GSK Pharma ‘Gods’ Summon 4 Holding Groups to London for Surprise Final Round of $1.5B Media Review

By Patrick Coffee 

Now back to what really matters in advertising: the money.

Since no one pays for creative anymore, that means media. GSK is one of the biggest ongoing reviews (the company spends an estimated $1.5 billion or more around the world each year, according to R3), and it’s taken a somewhat unexpected turn in the form of a surprise bonus round.

For context, the pharmaceutical giant and maker of a whole lot of products, formerly known as GlaxoSmithKline, invited all six of the big groups to pitch for its business back in May.


Turns out four of them took the offer: incumbents PHD and MediaCom, a Publicis solution that our sources tell us includes Zenith and Digitas, and an unnamed Dentsu network that almost certainly cannot be Carat due to its conflict with Pfizer.

It’s more complicated than that, though.

This all went down after GSK acquired significant portions of Novartis, maker of many drugs, vaccines and OTC products like Gas-X. (The acquisition occurred during the last round in 2015.)

The review was positioned as a natural move to consolidate the massive marketing portion of the pharma company’s business. Elsewhere, GSK and Novartis recently announced plans to cut nearly 3,000 jobs with a focus in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland. It’s also in the process of selling off many of its consumer brands like the beverage Horlicks, which is very popular in India.

The four competitors went through the usual five-month process. Then, just when they thought they were out, it drew them back in.

Now comes “negotiation week,” which GSK promises to mark the very end of the whole sordid affair. Agency leaders were also surprised to learn that their ranks had not been narrowed at all.

In an internal email, one executive wrote that the GSK “gods” had summoned his/her shop back to London to attend the soiree. Some of the competitors seem to suspect that, with all four competitors still in the running, the decision might just come down to haggling over price.

How unusual is this approach though, really? Perhaps not so much. According to another party close to the matter, the review is multi-regional in nature, with some agencies competing across the globe and others only vying for certain areas. That might explain why there are actually several different processes going on at once.

“GSK periodically reviews its media buying arrangements to ensure they are continuing to deliver the best value to the business,” said a GSK rep, repeating the company’s initial statement.

A spokesperson for Omnicom deferred to the client. Publicis Media and Dentsu declined to comment. MediaCom could not be reached for comment.

ID Comms, the consultancy behind at least the initial stages of the review, did not respond to a related email.