It's a shrinking world. The latest global media agency ranking figures from Recma estimate that the top 11 networks handle more than 56 per cent of worldwide media billings. And on a group basis, it's an even more consolidated picture. Of those 11 networks, only two (the Havas-owned Media Planning Group and Aegis' Carat) aren't owned by the big four holding companies: WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic and Publicis Groupe.
Top of the pile is (according to Recma forecasts for the whole of 2006) Starcom MediaVest Group with projected billings of $25.6 billion. A tidy sum - small potatoes compared with the cashflows of the blue-chip multinational clients it represents, but impressive nonetheless.
And indeed, all of the top four in the league table - OMD, MindShare and Carat Group fill the positions below Starcom - weigh in well above $20 billion. The middle-ranked networks are ZenithOptimedia ($19.3 billion), Mediaedge:cia ($18.8 billion) and MediaCom ($17.9 billion).
Which leaves the two IPG networks, Universal McCann and Initiative ($13.6 billion and $12.3 billion respectively), Media Planning Group ($9.8 billion) and PHD ($5.6 billion).
There is, of course, a well-rehearsed theory that, with each year that passes, the pecking order outlined here will become ever more deeply engraved in stone - the big can only get bigger and, with client conflict issues restricting manoeuvring room for the big clients, there are few opportunities to upset the rankings.
This year's table perhaps challenges that assumption, because Starcom was fourth last year - and jumped to the top courtesy of its $3.2 billion General Motors win in the US. Which perhaps gives hope to those lower down the rankings.
Perhaps, though, they don't pay much attention to league tables. Does size really matter these days? Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of OMD Europe, believes it does.
He says: "The figures offer the most basic of checks. And also, it's human nature, even if you believe other performance markers are important, to look at the league table and use that to establish some sort of order in your mind. The assumption is that if you have scale you must have ways of operating that will allow you to manage that scale."
Martin Sambrook, the global account director at Media Audits, isn't so sure. He comments: "Where the league tables are concerned, we're talking about a compass rather than a street finder. From a client perspective there are obviously a number of key issues they look at and tables such as this provide only part of the picture. Advertisers look for indications that the agencies they are interested in are healthy in their key markets. They will also keep an eye on whether an agency works on conflicting business. But this table is only one of a number of pieces of information you need to make informed decisions."
Perhaps surprisingly, David Pattison, the chief executive of PHD, the 11th network on the table, argues that scale is important - though he claims to have the best of both worlds. He reasons: "This is never a black-and-white issue and no two clients will give you the same answer. Even the ones who say that size is important will have different notions of size. That's why PHD is in such a good position. What we have is access to a negotiating company, OPera, that can be used where volume is important - and in some markets it is absolutely vital. So we effectively have the best of both worlds. The truth is that everyone is interested in this sort of league table - it's a benchmark, showing roughly where everyone sits."
But Mark Craze, the managing partner at Media Planning Group, disagrees. He argues that we have moved well beyond the era when people were obsessed about being the number-one media buyer. He says: "Clients are far more interested in the practical issue of whether an agency network matches the profile of their business.
"And more than anything, from a client point of view, it's about the people they have on their business. The first question they always ask is whether they are getting the top talent - and how much of it. These days everything is audited, so if any one group was buying significantly better than the market, you'd expect it to be winning everything going. It doesn't work that way any more - if clients are restless it's not because of price. They are more interested in new thinking that will give them an edge over their competitors."
YES - Colin Gottlieb, chief executive, OMD Europe
"Those in the top three or four slots have basic levels of resource that the others don't have. That doesn't mean that they will automatically win business, but it might mean a client will add them to the list of people they might call."
NO - Martin Sambrook, global account director, Media Audits
"It's a useful check on the potential strength of a network, but no-one moves or appoints business based on Recma. In any case, most companies make appointments on a regional basis, so global rankings don't tend to matter so much."
YES - David Pattison, chief executive, PHD
"Most clients require a certain hygiene level. For some, it's about being number one in markets that matter to them. For others, it's being in the top five. Or they might want the most powerful tools. But size is important."
NO - Mark Craze, managing partner, Media Planning Group
"Cients have to be confident about the level of resource you are able to offer and the credibility of your offering, but I don't think that anyone is obsessed about a network's ranking on the Recma global league table."
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