Opinion: Perspective - Unilever decision sounds a wake-up call for IPG

We have written rather a lot about Unilever's media review this week; I make no apologies for adding a few more words of my own.

The decision to hand MindShare the one billion Euro centralised European account is a watershed moment - for WPP (MindShare's parent), for IPG (the parent of the incumbent, Initiative) and for Unilever itself.

For WPP, the win crowns MindShare as a media powerhouse, matching brain with brawn and guile. It propels the company to the top of the UK billings league - still the ultimate measure of status.

For IPG the decision represents, surely, a final wake-up call. Not only does it throw a huge question-mark over IPG's entire Unilever relationship, but it also throws a spotlight on its two lumbering media brands, Initiative and Universal McCann.

Surely the time has come for McCann to cut its ties with Universal; the creative agency does not really celebrate its unique media links here anymore anyway. Both Initiative and Universal now need to examine greater co-operation behind the scenes under the umbrella of a distinct group media function; recent losses for both networks, of which Unilever is the latest and largest, are a worrying sign of their weakening positions on the international stage.

Sir Martin Sorrell's keen involvement in WPP's pitch should also contain a lesson for David Bell, his IPG counterpart, who was rather slower to throw his weight behind his media agency's efforts.

But for Unilever, the triumph of the centre over local Unilever management is a significant victory in the company's struggle to get back on track after a series of profits warnings.

The hoped-for Euro 40 million savings on Unilever's media spend are counter to the company's new strategy of increasing its marketing budgets, but working with a single network on a centralised basis will give Unilever's communications strategy a new focus. It will need that, though, in order to ensure that the intended savings are not simply translated into cut corners.

There was a programme on Channel 4 not so long ago in which the illusionist Derren Brown had a go at advertising. In the name of magic, appropriately enough, he invited two advertising creatives to attend a meeting at which they were handed a brief for a taxidermy store. In a display of awe-inspiring wizardry, Brown had already answered the brief himself with a poster ad. Naturally, when the creatives came back with their own effort, Brown's was revealed and shown to be exactly the same, right down to the perspective used. Magic?

Of course not. Rewind to the creative's original journey when they went to pick up the brief; a string of visual references seen from the window of their cab ended up making their way into the finished ad.

In the name of cheap entertainment the Derren Brown show actually unearthed some interesting truths about the way we are subconsciously influenced by the world around us. And since so much of the world around us is now punctuated by commercial messages, there's a lesson to be learnt here about the way we consume ads.

As Ivan Pollard discusses on page 28 this week, the way in which we process and store advertising messages (and experiences, memories, facts and so on) bears little relation to the way we research advertising effectiveness or, indeed, how we determine a fair price for spots and space in different media.

The truth is that there are a whole series of vested interests engaged in maintaining the sort of research systems and evaluation measurements on which this business operates.

The realities of exactly how advertising might work to influence us effectively but sub-consciously are impossible to reduce down to a spreadsheet or ratecard. Which is really quite heartening; perhaps there is some magic at play, after all.

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