Media agencies are under massive pressure to reinvent themselves. Here's how the biggest ones, including Horizon Media and PHD, are evolving to meet clients' demands.


Marc Pritchard

  • Facing tremendous pressure on numerous fronts, media agencies are reinventing themselves, according to a new report by market research firm Forrester.
  • The report assessed nine media agencies based on their market presence, offerings, and future strategy related to issues like brand safety, transparency, and media-vendor relations.
  • The report found that media agencies are doing more contextual buys and forging more direct relationships.
  • They are also getting more transparent, buying across more types of media, and helping clients close the attribution loop.

With media agencies facing tremendous pressure on numerous fronts, traditional ways of media planning and buying just don’t cut it anymore.

Marketers are increasingly looking for media agencies that not only do planning and buying but offer business and technology strategy and data and analytics expertise. They want ad buys that don’t achieve just reach and frequency but are personalized and informed by technology.

Agencies are rising to the challenge, according to a Forrester report released Thursday, which assessed nine media agencies under $20 billion in billings: Assembly, Dentsu X, Hearts & Science, Horizon Media, Initiative, Mediahub, PHD, Spark Foundry, and Vizeum.

Read more: ‘Disruption only happens to those that are unprepared’: Media agencies are fighting back by increasingly taking a page out of consulting firms’ playbook

In the report, led by analyst Jay Pattisall, the market research company assessed the agencies based on their market presence, offerings, and strategy, including how well they were handling issues like brand safety, transparency, and media-vendor relations. They were ranked as leaders, strong performers, or contenders.

Here’s how these different media agencies are reinventing themselves:

Agencies are merging media, content, and context

While most full-service media agencies develop content, the best ones put advertising in the right consumer context.

One unnamed agency, for example, hacked ad-blockers on websites to promote Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” targeting ad-blocking consumers with messages about the persuasiveness of technology to promote the series, which warns of societal dependence on technology.

Forrester also lauded Mediahub, saying that clients liked the IPG Mediabrands agency for its transparency, use of emerging technologies, and creative applications of media.

They’re proactively addressing marketers’ transparency concerns

Nearly three years since the Association of National Advertisers issued a bombshell report that painted the media-buying world as rife with illegal rebates, some agencies have cleaned up their act better than others.

The report singled out Horizon Media, the largest independent agency in the US, as an example of a media agency that gets transparency right by having commissioned PwC to independently audit its practices.

Others are rethinking how they buy media

Some full-service agencies have reduced their dependence on reselling media in favor of using curated marketplaces, according to Forrester.

Hearts & Science, for one, operates private marketplaces that let clients directly buy ads on publisher’s websites at pre-negotiated rates, ensuring brands’ ads end up where they’re supposed to, reducing costs, and minimizing waste.

“Its ability to create private marketplaces to ensure impression quality and its strong belief that clients should own their data and tech contracts shows high proficiency with data analytics,” the analysts wrote.

Agencies are using data to show attribution

Agencies are recognizing that media strategies need to be informed by consumer insights, so they’ve set up business-intelligence units and data-analytics practices to benefit clients.

One unnamed agency has access to the CRM file of one of its clients, including the brand’s leads and sales data. This helps the agency anticipate marketing problems and show sales lift using closed-loop attribution, according to the report.

They’re building media plans across platforms

From TV and social media to over-the-top streaming devices, people consume content on more channels than ever, and media agencies are getting better at targeting people accordingly.

For a MailChimp campaign, its unnamed media agency placed Easter eggs relating to the brand in pop-culture conversations across cinema trailers, social ads, video content, search-engine optimization, and search-engine marketing, among others, the report said. PHD is MailChimp’s media agency.

Forrester also cites Spark Foundry as good at helping promote clients’ content across paid, owned, and earned media.

“Leveraging the Publicis data platform, its strong content practice shows ingenuity in placing content in environments not easily purchased, such as scripted comedy on network TV,” the report said.

Agencies also are using machine learning, experiential, and voice

Several agencies are also pumping money into machine learning and artificial intelligence to help clients figure out where best to spend their ad budgets and which ads are driving sales and leads. The report cited MDC’s Assembly, Dentsu X, and Horizon as agencies that are using technology like machine learning, voice, and virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as experiential marketing for clients.

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