Feature

Thirty years of independent media

The first independent media agencies opened their doors 30 years ago. Since then, their growth has revolutionised the ad business.

In the UK, we like to think we invented media agencies - and if pushed, we might say it happened in 1976 and that a chap called Chris Ingram probably had something to do with it. If pushed even further, we might dredge up a hazy recollection that this epic story had something of a prequel, something to do with "bucket shops" in the late 60s and a geezer named Paul Green.

The real story is much richer, stranger and more wide-ranging than that (see timeline); but 1976 is as good a place to begin as any.

An over-heated air of iconoclasm hung over London. The great heatwave saw temperatures soaring into the 90s for weeks on end, and the Sex Pistols had released Anarchy in the UK.

The London advertising scene had its punk rockers too, iconoclasts itching to tear a cosy world apart. And, yes, Ingram was one of them. He'd just opened the doors of Chris Ingram & Associates. But there were others. Green was still running Media Buying Services, for instance. Allan Rich and Don Beckett had already launched The Media Business. John Ayling, Mike Yershon and John Billett were also beginning to get big ideas. David Reich was completing the job that Ingram had left unfinished at his previous employer, the Kimpher Group, developing The Media Department into a standalone company.

For a decade, these were to be the powerhouse names in a burgeoning sector that the rest of the UK industry absolutely loathed. They were called cowboys, crooks, conmen and several other words beginning with C. The IPA president, Peter Marsh, had a giant "15 per cent" sign knocked up so he could stand beside it for publicity stunt photographs. (He hid it rather sharpish, though, when someone pointed out that a set level of commission might constitute a restrictive practice under Office of Fair Trading rules).

And that, of course, was for many the heart of the matter - "bucket shop" media independents (as mainstream agencies persisted in calling them, right through the 70s) threatened to undermine the whole commission system by charging a lot less that the 15 per cent that full-service agencies had earned by rights, going back decades. The likes of Ingram and Reich were kicked out of the IPA, which began a campaign to deny them credit recognition from media owners.

In the 60s and 70s, media independents emerged in Europe and the US. Gilbert Gross, the nephew of the most powerful man in French advertising, the Publicis founder, Marcel Bleu-stein-Blanchet, launched Societe de Publicite de Films et de Diffusion, (the agency that became Carat). In Canada, Peter Simpson launched Media Buying Services, persuading Paul Green, a media manager at Garland Compton, to set up a London office.

Hand-in-hand with these agencies came a new sort of client that had no real need for conventional Madison Avenue-style full-service advertising agencies. They were the first wave of DRTV bandits, selling compilation albums and the sort of cheap tat that was previously the stock in trade of street- market hustlers - which, as it happens, was what many of these people had been before they jumped aboard the TV bandwagon. Ron Popeil, the founder of Ronco, inventor of the Veg-O-Matic food slicer and the self-styled Greatest Salesman of the Century, had a particularly colourful career.

Interestingly, though, media independents also appealed to another type of client that already had access to stunning creative content of their own - media owners, particularly the big movie studios. In the US, for instance, it was Western International Media's relationship first with Clint Eastwood, then with the Disney Corporation (it eventually became the studio's agency of record in 1987), that gave independents respectability.

But, contrary to the worst fears of the established order, by the mid-70s it was becoming clear that media independents were of limited interest to mainstream, blue-chip advertisers. Grown-up clients not only needed beautifully crafted TV commercials, conveying a complex array of brand values, they needed strategic thinking as well. Pile-it-high media buyers couldn't do any of that for them.

All of which is why 1976 should be remembered for reasons other than the Sex Pistols and the drought. Because you can argue that the real revolution began rather more modestly in Knightsbridge at the UK offices of the venerable (but, by that stage, rather world-weary) US agency Benton & Bowles. (And, actually, the conversation that matters actually took place in 1975 but, for tidiness' sake, we'll fudge that small detail.)

