by Herman Manson (@marklives) John Beale is the kind of media strategist every agency wants but no media agency seems able to attract. He has a background in traditional media strategy but does geek very well, or as Beale’s CV puts it, he’s a hybrid media strategist.

John Beale
John Beale

A need for drastic change

And he thinks media agencies are in deep deep trouble, what with a dysfunctional revenue model and an old-school obsession with traditional paid-for media, and that they will be toast in five-to-ten years if lots of things don’t drastically change — such as their business model, positioning and offering.

Of course, everybody have been saying it for years. But this is a local media agency guy, operating inside of a media agency, willing to come out on the record and say it out aloud.

Little wonder then that Beale has been tapped to help lead MEC NotaBene Cape Town away from the edge of irrelevance (MEC is part of GroupM, WPP’s media arm). He’s the media guy tasked with hitting the reset button. He knows it needs to be done but, of course, changing the course of a business is never as easy as it sounds.

Hanging out as a youngster

Beale’s mom used to work in media so, as a youngster, he used to hang out at specialist media company Media by Storm after school. Before he started his studies, he also did some holiday work at MediaEdge. The industry just kind of landed him.

MEC logoAfter a BComm Marketing degree at Stellenbosch, Beale did a Post Grad in Advertising and Communications at Red & Yellow. He struggled to get a job at first but, through his contacts at MediaEdge, now owned by WPP and soon to be renamed MEC, he managed to land one as a media planner at the Johannesburg agency. It’s here that he was introduced to digital media planning through a programme run by WPP out of London, from where the hybrid media strategist would emerge.

From MEC, Beale moved to Nota Bene, the media strategy agency also owned by MEC, to work on Vodacom. Here, Beale engaged social media communication specialists Cerebra to set up Vodacom on social media. Instead, he landed up at Cerebra to head up the deployment of Vodacom’s venture into social media.

Breakthrough job

For Beale, Cerebra was a breakthrough job. He had moved from channel to content and learnt not to see channel first when looking at media. He also experienced firsthand how close social media has moved to consumers, its impact on how people access media, and how its challenges media management.

In short, the experience gave him new insight into content, data and community. It also allowed him to work on brands such as Woolies, Absa, Nedbank and others.

At the end of 2013, MEC South Africa Group CEO Michelle Meyjes approached Beale, now 29, to become MD at the agency’s Cape Town office. The office consists of 26 people and represents MEC, Nota Bene and Primus, which handles the Johnson & Johnson business. Clients include Brandhouse, Chevron and Pick n Pay (through Y&R).

Incredibly tight margins

Beale admits that margins in his business have become incredibly tight [many in the broader media industry consider media agency houses as little more than banks sitting on client cash for as long as they can, and surviving off the interest — nothing sustainable about that — ed]. To survive, media needs to look at alternative revenue models but to sell that to client means a whole new set of service offerings.

Beale is looking at a consulting model for the business, where it becomes more about content strategy than media buying, and where the focus further shifts from paid to include earned and owned media. It’s necessary; Beale believes that media agencies have lost their view of, and hold on, the full communications landscape. Complacency has kept them from moving beyond the traditional media space into a world where integrated is king, queen and pageboy. Now ad agencies are eating their lunch.

Beale also doesn’t understand why agencies maintain digital as standalone departments. Do you have a specialist TV department, he asks, or a specialist newspaper department? It’s ridiculous, he says.

Unsexy industry

It also makes the industry terribly unsexy, leading to a distinct skills shortage at media agencies. How many AAA grads itch (please finish reading the sentence) to get into media?

To address the issue, created very much by the media agencies themselves, requires a new and urgent engagement with the industry’s schools, ensuring proper integration within media agencies so that there is a full understanding of the media holding, and generally repositioning the industry closer to content and consumers. Beale wants to make media sexy.

His planners and strategists need to have some understanding of digital, owned and earned, of viral media, the progression of content on the internet, how it flows, etc.

Become a valued business partner

On the business side, Beale wants his agency to become a valued business partner to clients — so much more than the people doing the media bookings — which is  possible, considering the data media agencies own. Beale wants this understanding of data to help his planners plot how consumers interact with brands and devise strategies around this, and to sell these on to clients. The focus shifts to consulting on analytics, offering research, insight and strategy.

Beale believes that, in South Africa, media agencies still have time to address the issues on hand, being slightly behind international trends, and to bring at least some of the lost revenue back into the fold.

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