The U.K.'s Digital Media Challenge

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London has been out in front for well over a decade now – and it's on the cusp of stepping up and taking credit for it.

By Giles Ivey

“U.K. media agencies are leading the world in digital.” This might sound like a bold claim, but as managing director of MediaVest UK, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG), Steve Parker is well placed to make such judgments. As far as he is concerned, we Brits need to overcome our famous reserve and boldly embrace our talent.

“Thinking about the U.K. as a media marketplace leader, is quite tough. I know it’s tough in every marketplace, but we’re not as confident or as proud as we should be about the scale,” Parker says. “In terms of maturity, we learn how to work with new things very quickly in the U.K., and I certainly feel that in the past couple of years, the best British organizations have been a little bit braver than their global counterparts.”

It's a concept embraced a lot by London media agencies. A few years ago, the word would have been “innovation,” but now having the good idea is not enough. In 2012, a media agency needs the nerve — or since we’re talking about the British, the gumption — to put that idea into practice and be quick about it. This is even more important when technology platforms are at the core of your business.

“We have a lot of entrepreneurs and bright communications experts in the U.K. who jumped into the Internet early on,” says Miles Lewis, vice president of European Sales at Shazam Entertainment, a company that was incorporated in the U.K., even though it was based on U.S.-developed technology.

Lewis substantiates this by pointing to the number of U.K. digital industry stalwarts who now head up agency operations around the world — high profile names such as Leigh Terry, CEO Omnicom Media Group for Australia and New Zealand. “London has been leading the pack in the digital space for 10 to 15 years. A lot of brains have been created in this country, and we are exporting a lot of talent now,” Lewis says.

To say that London, or in fact the world, is getting smaller is hardly a revolutionary thought. As Parker explains, “more businesses are being organized globally, and you have to be smarter and braver to take the lead or take on more operational roles in the delivery of services — otherwise you become just another column in a spreadsheet.”

For Parker, one of the hardest but arguably the most motivating elements of working in media is the different types of conversations you have because you work across so many sectors. “You go from a credit card meeting to a car meeting to a beer meeting to a nappy meeting, and then you’ve got all your media partners who want to educate you and advise you. It’s really diverse,” he says.

Because of this diversity, Parker feels that over the past few years, there’s been “a mix of confusion, lack of confidence and uncertainty” in the digital space, and clients are looking for people they trust to give them the broadest advice. “Clients need to be kept up to date with the new technologies and platforms that are sprouting up and becoming very big, very fast so they can stay ahead in the game,” he says. “Not only do we have that knowledge, but we also have strong relationships with our clients, and it’s this combination that is allowing U.K. agencies to drive the global digital agenda.”

Welcome to the Future

So the U.K. media agency landscape is nimble and clever — and small, which is lucky. It means we have a marketplace of a workable size to put new ideas into practice, a luxury that isn’t afforded to marketers in the U.S., where the sheer size involved often breeds a culture of caution.

“I think the U.K. has gone back to its roots and remembered what it does better than other markets. It’s just bit more future-facing, a bit more honest and a bit more prepared to challenge the status quo,” Parker says. “Media agencies have always been about understanding people, research, insight and strategy. However you phrase that, you have to understand the consumer and then deliver media that will change their behavior to deliver a positive business benefit to the client. In the U.K., we still have a lot to learn from other markets as there are different interpretations and restrictions, but we’re bravely leading and forging ahead.”

Giles Ivey is managing director of SAY Media UK. This column original appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of SAY Magazine.

[Illustration by Nigel Sussman]