Media Spotlight: Will GM get the European media model it wants?

What does General Motors hope to achieve with a new review? Alasdair Reid asks.

If General Motors carries on like this, we'll have to give it a fixed slot in the calendar. The GM Annual Media Review could take its place in the season somewhere between Cowes Week and the Last Night of the Proms - dress smart but casual, gold status symbols to be worn discreetly, PowerPoint optional.

Last week, GM admitted it was conducting a pan-European review of media planning and buying across all of its marques - Opel, Vauxhall, Saab, Daewoo and Chevrolet. The pitchlist will be headed by IPG (Universal McCann and Initiative perhaps pitching together) and Carat. GM only completed its last European review in autumn 2003.

Estimates put GM's European spend at around £400 million and GM will be seeking to appoint a single network. Thus, it hopes, achieving what its European region management team in Zurich call "verstarkt Synergiepotenziale".

In plain English: big savings. Which is understandable. But worryingly, for those who fear that the annual review idea may become a reality, GM's senior management in Zurich dismisses any suggestion that we are seeing anything unusual here. They say that this is merely part of the company's continual drive to find efficiencies.

There is, however, a simpler interpretation. There are those who will say last year's review was botched. What started off as a quest to centralise European media spend ended up as a piecemeal market-by-market rolling review, in which the only real changes of significance were seen in the Nordic region, where OMD displaced Starcom.

It was clearly an unhappy experience for many on both sides.

According to observers, the review was marked by a power struggle between three factions within GM: global management based in Detroit; management for the European region based in Zurich but heavily influenced by executives in GM's largest European market, Germany; and, lastly, the national teams of executives running other major markets such as the UK and France.

As is the case with many big companies, national units retain profit and loss responsibilities and have a fair degree of autonomy. Up until now. As a region, Europe is losing money for GM and Zurich has been told by Detroit to sort it out. So the European emphasis will increasingly be on cutting costs.

And Detroit finds it difficult to understand why Europe tends to reject the US media blueprint. Buying over there is handled by Universal but there is an enormous emphasis on planning, which is the responsibility of a Starcom unit called GM Planworks, employing 250 staff in Detroit.

Starcom thought it had won a similar task across Europe after the last review - and would have done, some insiders say, if dictats from Detroit had been obeyed. On the other hand, others say, never underestimate IPG and, in particular, John Dooner, the chief executive of McCann Erickson World Group, who has unsurpassed relationships with senior GM management in Detroit.

Starcom, they point out, was never going to win business in Europe - not just because it has a patchy network (relatively weak in France and Germany) but because it has such a strong relationship with Fiat. Its absence from the pitchlist this time speaks volumes.

Historical relationships are especially important in the UK. Vauxhall had a long association with the Lowe Howard-Spink media department, and this continued when the department was subsumed into Initiative. Last time, Vauxhall successfully resisted the notion that, at the very least, it should transfer its account to the IPG stablemate, Universal - GM's main agency across the continent.

One might expect IPG to close out this second chance to scoop the whole pool. But the clever money is on GM doing what some believe the continentals wanted to do last time - appoint Carat as its European network of record.

Carat won the German accounts in 2002 and set up a special unit called the Car Competence Centre to service the business. GM in Germany likes it so much they want it replicated around Europe.

There is talk of IPG doing the same sort of thing. It could create a unit with consistent branding across the continent but with the flexibility to put together the sorts of tailormade teams that would keep the likes of, say, Vauxhall happy at a local level.

That might seem a compelling proposition. But don't bet against Carat.

Top-level defections last year have weakened it in France and it may fear for the future of its Renault client. But it has more of a heritage than IPG's agencies when it comes to scrapping it out on price.

Whatever happens, agencies will be hoping GM gets it right this time.

No-one likes working for a major client whose indecision is final.

GM'S MEDIA ROSTER

General Motors' media planning and buying agencies in Europe.

UK: Initiative

Germany: Carat-owned Car Competence Centre

France: Universal McCann

Italy: Universal McCann

Spain: Universal (Opel) and MPG (Daewoo)

The Netherlands and Belgium: Initiative (Saab)

Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland: OMD (Saab, Opel, Daewoo) and

Starcom (Chevrolet)

Portugal: Universal McCann

Switzerland: Universal McCann

Czech Republic: Universal McCann

Hungary: Universal McCann

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