Media: All About ... Media Audits' sale

Accenture's move will spread auditing worldwide, Alasdair Reid says.

First Billetts, sold in August to Thomson Intermedia. Now Media Audits has been snapped up by the management consultancy company Accenture for an undisclosed sum. Who says auditing isn't sexy?

Media Audits will now be folded into Accenture's Marketing Sciences division, headed by its chief executive, Jeffrey Merrihue - formerly the European regional director and UK chief executive of Initiative Media. Media Audits' current boss, Julian Spooner, will become the chief operating officer.

Accenture now provides both bookends to the media process, which some big agency networks will perhaps view with alarm.

Accenture Marketing Sciences has quietly been strengthening its grip on some of the "upstream" decision-making processes that were previously the domain of agencies - in particular, determining the relative impact of different marketing elements and media vehicles. It's by no means the only management consultant to have muscled into this sector, but its acquisition of Media Audits will add significant power to its analytical products.

Accenture can also tell advertisers whether their campaigns were bought at the right prices. It now promises significant investment in the Media Audits product. Its priority is to develop a pool from which continuous data can be derived in the US. It will also underwrite the expansion of auditing into virgin territories in Asia and Latin America.

1. Michael Davis and Bob Jones left Boase Massimi Pollitt to set up Media Audits in 1976, with Tony Ayers as its first managing director. It was the first company to set up a "pool" of TV advertisers, members of which could assess average airtime prices. Advertisers could now gauge the buying performance of their media buyers - at this stage, the media departments of full-service agencies.

2. By 1982, Media Audits had a pool of 20 advertisers, including Brooke Bond, Midland Bank and Austin Rover, representing more than 15 per cent of the UK airtime market. It began to develop its capacity to measure performance in other media.

3. Media owners were now starting to feel the impact of auditing - for instance, it was now exposing discrepancies in sales policies towards arguably comparable clients. ITV began a surrep-titious propaganda campaign against Media Audits, implying that auditing was forcing agencies to buy cheap but inappropriate airtime, thus depressing demand for premium but - ITV argued - highly effective peaktime spots.

4. But the concept of auditing had now passed its tipping point and it gained credibility with the launch in 1984 of a second auditing company, Barsby Rowe. Barsby Rowe urged its clients to be more aggressive in seeking better media value, triggering a wave of media account consolidations.

5. Media Audits began its international expansion in 1991, when it was invited by the Dutch Advertising Association to advise its members - and found itself setting up a Dutch office with eight clients from day one. Spanish and French offices soon followed. The company now has offices in all the major European markets and opened in New York this year.

6. Two companies joined the market in the mid-90s - Fairbrother (now called Fairbrother Lenz Eley, with offices in London and Hamburg) and The Billett Consultancy (now Billetts).

7. In 2000, Billetts served notice of its intention to challenge Media Audits for the leadership of the UK market when it acquired Barsby Rowe, giving it monitoring responsibility for 38 per cent of the spend of the UK's top 250 TV and newspaper advertisers. In 2003, it signalled its territorial ambitions by launching Media Performance Monitor America, with the support of the Financial Management Committee of the American National Association of Advertisers.

8. In 2001, Media Audits managers executed a buyout from 3i, which at that point owned one-third of the company.

9. In August this year, Billetts was acquired by the media intelligence consultancy Thom- son Intermedia. The move allied Billetts' media performance evaluation with a broader range of research techniques - and potentially moved it up the food chain in terms of advertiser priorities.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

MEDIA AUDITS

- For the management team that bought out 3i's minority shareholding in 2001, this is job done. They've made a nice bit of money for themselves and not only secured the future of the company but also ensured that it is once more the indisputable market leader.

- Accenture is now committed to investing in the Media Audits network, which has been largely concentrated in the UK and continental Europe (Middle Eastern and Asian clients have largely been serviced from London). It certainly hasn't built up a substantial client pool outside of Europe.

- Accenture will attempt to build an auditing network that will mirror the structures of major advertisers and their agencies. Its first priority will be to establish a working client pool in the US.

- As a result of all of the above, media auditing will now become a basic hygiene for blue-chip clients on a worldwide basis - which is good not just for Accenture but for other major auditors such as Billetts.

MEDIA AGENCY NETWORKS

- For years now, commentators have been predicting that the big management consultancy companies would begin to muscle in on media agency territory, especially at a strategic level.

- Accenture has been doing this almost by stealth - and this latest move confirms its ambitions in the advertising and media businesses. Media agencies - many of which have been somewhat under the cosh as clients try to find ways of paying them less - will do well to take note.

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