Media Spotlight: Nielsen media leagues spark inevitable grumbling

The figures do not back the belief that bigger is always better, Alasdair Reid writes.

The league table never lies. That's what they say, isn't it? Well, in some football circles, at least. Don't say it in the hearing of some agency principals, though - the publication of the Nielsen Media Research table is always the occasion for an outbreak of gratuitous grumbling.

Even the agencies doing well at the top tend to profess themselves rather dissatisfied, arguing that their figures don't quite reflect how enormously well they have actually been doing. Steady performers tend to snipe at the growth figures of their immediate rivals, arguing that the numbers merely reflect the fact that those rivals had a very poor previous year and are only just recovering. And, of course, absolutely everyone complains that the numbers don't include the brand-spanking-new specialist division they have just launched, or the regional office, or their below-the-line figures.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying yes, the Nielsen Media Research figures tend to be pretty much on the button. And the current table has one or two interesting tales to tell if you scratch below the surface.

The agencies with arguably the least to grumble about this time around include MediaCom, which consolidates its place in the top slot; MindShare, which goes to third place on the back of an almost 12 per cent year-on-year increase; Initiative Media, showing the strongest growth in the top ten with a leap of more than 22 per cent, and Manning Gottlieb OMD, which sneaks into the top ten on the basis of an 11.85 per cent gain.

One trend you might expect the table to highlight would be a continuing shift in power towards the larger consolidated groups. Actually, though, it is hard to find evidence for that.

Steve Allan, the chief executive of MediaCom, points out that there has always been a polarisation between the very large and the very small, but he doesn't think we are seeing that phenomenon intensifying. "Ten years ago, the differential factor in billings between number one in the table and number ten would be around two-and-a-half to one. That's still the case in the latest table," he argues.

He agrees that the table contains some good news for medium-sized and regional agencies. He is not about to go overboard, though. He adds: "If you are a big agency, you might have to put on more than £60 million in billings to show a 10 per cent growth figure. That's not easy to do in a market where there is around £300 million in play (accounts on the move) each year. It's rather easier to record big growth rates if you start from a smaller base. You can read too much into certain figures."

Giles Brooksbank, the joint managing director of Feather Brooksbank, says that on balance there's good news in the figures for regional agencies. His agency grew by more than 30 per cent (before it lost its large Scottish Executive account) and Mediavest Manchester was another strong performer - although it is also true that the Manchester offices of both Mediaedge:cia and Universal McCann turned in poor figures.

Brooksbank comments: "I think what the figures show is that there continue to be opportunities for all of us and that's particularly true of a company such as ours that has the flexibility to compete at a local level but has the back-up and resources to compete at a national level too."

So, if there is still scope in the middle ground, can we expect to start seeing a new wave of start-ups as the advertising economy continues to improve? Actually, Christine Walker, a partner in Walker Media, doesn't think so. "We were the last full-service agency to launch and I think one of the reasons for that is that the costs are so prohibitive. Back in 1985 when we launched Ray Morgan and Partners, it cost £60,000 to set up and there were four of us (as agency founders). Now you need the backing of one of the major groups. These days, people aren't launching the sort of company we did, they are basically just happy parading around saying 'look at us, aren't we clever?'," she says.

But, she adds, for those who are already in the middle ground, the opportunities are still there: "What we offer is very different from what you will get from a media shed. We're incredibly good at hands-on media. Meanwhile, there is no evidence whatsoever clients are losing on price by not using one of the big buying units.

"All the talk these days is about mergers and the cost saving that can be achieved. What clients are waking up to is that around 50 per cent of media agency costs come in the form of talent and that when their agencies talk about savings, they are actually talking about cutting talent."

Jerry Hill, the UK group chief executive of Initiative, doesn't see things that way, obviously. He's not entirely displeased by the agency's showing in the table either. "People who spend too much time looking at league tables can become obsessed with scale," he states. "What I will say, though, is that winning new business tends to be an accurate reflection of the vitality of an agency at any given point. So we're feeling pretty good just now.

"It's nice to be well-placed in the league table but you should never become obsessed by it. The real obsession should be about contributing to the business of your clients."

TOP FIVE YEAR-ON-YEAR GROWTH (year to end July 2004)

AGENCY Growth (%) Total billings


BLM Media 31.68 50,121,236

Feather Brooksbank 31.44 78,932,681

All Response Media 26.21 49,798,342

Mediavest Manchester 25.74 110,334,590

John Ayling & Associates 25.31 60,205,921

Source: Nielsen Media Research.

TOP FIVE YEAR-ON-YEAR DECLINE (year to end July 2004)

AGENCY Growth (%) Total billings


Mediaedge:cia Manchester -15.68 51,381,145

PHD -14.64 236,166,435

Media Planning Group -14.51 108,745,009

The Allmond Partnership -12.61 69,383,956

Universal McCann -8.60 54,798,109

Source: Nielsen Media Research.