Claire Beale: Winning big isn't always a reason to celebrate
A view from Claire Beale

Claire Beale: Winning big isn't always a reason to celebrate

If you were looking for an indication of how much Publicis Groupe is smarting about losing out on the £3 billion General Motors media pitch to Aegis, here's a quote from the press release it rushed out on Tuesday.

The GM business "represents less than 0.5 per cent of Publicis Groupe revenue on a full-year basis. We're proud of the insight and high level of professionalism that Starcom has brought to its work on GM's image over the years, and of the support that we've given to GM through many ups and downs ...

Although we regret this development, Starcom ... will continue to grow."

That bit about "support" is telling. There haven't been many ups for GM's agencies in recent years. Back in 2008 when GM crashed, it slashed its agency fees by up to 20 per cent, forcing some brutal cost-cutting at its partner shops. Then, when GM finally filed for bankruptcy in 2009, it revealed that it owed Publicis' Starcom MediaVest, its prime media agency outside Europe, $121 million in unpaid media bills. You can imagine what an abysmal time this must have been for the people running the Publicis media network.

Now GM has fired Starcom. The car giant's global marketing chief, Joel Ewanick, insists that the decision to consolidate the account into Aegis was motivated not just by cost savings but by a drive for better quality. But whatever way you look at it, GM has dumped the media agency it dragged through the mire a couple of years ago. Of course, the task of rebuilding GM leaves no room for sentiment. And perhaps leaving Starcom represents some sort of closure on the torrid events of 2009. And Aegis is no doubt a worthy winner.

But GM's decision highlights just how brutal the big media game has become in its search for efficiencies and savings. Relationships, loyalty and sentiment matter less than ever on the global advertising stage, particularly the commoditised media one. And the client/agency relationships that result can often be bloody and abusive.

No doubt Aegis is trying to convince itself and its staff that, in GM, it has landed a glittering prize. Perhaps. But Aegis will almost certainly be doing more for less than its predecessor and GM is clearly a client with a cold-eyed focus on cost. Mind you, the win fattens Aegis up and perhaps brings the long-anticipated sale of the business a step closer.

As one of the media chiefs working on the current $3 billion global Unilever media pitch told me last week: "These days, winning a big global media account is a double-edged sword. Yes, you want the billings, the muscle that comes with that and it means you might meet your growth targets. But the nature of these accounts now, the total absence of any real sense of partnership, means they can decimate the cultural wellbeing of an agency and its staff. Sadly, our parent company doesn't worry about that."

claire.beale@haymarket.com

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