Media: Perspective - IPG must spend big if it aspires to join the premier league

After a summer of big spending, last weekend finally brought the opening game of the Premier League season. And Manchester City, the "new Chelsea", eased their way past Blackburn Rovers, once themselves a prototype for Chelsea: no-hopers who bought a Premier League title. City's defeat of Blackburn was not exactly world-beating, but it marks a start as they try to end the dominance over English football wrought by four clubs.

In the international media agency world, there is a top four that is as hard to break into as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in football. In global new-business terms at least, Omnicom Media Group, WPP's Group M, Publicis' VivaKi and Aegis Media seem to be playing in a league of their own.

There's the occasional bloody nose for the big boys. For instance, Havas' MPG recently beat Mindshare in a battle for the Axa business. But, on the whole, there is a serious game in play that involves WPP, Omnicom, Publicis and Aegis slugging it out for market share. The belief being that there will eventually be consolidation and that those with the highest market share will be the winners.

But try telling this to Interpublic, which, despite a recent lack of success on global and other new-business pitches outside the US, isn't giving up. Its investment levels might not be on a par with Manchester City's in football, but IPG's Mediabrands wants to have a good crack at the top four - and it needs to invest with big pitches such as GM, Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser and Hyundai-Kia looming. In recent weeks, it has hired Jim Hytner to run Universal McCann in Europe and poached Mauricio Sabogal, the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group in Latin America, to become the global managing director of Initiative.

Extra firepower that IPG will need as global competition enters a new and dangerous phase as the sheer number and scale of international media pitches appears to spiral. Dangerous because moves for market share can backfire, as Group M found to its cost when Kellogg consolidated its European media into Carat.

The biggest hope for the likes of IPG is that there are only so many top people at "the big four" to work on and pitch for business. As the pitches mount up and pressure grows, media networks are considering the risk, as Man City and Chelsea might do for the League Cup, of fielding the kids and the second string for smaller international pitches, providing their rivals with a chance. Even then, it's a tough elite to break into and the signs are that it can't be done without a flourish of the chequebook. So unless Havas buys Aegis anytime soon, it's hard to see big changes at the top.

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