It’s Never Too Late for 3 Big Media Reviews

From Dulles, Va., to Atlanta to Hackettstown, N.J., blockbuster planning and buying consolidation searches have suddenly revitalized what had been a listless year for media-only reviews.

“The common thread here is that 2003 was probably the quietest year for reviews across the board in the last 50 years,” said one media-agency leader. But in the past six weeks, three blue-chip clients with combined billings of almost $1 billion—America Online, Coca-Cola and Masterfoods USA—launched media-consolidation searches. The total billings figure for these three reviews alone matches the amount put in play in all other media-only pitches so far in 2003.

The opportunities were welcomed by media execs—especially at Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group and WPP Group’s GroupM, both of which stand a good chance of having at least one horse running in all three races once AOL sends out its RFPs later this month. But they cautioned that one good stretch does not constitute a trend.

Some search consultants, however, predicted that the uptick in media-review activity would continue, given client demands and the increasingly aggressive marketing tactics of media agencies.

“I don’t think this is the last wave. I think we’re going to see more and more of this,” said Alan Krinsky of Krinsky Associates in New York.

First out of the gate, in September, was Coke with its $250-300 million global media consolidation. The four contenders—Interpublic Group’s Universal McCann; SMG (Starcom and MediaVest pitching jointly); Aegis Group’s Carat; and WPP’s MindShare, the only nonroster competitor—made final presentations last week at the client’s headquarters in Atlanta. The pitches mostly revolved around integrated marketing ideas.

The client sent additional questions about staffing, buying processes, etc., to all four shops. After a delay, answers are to be returned this Wednesday. A decision is expected from the beverage maker by midmonth.

AOL came next, declaring last month that it will more than double its U.S. adspend in 2004, to $300 million, and hiring Boston’s Pile and Co. to run the review. Incumbent IPG shop Initiative Media will defend. Carat, MediaVest, Group M’s Mediaedge:cia and Omnicom Group’s OMD appear to be the most conflict-free possible suitors among the major media networks. The online company is expected to pick a winner in January.

Masterfoods joined the party last week, as it began contacting shops about its $350 million U.S. media consolidation review. The M&Ms maker’s media-agency roster comprises SMG’s Zenith Media and MediaVest, OMD, Mediaedge:cia and Grey Global Group’s MediaCom. The company is eyeing a decision by December.

One of the major drivers of media consolidations—a client’s desire to save money —did not spark many media-only prospects during the past two years. “In 2001 and 2002, everybody had bigger problems to deal with,” said one media-shop exec. “Media wasn’t at the top of the list. Now that things are stabilizing and people are looking at perhaps somewhat better times, it’s come back to the front burner. … It’s pretty clear that anyone who hasn’t consolidated is having more and more difficulty rationalizing why they haven’t.”

Media-agency sources discounted the notion that there is any connection concerning the timing of the three reviews, noting that most consolidation reviews are launched in the fourth quarter to allow the winning shop to be geared up by the next year’s upfront. At least one consultant sees no pattern whatsoever.

“Major advertisers will continue to try to find ways to make their operation more process efficient and cost efficient,” said Jim Surmanek, CEO of Denver-based media consultancy MediaAnalysisPlus. “Change in the economy, change in management, change in ad-agency personnel and various other phenomena all contribute to what some people call a trend but I call coincidence.”

Indeed, even with these three searches, 2003 will go down as a slow year for media-only reviews. The boom year of 2000 saw $6.5 billion in media-only business go into review, followed by $4.5 billion in 2001. Last year’s total was just over $2 billion—almost exactly the total for 2003 to date, with AOL, Coke and Masterfoods included.