MEDIA: Headliner - Strong planning approach is key to MediaCom's success. The agency is thriving due to its simple and effective strategy. Ian Darby reports

"MediaCom? Not them again, what's their secret? one agency director exclaimed on hearing of MediaCom's triumph in the Masterfoods media planning centralisation.

He was not the only one to express this sentiment. For the past two years, MediaCom has seemed to be on a relentless new-business winning streak.

The Masterfoods win, after a final battle against Media Planning Group, follows recent successes such as AMP, Wrigley's, Clairol, the international Shell business and Egg.

MediaCom has also kept its existing clients while wooing the new ones. But few outside its own and its clients' doors understand how it achieves this.

The Masterfoods pitch was led by the chief executive, Stephen Allan, the joint managing director, Jane Ratcliffe, and Sue Unerman, who, as the director of strategic solutions, is the agency's planning brains.

MediaCom's modern incarnation was created in 1998, when Grey acquired The Media Business Group, Allan Rich's operation. It created a top three agency with billings of £330 million. At the turn of 2001, MediaCom had billings of £529 million, and, if Carat and Zenith don't start winning big, it could well capture the number one slot by the end of the year.

Allan was the group managing director at TMBG, having joined Rich in 1982 as a media executive. He took the chief executive job just over two years ago, when Rich took on the wider role as chairman in a bid to help MediaCom's international expansion. The UK operation, insiders say, is now very much Allan's show rather than Rich's.

Allan says: "We're low-key as an agency. Maybe this is something we encourage as a business. We're client-focused, client-driven. This is reflected in the way we are structured as an agency, with each account team acting like an agency in its own right and pulling in central resources. Clients get the personal service of a small agency combined with the resources of a larger business."

The stability, and ability, of the management team also plays a part in MediaCom's current success. It must also add to the perception of the agency as "worthy but dull". There are few headlines about charismatic new talent arriving at North Gower Street because the senior people there have been in place for so long.

The managing directors Nick Lawson and Ratcliffe have both been at the agency for a long time. Unerman has been with the agency for 12 years.

She stepped into the planning role in 1997 after returning from maternity leave, having previously been an account director. TMBG launched Real World Planning and this then became the agency's planning product following the MediaCom merger. Unerman says: "It is based on some clear principles, such as accountability and innovation. The aim is to deliver strategic thinking across all areas of the company."

The planning team is deliberately small, just Unerman and two others.

The idea is that Unerman's team work with account management teams when required, so there is no "them and us culture between buying and planning.

But does this work? John Blakemore, the advertising director of Glaxo SmithKline, reviewed its business with MediaCom last year and the agency kept the account. He says: "What characterises them is an absolute dedication to client services overlaid with exceptional strategic planning. They have strong day-to-day media buying combined with depth across sponsorship, new media and strategic planning."

Blakemore also has praise for Allan: "Steve is one of the good guys. He's a workaholic dedicated to the success of MediaCom."

Paul Phillips, the director of advertising and media services at the AAR, says: "MediaCom is an agency of straight-talking and straightforward people. Commitment to their clients is paramount and supported by the investment made in their own staff giving them the opportunity to develop within the agency."

But MediaCom does face issues. Perhaps most importantly it needs to grow its international operation, a concern that is mainly out of the control of the London management team. In the global rankings, MediaCom is just ninth, with billings of $11.6 billion. The Shell win is a sign that the network is starting to pick up big global business, but there is still work to do.

Allan argues that the network is "strong", but critics say MediaCom is not helped by the relative lack of clout and inertia of Grey. He refutes this, but puts some distance between the two operations: "Grey provides us with additional resource but we have the same parent, rather than being close sister agencies. We co-operate and work well together but then we'd try and work well with any other agency."

The other issue MediaCom faces is the outside perception that it lacks creativity in its thinking.

Allan says: "Most of the training we give is about creativity. We also like to change the routine of people's lives, to change the order of their day and surprise them."

Unerman says that, one afternoon, this involved taking people to a meeting room and playing bingo.

MediaCom will continue to have its envious critics but the root of its success seems to lie in solid values, a stable management team, strategic thinking that is on a par with other agencies and expert of client servicing.

There is nothing spectacular in all this but it works.