LATIN AMERICA: MAN IN THE MIDDLE: JOSE DEL CUETO SORTS THROUGH MYRIAD MEDIA

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[Miami] Nothing told Jose Del Cueto that his media buying service was filling a need like the days and months following the Mexican peso crisis of December 1994.

The currency had crashed, but many ad agencies were still negotiating Mexican media buys in the local currency-in prices that quadrupled over the next year and a half.

One client in particular was taking a beating on the exchange. So, being based in Florida, Mr. Del Cueto and his TransAmerica Media Group negotiated the buy in dollars, protecting the client, which he prefers to keep anonymous, against a wildly fluctuating currency. The result: The client told the ad agency to hire TransAmerica to handle its buying for Mexico. Though the agency didn't want to lose media control, the bottom line was that the client needed a more cost-effective buy, Mr. Del Cueto said.

Now economies are improving and TransAmerica, which also has offices in Mexico City and-since last year-New York, bills $12 million from clients that include Anheuser-Busch, FedEx, Samsung Electronics and Benetton.

What began three years ago as a media rep house has evolved into a business that brings both Miami agencies and multinational shops panregional Latin American clout in their buys. And that clout's likely to grow: TransAmerica has been in negotiations recently with international media buying firms (Mr. Del Cueto declines to name names) looking for partners who want to gain some Latin American expertise and influence of their own.

Using TransAmerica became especially important for managers at Wunderman Cato Johnson, Miami, which services the Latin American market. While sister shop Young & Rubicam has a well-staffed media department, Wunderman has less frequent need for media placement, said Eric Hoyt, general manager and managing director of Latin America. So for almost two years, Mr. Hoyt has turned to TransAmerica to execute media plans.

But TransAmerica brings to the table more than just an ability to follow orders, Mr. Hoyt said. TransAmerica's knowledge of the Latin American market gives Wunderman clients like Reynolds Metals Co. in Richmond, Va., an edge in their media efforts-and the insight comes at no additional cost, he noted.

"It's a very economical environment, where the agency can still benefit from the income opportunities without having to incur the overhead or cost of having a full-fledged media department," Mr. Hoyt said.

Still, TransAmerica quietly toils against much larger and better-known operations, including Western International Media and a number of multinational shops that are operating or opening Latin American media offices in Miami.

"We aren't the dark horse," Mr. Del Cueto observed. "We're the invisible horse."

A former VP-sales with Univision and later executive VP-sales with Telemundo Group, both Hispanic television networks in the U.S., the Cuban-born Mr. Del Cueto, 39, launched his own rep firm in 1994 with the help of a Latin American media investor. But he soon realized that there was more opportunity on the other side of the fence-in helping agencies and clients understand what media execs were selling. So the president of TransAmerica altered course.

His timing, in retrospect, was serendipitous. That year marked the beginning of the second wave of cable operators-like MTV Latin America, the Discovery Channel and Telenoticias (for whom Mr. Del Cueto had helped pen the business plan while with Telemundo)-heading into Latin America. Marketers and agencies needed guidance, and Mr. Del Cueto found his niche as part strategist and part buyer.

"There were no filters between the ultimate advertiser or agency and the 100 salespeople out there all tooting their media's benefits," he said. "We left the gate thinking we were reps, and then found that the real necessity was a buyer,

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