MEDIA FORUM: Where will Vizeum fit on the media network map?

Is there room for another international media specialist network? And is this the best time to be launching one if there is, Alasdair Reid asks.

Great time to launch a new international media network, what with the Anglo-Saxon alliance about to offer up some tough love in Iraq and the major western economies shaking so much that bits are going to start falling off at any moment. So let's just say that Aegis Group is being rather brave in bringing forward its plans for Vizeum.

The network will initially tidy up and give an international umbrella name to a number of strong local brands that are not currently in the official Carat network: BBJ in the UK, for instance, and HMS in Germany.

The company says it has concrete plans in place for all of the major European markets; and where there are gaps, they will be filled either by acquisition or by start-ups using local expertise.

Details will follow - but don't hold your breath because the network won't actually launch until late summer or autumn this year. So the timing may be more canny than it first appears - in six month's time, a lot of water may well have flowed under any number of bridges.

Doug Flynn, the chief executive of Aegis Group, says that the announcement was made at this stage so that a sufficient amount of time could be spent talking things through with advertisers. He adds: "In most countries in Europe, we have national media agencies that are outside the Carat network. BBJ has been competing successfully in the UK market for large national brands and international brands but it is difficult to compete for international brands that want to go through international alignment - increasingly, clients are working to establish agency relationships on an international basis. At the same time (because of consolidation), we are seeing the number of media networks reducing. There are now fewer holding companies than there are clients in most sectors."

Aegis is understandably keen to emphasise that Vizeum is in no way to be regarded as a second-string network. This, Flynn says, is a way of adding to the sum of already powerful parts. "We're giving it the international dimension and lighting a fire under those companies. The people there are excellent. We're giving them the resource to do a good job."

All of which sounds eminently plausible. On the other hand, you could argue this trend to internationalism is hardly new and Vizeum will be a new kid on a well-worn block. In any case, isn't the trend towards even more consolidation?

John Billett, the chairman of Billetts Media Consulting, says Aegis is actually conforming very much to an emerging trend - just like every other holding company, it is seeking to adhere to the rule of two. "Every other holding company has two media brands," he argues. "Aegis is clearly trying to expand its business while keeping customer focus and keeping its own management happy. The interesting thing for me is whether it intends to do it on a genuinely worldwide basis. Will it be opening a New York office?"

Yes is the short answer to that, according to Aegis sources - but probably not until next year at the earliest. So the network is clearly a serious global proposition. And surely many advertisers could be interested in the emergence of another option out there in the marketplace. Consolidation may deliver many benefits but conflict issues are reaching nightmare proportions in some sectors. Could the other holding companies be missing a trick by consolidating?

Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of OMD Europe, concedes that conflict is a growing problem. But we shouldn't forget that consolidation is being driven by clients themselves and he argues that top clients want the very best they can get. Vizeum will have to work hard if it's to avoid being second best - even within Aegis. He states: "Flagship international clients want to work with the top team and if a network is seen in any way as second string then it may struggle, no matter what it is offering. Clients want to have as big a shout as possible at the top table and they want access to the very top people in the network. So to launch any new network is a challenge. The issue is what the attitude is of people at the existing network. The tendency is to say, 'Yes, it's all very nice but we're the big brother'."

And, Gottlieb adds, there's the issue of whether you have the people or resource to make a new network really happen. Filling gaps isn't always easy, he cautions. "In the UK, BBJ is a brand with a proud heritage but what happens in other markets where there isn't such a happy situation?

Are Vizeum people going to be incentivised? For instance, will it be allowed to pitch aggressively against Carat?"

He would ask those sorts of questions, though, wouldn't he? Only time, as the old cliche has it, will tell. But how important a factor is conflict? It's not Vizeum's sole raison d'etre but it could be an important factor as it seeks out new-business opportunities.

Paul Phillips, the AAR's director of advertising and media services, outlines the reality of the way agencies get chosen these days: "If you want to appoint on a network basis you have eight or maybe nine to choose from these days. Three or four will be conflicted. Another one or two won't be able to offer the geographical spread or strength in depth that you need. You take the remainder and that's your pitchlist. It's generally true that clients are more relaxed on the issue of conflict where media as opposed to creative is concerned but that's largely because they have to be. There's a lot less choice - there are fewer media networks than creative agency networks. It's interesting that many big advertisers are happy with two media networks and they might take the view that it's in no-one's interests to pool it all. They sometimes take the view that having two networks keeps everyone on their toes."

But surely the bottom line is that advertisers are already revisiting the issue of consolidation versus conflict? Steve Harrison is the international media director of Schwarzkopf & Henkel, one of Europe's most conflicted clients, given that it has a whole spectrum of brands in the cosmetics and toiletries sectors. Harrison is also on the media committee of the World Federation of Advertisers. He won't comment on individual agencies but he is obviously concerned about conflict issues. He states: "Our view is that conflict has always been an issue and it is becoming more of an issue with the declining number of agencies and with the establishment of common back-office facilities (within the major advertising groups).

It is a significant challenge to manage those conflicts to the satisfaction both of the networks and advertisers." In the past, the WFA has discussed plans to devise formal protocols on conflict and recently has again come under agency pressure to do so. But Harrison can reveal that this topic is not very high up the WFA agenda. "It is a question for individual advertisers," he states.