TOP 300 AGENCIES: Media hits the buffers

2003 was a year of belt-tightening and general caution for the media industry. Most agencies, to their credit, coped with the recession well and there were highlights such as Naked's successes, Ian Darby reports.

2002 wasn't a year for the faint-hearted. It left many in the business exhausted by the tremendous effort required just to get through the 12 months without too many crises.

However, as many of the following agency reports indicate, for most it wasn't a year of disaster but more a case of running fast just to stand still. In this difficult year, a score of five or six was far more of an achievement than it has been in other years.

Many would probably have settled for a satisfactory year at the start of 2002. That so many agencies achieved this despite a difficult market is testimony to the efficiency and leanness of the majority of agencies, though the cutbacks they had already made in 2001 no doubt helped them to weather the storm last year.

Despite a general mood of grim determination throughout, there were moments of excitement and excellence to the year. One such highlight was Michaelides & Bednash's "Indian summer" campaign for Channel 4 which netted the Grand Prix at Campaign's Media Awards.

There were also significant ownership changes that will have a profound impact upon the agency landscape. Publicis Groupe's purchase of Starcom MediaVest's parent, Bcom3, was a most significant event among the holding companies. While it is too early to assess the full impact on the UK media shops Starcom Motive and MediaVest, the deal brings Publicis massive buying power when Starcom MediaVest is placed alongside its newly merged Zenith Optimedia network.

Last year, the management of Zenith and Optimedia moved towards a merger in the UK. At first, it seemed the UK offices would maintain their distance.

However, after discussions on which departments should merge, the decision was taken to come together more fully, albeit preserving two locations.

Simon Marquis, Zenith Optimedia's chief executive, has handed the reins to the new chief executive, Antony Young, and it will be interesting to see if he can work the same magic he did in Asia.

On a smaller scale, MBS Media, Interpublic's third-string agency, was relaunched as Brand Connection. The hope is that Brand Connection will become a strong European network in its own right but the chairman, Glen Burton, will have his work cut out in building an international client list. Domestic troubles in the form of an alleged embezzlement by a former UK employee hardly helped.

For many agencies, though, it was less tumultuous. While there were fewer new-business pitches than usual, there was still plenty to fight for, in particular several large-scale domestic pitches. The AA, British Gas, BT press buying and Masterfoods accounts all moved. Globally, OMD triumphed in the Sony pitch while MindShare won Gillette and MediaCom took the global Shell business. A unique feature of 2002 was that Peugeot-Citroen, one of the more promiscuous clients, did not review, deciding to stay with OMD.

2002 was also the year Chris Ingram bowed out of the media industry after bedding in the integration of Tempus into WPP. However, it might not be long before the CIA founder is back.

Other departures included Simon Mathews and Simon Lloyd, Optimedia's UK managing director and international chairman. Mathews left before the Zenith merger while Lloyd didn't last long in tandem with the chief executive, John Perriss.

Simon Rees, MindShare's chief executive, was replaced by Kelly Clark.

Clark's appointment, along with that of Young at Zenith Optimedia, who previously ran MindShare's Asian operations, was a sign that global networks are looking outside the UK to bring in top management talent. Elsewhere, Manning Gottlieb OMD, now more closely twinned with its sister agency OMD UK, lost its managing director, Matt James, who left to launch a consultancy.

There were no significant media agency launches but Naked Communications, founded by John Harlow, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin and still only two years old, took the industry by storm. Along with MediaCom, it bucked the downward trend with record numbers of new-business wins. It backed this with great planning talent and an approach totally divorced from a buying unit.

The year was also characterised by a greater emphasis on communications planning, coupled with a willingness from creative agencies to become involved in media channel planning. While agencies such as Soul and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy were already ahead of the game, the larger agencies joined in last year. Publicis hired Unity's Derek Morris, initially to head communications planning across its UK agencies before being promoted to joint chief executive. Bartle Bogle Hegarty is still seeking a media "name" to head its communications planning and Clemmow Hornby Inge bought Naked's idea, Naked Inside, of building a dedicated team of planners to work with an ad agency.

These developments provided welcome distraction from the larger-scale consolidations that continued to create ever-larger negotiation points.

After a difficult, rather than disastrous, 2002, few are predicting that 2003 will be much better. However, the majority of agencies are lean and prepared for more months of uncertainty.