Media Headliner: Manning bids to shake off the media auditor tag

There's far more to Thomson Intermedia than media monitoring, Nick Manning says ahead of its relaunch.

After spending 27 years in the media agency world, Nick Manning could have been forgiven for wanting to make a clean break. Instead, he became a media auditor.

That would be the ungenerous view of his decision, a year ago, to take a senior role at Thomson Intermedia, the media monitoring company that had acquired the Billetts auditing business in 2005.

After selling Manning Gottlieb, the agency he founded with Colin Gottlieb, to Omnicom before moving up to run its wider OMD UK operations, Manning took the decision 18 months ago to make a change. After several months of meetings and sojourning in France, he resurfaced at Thomson alongside Mike Greenlees, the founder of Gold Greenlees Trott and former chief executive of TBWA Worldwide. The new management duo were charged with taking the company forward as its founders, the husband-and-wife team Steve and Sarah Jane Thomson, stepped down from their executive roles.

Manning, the chief operating officer, and Greenlees, the chief executive, have spent the past year making changes to the business, which will be relaunched this week under the new brand Ebiquity.

"We are rebranding because we want people to reappraise everything we do," Manning says. "Thomson Intermedia was known for its competitor media monitoring and media auditing, but there's so much more to it than that."

Manning could also do with ditching some of the Thomson associations. He and Greenlees seem to have inherited a basket case of a company with revenues going the wrong way (Thomson made a pre-tax loss of £1.4 million for the year to the end of April) and, while the new management team has been able to point to potential green shoots of underlying growth, its share price (Ebiquity is listed on AIM) has rapidly been disappearing south. Its current price of 36.5p compares unfavourably with its August 2007 high of 107.5p.

So it's been a year of working to improve these fortunes. As Manning puts it: "Everything we're doing is about re-energising the company, and taking it beyond markets where it's been underperforming. The business was languishing because it wasn't diverse enough - the two pillars of the business were mature businesses of limited size where we had a high percentage share. So we're trying to push harder in all areas."

Put simply, Ebiquity's strategy will be to push its established businesses in media monitoring (the original Thomson offering) and auditing (the Billetts business) as far as they go while also expanding in the two areas of news monitoring (its News Live service will compete with other news-cutting and monitoring services for a slice of an £80 million market) and e-vouchering (already big in the regional news world). These four units will all now be housed in new offices near Tower Bridge.

On the auditing side, Manning says that it can increase its international business, starting with a clear badging of the US business with the Billetts brand and then a roll-out in other markets. In media monitoring, where Ebiquity is in competition with the likes of Nielsen Media Research, it will continue with its focus on selling direct to advertisers, and on building its reputation in vertical sectors such as retail and motors. Its great advantage, Manning says, is that, unlike Nielsen, it has access to Billetts' data pool covering £3 billion of actual media spend.

There have already been personnel changes at Billetts - the departure of the managing partner, Andy Pearch, and the arrival of Martin Sambrook from rival Accenture being the most significant.

This coincided with an attempt to move the business upstream with the introduction of the grander name of Billetts Marketing Investment Management. A move that created a stir because it involved an intention to introduce pre- campaign planning and analysis of activity, something that didn't seem to sit too well with agencies.

Does Manning understand the reaction? "We're being brave and some would say foolhardy in trying to invert the industry model - marketing effectiveness still tends to be something that's considered after something has happened."

Some agencies undoubtedly felt threatened and argued that it just wouldn't work because different agencies on a roster would not be willing to share confidential data.

Manning says: "We're just trying to do the best job for the client. The advertising model still doesn't put effectiveness first, we're still in a situation where media planning starts with 'I've got £5 million to spend, what can I get for my money?' It's frustrating that the big questions aren't being asked first."

Manning argues that this should not create tensions because Billetts is offering a purely data- and technology-based approach, which can highlight the cost and effectiveness of media channels rather than replacing the agency planning process. However, he admits: "We're challenging the industry to put effectiveness at the heart of what it does, which it should be doing anyway. This might be seen as antagonistic, but it's absolutely in the best interests of clients."

Going forward, Manning says experience tells him that Ebiquity's services will be in demand given the current recessionary forces at play: "Everybody is now talking about marketing effectiveness. We all know we're entering choppy waters and we're not immune from that, but, in tough times, people will need our services more and more. Our services to clients, especially in a time of such media deflation, are incredibly important."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 51
Lives: Putney
Family: Wife, Sarah. Children, James (17), Alex (16) and Henry (ten)
Most treasured possession: Family photographs
Interests outside work: France, Fulham FC, tennis, golf (sometimes!),
photography and indie rock (makes me feel younger)
Last book you read: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
Motto: It's never too early to panic

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