-enter the data again and again and again. We are finally asking the question, ‘What if I don’t have to?’”
What exactly is ‘automation’?
Not everyone understands automation to be the same thing, Kumar says. “The definition is split between buying media in an automated fashion and workflow. Some have focused on the workflow, some don’t think it’s necessary. There isn’t a consistent platform being used.”
Currently, each agency has its own working definition of an automated workflow process. Some view it as an end-to-end process, ranging from buying and trading to planning and execution. Others, such as Omnicom Media Group (OMG), define automated processes as purely about automating boring, time-consuming and error-prone manual tasks related to buying and trading.
MediaCom may be one of the earliest to have started building an automated process. According to Seamer, the agency’s automation roots began with the acquisition of Beyond Interactive which it acquired in 1999 in the US. “The core of their business was built around a workflow system called the Beyond Interactive Database. It was a campaign planning tool that automatically trafficked campaigns into DoubleClick,” he adds.
Conversations around these processes are heating up now because programmatic buying is such a hot topic, explains Seamer. “It’s really just one part of the agency workflow, but conversations around programmatic do shed more light on the process and we can bring decision engines and artificial intelligence to bear on broader workflow automations.”
But now, MediaCom claims its process is no longer limited to just digital media. “If a client is managing around 20 different brands in their portfolio, we are able to track them at multiple levels across different media and integrate this data into the planning process along with analytics and consumer insight. We have the ability to automate about 80 per cent of what’s taking place in the interactive environment.”
Mediabrands, has set a goal of 50 per cent automation by 2016, and has its eye on a process that extends from planning to buying. “We’re well on our way. We have a goal of 28 per cent automation by the end of the year,” says Hippolyte. “Overall our levels vary from business to business. In the case of Cadreon, we have a higher level of automation but in the more traditional business, it’s still early stages. The goal is to move the rest of the business gradually towards high levels of automation.”
So far, the group has rolled out its automated processes in about 16 countries over the past three years. The lead market, globally, remains the US but its capabilities are also being used to build automated systems in the network’s other markets.
Impact on business and clients
Although the process is still evolving, agencies that have implemented automated workflows have started to view and evaluate the effect it’s had on their businesses. The most direct, of course, is the freeing up of time from a planning and buying perspective, enabling agencies to achieve more with existing resources and pool of talent.
“A multi-market end-of-year planning review, which might have taken two weeks for a team to do, now can be done in a matter of days,” says Seamer. But it’s also changed the way Mediacom operates in other ways, he continues. While clients may never hear of the process in a pitch room or directly perceive its benefits, they are benefitting. “We are more consistent in the way we execute and it has also delivered a greater level of accountability and transparency of all the data available, which makes it easy for clients to see and review,” Seamer says.
The decision to keep the “black box of optimisation” out of the pitch room is a good call says R3 principal, Greg Paull. “The issue for clients is, are you hiring the bodies or the box? Is there actually human involvement to support what software is saying or not? At the end of the day, agencies serve as an expanded marketing team, so clients are hiring people, not technology.”
Max Sim, regional head of digital for JobsDB, agrees with Paull’s assessment. “It’s true that we don’t know what automation a lot of our agencies use. When we select, we look out for things like team chemistry, how much they understand our business in the pitch they do for us and evidence of previous success.”
Which is how it should be. The goal, says Seamer, has never been to replace humans with machines but to free up talent from handling mundane agency tasks to be able to focus more on clients. “It’s dramatically improved our client scoring, our qualitative scoring with clients and client-satisfaction are both up. It’s having an impact on the quality of our work, we’re winning more awards. In short, we’re able to do more of what we’ve always done and do more of what we would have liked to have done but haven’t had time to do.”
While in the present landscape some agencies may be further ahead with their automated workflows than others, eventually, Seamer views a good process as basic hygiene and best practice. “We’re not a manufacturing company, our process is not something we sell. Where we differentiate ourselves is our approach to communications.”
Clients also benefit from automated workflow processes, says Hippolyte, by the range and flexibility of services agencies are now able to offer clients. Mediabrands has launched several service offerings over the past few years, including social activation arm Rally, shopper marketing consultancy Shopper Sciences, and branded content arm, Ensemble.
By and large though these changes are still barely noticeable in the marketplace, says Paull. “Most marketers are not turning to media agencies for new types of work, unless they are in the IT or technology sector where the lion’s share of spend is going to digital,” he says.
One area that most agree has definitely improved, Paull says, is the realm of data analytics, improving the accuracy of digital campaigns in particular and helping agencies be more specific in ad targeting.
This is the result of increasingly sophisticated insights gleaned from data gathered and processed automatically. Without automation, says Tim Waddell, director of product marketing, advertising solutions for Adobe Systems, it would be impossible for a human being to manage and refine the massive volume of data streaming in from a multitude of consumer touch points. “Granular audience segmentation and content optimisation can only be successful with the inclusion of automation,” he says.
In this regard, automation becomes a genuine business driver, believes MediaMath’s co-founder and global chief revenue officer, Erich Wasserman. “There is an opportunity now for the advertising industry to understand how users are interacting with brand touchpoints in ways that implicate more channels that agencies can address effectively.”
At present, the end goal for the media agencies interviewed is to automate everything that clients regard as commoditised or low-level and increase the agency’s ability to focus on higher-value offerings which will be he agency’s point of differentiation and profit. But, as Hippolyte puts it: “It doesn’t have to be a hard definition.”
OPINION Programmatic buying becoming a selling point for clients
George Patten, managing director, Accenture — Interactive Media Managements
Agencies continue to develop their strategic capabilities and are continually innovating and updating their techniques in order to optimise client revenues. This often highlights key points of difference between each agency group.
Of course, this is beneficial if price points (and therefore entry point to a medium) are lowered as long as the context of the purchase is transparent. While price reductions may be apparent, they are sometimes at the detriment of campaign KPIs including site selection, geography and viewability. As long as all parties (but most importantly the clients) understand these tradeoffs then all parties benefit from full transparency and a clear understanding of the context of the buy.
The clients we speak to are becoming more aware and more interested in programmatic buying capabilities as there is obviously a clear benefit to them in improved trading mechanisms and subsequent results. The key is how each platform within each agency group differentiates itself from another and this is not readily apparent. We find clients would not chose an agency based on this programmatic capability alone (although the existence of one is obviously important) but agency selection is made across multiple criteria such as chemistry, ideas, people, price and ultimately the client’s belief that they can work with the team.
The media agency world is getting larger and the role a traditional media agency plays is changing. It is no longer about the 30-second spot on TV rather the wider communication industry from producing the content all the way through the process. Agencies are trying to manage as large a part of this process as possible and again many clients see the benefit of this one-stop shop approach.