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General Motors’ media planning review was a packed press event. Conversely, Unilever’s media consolidation review, which has entered its final stretch, had minor-league coverage. But it may have the most impact.

By taking media planning away from its brand agencies and giving it to Starcom Mediavest—which is creating GM Planworks to handle the business—the nation’s largest advertiser legitimized media shops’ claim that they are more than glorified buying services. Unilever’s search may institutionalize the idea.

When Unilever announced in December that it was putting its $700 million U.S. media consolidation search on hold, the publicized reason was that two of the global media network contenders, Omnicom’s OMD and WPP’s MindShare, were still forming in the U.S. (In the interim, the third rival, Interpublic’s Initiative Media Worldwide, handled Unilever’s media buying in the U.S.)

While Unilever wanted its suitors to compete on a level field, the review was also delayed, according to several sources, by the now-familiar tug-of-war between creative shops and media agencies over national clients’ media planning assignments.

As the Unilever review kicked off in the summer of 1999, the company received a letter from top executives at four of its roster agencies. Sources say the shops were Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson, McCann-Erickson and Lowe Lintas. The letter urged Unilever not to include media planning in its review.

The letter was a response to Unilever asking its agencies about what to do. On its face, it was a logical position for the brand agencies. The question of whether creative shops or media agencies should control media planning was a painful sticking point that delayed the formation of Omnicom’s media network, OMD, in the U.S. at the beginning of this year.

But OMD’s dilemma was internal; the Unilever letter was startling in that it was an effort, as one agency executive says, to “dictate” to a client deciding whether to launch a review. And though Unilever re- started its search last month, the letter’s plea has been rejected.

It had to be. Combining media planning with buying is at the core of what Unilever is trying to accomplish in the U.S. and in every country in which it does business.

The advertiser is engaged in a massive global streamlining effort, paring its huge product line from 1,600 to 400 brands in a scheme that will create several tiers of products, including about 50 “power” brands with international crossover appeal. The marketer sells an impressive number of important brands in this country, including Ragu spaghetti sauce, Calvin Klein fragrances, Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry’s, Klondike, Good Humor, Breyer’s ice cream, Promise margarine and others. Unilever claims sales of more than $8 billion annually here.

In April, the company acquired Ben & Jerry’s and weight-loss product marketer Slim-Fast on the same day. In June, it announced its intention to acquire Bestfoods and its roster of leading brands. (Last week, the European Union Commission gave conditional approval to London-based Unilever to buy its consumer- products competitor.)

Unilever is the definition of a global marketer. Under global media director Alan Rutherford and head of U.S. media services Brad Simmons, the review is designed to chose an agency that won’t just participate in the formation of the company ad strategy—it will lead it.

“Rutherford is saying we believe the various media channels [need a single managing entity],” says an executive. “He has a belief that planning and buying must be together.”

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Unilever is looking for the right steward for an approach it calls Communication Channel Planning.

One participant details the theory as “creating a strategic media plan out front, way before creative. The process is done as a partnership with the brand agency, client and the media agency. But what it does is put media first. [Unilever is rolling Communication Channel Planning] out around the world and has trained thousands of brand managers and media professionals at its roster agencies.”

This determination to proselytize the “media first” point of view is the real importance of the Unilever search, not which media agency gets the gold. So it’s not surprising that executives from two global advertising holding companies felt compelled to take the “unprecedented” step, as one source says, of co-signing a letter to their common client.

And while the GM planning review, unlike Unilever’s, isn’t overtly backing a pro-media agency approach, it has buttressed Unilever’s position.

“The letter asked Unilever to neutralize something that was a benefit to

them in the U.S.,” says another source. “After the GM pitch, the industry is in a different place than it was when Unilever began the review. How can anybody negotiate cross-platform deals [with the giant media sellers] without doing both planning and buying? How else can you stay media neutral?”

The Unilever contest is so critical that roster agencies continue to jockey for position. There is also ample speculation in the media agency business about whether Initiative president Mike Lotito’s good relationship with the client will help his shop prevail, whether Omnicom can carry the day or if MindShare leader Irwin Gotlieb’s ties to Rutherford will swing the business to the WPP media network.

Competition among these three and their holding companies over Unilever business is all over the map. The trio or their sister shops regularly battle each other for Unilever business throughout the world, particularly WPP and Interpublic agencies. There are relationships everywhere.

Unilever is likely to choose whomever it believes is best able to execute Communication Channel Planning and can deliver the efficiency that consolidation can provide.

Perhaps because of that focus, sources say the review is being well-run, with the client remaining on plan.

There is one personality factor, however, that creates intriguing new scenarios: The announcement last month that Initiative’s vaunted top strategist and the leader of the agency’s Unilever account team, Cheryl Idell, was leaving to join a startup. That news sparked a flurry of speculation.

Idell will stay on through the pitch, and sources indicate that her departure will not be a negative one for Initiative.

Still, it does deprive the agency, which handles twice as much Unilever business as either of its rivals, of a major weapon in the review. Idell, sources said, has actually given presentations to other shops on Communication Channel Planning at Unilever’s request.

To some industry insiders, Unilever’s stance is less a new way of approaching communications and more a return to the way media used to be.

“For packaged-goods companies, media was always a fundamental and integral process to their business,” says a management consultant. “[Unilever] is another huge manufacturer of packaged goods struggling to keep up with changes in the media world.”

Nevertheless, this is one packaged-goods marketer whose review could have implications that spread far beyond the supermarket shelves. Neil Beckerman