Media Perspective: Taking a chaIlenger position may be the way to go for media

As the likes of ITV announce yet more job cuts, it seems clear that media owners are experiencing serious structural changes and that sectors such as newspapers and commercial television won't look the same in a couple of years' time even should the economy spring back into life.

The same is true of agencies. How could the major buying points not be impacted by declines of 20 per cent in press and TV adspend? Claire Beale indicated in last week's Campaign that media agencies are facing serious, deep-seated challenges as media spends slide and advertisers explore opportunities beyond traditional media.

There remains, though, a significant pocket of dynamic life within the UK media agency scene that has more than its share of winners and losers. That's to be found in the ranks of the mid-sized agencies (all of those outside the top seven agencies by The Nielsen Company's 2008 figures, billing less than £300 million).

Outside the real big boys, there is a great deal of movement - with significant shifts in the scale of these agencies both up and down. This "challenger" agency spot seems to be where the opportunity lies right now and can lead to impressive growth at an agency: just look at Mediaedge:cia's performance last year, which saw it catapulted well up the ranks of the UK's agencies.

While billings growth is not the best way to measure the true impact of this type of agency, businesses such as Havas' MPG and Aegis' Vizeum have strong momentum behind them. Others in that space are faring less well, but whatever is happening, it's not boring.

Nobody in that oversupplied middle ground can sit back and rest on their laurels and it's a space where significant levels of local new-business activity has led to good runs for some of the mid-sized players and where the likes of MPG, PHD and Vizeum have shown that strategic, ideas-led media still has a place alongside sheer scale.

Worryingly, though, for some independent agencies (the few that are left), the big holding companies are increasingly sorting out their plays beyond their top buying networks. Omnicom's investment in the management and resources at PHD in the past year has been impressive, for instance, and WPP's rolling out of the Maxus brand (out of the old BJK&E operation in the UK) gives it a challenger in the planning-led space.

This is not to belittle the problems that exist for those running media agencies but it would be a mistake to assume that they are all on their knees. There's room in the market for at least two ways, but those agencies that find themselves in the more strategic middle-ground should have their wits about them or they are destined to lose out to stronger rivals.

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