John Steedman: “It’ll Only Work If Media & Creative Agencies Work Closer Together”

John Steedman: “It’ll Only Work If Media & Creative Agencies Work Closer Together”

Industry legend John “Steady” Steedman has been cajoled out of retirement for a third time to head up the media buying for WPP AUNZ (the new merger of STW and WPP). Here he tells B&T of his plans for the agencies, who’s not going to make it, and why he’s never been a particularly great fisherman…

John Bastick
Posted by John Bastick

The rumours were (WPP CEO) Sir Martin personally phoned you to offer you the new gig. Where you at home doing the washing-up when the phone rang?
We’d connected and he asked me what I wanted to do. It was back around September (last year) and I said I think I’d like to get back into business and he asked what do you want to do? And I said anything; the opportunity just presented itself, really.

To be honest, retirement – the golf, the fishing – sounds far more enjoyable than coming back to run multiple media buying businesses?
Ha, ha, I need to work to keep the brain ticking over and I also enjoy the industry. It’s changed dramatically in the 40 years I’ve been in it, back to a time when we hadn’t even heard of a computer. It’s an industry that’s completely transformed, it’s proving very exciting, lots more channels, lot more specialties.

You’ve got the WPP agencies and the STW agencies many of whom play in the same pool of clients. Will there be, for want of a better word, any consolidation?
The answer is no. They’ll stand alone as they always have. Sure, there’ll be some synergies across the company and we will look to create an over-arching strategy for the entire business.

You have to expect tensions, though; bringing the warring tribes together?
Absolutely not. There’s very smart and intelligent people in both the businesses that, I believe, can contribute to the overall leadership position that the business has at the moment. There will be no consolidation and the existing agencies will stay as is. But for the moment everyone will stay where they are, we have no plans to bring Ikon into the GroupM building as an example. That’s not going to work.

I believe it was Sir Martin himself who said if there’s a horse race make sure you’ve got two or three horses in the race. Is that what this is all about?
No, it’s about being able to offer choice to clients. When I ran GroupM it was imperative that we had four distinctly different agencies with each one having very different values and a different culture that existed within the company. It’s important clients have choice and go with an agency that suits their brands and are comfortable dealing with those people.

Will the WPP-STW merger make things tougher for the smaller guys, the independents?
There are 90 companies in the business and to use a word Martin uses it’s ‘horizontality’, and that means working across the breadth of businesses that are on offer to our clients in a cohesive and collaborative manner.

But no merger is ever without its casualties, that’s why businesses merge in the first place. It seems naïve to think that every agency will survive?
No. Sure, there’ll be synergies between the companies where we can share things, such as data, technology, programmatic and so on.

It’s obviously all about programmatic these days. How much would you agree some agencies – and not necessarily just WPP AUNZ ones – are getting it right while others are floundering?
I think most of the bigger agencies have their heads around it and have invested heavily in the right tech.

Will media agencies – because of programmatic – soon become one great big super computer?
You need humans to drive it, you need the humans to sell it. The sells on the big programs you’ll always need people. And what percent do I think programmatic will handle? Anywhere up to half, I’d imagine. It’s an industry that demands smart people and you can’t survive without smart people. Any firm’s staff is its biggest asset and they need the technology to do their jobs, and, really, that’s my job, to make sure those people have the right products to work with.

The margins appear pretty grim in buying at the moment, however?
That’s why agencies need to diversify their product, that’s why you need to bring in new products and look for new revenues streams. And that’s for the benefit of the clients too.

To what extent has mobile changed the buying landscape?
No doubt that’s happening and it’s not just mobile but all devices. And you’re right, I don’t think a lot of people expected the take-up to be as fast as it has been and that’s caught a lot of people off guard, for sure.

