Media: All about ... Media match-making agencies

Haystack's service will compete with the AAR and ISBA, Ian Darby says.

Selecting a media agency is a tricky business for clients. While the chemistry, culture and talents of each agency are vital, there is also the issue of choosing an agency that can deliver a good deal on an advertiser's buying.

There are already at least six businesses that help advertisers select media agencies, but these have now been joined by The Haystack Group.

Launched four years ago to handle direct marketing and ad agency selection (clients have included the AA and British Gas), Haystack is 90 per cent funded by clients, who turn to it for advice on the agency selection process.

While it had previously handled media pitches for the likes of Thresher and the Australia Tourist Commission as part of full-service reviews, it has now appointed a specialist to run media agency selection.

Fran Cassidy, the former marketing director of Carlton Sales, has joined Haystack on a consultancy basis to spearhead this move. Its first briefs are running the current pitches for UKTV and Royal Mint.

But is there room for another match-maker in an already crowded market, increasingly dominated by auditors who can apply technical knowledge?

Suki Thompson, the Haystack managing director, believes so. "What I hope we do have is a strong culture of talking with clients and working closely with them," she says. "We've noticed that media work and strategy is more important to clients and while there are some clients who will always want to use the big guys to buy media, there is a tranche of clients who want to tap into agencies that offer something different and have the right people."

Rivals believe there is room for Haystack as long as it has a genuine point of difference and can demonstrate a clear understanding of the business.

But it faces competition.

1. The AAR launched its media arm in 1998 when it hired the CIA director Paul Phillips to lead a media agency selection service. It derives its revenues from annual subscriptions from agencies and will use its close knowledge of agencies to draw up a pitchlist. However, it doesn't sit in and manage the pitch process or advise the client on which agency to select.

It handles 15 to 20 media projects each year. This year, it has been involved in pitches such as Weightwatchers International, Diageo and Harveys. Agencies generally admire Phillips' professionalism, but some large agencies complain the AAR is not handling enough large business to justify its fee.

2. Billetts comes at the agency selection process from its background as a media auditor. It got into offering pitch services eight years ago and almost always handles pitches for clients it has already worked with as an auditor. It offers to manage a pitch process fully - helping to write the brief, comparing each agency's offering, attending pitches and managing the final selection.

It has no agency selection specialist; each project is managed by the head of the account group the client falls into. It runs, on average, nine or ten pitches a year. Recent clients include Carlsberg, Pizza Hut and UIP.

3. Media Audits comes at agency selection from a similar auditing background to Billetts. Launched 29 years ago, Audits has co-ordinated many UK and international agency selection processes, Unilever's European media review being the largest in recent times. Its global account director, Martin Sambrook, tends to lead its agency-selection projects.

4. Agency Insight was launched ten years ago by the former J. Walter Thompson creative Andrew Melsom. It offers general consultancy and agency search services for clients. It has no media specialist in-house, but handles media pitches when they are a part of the client's requirement. Vodafone's recent global media pitch was an example.

5. Agency Assessments also has no media specialist in-house, but brings in Billetts to handle the backroom numbers and technical detail of the selection process. It handles an average of four media pitches each year, many of which are international. Recent examples include Eurotunnel and the global Electrolux pitch.

6. ISBA offers media agency selection alongside its selection of ad, PR and direct agencies. Its service is led by Debbie Morrison, its director of member services, and is funded by advertisers rather than agencies.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

RIVALS

- Haystack's move into media should not affect the auditors, such as Billetts and Media Audits, too much. It is not trying suddenly to "become a Billetts", because it lacks the access to data and technical detail.

- The likes of the AAR and ISBA are its more direct competitors. In a climate where there are fewer domestic media pitches and the auditors are muscling in, Haystack will provide another alternative.

AGENCIES

- Some agencies are voicing concerns that they have not yet been approached by Haystack about its service or been asked to submit credentials. But it works in a different way from the AAR because it is not funded by agencies.

- There is now increased pressure for media agencies to get to know Fran Cassidy and Suki Thompson, because it will be their knowledge of media agencies that will influence the make-up of pitchlists.

- Smaller, more strategic agencies may benefit from Haystack's services because it stresses that the clients it works with will tend to have an interest beyond the major buying shops.

ADVERTISERS

- Haystack has impressive credentials in the direct and ad sectors, but will have to work hard to convince advertisers that it has more knowledge of the media sector than the likes of the AAR.

- Its offer of hands-on management of the pitch process, including involvement for several months after agency selection, could prove attractive to some advertisers.

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