Walker Media is thought to be in line to pick up MFI’s £29m media business (MW last week), leading many in the industry to suggest that the agency’s success is, in part at least, down to its links with M&C Saatchi, which has just won MFI’s advertising account.
It is a suggestion that Christine Walker, the former chief executive of Zenith who left to set up on her own in 1997, roundly rejects.
M&C Saatchi now owns 75% of Walker Media – it was 50% when the agency launched – but Walker, who refuses to comment on the MFI rumour, claims that her agency is independent. “We are by miles the largest independent – bigger than many UK operations of global groups,” she says.
Carat, which bills itself as the biggest media independent in the world, might disagree, but Walker questions whether Carat itself is truly independent given that Vincent Bolloré, chairman of Havas, has a 29% stake in Carat’s parent company, Aegis.
John Ayling, chairman and managing director of John Ayling & Associates (JAA), which he set up in 1978, says there are “two and a half media independents” today – JAA, BLM and Walker Media (the half).
A better term, many argue, would be media specialists, as it incorporates agencies that are part of a bigger group but operate autonomously on a business level.
Daz Valladares, managing director of media agency BBVS, points out that smaller clients may be happier with specialists: “If you’re spending £200,000 to £1m, then you’re too small for the big shops, but you still need the same services – possibly more.”
BLM chief executive Steve Booth adds: “Simply not being owned by someone isn’t enough. It’s about having an attitude that’s independent in thought and deed and not being influenced by the corporate constraints of head office, so you can be a true partner to the client.”
Agencies hit back
The term media independent might have had more meaning when it was coined 30 years ago. Back then, creative agencies charged clients a flat 15% commission, which also covered buying media. The emerging media independents argued that they offered a better, more personal and completely independent service, because all they did was plan and buy media.
The creative agencies hit back, with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) putting all its weight behind a campaign to convince clients that they should stay with ad agencies’ media departments.
It all seems like ancient history now. Given that the average length of time a marketing director stays in a job now is just 18 months, the history of media buying in the 1970s has little relevance.
The IPA has long since given up trying to squash start-up media independents. Indeed, IPA president David Pattison was one of the founders of one of the “new wave” of media independents, Pattison Horswell Durden (PHD) back in 1990.
Arguably, the only people left debating the role of media independents are the media independents themselves. But some of their arguments do still appear to have some resonance. Many clients want the international agencies to do mega deals. But while those deals may deliver cost savings on a global scale, there is still a sizeable niche on a local level that looks set to keep media independents going for some time yet.