MEDIA: FORUM; Is full service merely about being different now?

Lowe Howard-Spink’s decision last week to abandon its full-service media operation leaves only a handful of agencies able to play that card. So is the debate about the merits of full service now an irrelevance - a relic of a bygone age- or is there some value still left in being different? Alasdair Reid reports

Lowe Howard-Spink’s decision last week to abandon its full-service media

operation leaves only a handful of agencies able to play that card. So

is the debate about the merits of full service now an irrelevance - a

relic of a bygone age- or is there some value still left in being

different? Alasdair Reid reports



And then there were... well, four nominally. Full-service agencies in

the top 30, that is. We’d known about Lowe Howard-Spink’s intentions for

months, but last week (Campaign, 6 December) it made the big

announcement - it will all be over by Christmas. Or thereabouts. Next

year, Lowes will be a creative and account handling agency, and the

proud parent of Western International Media Europe, the UK’s latest

media dependant.



Not so long ago the agency was still sticking to its ‘over my dead body’

attitude to media spin-offs. As, of course, had Abbott Mead Vickers

BBDO, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Ogilvy and Mather, GGT - in fact, just about

any half-decent agency you care to mention, right back to the days when

Zenith was just a twinkle in John Perriss’s eye.



The debate is not so much about whether Lowes or any of its dogged full-

service predecessors have made their decisions for the right reasons.

The argument now is whether the remainder can hold out. The four

agencies that still have media departments are BMP DDB, J. Walter

Thompson, WCRS and Leo Burnett. And even that list, short as it is,

makes sense only with major caveats.



Back in October, when Banks Hoggins O’Shea surprised everyone by

announcing that it intended to launch its own full-service media

department, other small agencies rallied round to applaud. Even Roy

Warman - now joint chief executive of Leopard, but when he was at

Saatchi and Saatchi, one of the architects of Zenith - said that these

things were cyclical and that the media department’s time would come

again, sooner rather than later.



But for the bigger players, aren’t full-service media departments

becoming rather quaint? Isn’t full service a bit like reintroducing

porters at railway stations, making your own pasta, or supporting Spurs?

A nice idea, but...



On the other hand, is full service becoming a rather useful usp these

days? Let’s face it, there aren’t all that many distinctive brands out

there in the agency marketplace. Is it possible to maximise that usp?



No, would seem to be the short answer. Although BMP is nominally full

service, the agency can hardly put itself forward as a paragon of virtue

- 50 per cent of its media billings come from accounts where the

creative work is handled by other agencies. It has several big media

centralisation accounts and the ‘media department’ has effectively acted

as a dependant for years. After all, what’s in a name?



The response from Derek Morris, BMP’s joint media director, is short and

sweet: ‘The debate about full service is redundant. What shape the

operation takes and the reporting structure it opts for is of little

interest to most clients. It is what you do that matters, not what you

are. A company structure should simply be a means to that end.’



JWT has served notice that big changes are in the pipeline. It will be

developing an international media brand in partnership with its WPP

sister agency, Ogilvy and Mather.



Mike Wood, JWT’s media director, rehearses a familiar argument:

‘Although the media configuration - full service, dependant,

independent - always grabs the headlines, what matters to clients is the

quality of service they receive. Service requirements vary but all

clients want skilled and motivated people, well resourced with media

research software. This is a function of the quality of management and

investment level and has little to do with how the media operation is

structured.’



And Wood is keen to play the international card: ‘Advertisers are

becoming increasingly global in outlook and, looking to the future, the

advantage will lie with those companies that can provide multinational

clients with a seamless international service delivered to a commonly

high standard.’



Which leaves WCRS and Leo Burnett. Except that Leo Burnett has quite a

lot of media-only business, including the centralised United Biscuits

media account. It too wants to preserve the best of both worlds - media

department it may be, but the business cards say ‘Leo Burnett Media’ -

hinting at a separate operation.



Richard Beaven, Burnetts’ joint media director, emphasises that quality

of service is the most important factor: ‘I would argue that the gap is

widening between the breed of media person who gets involved in the

advertising process early on - who doesn’t treat it as a commodity -

and those who believe they are merely suppliers of media. Agencies with

in-house specialists and some of the more forward-thinking independents

have been doing this for some time.’



Beaven sees no virtue in following the herd just for the sheer hell of

it: ‘If you follow the pack you legitimise that pack, which is not

something we’d necessarily want to do. We look first and foremost at the

needs of clients. I don’t worry about being the last in town with full-

service branding. That isn’t a problem. It actually gives you the

opportunity to be first in other respects.’



And how about WCRS. Is it getting lonely? Not really. Some years back,

it merged its media operation into Carat - only to demerge after a

matter of months. Now, its TV negotiation is channelled through

Mediapolis. Practically, though, it is full service and proud of it.



‘Why be suspicious of something that is different?’ the agency’s media

director, Marc Mendoza, asks. ‘There are still plenty of clients for

whom full service is important and who believe in ensuring that media

grows alongside the creative solution. Full-service agencies will remain

attractive - though at what point in the agency rankings they’ll appear

remains to be seen.



‘Can we leverage the full-service usp? Of course we can. Look at Richard

Branson. Look at what he has been doing to the life assurance business.

He knows that there are 25 companies doing it one way but he is prepared

to stand up and say that his way is better. Maybe he is quirky but we

wouldn’t mind being quirky in the way that Branson is quirky. Being

different isn’t always a disadvantage.’



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