Publicis Groupe has been slow to join the battle of the big holding companies in launching a UK group trading operation. But now it has finally pushed the button on VivaKi UK Media Trading and seems intent on going in with all guns blazing.
Leading the new business is Chris Locke, the trading director of Starcom MediaVest Group. Chris Hayward, the investment director at ZenithOptimedia, will take a key role alongside him as the managing partner. Given the pair's reputation as two of the more fiery competitors in the trading world, this seems akin to recruiting both Andy McNab and Chris Ryan to head an SAS unit.
Locke is the West Ham-supporting Essex boy, the rough edges smoothed by an impressive, almost intellectual, view of the TV world when pushed. Hayward is the Everton fan: opinionated and equally knowledgeable, dubbed during our interview the "Scouse Byron" by Locke due to his flowing locks and supposed "soft lad" tendencies.
There are similarities in the pair's approach and reputation and they head trading across two agencies that are roughly similar in size (SMG billed £658 million during 2007 and Zenith £565 million). Locke is officially leading the new operation, which takes its name from VivaKi, the Publicis Groupe global media brand that was unveiled in July. But given the characters of the two involved and the fact that the pair will retain their individual agency roles alongside the VivaKi positions, they will effectively operate as a partnership.
They worked together previously in the McCann Erickson media department during the 80s, are both of similar vintage (in their early fifties, though Locke is the slightly older) and Locke attended Hayward's 50th birthday celebrations last year. However, Hayward uses a party image to make it clear that there are limits: "We know each other well enough and communications will be good and constant. But we're not going to be dancing around the handbag under the chandelier together."
Tom George, the chief executive of Mediaedge:cia and former Zenith director, says the success of joint trading operations is mainly down to the relationship between the senior people leading them: "They are two very experienced and good operators and the key challenge is how well they work together. They are old friends going way back, so they should be able to forget any differences.
"The other challenge is that they are entering this (joint trading) relatively late so will be playing catch-up. The only thing I would question is that there comes a time when you have to make tough, impartial decisions that will impact on the agencies and continuing to align themselves geographically with Starcom and Zenith might not help."
VivaKi will occupy a physical space for its backroom team but Locke and Hayward will continue to be located in their separate offices, talking by phone and arranging meetings on the hoof. This, they argue, is working well so far.
On the timing issue, Locke is convinced the arrival of an economic downturn combined with Publicis' recent commitment to all things digital make this a perfect moment.
He says: "We looked at this five years ago, when Group M and others were launching, and we've looked at it every year since but haven't seen anything that has convinced us to do it. Now, the fact that it's called VivaKi, that digital has accelerated will eventually make it much more than a traditional trading hub. But the downturn has given us an opportunity to make a step change - there's a chance to make a difference in terms of delivering a value metric."
This may be the case, but some suggest that the timing is not solely down to a perfect storm of wider factors. They argue that there has never been much love lost between the two Publicis media brands, but that last year's BT pitch, which was presented as a Publicis Groupe Media offering, finally made the two agencies deliver on a group proposition. The agency chief executives, Zenith's Gerry Boyle and SMG's Stewart Easterbrook, also seem freer from baggage than some of their predecessors.
Locke says the exact shape of the operation will evolve over the coming months but it's clear that trading across all media will be vital.
In addition to adding digital channels to the proposition, also involving Publicis Digitas operations, Locke and Hayward talk beyond TV. They say changes in radio structures and in national press with full-colour presses have made it a good time for discussions. And the message for media owners? It won't all be about steaming in with the big artillery. Hayward says: "Partnership is now so important. It's fair to say there is a reasonable amount of tension in the media owner/agency relationship but the world is expanding and we want to explore opportunities."
The duo concludes that while volume is important, other factors are at play here and that VivaKi can give their agencies more of an edge on their competitors. Locke says: "This is bigger. It's not just about price; there is space for discussion of ideas and creativity. We will do what's right for clients; it's not about media owners.
"But there's something fantastic for planners in all this. If you think about it, ITV always used to start by saying 'no'. Now it wants to listen. We want to keep business and win business and probably come up with some media firsts - not stunts, but deep strategies that will demonstrate a real impact on client business."
UK TRADING UNITS
2001: IPG becomes the first holding company to launch a UK group trading operation with Magna.
2003: WPP launches Group M to cover MindShare, Mediaedge:cia and BJK&E. MediaCom is later absorbed into Group M.
2003: Aegis Media recruits Steve Platt, the former Carlton sales director, to head trading.
2004: Omnicom joins the fray with OPera, which will handle media negotiations on behalf of OMD agencies and PHD.
2008: In April, Publicis announces ZenithOptimedia and Starcom MediaVest Group are in talks about launching a UK trading unit. In September, it confirms this will be called VivaKi UK Trading.