TOP 300 AGENCIES: Year of the merger

Consolidation and investment in communications planning was commonplace at agencies. The ITV merger went ahead and a new breed of managing director changed the way some newspapers were traded.

On the face it, 2003 was dominated by seismic events at media owners.

With the ITV merger getting the nod, the passing of the Communications Act and the wave of launches of tabloid versions of broadsheets, there were plenty of changes to keep agencies occupied.

However, there were also local concerns weighing on the minds of agency directors. The economic pressures of 2002 showed little sign of letting up, with advertisers continuing to expect top-class delivery for seemingly tighter margins. And, with Advertising Association figures showing a decline in total advertising spend, there was a continuing struggle for most agencies to hit their targets.

The full impact of the ITV merger is yet to be felt but the plans to create a merged sales operation split agencies into two groups: those that thought a stronger ITV would be beneficial for advertisers, and those that felt that a merged sales team would result in a damaging monopoly situation.

With the Contract Rights Renewal remedy in place (part of which allows for current ITV deals to be rolled over for three years), agencies that have conducted ITV deals on a client-by-client basis might benefit above those committed to agency-wide deals with ITV for up to three years.

Meanwhile, the agency world continued to move in a familiar direction - more consolidation and continued investment in communications planning by major agencies and start-ups.

The top four global networks (Omnicom, Publicis, WPP, Interpublic) continued to tighten their grip on trading and new business. Publicis' Starcom Motive and MediaVest drew closer together with the creation of Starcom UK Group with the result of closer co-operation on pitching and negotiations. At its newly merged ZenithOptimedia, the chief executive, Antony Young, rolled out his "ROI agency" banner, a sign perhaps that agencies were focusing on hard results, looking beyond the ambient stunts characteristic of previous years.

Interpublic strengthened its Magna UK operation by appointing Initiative's Roy Jeans as the managing director in a bid to build group trading across print and outdoor in addition to TV. Meanwhile, WPP created Group M, which will lead to joint deals made by MindShare and Mediaedge:cia.

The continued success of Naked - its 118 118 work was one of 2003's creative highlights (scooping Campaign's Media Award for Best Overall Campaign) - is rapidly helping to shape a market of smaller, planning-led launches.

2003 saw the creation of Rise Communications, founded by the former Optimedia managing director, Simon Mathews, and the Saatchi & Saatchi director, Andrew Goulborn. Two of Manning Gottlieb OMD's directors, Ben Hayes and Andrew Stephens, also launched their own planning agency - interesting because it was at the suggestion of a major client, Virgin Mobile's brand director, James Kydd, and it took the business out of Manning Gottlieb.

Naked continued to grow, appointing Tim Allnutt to run its Naked Inside joint venture with Clemmow Hornby Inge. Matt James arrived to run its Naked Ambition spin-off.

Also flexing its planning muscles was BBJ, which might have confused rivals with its new Vizeum branding but managed to win new business on the back of its "connections" proposition. Its sister Aegis agency Carat fared less well in the UK and is facing up to the loss of the European chiefs Eryck Rebbouh and Bruno Kemoun, credited by many as the architects of Carat International. Jerry Buhlmann, the founder of BBJ, replaced them.

There were also senior changes at ZenithOptimedia. Its two managing directors, Tim Greatrex and Greg Turznyski, left post-merger and the planning director, Gerry Boyle, was appointed as its sole managing director.

Luminaries departing the industry included the MediaCom chairman, Allan Rich, and GlaxoSmithKline's UK ad director, John Blakemore. A wave of new-generation managing directors at newspaper groups also sparked changes in the way some of the titles are traded, while casualties of the ITV merger included the Carlton Sales chief executive, Martin Bowley, and the Granada Enterprises managing director, Simon Pardon.

In new-business terms, 2003 seemed busier than 2002. However, much was down to international activity. Major international reviews included McDonald's (won by OMD) and France Telecom. The loss of the UK France Telecom business (Orange) to Initiative was a major blow to Media Planning Group, which after also losing Expedia left many wondering how its owners will respond.

However, there were some large domestic pitches. General Motors took an age to decide to keep its Vauxhall account at Initiative while moving in Saab as an extra bonus. Boots went from MindShare in December over to MediaCom, one in the eye for WPP, which had brokered a deal three years previously on the basis of an integrated group offer. UIP's business also moved late in the year from Mediaedge:cia to ZenithOptimedia.

There was evidence of strong creative thinking from media agencies this year, such as MindShare's (Campaign's Agency of the Year) outstanding work for Kit Kat and Nike. However, the words of Campaign's Media Awards chairman of judges, Mark Cranmer, met with sympathy elsewhere when he claimed that the big ideas, especially in TV, were losing out to "balloons, whistles and bells".

Many are predicting a slightly better 2004, with TV spend expected to rise by between 3 and 4 per cent. Agencies will be hoping that this rise materialises, while monitoring potential consolidation in the television trading market and in newspaper ownership closely.


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