MEDIA FORUM: Planning vs buying: is it all a case of positioning? - BBJ is the latest media company to reposition itself. So, are they all distancing themselves from their buying heritage, Alasdair Reid asks

Consolidation tends to smooth all the unevenness out of a

marketplace - even an arena as complex and sophisticated as the media


When trading becomes concentrated in the hands of a handful of

variations on the Acme Big Buying Company, media inventory doesn't

exactly become a commodity, but there's certainly a feeling that buying

performance is no longer an issue.

Consolidation on the media buying side of the fence has continued to

trundle along in its own inexorable way with the giant holding companies

- Omnicom, WPP and Interpublic - all in the middle of long-term

programmes that allow group billings to be pooled at certain levels of

negotiation, especially in the TV market, but most probably eventually

right across the board.

It could be argued that the decline in the importance of buying prowess

is not just a function of holding company power play. For many years the

buying performance of the top 20 or so buying points has been relatively


This has fundamental implications for the individual operating units

within the big groups and for all media specialists with a brand

heritage based on buying ability. Specialists such as BBJ Media Services

- an operation that had, in a previous incarnation as the Bass Buying

Unit, the dreaded B word in its monicker. Over the years, BBJ has

evolved strategic planning credentials without attracting the

recognition for that move it feels it deserves. Last week it announced

it was restructuring and repositioning itself in the marketplace as BBJ

Communications Partner.

Trista Grant, BBJ's managing director, says that consolidation isn't

actually a factor here. The Carat Group, BBJ's parent company, may have

consolidated its negotiations with some media owners, but that's not the

same thing as pooled buying. Grant explains: "We keep buying here - that

way our clients' strategies remain confidential and we have not changed

our belief that planning and buying should stay together. There are two

main motivations behind what we are doing. Firstly, we feel that

although BBJ as a brand doesn't have negative connotations, it hasn't

had a particularly clear positioning in the marketplace. We know we have

a strong brand and we know what we stand for - it's a case of making

that clear."

The second strand of motivation is more fundamental. Grant adds: "We

believe that you must have a strong understanding of where you want to

be in three to five years' time and how you are going to get there. If

you don't you are going to miss a lot of tricks. This is about what

clients will need: media specialists who are adept at understanding the

relationship between the brand, the media and the consumer. They will

expect the leadership that comes from that understanding. That means we

must add to our skills base. We will take people who are adept at

uncovering consumer insights through communications strategies and

executing those strategies across multiplatforms."

This is being presented as a logical evolution and it will involve

adding to what BBJ offers. It is not a fundamental shifting of the

company's centre of gravity. BBJ's strategic planning credentials have

never been in doubt, Grant insists. But she argues that it is now a case

of extending the portfolio of services to embrace communications

planning. So will the process be painful? "Not at all. It's only painful

if you're not providing direction," she says.

Simon Marquis, the managing director of Zenith Media, says this is good

in theory. But it wasn't quite that easy at Zenith. Marquis was

instrumental in completing the company's evolution from a Neanderthal

buying operation to a rounded media company. Was it painful? "You don't

jump out of bed one morning and be completely different. You need people

and skills and clients believing certain things about you and it doesn't

happen overnight.

These things take a tremendous amount of time and planning and

communication," Marquis responds.

But is BBJ's announcement indicative of a market continuing to distance

itself from the old concept of buying? Zenith sells itself primarily on

its planning expertise and strategic abilities, doesn't it? Not

necessarily, Marquis says: "There's a lot of lip service paid to

planning and a great belief that it's the discriminator in this market

and, to an extent, that's true and it's why we've done what we've done.

When we set up we were almost entirely a buying operation and didn't

have much of a planning side, but we saw that the opportunities for

growth and for developing relationships with clients lay in developing a

planning side too. But let's not forget about delivering value in the

marketplace. We save clients money - and it's quantifiable too."

John Billet, the chairman of the Billet Consultancy, agrees with much of

that. In fact, he believes the industry could be approaching an

interesting crossroads. He explains: "One of the biggest issues at

present for advertisers is integrated services. More and more they want

to see the integration of new media with conventional media, above and

below the line, direct marketing and conventional advertising. We are

even seeing people discussing the return of full service agencies.

Advertisers acknowledge the gains that media companies have brought them

but they are also aware of the problems that have been created."

So, in that respect, agencies should be extra careful about how they

position themselves. Billet says: "I think there are those who now

question whether consolidation necessarily must lead to a separation of


But Roy Jeans, the chief operating officer at Initiative Media, says he

is not surprised at BBJ's move. He states: "When I was at Zenith we had

a clear notion of what we stood for but when I moved to the sales side

it was surprising how alike media specialists seemed to be. They all had

similar sounding names, offered similar services and differentiation

tended to come down to personalities. The way the market has evolved is

a bit like the car market - you don't look at the engine when you're

buying a car."

Jeans says that this is reflected in the importance that clients now

place on the thinking process: "It makes media companies think even more

carefully about their point of difference. I think we're all madly

swimming upstream and offering strategic input. Buying is still

important but the real point of difference is the data you generate and

how that translates into a communications plan. For instance, here we

have 15 econometrics specialists looking at the heart of what companies

do before we get anywhere near the communication plan. What BBJ is doing

makes eminent sense to me."