Media Perspective: COI consolidation of buying calls some agencies to account

It looks to have been a cracking week for WPP's Group M. But while its capture of the £250 million-plus COI buying business can be seen as an unalloyed triumph, Mindshare's retention of the £150 million UK Unilever account as part of a global process is probably more of a relief than anything else.

It seems that while Unilever gave WPP less of a kicking than it might have done, it cleverly handled the situation by taking away Group M's slice of the business in China and awarding it to PHD last December. Yet Mindshare has responded well by retaining the US and Western Europe, even if on more generous terms for Unilever.

While few were surprised at the outcome of the Unilever pitch due to the usual little nods and industry rumours doing the rounds, COI played its cards close to its chest before last Thursday morning's announcement that Group M's bespoke M4C solution had triumphed.

The decision tells us nothing new about trends in modern media, seemingly confirming the truism that big is best as the Government opted to consolidate its media spend into what was already the largest buying point. For once COI, perhaps due to lengthy contracts and a desire for good old British fair play, seemed to be lumbering behind the market on the issue of consolidating its media.

Nonetheless, some juicy issues have emerged. Mainly surrounding the losers in the process. The digital specialist i-level will lose close to £40 million in billings and a significant percentage of its income.

You could tell it was a big decision for the agency because, along with Starcom MediaVest Group, with whom it jointly pitched under the bespoke name of Smile, the agency issued a statement claiming that both agencies were "still smiling". God only knows why they were still smiling. Unless, like the gurning men near King's Cross station bombed off their heads on White Lightning cider, they were in a state resembling shell shock.

While Smile seemed an elegant solution for all concerned, its failure to capture the account now begs questions surrounding Starcom's ability to offer its own digital solutions and i-level's future as a standalone digital specialist. Perhaps Publicis should stump up the cash for the two agencies to merge fully and have done with it.

The biggest loss in pure numbers terms is the departure of COI's £94 million TV buying business from Carat. The central involvement of the former Carat commercial director Alex Altman in the WPP triumph might make this loss even harder to bear for the Aegis agency, but, make no mistake Carat will be back. With value to play with, it will be a formidable contender in the new-business market, so cue the next wave of pitch frenzy.