MEDIA BUYING & PLANNING: WESTERN INTERNATIONAL CONTINUES AS MEDIA LEADER: BURGEONING MEDIA INDUSTRY VINDICATES HOLT'S NOVEL IDEA

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Western International Media's founder and Chairman Dennis Holt recalls when industry watchers laughed at his notion of launching one of the first agencies dedicated exclusively to media buying in 1970.

Today Mr. Holt laughs, seeing how many major agencies have copied his model by creating media-only divisions.

"To me, it's a tremendous vindication that all these agencies are now starting their own buying services as if they just discovered something brand new," says Mr. Holt.

STAYING ON TOP

Western International, a media buying agency that claims $4.3 billion in U.S. billings, is now racing to stay atop a rapidly changing media world, encompassing everything from traditional to cutting-edge interactive media.

Bruce Miller, president of Suissa Miller, says his ad agency has had a relationship with Western going back to a 1985 handshake deal between agency founder David Suissa and Mr. Holt. Mr. Suissa was impressed with Western's more than 40 different media divisions.

Several of the new divisions have evolved in the past few years in response to splintering media and the growth of specialized new marketing channels and the Internet. Examples include specialized divisions for new media, Asian media, African-American media, college sports media, preventive healthcare media, database marketing and promotion fulfillment.

BUYING TV FOR SUISSA

"The Western relationship can be as deep and meaningful as an agency has the insight to make it," says Mr. Miller, whose agency uses Western as its primary TV buying organization for clients such as American Honda Motor Co.'s Acura division and SkyTel Corp.

"You can use them narrowly for media or you can use them for all their divisions," he says, adding that Suissa has begun relying on Western's new resources for reaching targeted audiences.

MARKETERS SEEK SPECIALISTS

Michael Kassan, Western's president-chief operating officer, says many advertising agencies are doing today what Suissa Miller did 13 years ago. They are steering media buying to a specialist. In fact, some 70% of Western's clients are advertising agencies.

Marketers, too, are splitting their accounts, sending creative in one direction and media in another. In doing so, many are relying on media organizations to take a larger role in media-what has been tallied as some 85% of any marketing budget.

Mr. Kassan's only question for the industry: What took so long?

"God knows, why don't people pay more attention to the media side of [the business]," says Mr. Kassan.

DISNEY ADDS CLOUT

In his shop's 28-year history, Mr. Holt notes two milestones that stand apart as watershed events. One was the November 1994 acquisition of Western by Interpublic Group of Cos. The other was Walt Disney Cos.' decision in 1988 to steer its entire media-buying budget to Western-an agency with billings of about $600 million at the time.

With Disney's arrival came a newfound clout, new clients from the agency and marketer side and, ultimately, Mr. Holt says, an approving nod from the advertising industry.

Peers who once laughed at his notion of a media buying organization are either gone-or have copied his model, he says.

"I think that legitimized us in the eyes of a lot of people, and I truly believe it helped us get not only credibility but additional business," says Mr. Holt.

ANTICIPATING DISNEY'S NEEDS

Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Co. Motion Picture Group, was a marketing executive with Disney when the entertainment giant funneled its media work to Western. The move replaced efforts by Disney agencies, including Vista Advertising, its in-house advertising and media-buying agency.

After 10 years together, Western has learned to anticipate Disney's needs, Mr. Cook says.

"They know our style, and the ability to talk in shorthand has been so important," he says. "They live and die with each release. They're not simply a buying service, but they are a real part of the process."

Further acknowledgement of Mr. Holt's original vision of a media-driven industry came with the November 1994 acquisition of Western by IPG. The event took industry watchers by surprise, foreshadowing a change in both agency and client relations with media.

"When that happened it was a wake-up call for other holding companies and other advertising agencies," says Mr. Holt, "and they've begun to start their own buying services."

While some competitors at the time misread the event and mistakenly believed Western would slow its pace, being an Interpublic company has made Western a more formidable opponent. Mr. Kassan calls the shop's relationship with IPG "a good calling card, and we use that as you would well imagine to our benefit whenever it's appropriate."

This is especially important in terms of global business. Western now has some 42 offices and 2,000 employees worldwide. The company works with sister agencies and taps those resources when needed.

THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL

Mr. Kassan spouts an international advertising axiom: Western "thinks global, but acts local," he says. Even this is a dramatic change from 1996, he says.

"We have demonstrated time and again the best way you can buy is by being in the market," he says.

All this IPG sister-shop interaction and Western's accelerated efforts to vie for accounts begs one question: Did client conflicts and other problems emerge as a result of the acquisition?

Mr. Kassan scoffs at the notion, dismissing "conflicts" instead as "ironies."

Western competes in media reviews against New York sister shops McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Lowe & Partners/SMS and Ammirati Puris Lintas, and Mr. Kassan remains unfazed.

Top clients are told of impending reviews or assignments that might raise conflict issues, but the company does not check for conflicts among sibling shops. Issues of "ironies" are up to the client to determine.

"The world is changing in that regard. I don't think that's a view only we hold," he says. "Those old rules are changing of necessity, because there are less and less of the good alternatives to clients and industries where those kinds of issues would be most sensitive."

IN THE THICK OF THE MIX

Today, a marketer can't ignore media-it's too pervasive and important to every product on the market, says Michael Kubin, exec VP-managing director of the eastern region.

What once was a list that included TV, print and outdoor, today includes a Yellow Pages, direct mail and cyber marketing.

"It's a marketplace we feel we created," says Mr. Kassan.

"We feel a proprietary interest in that, so it's very much a validation for what we've done for almost 30 years, which is to view media as the key to a client's communication plan," he adds.

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