Media Forum: Is buying worth pitching for?

Should agencies pitch for buying-only media business, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's been a good few years since last we saw Bartle Bogle Hegarty popping up on a media pitch - but, thanks to Britvic, we've been able to enjoy a refreshing back-to-the-future sort of moment.

The Britvic marketing team was surely consuming lots of Drench (brains perform best when they're hydrated) at the brainstorming session back in February when they drew up ground rules for a media review. Because this has been one of the more innovative processes in a while, with separate pitches being held for media planning only (for which creative agencies are eligible) and media buying only.

It didn't, in the end, lead to the media function becoming split on all of Britvic's brands. Mindshare retained both planning and buying on Pepsi, 7-Up and Gatorade. But BBH was appointed the media planner on Robinsons Fruit Shoot, Tango and J2O, with MCHI doing the buying. OMD UK, which had made it through to the buying-only shortlist, misses out.

You can argue that OMD can count itself lucky to have been excused from what has (BBH aside) resolved itself into a WPP family affair. And not just because it might have felt outnumbered - at least one other full-service media agency is believed to have declined the chance to join the media-only pitch.

It wasn't hard to work out why. Buying is the commodity, low margin side of the business, so opportunities to make money would surely have been limited. And conventional wisdom is that you can't do a really effective job for a client unless you can fully integrate buying with executional planning.

So, is it really worthwhile pitching for buying-only media business? Absolutely it is, Tom George, the chief executive of Mediaedge:cia, argues. He believes that, though both agencies and advertisers tend to agree that it's best to keep the two functions integrated, there are valid reasons for clients to look at splitting them. But when that happens, there is usually an acknowledgement that different terms will have to apply. "The client will tend to recognise that there will be an implication in terms of remuneration," he says.

But Pete Edwards, a founder of Edwards Groom Saunders, says it will prove a thankless task if the planning agency isn't producing sufficiently well-constructed or detailed plans. "When a creative agency is pitching for media planning, you have to ask how executional its plans are likely to be," he says.

And, Edwards adds, if a buying agency has to fill in the planning gaps itself, then it can't hope to make money. But Grant Millar, the managing director of Vizeum, confesses he's in two minds about this one. It should always be possible to find a profitable way of forming a business relationship with a client, no matter what the circumstances.

And it's not the most worrying structural issue around currently, he adds: "No, it's not ideal, but splitting planning and buying is less of an issue than the all-too-typical separation of online and offline media. It's vital that search, display and social media strategies are developed at the same time as offline media."

However, Chris Locke, the trading director of VivaKi Trading UK, argues it can be about playing the long game too: "It's a case of 'a bird in the hand', isn't it? You'll always think you have a chance of getting the planning if you impress a client with what you can do with the buying. If you're not on their radar, then you've got far less of a chance. But whoever the planning agency is, planners and buyers have to find ways to work together - and it's the same as regards media agencies working with creative agencies too.

"For it to work, the planning has to be right, it has to be at the right level of granularity and you have to have one person who's able to oversee and drive the whole process. People have to work as a team - it can't ever work if the relationship is 'we think, you do'. For instance, not many planners know what you can actually do these days in newspapers. You have to go to a buyer to find that out."

YES - Tom George, chief executive, Mediaedge:cia

"Though it's the norm for the two sides to be integrated, there are valid reasons for clients to look at splitting them. When that happens, we will look at that business as we would any other."

YES - Pete Edwards, founder, Edwards Groom Saunders

"If the model is robust, then there's certainly money to be made from buying-only business. But it really does depend on the relationship with the planning agency and the quality of its output."

MAYBE - Grant Millar, managing director, Vizeum

"No, it's not ideal, but it's less of an issue than the separation of online and offline media. Any business relationship should always be profitable. Making sure that it is is down to the quality of delivery and the people involved."

YES - Chris Locke, trading director, VivaKi Trading UK

"From a profitability point of view, I don't think there's a problem. If you win a planning account, you will almost certainly need more planners. But with buying, it can often be picked up by the people already there. They're in the market, they have the expertise."