Media Headliner: OPera chiefs could prove that two heads are better than one

They are chalk and cheese, but Bignell and Overend are committed.

The creation of OPera, the joint OMD and PHD negotiation vehicle, means that Omnicom has finally joined the big buyers club.

It's been a long time coming - Omnicom is late among the networks in pooling its UK buying clout and, with 2004 billings predicted to be in excess of £1 billion, it is set to overtake WPP's Group M to become the largest buying point in the country. "OPportune" might have been a better name.

The decision to call the venture OPera, an amalgam of the first initials in the names of the two agency groups involved in the company, has allowed the management of the two agencies to indulge in some eye-wateringly bad puns.

It's about the "bringing together of huge forces, with talented soloists working together in harmony to produce something creative and ambitious", you see.

The structure of OPera is an interesting one and differentiates it from its rivals. It is run as a joint venture company with OMD Group (OMD UK and Manning Gottlieb OMD) and PHD Group each holding 50 per cent of its shareholding.

OPera, which launches on 1 July, is a separate resource rather than the pooling of the agencies' buying departments, so it has not been created with the simple means of cutting out costs. In fact, it's a further overhead because both agencies will retain their teams of implementational buyers, so it can side-step criticism that it was formed for mere willy waving.

The business will be independent and PHD and OMD will continue to pitch against each other based on the costs that OPera provides them. In theory, if they were both pitching for the same account and put together the same plan, then OPera would give them both the same costs.

Instead of having one figurehead - such as Nick Theakstone at Group M and Mick Perry at Magna - it has two managing directors drawn from OMD and PHD, Marc Bignell and John Overend, along with three other specialist negotiators.

Much as PHD and OMD are very different agencies, so are these two men.

One of the few things that they seem to share is a low profile. They also avoid the stereotype of the hard-nosed TV buyer.

But Overend is balding, Bignell has a mop of hair. Overend, a friend of the Heart 106.2 DJ Pat Sharp, is quiet and unassuming, whereas Bignell is more blokeish. Overend likes Star Trek, Bignell supports Luton Town.

It is remarkable that Overend has managed to keep such a low profile after 18 years in the industry. He began his career at Dorlands in 1986 as a TV buyer before moving to Zenith Media as a press director.

He joined PHD in 1997 and was promoted to investment director in 2002 following the departure of Paul Parashar. He has the unusual accolade of being one of only two agency people invited to the 40th birthday celebrations for Andy Pearch, the Billetts chief executive.

Bignell started at Zenith Media in 1990 (where he crossed paths with Overend) before Theakstone gave him a job at the then BMP DDB in 1993, where he has stayed ever since. In an interesting career diversion, Bignell spent six months on secondment at Camelot when it was repitching for the lottery licence and he has spent time at Harvard learning about negotiation.

Although management textbooks are critical of having joint heads of anything, both maintain that they are not simply watching their respective sides of the shop. Having resigned from their agencies, both are now employed by OPera and say they are committed to deriving greater value from media owners, whose consolidation has prompted the move. "OPera has to be independent, which is why we have set up this structure. It will give us the benefits of volume without moving buying away from planning," Overend explains.

Of course, the most obvious reason for pool buying is to have greater clout in negotiations but, perhaps conscious that there may not be much more discount about to be had, Bignell stresses that this is not OPera's only advantage. "It's not just about price, there is value to be derived beyond airtime such as sponsorship, licensing and ad-funded programming," he says. Access seems to be the key word.

Merged buying points lead to client concern that confidentiality will be compromised although Overend says OPera's structure is designed to eliminate this.

Clients can also choose to either use OPera to carry out its negotiations or use their respective agency. "The two agencies will be no worse off than they are currently but any incremental benefits will be shared between the agencies' clients," Overend says.

That neither Bignell nor Overend have the profile of some of their contemporaries such as Theakstone or Chris Boothby, the operations director at Vizeum, but this does not seem to trouble them. "Neither of us are table thumpers," Bignell says.

So does the industry think that the two can get on? James Wildman, the executive sales director of the Flextech sales house ids, says: "They have a different style to their contemporaries, it's more understated but that doesn't make it any less effective."

Assuming that Wildman's analysis is right, with more than £1 billion of media spend behind it, OPera could be a compelling proposition.

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