A rapidly maturing Asian advertising market is fuelling a revolution in the way clients regard media planning - and driving media agencies to come up with ever more creative solutions.
Less than a decade after the major media agencies split from their creative siblings, ground-breaking work is emerging, and clients are placing increasing value on new media ideas.
But while there are "pockets" of innovation, Asian clients' distinct approach to launching and maintaining an agency partnership means the market is yet to see a Naked-style boutique agency that is valued for its creativity above all else.
In a region where just a few years ago the concept of specialised media planning was completely alien, media agencies have worked with remarkable speed to establish themselves as a key link in the advertising chain.
Several of the major shops have posted double-digit growth in billings in the past year alone.
"When we first started here, it really was like we were from Mars," Mike Cooper, OMD's chief executive for Asia, says. "But now there are few clients who don't understand what media agencies are all about. Their understanding is as good as in Europe, and clients are quite demanding these days - they want to see fresh ideas and put you under a lot of pressure to come up with something new."
MindShare is the leading player, according to the billings-based rankings compiled by Recma. ZenithOptimedia and Universal McCann follow closely behind and OMD is in joint fourth place with Starcom SMG.
None of the major agencies supplies billings data to Recma, and none will say whether the billings credited to them are accurate or not. But while the numbers may not be spot on, Recma is considered to be an accurate reflection of agencies' overall size - relative to each other - in the different markets within Asia.
It is a two-horse race in greater China, with MindShare holding Glaxo Smith-Kline and Unilever among its biggest clients. ZenithOptimedia, meanwhile, has Nokia, Procter & Gamble and McDonald's for northern China.
In south-east Asia and India, MindShare is again dominant, with Initiative Media second, having recently won the Coca-Cola Thailand account.
Universal McCann dominates in Japan and Korea, and Carat, which has registered staggering growth since its inception just six years ago, is strong in Japan. And in Hong Kong, OMD - with clients McDonald's and PepsiCo - is considered the market leader, followed by ZenithOptimedia and MindShare.
The creativity of work being done varies dramatically between agencies and between different markets, where media planners' drive for cut-through must, in some cases, be tempered by clients' reluctance to stand out too much, and, more broadly, by a reluctance to spend more than the bare minimum.
Starcom, famed for its creative approach in Europe, is similarly recognised in Malaysia and Taiwan, and Carat - which has no creative-agency alignment to draw clients from but has won Adidas and Philips as big-name clients - is also considered a leader in innovation.
Allan Medforth, the regional director of Universal McCann, says some of the best work he has seen has come out of India, the Philippines, China and Australia.
"There are some very, very good pockets of work in Asia, but Asia as a region shouldn't be looked at as just one place."
He says the pace of media reform has been held back by the region's economic troubles, which have put pressure on agency and client budgets.
"There are fewer people to do the same amount of work, and therefore they probably don't have the time or they're not motivated to do it (strive for greater creativity). But that's more of an excuse than a reason," Medforth says.
Cultural idiosyncrasies and long-established business practices also mean that in parts of Asia, creativity itself is not as highly regarded as more factual, quantifiable qualities.
Greg Paull, a principal of the consultancy R3, which specialises in agency relationships, believes much of the problem is an over-emphasis by the ad industry and clients on the size of an agency - something that in the past year or two has gradually been changing.
"Too much emphasis is put on pure billings and size, and not enough on creativity and other factors," he says.
"There needs to be education that it's worth going the extra yard to look for a creative solution ... and it's not necessarily the case that clients have to pay more."
But another hurdle to greater creativity, Paull says, is that client-agency relationships in Asia are still largely commission rather than fee-based; an R3 survey shows that almost three-quarters of advertisers are still paying commissions to their media agencies.
Shifting from commission to fees means establishing much longer-term relationships than many clients have experienced with agencies in the past.
"Asia is catching up fast and the commissions are changing," Mark Patterson, MindShare's chief executive of North Asia, says. A growing number of clients are on a fee-based arrangement, and many pay a fee for media planning, but commissions for media buying.
At Universal McCann, Medforth says the fee-to-commission ratio is about 50:50, "but we don't think commissions should prevent an agency from trying to be creative or going the extra mile".
Going the extra mile often now involves extra air miles, as clients expand around the region and expect their media agency partners to expand with them. Pan-Asian campaigns now originate mainly in Hong Kong or Singapore, with some regional clients based in Bangkok or even Australia. But as global brands seek to tap the immense potential of the China market, Shanghai is emerging as the next hub of Asian advertising.
Medforth says that while a strong presence in China is essential to future strength, it is not necessary for agencies to move their central offices, thanks to easy air travel, web videos and e-mail.
"We need to be where the clients are -but we also need to be strong regionally and globally," he says.
ASIA'S MEDIA NETWORKS BILLINGS AND RANKINGS 2002 vs 2001
Rank Market Media networks (holding company) Billings*
02 01 02/03 2002 2001
1 1 17.9 MindShare (WPP) 2,307 2,209
2 2 17.6 ZenithOptimedia (Publicis Groupe) 2,320 2,200
3 3 15.2 Universal McCann (Interpublic Group) 1,997 1,944
4= 5 10.4 OMD (Omnicom) 1,369 1,212
4= 4 10.4 Starcom SMG (Publicis Groupe) 1,361 1,313
6 7 8.6 Initiative Media (Interpublic Group) 1,098 921
7 6 8.1 Mediaedge:cia (WPP) 1,070 1,002
8 8 7.5 Carat (Aegis) 988 774
9 9 4.3 MediaCom (Grey Global Group) 567 541
*Recma estimates in dollars m.