MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON OUTDOOR - Musical chairs in the outdoor market as shops consolidate

The outdoor planning and buying sector was due for a reshuffle.

It's a small world, the business of outdoor media planning and buying.

Last week, this world and its population of specialist companies saw a brief but intense round of musical chairs, the inevitable and long-awaited response to a number of consolidation pressures. Central to all this is a company called Outdoor Connection, an outdoor media planning specialist previously owned by the Omnicom agencies OMD and PHD plus a privately owned company called Alban Communications.

Outdoor Connection's future has been uncertain since November, when OMD moved its outdoor planning and buying into the Aegis-owned specialist Posterscope. Last week, both OMD and Alban sold their shares in Outdoor Connection to another privately owned outdoor specialist, Poster Publicity.

Meanwhile, Alban's divorce from Outdoor Connection confirmed the demise of Blade, the Alban-owned buying-only unit that bought for Outdoor Connection and Concord (a planning unit also owned by Alban), plus small bits of third-party business.

In Blade's place, we now find Helix, a joint venture between Alban and IPM (an Interpublic outdoor planning unit). Concord's and IPM's roles as planners will be unaffected. This deal merely guarantees them a measure of buying clout.

So, how significant are these moves? One of the factors is undoubtedly the continued determination of WPP to move all its outdoor business into Portland (an outdoor specialist owned, unsurprisingly, by WPP). The latest manifestation of this came back in December when Media-edge:cia moved all of its £37 million outdoor business into Portland. CIA had previously used Outdoor Focus - but the move effectively killed this company off. So that had a significant knock-on effect.

The other consolidation factor is a broader phenomenon - the seemingly unstoppable growth of Posterscope, which in recent months has won not only the OMD business but also Walker Media's outdoor accounts and a whole host of independent business. It now commands more than 35 per cent of the market - a factor that is likely to force the unlikeliest of pacts on its rivals.

But Alan Simmons, the chairman of Alban, says things should now settle down: "What we've seen mirrors the consolidation we've seen on the media owner side into three big global groups (Viacom, JCDecaux and Clear Channel - though in the UK, Maiden is still also a player). There has been a net reduction of two in terms of buying points. I don't think it will go any further than that for a while but it's quite possible we'll see more in a few years' time."

Meanwhile, Eric Newnham, the chief executive of Poster Publicity, says it has been a great week for his company. "It consolidates our position in the UK. There are now effectively four buying points with strong agency relationships," he states.

But there are, he believes, many unresolved issues. Publicis Group, for instance, will want to re-examine its portfolio of outdoor partners at some stage. "It will also be interesting to see how that works out," he muses. "Blade was always a good buyer but there's that issue about the separation between planning and buying and the difficulties that can cause. I think Helix could prove even more difficult to manage than Blade."

And many observers argue that actually, we're in an inherently unstable transition phase - the really big revolution in the market will come when all of the big holding companies decide (as WPP has) to take control of their own business through their own outdoor units. Or even more radically - as the market becomes increasingly easy to buy, why not start absorbing the function into the mainstream media units of the big groups?

The biggest hole in that argument, however, is the rise of the Aegis-owned Posterscope, which thrives despite its close common ownership with Carat, the biggest non-aligned buying company.

Last year, when OMD gave its outdoor business to Posterscope, many in the business reckoned that historical factors were uppermost in the mind of Colin Gottlieb, OMD Europe's chief executive and the man who took the decision. He had developed a close business relationship with Posterscope when it was the outdoor agency for Manning Gottlieb Media, which, in its earliest incarnation, was backed by Aegis. That, some said, clinched the deal.

But actually, others say, the move was all to do with clout. One commented: "The slightly sad view to take is that outdoor is where you find all the implications of consolidation taken to their ultimate conclusions. It can be a vicious circle - where volume is important, media becomes more of a commodity and the more it's viewed as a commodity, the more that people get obsessed with volume. I'd say volume is so important in outdoor right now that it cuts right across holding company considerations."

So, perhaps the only thing we can take from all of this is the racing certainty that Posterscope will one way or another keep adding to its market share of UK outdoor buying. No? Nothing is certain in this world, Posterscope's chief executive, Annie Rickard, responds. She says Posterscope's success is down to the way it has stayed ahead of its rivals. While some companies are still policing deals, Posterscope is all about adding value and getting involved as early as possible in the planning process.

"We have a better understanding of the market and the role we can play in that market. The challenge is to keep evolving. You worry every day and the more business you win, the greater the pressure gets to keep winning business. Our ownership is a fact of life - so we have to be even more sure we deliver," she says.

OUTDOOR BUYING POINTS - Total market worth £690 million

Posterscope

Owned by: Aegis

Share: 35%-plus (Posterscope claims 42%)

Helix - Owned by: Alban and IPM

Share: 20%

Poster Publicity

Owned by: Shares privately held by seven directors

Share:18%

Portland

Owned by: WPP

Share:14%

Directly placed

(by advertisers or mainstream media buying companies)

Owned by Various

Share:13%

Source: Alban's bladeTRACKER research.

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