Twenty years ago the advertiser was beholden to the TV networks but the pendulum now appears to have swung back well and truly in their favour. Would you agree with that?
Sure, the market’s fragmented and when that happens it becomes more of a buyers’ market than a sellers’ one. Television will always remain, in my mind, a channel that is imperative for branding. What the client wants now is value, everybody is looking for value. The retailers do it all the time, they do it to the manufacturers and they do it to their suppliers and it just goes on and on. It’s all about economies of scale.

Are we seeing – as lot of doomsayers like to predict – the end of the 30-second TVC?
A lot of TVCs get played on digital as well. It’s not dead; I think that’s a bit dramatic. Obviously developing content is on clients’ agendas at the moment and I think brands are increasingly aware of engaging their customers that way.

How much would you agree it’s the creative agencies aren’t keeping up, particularly when talking about mobile?
I want to work closely with the creative agencies. Clients want a cohesive approach to their marketing and that will only happen if the media agencies and the creative agencies work more closely together. No, I’m not saying the buying should go back to the creative agencies like some people are saying… but the toothpaste is out of the tube and some of them are trying to do it. Yes, there will be some instances where the buying will sit between the media agency and the creative agency but it’s all about finding ways to work together for a client’s needs. Yes, I’d like to work in a more collaborative way, to offer a far superior product than our competitors can offer.

Would you want to be be the boss of a free-to-air network at the moment?
Me personally? Ummm… it’s difficult at the moment, for sure. Have I got advice for TV bosses? It’s not my job, that’s not my profession. I wouldn’t dare tell a TV boss how to run their business. There’s a place for free-to-air and there always will be and if you want to drive large audiences then it’s one of the few places you can do that. Do advertisers want mass audiences? Of course they do and free-to-air does that like no other medium can.

When the dust settles, who won’t survive?
Sure, lots of that old-school, traditional media is struggling. We’ve spoken about free-to-air and, of course, it is struggling and that’s because they don’t have the revenues that they used to have. Newspapers, magazines, whatever, they’re all looking at different ways to sell their product and that’s why digital can be a curse but it can be their saviour too.

Do you think too many Gen Y media buyers just don’t value those traditional media players? Don’t recommend them to clients?
Yes, of course. Have young media planner buyers been bought up on devices? Yes. They consume information differently to the way we did but that’s the way it’s always been. But how you want to watch TV and how a 17-year-old wants to watch TV is never going to be the same. But TV’s not going anywhere. People still watch TV albeit while playing with half a dozen devices as well.

You see all aspects of the industry – TV, buying, planning etc – what’s the number one burning issue you’re hearing at the moment?
Challenge. It’s an ever-evolving marketplace that is changing rapidly and I think people feel they’re floundering in many ways. Technology is changing so rapidly it becomes a big job but that makes it challenging and exciting for the industry. But technology’s not always good, I think technology can be an indictment on human behavior. But you only need to look at the change it’s brought over the past 10 years, technology has rapidly engulfed just about everybody in one way or another.

It’s probably something you don’t want to revisit but GroupM’s misreporting scandal from 12 months ago. B&T interviewed new MediaCom boss, Sean Seamer, recently and he argued the agency took the hit for a problem that was widespread throughout the industry. How much would you agree with that?
I’d never talk on behalf of any other agency, they can answer those questions. Did it tarnish the entire industry? Yes, of course it did. But I think we handled it very well at the time. We were very fair and open about everything to our people, the industry, the trade. We were very open and honest with what we did, we got the audit in and let’s all move on for Christ’s sake, it was over 12 months ago

It’s still not forgotten though, is it? It still comes up a lot.
Of course it comes up but can we move on? It was a very tough time in my life, it was probably the biggest nightmare I had in 40 years in the business and that’s why I took leave for a while to settle down my heart rate.

Did you make any enemies out of it?
No. I don’t believe in making enemies.

When will you retire for the third and final time?
As long as I can keep going I’ll keep working. Will I die at the desk? No, I don’t think I’ll do that. I’ll just keep going, see what happens. I don’t care much for golf more than about once a week and fishing’s only any good if you’re catching any fish.