Buying on behalf of media owners is a recipe fordisaster

Watching the Winter Olympics on Sunday was hunger-inducing work.

All of the competitors seemed to have nicknames relating to components of a full English breakfast. The triumph of "The Flying Tomato" in the half-pipe snowboarding, followed by the luge exploits of "The Flying White Sausage', had me reaching for the HP sauce and dreaming that "The Spinning Fried Egg" had won the curling.

A swift bacon sandwich revived me and I was soon reading about the less than appetising dog's breakfast being cooked up by WPP and Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell.

Newspaper reports revealed that the two companies are locking legal horns over the US launch of Northern & Shell's OK!. WPP's MediaCom, OK!'s buying agency, reckons Desmond's company has failed to cough up $10 million owed for advertising to promote the magazine's launch. Northern & Shell has countered by lodging its own claim for $5.5 million, alleging that WPP had reneged on a deal to provide 15 pages a week of advertising in OK! from its clients.

Northern & Shell claims that it was only going to spend $3 million on launching OK! through MediaCom, but upped the spend following the ad space deal.

WPP insists that no such deal took place.

Of course, there is nothing legally wrong with media owners seeking such deals with their agencies, but any acceptance by an agency surely damages its claims to offer impartial advice to clients.

While many find it highly unlikely that WPP would commit to such volumes in a new magazine, such deals have apparently taken place before. And it's easy to see why.

A media agency pitches to a proud media owner and in its pitch indicates that it believes the said media owner's products to be among the greatest inventions this side of penicillin or the mobile phone. Assuming that the agency is not being disingenuous to win an account (and what shop would spout guff just to win a chunky bit of business?), then is it unreasonable for a media owner to expect it to commit a greater percentage of its clients' money to these exciting, brilliant media vehicles?

Perhaps not, and the media owner has the whip hand, knowing that media agencies are desperate for any new business. Yet problems arise when media owners make the award of an account, or an increase in adspend, conditional on an agency's increased investment in its products.

There's one simple way around this - don't buy media on behalf of media owners. They are notoriously difficult, short-term thinkers and they tend to be tight with the purse-strings.

PHD seems to have it sussed, providing planning-only services for both the BBC and Channel 4. But then it buys space for The Guardian, so there goes that argument.