Benton & Bowles held many of the accounts of Richardson-Vicks - but not Oil of Ulay, which was retained by a small full-service agency across town. However, this agency's media department was struggling, and the client asked the Benton & Bowles media director, Ray Morgan, if he would help out by taking on the Oil of Ulay account as a piece of media-only business - they were perfectly happy with the creative work they were getting.

Morgan agreed. This sort of arrangement wasn't exactly unknown in London at the time. But what happened next was novel. Morgan asked the agency management if he could reconstitute the media department as a separate division within the group. Benton & Bowles was, at that stage, in Mercury House, Knightsbridge, which had a statue of Mercury outside. Drawing on a barely fathomable piece of lateral thinking, they called the division Mercury Media.

It was Mercury Media that drove the concept of a la carte advertising services into the true heartland of blue-chip advertisers - though John Ayling & Associates, coming at it from another angle, also helped make inroads.

Mercury had the credibility that came from having dealt for years with top advertisers - and it went without saying, given its full-service pedigree, that it had a proven track record when it came to understanding the concerns of creatives and account men.

"By the late 70s, the likes of Ingram, Reich and Green had a great sales pitch: 'We only do media - that's why we have to be good at it.' It sounded irrefutable but we knew we were every bit as good as them," Morgan recalls.

So it was no real surprise when blue-chip media-only business came trickling in during the late 70s. The real breakthrough, however, was winning the media account of the wine and spirits division of Allied Lyons in the early 80s.

By then, Morgan had more than proved a point. But Mercury would have amounted to no more than a footnote in advertising history if the senior managers of Masius had had their way. In 1985, D'Arcy Masius acquired the worldwide assets of Benton & Bowles - but the merger was horribly botched in the UK and it soon became apparent that Mercury would be a casualty. After much soul-searching, Morgan and his team resigned en masse and set up shop as Ray Morgan & Partners, taking all the major clients with them - Allied, General Foods, Johnson Wax and Richardson-Vicks. RMP opened its doors with £60 million in billings and 20 staff.

So, if 1976 was the end of the beginning of the revolution, 1985 was the beginning of its end. Because by then, of course, we'd also seen the emergence of creative hot-shops such as WCRS, Lowe Howard-Spink, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Leagas Delaney. Not wishing to burden themselves early on with the cost and responsibility of media departments, they linked up with John Ayling & Associates, which had launched in 1978.

"Suddenly," Ayling recalls, "we were working with different sorts of clients - the likes of Audi and Levi's. Along with what Morgan was doing, it gave the sector even more credibility. There was a feeling that the earliest independents just booked airtime. We were doing media."

And so it was that, when the Saatchi Group was preparing to stand the market on its head by setting up the largest media buying operation the advertising world had ever seen, it decided to make RMP an offer it couldn't refuse and then make it the rock on which it would build Zenith Media. In 1988, having acquired RMP, the Saatchi Group merged into it the media departments (their buying functions at any rate) of Saatchi & Saatchi, Dorlands and KHBB. Most of their clients stayed, making Zenith easily the biggest media buyer in the market.

There were details to be worked through - notably the question of where to locate media planners - but the revolution was over bar the shouting. The late 80s and early 90s saw every major advertising holding company creating their own Zeniths.

The launch of Zenith changed the game utterly. That's not to deny that nagging doubts continued to fuel a nostalgic sense of loss, especially over in the US, where the business culture is more conservative. The US holding companies resisted unbundling for as long as they could in their home market - and there's still a lingering feeling that the loss of the full-service agency model has been a tragic mistake. On this side of the Atlantic too, every few months or so, we'll hear a creative agency boss bemoaning a loss of integrated thinking.

And indeed, the emergence of bridging structures such as Naked Inside, where the media strategy agency Naked allows media strategists to go semi-native within the creative agency Clemmow Hornby Inge, seems to indicate that the brave new world is not entirely perfect.

So, now that the holding companies have absorbed the revolution, (not least by taking control of the companies that initially made it happen), might we see moves back towards a full-service model?

