Media: Behind the hype - Tesco's media sales unit leaves agencies on edge

Tesco could bypass media agencies and talk directly to advertisers.

It seems improbable, looking back, that in-store media was out of favour five years ago. Strange but true. Because these days it is all the rage and it is almost unthinkable to question the phenomenon's apparently inexorable rise.

And, of course, it is the ever-innovative Tesco that continues to grab the headlines. Back in June, it launched Tesco TV, introducing screens (40 to 50 of them per store, ranging from small shelf-based units to commanding, above-aisle monsters) to 100 of its largest stores. A whole host of other retailers are starting to follow suit, including Spar, Asda and Boots.

Last week, Tesco took the next logical step (though Asda beat it to the punch a couple of months back) in setting up its own in-house media sales unit for campaigns that will run across all in-store media. Is this development welcome?

Some advertisers and agencies are not sure. They wonder, for instance, if this is not all just another retail industry fad. Five years ago, point-of-sale dropped down the agenda as retailers grew obsessed with relationship marketing.

They focused on direct links with consumers, particularly through the new and sexy techniques being developed in the digital domain. That they have refocused on point-of-sale is, some observers argue, a measure of their failure to exploit those new techniques, though it is true Tesco now has a sophisticated home-delivery online service.

The change in direction also highlights a worrying (for some manufacturers at least) obsession with price and this, in turn, is being stimulated by continuing consolidation in the grocery retail sector. Tesco and Asda, for instance, responded to Morrisons' takeover of Safeway by instigating a price war.

This is bad news for conventional advertising agencies, because a market obsessed with price is often less-than-obsessed with classic branding issues. There are further realities to be faced. For instance, in-house media units of the type just launched by Tesco will seek to talk directly to advertisers and their very existence represents an unashamed bid to leverage their relationship with manufacturers.

The proposition may well turn out to be brutally simple - use our media to run price promotions or we will delist your products. But Tesco argues this is not what it is about. Andrew Batty, its corporate purchasing director, says: "This service will make it easier for suppliers to plan and execute ad campaigns across a comprehensive range of Tesco media."

But the worry for planners is that manufacturers cave in completely and a far greater use of in-store media becomes a part of all media plans automatically.

That is overstating the case, Jean-Paul Edwards, the head of media futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD, counters. Point-of-sale always was and always will be an important part of FMCG marketing strategies. What is changing, however, is the power of the in-store medium. He explains: "At a time when we are seeing audience fragmentation, especially in TV, the audience is consolidating in retail. There's now a big four or five (supermarket chains) delivering audiences comparable with terrestrial TV. They offer relevancy and recency. In that context, the closer to the purchase point you are, the more effective you can be."

And outdoor specialists seem to be fairly relaxed about this latest development.

Alan Simmons, the chairman of Alban, says it does not necessarily herald a fundamental shift in the structure of the industry. "There will always be a role for us in assessing and negotiating where price is concerned.

We also have to make sure that if our clients are appearing in-store that they are getting what they have been promised. But clients aren't rushing into this. The jury's still out," he concludes.