Media Forum: Is there room for a new media auditor?

The new media auditor Slik has picked up a major client in RHM. Is the market ripe for a shake-up? You wouldn't have imagined there's much scope in the media auditing business for vigorous competitive activity. Media auditors offer all sorts of strategic and consultative advice these days, but the foundation on which it all rests is the auditor's ability to benchmark a client's buying performance. It does so by comparing said client's numbers against the total "pool" of all the auditor's clients.

The bigger the pool, the more useful the comparisons will be. Conversely, an auditor with only one client can't tell the client anything it doesn't already know. So what do we make of Slik, the auditing company recently formed by defectors from Billetts? It won't reveal how many clients it has except to say that it has more than just RHM.

Arguably, it's impressive that it has any clients at all. But advertising is a people business after all and Slik, which is based in the Midlands, is run by people who ran the Midlands-based Barsby Rowe before it was taken over by Billetts. RHM was previously a Barsby Rowe client. In some respects it's "as you were".

And Slik is not operating in isolation. It has sold a minority stake to the UK's number-three auditor (after Billetts and Media Audits), Fairbrother Lenz Eley, and therefore has access to Fairbrother's data pool. It is also claiming to have developed a new and user-friendly approach - user-friendly, in that it is more simplistic and therefore accessible by a wider range of client people than most audit reports.

Will it interest clients other than RHM? Is there room for more competitive activity in the auditing market? The response of John Billett, the chairman of Billetts, is magnanimous. "There's always room for competition. There's always going to be a better mousetrap. In 1995, when we launched, we had no clients. Now, from nothing, we have 162 clients in the UK," he points out.

But, he adds, new entrants face big challenges. Scale, he insists, remains a genuine issue. "There are other challenges too. It is already an international business. The growth in the involvement of finance and procurement people means that the service you offer has to be able to service different company cultures - it is not just about marketing directors. And it has to span the entire communications capability. It's not just about TV - there is more money spent on promotions than on media advertising these days," he maintains.

Pete Edwards, the managing director of Starcom Motive, says that new players will be successful if clients feel they are not getting good enough service from their existing arrangements. He comments: "From what I've heard, Slik does seem confident it can do something different. It feels that many clients want a top-line perspective on their media.

"In many respects, the market has been changing because media auditors no longer want to be called media auditors. Maybe Slik will put the emphasis on straightforward core competence and that could be a good thing. It might seek to deliver a much more distilled perspective."

And what of the clients themselves? Andy Bolden, the UK advertising director of GlaxoSmithKline, is ideally placed to comment on this - the company doesn't employ auditors in the UK and therefore has an objective viewpoint. He says that companies should look at how the costs of employing an auditor stack up against the costs of employing an in-house media expert - but that's another argument for another time.

He adds: "It has a neat little product. It makes a really pertinent point about how some marketing people really fear death by PowerPoint when it comes to media."

And Rob Norman, the chairman of Mediaedge:cia, agrees it all comes down to horses for courses. "It's like anything else," he argues. "If you are a client, it depends on what you want. If all you are after is a competitive benchmarking product, then the biggest pool might seem the most attractive. But the pools differ enormously in character - for instance, how representative they are of certain sectors or target markets.

"Some clients just want headline figures, others want something more involved. Some want help in choosing channel mix, others are more interested in budget allocation, and different auditors can offer different expertise in these areas. They all have a different schtick.

And, yes, obviously it can sometimes be a personality thing. Some characters in the auditing market are not to everybody's taste. So, overall, it's not a cluttered market and there is room for new companies and new approaches."

- "Our existence is evidence that there is always room for someone else. For me to say otherwise would fly in the face of everything we have achieved. But if you were to ask me if there's room for more of the same, then my answer would probably be different." - John Billett chairman, Billetts

- "The problem that many (established) auditors have is that they spend immense amounts of time on the minutiae and then try to swoop out of that into the higher issues of strategic thinking. They're not always able to pull it off." - Pete Edwards managing director, Starcom Motive

- "I tend not to say anything about auditors because they see it as an invitation to beat a path to my door, but I like the Slik offer. If you want a simple audit, with indications as to how you might take it further, then Slik seems to have that position covered." - Andy Bolden UK advertising director, GlaxoSmithKline

- "Agencies are currently investing in sophisticated new technology weaponry and some are already miles ahead of the auditors in this. That's a challenge for them if they want to avoid being regarded once again as mere price-comparison monitors." - Rob Norman chairman, Mediaedge:cia.

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