David Verklin, the chief executive of Aegis Media in the Americas, was one of the prime movers behind the move to an a la carte model in the US - he launched Carat's New York office in 1998. "Six companies will buy 80 per cent of all network TV in the US this year," he says. "Ten years ago, many people in advertising would barely have heard of those six companies. That's how amazing the revolution has been."

Yes - but can that process be reversed? Interestingly, Verklin does think we'll see more alignment: more pressure will be put on clients to award media and creative accounts to agencies within the same group. But the big holding companies can't turn back the clock because the simple fact of the matter is that their media brands are now more valuable assets than the creative agencies they own.

He explains: "The problem most creative agencies have is that they're seen as the people who just make TV ads. Compare that to all the things that media agencies do these days. They're far more versatile organisations."

And, Christine Walker adds, it 's really rather important that the neo-conservative wing of the advertising industry doesn't get its way. Walker, a founding partner in RMP, a former chief executive of Zenith and now the chief executive of Walker Media, has seen this question from more angles than most.

The biggest risk of all, she concludes, is the threat to media neutrality: "Creative agencies still get rather annoyed when they have a 60-second TV ad in mind and we tell them that we don't think a 60-second spot is right for what the client is trying to achieve. Their attitude, still, is: 'Those stupid media people. They just don't get it.' That's what this is about, when all is said and done. Media neutrality is just far too important to lose."

FROM CIA TO GROUP BUYING POINTS: HOW INDEPENDENT MEDIA GREW UP
1976

UK agencies in the Kimpher Group, a holding company for seven agencies including KMP, have been running a pooled media buying operation called The Media Department for four years, headed by the KMP media director, Chris Ingram (pictured). But, desperate for revenues during the 1973-74 economic meltdown, they now begin re-absorbing their media functions. Ingram resigns (in October 1975) to set up Chris Ingram Associates, which launches in January. New business is almost impossible to come by, but the company is saved in the autumn when it wins the BMW and Gillette accounts.

David Reich, Ingram's successor at The Media Department, begins structuring it as a standalone company.

Dennis Merchant and Harold Mitchell launch Mitchell & Partners in Melbourne.

Mercury Media, headed by Ray Morgan, starts its first year as a separate division within Benton & Bowles.

1978

John Ayling (pictured), formerly a colleague of Paul Green at Garland Compton, then the media director at Kirkwoods, launches John Ayling & Associates. It soon becomes the bolt-on media department for a whole new wave of creative start-ups, including WCRS, Lowe Howard-Spink, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Leagas Delaney.

1981

Angered by increasing hostility from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (and its individual member agencies), media specialists launch their own representative trade body, the Association of Media Independents.

1985

Mercury Media is becoming more successful in attracting media-only business, including Allied Lyons, General Foods and Johnson Wax, as well as founding client, Oil of Ulay (pictured). But when Benton & Bowles' merger with Masius threatens its future, Mercury's staff, led by Ray Morgan, resign en masse to create Ray Morgan & Partners, taking most of their clients with them.

1987

Disney executives call Dennis Holt (pictured) - the founder of Western International Media - on Christmas Day, asking him if he can perform a miracle and get a massive nationwide television campaign for Good Morning Vietnam, starring Robin Williams, on air the next day. Holt delivers - and is eventually rewarded when his agency becomes Disney's media buying agency of record.

1988

The Saatchi Group buys Ray Morgan & Partners and rebadges it as Zenith Media. Zenith now handles the media buying for the group's three main agencies - Saatchi & Saatchi, BSB Dorland and KHBB - as well as existing RMP clients.

Other holding companies begin to follow suit in the UK, spinning off the media departments of their agencies to create "nameplate dependents".

The publicly quoted holding company that owns the ad agency WCRS buys a 50 per cent stake in Carat's holding company, which embarks on a spending spree around Europe, buying into HMS in Germany and TMD in the UK.

