Editorial: Is being big always the best in media?

"We're the biggest - but maybe only for the next ten minutes," Allen Rosenshine famously remarked when announcing the birth of Omnicom in May 1986.

Nearly two decades on, history repeats itself as the Omnicom-owned media agencies OMD UK, Manning Gottlieb OMD and PHD Group reveal that they are pooling their media negotiations to create the UK's largest buying point.

Sounds familiar? It ought to. In July 2001, Interpublic made exactly the same claim when setting up Magna to handle media negotiations on behalf of Initiative Media and Universal McCann. And it was only a few months ago that WPP's new consolidated buying outfit, Group M, was being unveiled with a similar boast.

Just as Omnicom sparked merger mania on Madison Avenue in the 80s, so the consolidation of media planning and buying has become the phenomenon of the new millennium. How long before Publicis Groupe succumbs to the temptation to do likewise with ZenithOptimedia, Starcom Motive and Starcom MediaVest?

Maybe not for much longer. International pressures are increasing the need to cut costs and share resources within media operations. The advantage of such structures is that they allow a pooling of resource and talent but keep client conflict to a minimum by retaining separate client-facing operating units.

As a result, this way of doing business looks like becoming a permanent fixture. It's easy to see why. A media leviathan can use its muscle to win not only bigger discounts but to become more desirable to potential clients.

That's the theory. In practice, big has yet to prove that it's beautiful.

For one thing, ITV, having already discounted so heavily that there's no more to be had, says it will not be cowed into giving away more by the sheer might of agency negotiators. That leaves just Sky and five, not necessarily "must haves" for a major advertiser.

For another, it's clear that such huge media aggregations must still prove to big advertisers that they can deliver on their promises. For all its proclaimed clout, Magna has yet to convince Unilever, Interpublic's biggest UK client, to avail itself of its services.

It all begs the question of whether or not being able to throw your weight around is necessarily going to get you the best deals for your clients.

It may be OK while ITV retains its dominance. But what happens when media fragments and digital begins to make significant inroads? Will that lead to clients turning their backs on the media giants in favour of smaller specialists? Lots of questions. But, for the moment, too few answers.

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