Monster Mash

I’ve been dizzy for weeks, and I can’t catch my breath. My heart is beating like a punk-rock drummer, my palms are sweating like meat sprinklers on steroids, and I’m starting to hallucinate.

Something frightening is happening. Something terrible.

I see media agency people.

Suddenly, they’re everywhere—not just in their own offices but at ferociously anti-unbundling creative shops like Deutsch.

Their employers are corporate Terminators. Blow ’em up and they reform as something bigger (think TN Media). And then that thing morphs into something bigger yet (think Magna Global, which one wag says sounds like “an Italian deli”—albeit one with $40 billion worth of salami hanging from the ceiling).

And—oh, the horror!—some of these things are even French.

Just when I thought it was safe to go on vacation, all hell breaks loose in the media agency business. Again.

I was counting on the lousy economy, the upfront and general exhaustion to slow things down. And they did—in terms of formal searches, anyway. Big clients are now enjoying a semantics renaissance where consolidation is concerned. Sony is “exploring” the idea of merging its media. At first Diageo said it wasn’t running a “review” of its beer and spirits by the American definition, but a British “review,” which is just an audit.

Yeah, right. And I meet the nicest people on L.A. freeways.

Anyway, whatever heat has dissipated in the new-business area has been transfered to another area: media networks’ mad passion for size.

Just in the last two months:

• IPG bought FCB and folded TN Media into Initiative.

• The John Dooner-led holding company also added millions and maybe billions in buying to Initiative’s coffers through its “Initiative Media at” plan for IPG’s Partnership shops (also ensuring that Dooner’s well-known aversion to full-service media specialty is served by keeping planning at the brand agencies).

• Universal McCann could conceivably add hundreds of millions of dollars in new billings from the agencies dropped in its IPG “corridor.”

• Publicis and Cordiant figured out their Zenith Media deal (Ulysses got home from Troy quicker) and created an as-yet-unnamed holding company for Zenith and Optimedia (one observer suggested “Zoptimedia”).

• Havas bought Tempus with the intent of marrying its Media Planning network with CIA, to WPP chief and Tempus stockholder Sir Martin Sorrell’s dismay. He’s not the only one: “Too bad they got to CIA before me,” says Initiative CEO Lou Schultz.

• And, of course, the current bigness benchmark: the creation of Magna Global, the first worldwide negotiation company, brought to us once again by our friends at IPG (don’t these people have, like, lives?).

And none of these guys are close to done. “There’s more to come,” warns Zenith worldwide CEO John Perriss. And Carat’s David Verklin cheerfully tells us it’s “not a matter of who but when.”

Verklin’s shop, in fact, is the only true independent of any size left in the U.S. Probably not for long.

Now do you understand my fear? Can you smell my desperation?

It’s as though Dr. Frankenstein sold monster-making franchises. Everywhere you look there’s a creature rising from the operating table, stitched together from parts of other shops, making lunch dates to explain itself to its largest clients.

Definitely not a good time to be a villager. Just ask the people who used to work at Catalyst. Or the network buyers at Deutsch.

The primary reason is everyone’s doing it. “Leverage” and “clout” are the buzzwords, and they’re the equivalent of poltergeists. You can’t photograph them, control them, explain them or even see them. But there’s cutlery flying all around the room.

One fortunate result is these giants don’t ever have to win another account on their own. They can wait for the next bigness spasm to increase their billings, or sit back and let the growing list of sister creative shops funnel them prospects.

Which is a shame, because this merger mania has obscured what is quietly shaping up to be the really interesting story of the year: Zenith Media’s U.S. operations.

With little fanfare, Zenith has pitched and won $800 million in new billings this year the old-fashioned way—much of it from new clients, not sister shops, roster consolidations or inheritances (although that may change when Zoptimedia, or whatever it will be called, finally takes form).

Imagine that. A media agency growing by keeping the clients it has and winning new ones.

It’s so simple it’s scary.