France Telecom is testing its pitching shops to the limits

You can't accuse France Telecom of not living the brand. Assuming you're talking about Orange's 'hard-nosed businessman' brand campaign that is, writes Ian Darby.

While some in business might feel baffled or patronised by the ads, France Telecom is merrily beavering away on what may prove to be one of the most hard-nosed pitch processes in recent times.

France Telecom has short-listed six European media networks to pitch for its £200m European media account. This includes the Orange UK account, held by Media Planning Group, and the Freeserve business, which is handled by Walker Media. MPG is facing Mediaedge:cia, ZenithOptimedia, Initiative Media, Carat and OMD Europe in the pitch.

The client is taking an intense approach to the pitch, not surprising, perhaps, when so much is at stake. Each agency has filed its initial submissions, with all client communications conducted via computers with a French procurement department. A series of several meetings with each agency will then follow before the pitchlist is whittled down to four. There will then be more meetings before a decision is made in July (so expect this news just before Christmas, if recent examples of clients dicking agencies around are anything to go by).

It's easy to see what value France Telecom will extract from such a convoluted process but, while agencies seem to accept that such a palaver is the price to pay for winning a big account, one did concede that "it will be hard to make much money" on winning the business. However, the implications for the pitching agencies may stretch beyond winning or losing France Telecom.

For Carat and OMD, both Vodafone agencies in various European markets, the decision to pitch is a test of how far they can stretch client conflicts. Each agency will no doubt develop a cunning solution but for MPG the process may be even more significant.

At a press conference last week, MPG's chief executive, Fernando Rodes, and its head of global operations, Bob Offen, outlined its plans for European expansion with some new developments in Central and Eastern Europe. However, following the collapse of its deal with Tempus, Offen said the network has revised its plans to be a top-five network by the end of 2003 to being top six by the close of 2004. The sad thing is, however, that clients are obsessed by size and may start to question MPG's clout in markets where it is outside the top ten. (Campaign ranks it 16th in the UK by MMS billings.)

While MPG says it is happy to expand organically rather than through acquisition, the France Telecom pitch has thrown up speculation that a deal with Walker Media is on the cards. Whatever happens here, the France Telecom pitch may highlight once again that buying efficiencies and cost-saving consolidation will work against smaller agencies and networks.

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