Media Perspective: Initiative's Unilever loss is both a major blow and challenge

My TV blew up on Sunday. It was nothing spectacular, no arcing ball of fire emerged from the top or smoke out of the back or anything. One minute it was on and the next minute it had gone - the images of Middlesbrough slogging toward a hard-fought draw with Bolton clicked off and then refused to return. A pathetic end to our four-year relationship, I thought, but then I had flogged it with more EPG surfing, Scart plugs and PlayStation hours than any box could survive.

But please, no sympathy - I suspect I'll survive a few days of living in pubs, listening to radio and reading more magazines while I wait for the new widescreen baby to arrive.

Initiative, on the other hand, might be more deserving of your thoughts.

Last week, its 14-year UK relationship with Unilever (which began in 1990 when it inherited the account from Lintas) exploded with potentially devastating results.

After a confused pitch process, the UK business is moving to MindShare as part of a consolidation of Unilever's one billion euro Western Europe media business. Congratulations to MindShare, of course, but the UK implications for Initiative could be staggering.

UK billings through Initiative are put at just under £200 million by Nielsen Media Research. Taking discounts into account, this equates to around £130 million in real spend, but even this represents a sizeable chunk of Initiative's billings. Surely its loss could damage the agency immeasurably? Not so, counters its UK chief executive, Jerry Hill, who has seven months before Unilever moves to MindShare to fill the hole.

Initiative's strong 2003 performance (it won France Telecom and more General Motors business) will insulate it, Hill argues, but he cannot disguise the size of the blow.

In fairness, Initiative UK could do little to influence the final outcome.

It retained the UK-only account two years ago, also against MindShare and Carat, and by all accounts the local UK client was happy with its performance.

Initiative has been a victim of a move to a more centralised approach within Unilever, coupled with a need to cut media costs following a decline in its financial performance. Alan Rutherford, Unilever's global media director, might have hired MindShare for its "insight and innovation, linked to a strong vision for our businesses and brands", but his heavy involvement always played against Initiative because Unilever, at the centre, seems an organisation, under its new chairman, Patrick Cescau, set on making changes.

But a criticism of Hill's low-profile team might be that they have left themselves more exposed to the vagaries of international fortunes than their more dynamic UK rivals. Unilever's departure will truly be a test of the agency's mettle and a measure of the quality of its leadership.

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