Walled gardens versus plant nurseries – and the death of media agencies

A couple of weeks ago I had a meeting with a very large media (buying) agency.  The agency was proposing an idea for a client which involved creating a place within MySpace.  The logic for this was two-fold.  The client’s target demographic was 18-25 and a MySpace place would represent a walled garden that this group would feel comfortable within.  The term ‘walled garden’ was presented, by their digital expert, as being a good thing.

Now I have been spending my time telling people to forget driving people to walled gardens – that was the 1.0 way of doing things – and focus instead (to extend the horticultural analogy) on creating plant nurseries where people get stuff to take away and plant in their own gardens.  The idea for the client that I was proposing, in association with a PR agency I was working with, involved creating just this – a launch pad for relevant content that could operate across many digital channels.  And insofar as it could use MySpace (or Facebook or Bebo), these would simply be simple digital outposts for the idea, not the place where the idea lived.

Media agencies are in a tricky place right now.  The future is in content, conversation and community, not in control of channel, but controlling channel is what media agencies do.  Insofar as they understand content it is all about how it can be sponsored or badged, rather than about creating it in the first place – which is why so many media agencies are striking content partnerships with media organisations.  It helps media that are facing declining ad revenues develop a new way to sell their content and it gives the media agencies something to do.  The drawback is that the output is still founded in a channel which is in long-term decline – and also that PR companies are often better at devising paid-for content ideas to pitch to media (although they don’t have the buying clout that still allows media agencies to be first in the door).

A couple of years ago I was listening to a podcast of a panel session from social media conference in the US.  Here a media planner was suggesting that media planners were going to become the new stars of the agency firmament and occupy the corner offices (that the creative agency planners and creatives had once occupied).  This was based on the idea that the proliferation of channels represented by social media required the expertise only possessed by media planners to target and exploit effectively.  Hmmm – not sure about that one.  I think that in the future, not only will media planners not have the corner office, they won’t have an office at all, they will be out on the street.  As I never tire of saying “social media is not about new channels to reach consumers, it is about channels that consumers will use to reach you”.  The flow has reversed and control of the channel has passed to them.  They acquire you, you don’t acquire them.  In effect, the consumer has become self-planning.

I don’t really know what the future for media agencies is going to be, but long-term – like the future of advertising agencies and the Gutenberg media –  it is not going to be one that has anything like the amount of money within it that is has at the moment.

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