Inside Story: Masters of the ad universe - The top 12 global media buyers

They purchase the space and plan the campaigns for all advertising in all media. Raymond Snoddy profiles the powerhouses who dominate the
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Media agencies were the unsung heroes in a communications world where the fame went to the creators of edgy television advertisements. But all that has changed as consumer loyalties and traditional audiences are broken down by the digital age. Now, it is the planners and buyers of airtime who have taken the upper hand, transforming themselves into communications consultants for a more complex age.

Media agencies were the unsung heroes in a communications world where the fame went to the creators of edgy television advertisements. But all that has changed as consumer loyalties and traditional audiences are broken down by the digital age. Now, it is the planners and buyers of airtime who have taken the upper hand, transforming themselves into communications consultants for a more complex age.

Very often they are part of a multi-billion pound international network that also covers research, econometric modelling, direct marketing, sponsorship, experiential and interactive advertising.

Tom George, the UK managing director of Mediaedge:cia, one of the networks owned by Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP, believes there has been a fundamental shift in the centre of gravity of the advertising industry. "I would be so bold as to say that media agencies believe they are now the central hub of communications. It's the medium that is almost more important than the message," he says.

Alexander Schmidt-Vogel, chief executive worldwide of Mediacom, recalls that when he started in the business nearly 30 years ago, the copy and the creative idea were the big things. Now, gaining access to increasingly demanding consumers is the imperative. "Access became the most precious resource of communication. Now we [the media agencies] are at least equal to the creative idea, because the best idea doesn't work if it doesn't touch the consumer," he says.

Some see the competition between the media agencies and creatives as a battle. Nick Manning, chief executive of OMB and founder of Manning Gottlieb, takes a different view: "You need, not a battlefield between media agencies and traditional admen, but overlapping, collaborative relationships covering the entire industry. I'd rather grow the lunch than eat someone else's."

Either way, media agencies will continue to hold enormous power, controlling a global market that was last year worth more than $226bn - power that could continue to grow.

Starcom The single largest global media agency last year, with billings of $20.3bn, a market share of 9 per cent and growth of 9.7 per cent, according to Research Company Specialising in Media Companies. The agency, owned by one of the leading groups, Paris-based Publicis, was formed two years ago, mainly from a merger of Leo Burnett's media brand Starcom and D'Arcy's Mediavest. It's huge in the US, where Starcom and Mediavest operate separately. "Our proposition is what we call 'fuelling brand power' - making media make a difference to our client's business," says Jim Marshall, the head of Starcom UK. Clients: Procter & Gamble, the COI, Kraft and Scottish Courage.


OMD Aims to give "bigger, better services" to clients. The approach won OMD, which is owned by the US communications group Omnicom, the second-largest market share last year of 8.8 per cent, with $20bn in billings and 9.3 per cent growth. The chief executive, Nick Manning, says the "better" service involves responding to the way consumers now see the world and interact with new forms of communication. OMD Fuse covers everything from branded entertainment to product placement, and another unit, OMD Insight, is researching the market importance of ethnic minorities and the significance of the over 50s. Clients: McDonald's, Virgin, Peugeot and Camelot.


MindShare The WPP-owned network, founded seven years ago, had billings last year of $18.7bn, with an 8.3 per cent global market share and growth of 8.8 per cent. The network is one of no fewer than three WPP international communications agencies, all operating independently, but which together give Sir Martin Sorrell dominant collective firepower. "The house of media is how we position ourselves," says Kelly Clark, MindShare's UK chief. "We are offer clients a seamless, integrated service across every possible contact point with their consumers." Clients: Ford, Unilever, Kellogg's, Nestlé, ITV and Pepsi.


Carat Owned by Aegis Media, it's an anomaly in the top media-agency listings because it is not part of an international communications giant, making it a target for a takeover or even break-up. But after a period of managerial turmoil, Carat, with billings of $18.6bn last year, a share of 8.2 per cent and 10.6 per cent growth, looks like it's on the way back. New managing director Neil Jones promises a new vision for the business group, built on the notion that communications really can transform businesses. When people talk of providing "diversified services," it's mostly smoke and mirrors, he says. "We have 164 people working in diversified services - everything from data planning analysis through sponsorship to digital data planning." Clients: Diageo, BMI, Royal Mail and British Gas.


