Media Headliner: Objectivity remains the order of the day at EGS

Post sell-off, Edwards Groom Saunders still flies the flag for the independent communications planner, Ian Darby writes.

In recent months, there has been a renewed focus on the independent communications planning sector.

Events, including the end of the Michaelides & Bednash brand (after its partners agreed a deal with Mindshare), have raised more questions than answers about the health and viability of such businesses going forward.

Not that the founders of Edwards Groom Saunders, which last week sold to Engine Group, the owner of 13 other marketing communications businesses, including the advertising agency WCRS and direct agency Partners Andrews Aldridge, would compare their situation to that of M&B.

For a start, the EGS brand will continue to operate as a standalone business within Engine and though the founders are keeping quiet about the terms of the deal, they are adamant they have each made a healthy cash sum from a business that is not quite yet three years old.

Pete Edwards, one of the three founders (alongside Jez Groom and Will Saunders) who broke away from Starcom MediaVest Group to launch the business in 2006, says: "We made a six-figure profit in our first year. Engine wouldn't have bought us if we were stagnating - it wants a valuable asset and a business that is growing. This is not a distressed sale - we now have the opportunity to accelerate."

Edwards argues that EGS's "effectiveness in communications" positioning has helped it build a successful business around retained clients, because it's not the sort of service that can be dipped in and out of.

Observers believe this could be a good deal for all concerned, especially given the structure of Engine's business and its desire to hire communications specialists to take an overview of its activity.

Iain Jacob, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group EMEA and a former colleague of the EGS founders, says: "It's a good move - both for EGS and for Engine. Increasingly, clients are frustrated by endless service fragmentation and in this world are seeking simplicity and consolidated thinking, so I think Engine is on to something with its approach."

Those who have worked with the three founders of EGS are in little doubt that they are experienced and skilled operators. It also seems important that they have broader agency skills beyond the media buying agency - Edwards and Groom started life at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, while Saunders is a former WCRS man, a link which proved instrumental in instigating conversations with Engine.

As one former colleague says: "They are not driven by ego, so there is the opportunity to work across Engine's other companies - they don't want to be big stars, they are all good but they wouldn't try to embarrass you in a meeting. They all feel they are in the communications industry, not the media industry."

However, there remains some puzzlement as to why EGS sold so early in its career. Despite having clients including Nando's, William Hill and Aviva (and work for clients such as New Covent Garden Food Company that has been nominated for awards), it is small in scale (just six people) and critics say it still has work to do to build a reputation in the industry.

The answer seems to lie in an opportunity for more rapid expansion and more interesting work that Engine might provide. Groom argues that it will now be able to accelerate the international dimension of what it does (after seeing the success Naked Communications has had in markets such as the US and Australia).

Groom talks about the attraction of "creative tension" that Engine will provide and says Engine and EGS share a restlessness borne out of a desire to "make things better".

He adds: "After working in an ad agency and in a media agency, I'm convinced that having a communications planning function in these places is fundamentally flawed. The attraction is that we can retain our objectivity that other models wouldn't facilitate."

Sources suggest that Engine has hired a senior team with a good blend of talents. Saunders is described as "a good holding midfielder", who has taken on much of the responsibility for client relationships and has built a strong contacts book. Groom as the planning talent, focusing on the agency's product, and Edwards providing the focus on the financial and business side of things.

Engine believes that EGS, which will move into its office within the next month, will blend in well with its other companies. Debbie Klein, the joint chief executive of Engine, explains: "We're not trying to re-create the media department - this is totally different. It was appealing that they got this, that they are broad in their approach and shared our vision. The Engine model is all about the best in class all under one roof. We were 13 companies, now 14, but there was nobody taking an overview."

EGS's real challenge will be to pull off the tricky task of maintaining strong relationships with other Engine companies when not always recommending advertising or other communications routes as the solution. As Groom puts it: "We're about having business conversations - isolating the contribution of marketing communications. We have business conversations, not media conversations."

If it can apply this approach across the Engine client base without upsetting people, EGS appears to have a good recipe for growth.

TIMELINE

March 2006: EGS officially launches after Pete Edwards and Jez Groom complete periods of gardening leave from Starcom MediaVest Group

May 2006: Lands first new client with New Covent Garden Food Company

April 2007: Ikea rival Ilva appoints EGS to handle its communications planning

October 2007: Appointed by William Hill to work on business and communications strategy

July 2008: Property website Rightmove.co.uk appoints EGS as it considers increasing its adspend

March 2009: EGS is acquired by Engine Group for an undisclosed sum. The agency will continue to operate as a standalone business

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