1993

With domestic French profits slashed by regulations outlawing media broking, Gilbert Gross (see main copy) and his fellow French shareholders cede control of Carat to their UK partner, which has been rebranded as Aegis. The network relocates its headquarters to London. In the US, DMB&B launches a unit called Televest to handle the broadcast buying for a number of clients including Procter & Gamble, Tyco and Paramount. It has billings of $1.5 billion and a staff of 225.

1994

Dennis Holt sells Western International Media, the agency he set up in 1970 in Los Angeles, to Interpublic.

1995

Having set up offices around Europe, Zenith now crosses the Atlantic, setting up a US office headed by Steve King (pictured).

1998

Carat Launches in the US.

MediaCom, Grey's media dependent brand, acquires The Media Business, which was set up in the mid-70s by Allan Rich and Don Beckett (media executives from Davidson Pearce and Masius Wynne-Williams respectively).

Walker Media is launched as a 50/50 joint venture between its partners, Christine Walker and Phil Georgiadis (pictured), and M&C Saatchi.

2000

True North Communications, owner of the FCB agency network, buys MBS.

The floodgates open in the US. Within 18 months all the major media brands (including Starcom, OMD and MindShare) are established as international networks, with strong US arms.

In the UK, John Harlow, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin set up Naked, a new kind of creative communications agency that puts media at the beginning, not the end, of the creative process.

2001

Interpublic group sets up Magna Global as a central point of contact for Universal McCann and Initiative Media. WPP buys Chris Ingram's Tempus for $640 million.

2002

Naked and Clemmow Hornby Inge join forces to form Naked Inside, a 50/50 joint venture designed to link creative and media planning more closely together.

2004

WPP combines the buying power of MindShare, Mediaedge:cia, BJK&E and Media Insight into Group M. The entity, headed by Nick Theakstone, the investment director at MindShare, becomes the UK's largest buying point and takes over from a previous centralised venture between MindShare and Mediaedge:cia called G-Mec. MediaCom joins the group in 2005 following WPP's acquisition of Grey Group.

Omnicom sets up OPera, a pooled buying point for OMD UK, Manning Gottlieb OMD and PHD.

2005

In the same week in September, both Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO launch ventures designed to bring media and creative closer together. Kevin Brown (pictured) is hired to lead a team of media thinkers at BBH and create a "fourth discipline", engagement planning. AMV, meanwhile, launches Lunar as a division within Rocket, the media agency it owns with PHD.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Paul Green helped in his wife's restaurant, Odette's in Primrose Hill, until they both decided to retire completely and close the restaurant. Peter Simpson, who sold his stake in Media Buying Services to fellow directors by gradual increments during the 70s, is the chief executive of Norstar, Canada's pre-eminent film production company. Chris Ingram built CIA into Tempus, a publicly quoted diversified marketing services organisation. It was acquired by WPP in 2001. Ingram used his windfall to launch Ingram, a strategic brand consultancy, where he is the chief executive. John Ayling is still the boss of John Ayling & Associates.

After Dennis Holt sold Western International Media to Interpublic in 1995, he bought back one of its divisions, Patriot Communications, which supplies voice-response technology to the telephone direct-response industry. He still runs the company. Gilbert Gross used to take cards very seriously indeed, becoming Las Vegas Poker World Champion in 1988. Now, he amuses himself by indulging in the occasional game of bridge, but he remains a consultant for Carat in France and, though he's now 75, he still pursues his most passionate hobby - flying, both fixed-wing planes and helicopters.

Ray Morgan owns a 320-acre farm nestling at the foot of the Malvern Hills, between Worcester and Hereford. Of a summer morning, he's got time to deadhead the roses just outside his office before he begins work. It's a mixed farm with some sheep, potatoes and cereals; he tried growing blackcurrants for a while but that didn't work out, so he moved into cider apples. He now has 20,000 cider apple trees across 75 acres - and about a third of the crop goes down the road to Gaymer's in Shepton Mallet.

"I've seen just about every angle of Gaymer's business," he reflects. "It was a client at Benton & Bowles, stayed with us at Ray Morgan & Partners and came to Zenith, too."

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