Mediaedge:cia The second of the WPP global networks had $15.3bn of billings last year, with a 6.8 per cent market share and growth of 7.9 per cent. According to Tom George, the Mediaedge:cia managing director in the UK, what clients have been forcing the sector to do for a long time is to go upstream towards "integrated communications planning" - extending advice outside traditional core disciplines of planning and buying. The network claims to have a new business model, with 50 per cent of its UK income coming from non-traditional areas. Already, in the digital and interactive world the line between creative and media agency is "massively blurred". Clients: Nationwide, Colgate, Chanel, Morrison/ Safeway and Richemont.


ZenithOptimedia Like Starcom, ZenithOptimedia is owned by Publicis, which in turn owns Saatchi & Saatchi. It had billings of $14.2bn last year, with a 6.3 per cent global share and growth of 7.2 per cent. The business is run in the UK by Antony Young, a New Zealander who launched Zenith in the Far East. He believes that, while some clients still want ad agencies in the lead role, "our view is that it has got to be a more collaborative process among all the partners, and ultimately the client needs integrated marketing". ZenithOptimedia wants to be known as "the ROI agency" - offering a real return on investment. The mantra is on the back of Young's card and is plastered over the entrance to the agency's London headquarters. Clients: BA, Lloyd's Bank, B&Q and Toyota.


Universal McCann This is one of two agencies in the global top 12 owned by the US communications group Interpublic. Last year, Universal had billings of $14.2bn, a market share of 6.3 per cent and growth of 5.5 per cent. The regional director for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Chris Shaw, believes the media agency market is still consolidating as "clients move into broader avenues of communication". His colleague, the senior McCann Erickson executive Rupert Howell, warns that many deals are being "done too cheaply" to get the business by agencies that can't then deliver. Clients: Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Bacardi-Martini and L'Oréal.


MediaCom Part of the Grey group acquired by WPP, and the third international network owned by Sir Martin Sorrell. MediaCom achieved billings of $13.9bn last year, and had 6.2 per cent market share and growth of 10.5 per cent. The chief executive, Alexander Schmidt-Vogel, insists that although possible synergies are explored through WPP's GroupM, "I run MediaCom as a independent brand and separate network." Schmidt-Vogel, who established MediaCom in Germany, says more and more pitches in the media these days are global. Mediacom, he insists, very seldom loses a client. "Servicing our client every day is the best pitch," says Schmidt-Vogel. Clients: AOL Time Warner, Nokia, GlaxoSmithKline and Deutsche Telecom.


Initiative Like Universal McCann, Initiative is part of the Interpublic group. Last year, the agency had global billings of $13.6bn, market share of 6 per cent and growth on the low side at 3.1 per cent. The European vice-president and chief executive of the UK and Ireland, Jerry Hill, who has been at Initiative for more than four years, used to sell ITV advertising - "from flogging to slogging," he says. "We concentrate on trying to make our brands famous: we don't try to make ourselves famous. A lot of companies do it the other way around." The agency lost Unilever Europe after a management centralisation, and GM in the US, where the motor manufacturer is under the cosh. Clients: Tesco, GM Vauxhall in the UK, Wanadoo, Orange, Johnson & Johnson and ICI.


MPG The Havas-owned international network had billings of $8.7bn last year, 3.9 per cent market share and growth of 8.1 per cent. Its origins lie in the Spanish Media Planning group, which expanded into Portugal and then merged with the Havas agency Mediapolis in 1999 to create an international network. Not the best-known agency in the UK, but No 1 in markets such as Spain, Portugal and France, and particularly strong in Latin America. MPG is consistently tipped for fast growth. The chief executive is Fernando Rodes Vila, and MPG emphasises both creativity and international reach, with 90 offices worldwide. Clients: France Telecom, Air France, P&O Ferries, Camelot and Orange .


Vizeum A sister network to Carat under the Aegis banner, the agency was created two years ago out of the Aegis agency BBJ to stimulate growth and avoid potential client conflicts of interest. Despite being the new kid on the block, Vizeum was already the 11th-largest global player last year with billings of $2.9bn and growth of 7.1 per cent. Vizeum's acting managing director, Chris Boothby, says that as well as planning and buying, Vizeum is positioning itself as "more of a challenger brand within the industry: it's all about getting differentiation". Very interested in understanding consumer media motivation without forgetting the "brilliant basics". Clients include BMW, Coca-Cola, AOL, Halifax/Bank of Scotland


PHD The chairman and legendary British media independent Tess Alps concedes that at the moment PHD (like OMD, owned by Omnicom), is only "half a network" concentrating on the UK and US. Despite this limitation, the agency billed $1.7bn last year. Alps says that ambitious plans for international expansion are now under discussion."When we have a network there will be no stopping us," she insists, claiming that PHD is "the most pioneering agency". Clients: Sainsbury's, Prudential, the BBC, and the AA.