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
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
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
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.’