Media agencies: Who will buy what

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For as much time as is spent talking to media buyers about how the networks will perform during the upfront-Will NBC slash prices? How much will ABC's dramas command?-the networks spend relatively little time dishing about the media agencies.

With billions of dollars of upfront advertising in their hands, media planners and buyers are expected to be TV critics, marketplace prognosticators, savvy negotiators and, at upfront time, insomniacs.

Certain deals are predictable, according to network and buying executives- OMD will strike an early deal with MTV Networks, MindShare will typically do something with Discovery-though consolidation has chipped away at some of the identities agencies used to have.

"Five or six years ago, it was much easier to characterize buying shops," says a cable executive. "But if you've got $2 billion to write in the TV upfront, you've got volume in every area of the market, and you've got to do deals with everyone."

Omnicom Group's OMD, with a host of young-skewing brands, will place money at the more youthful networks-the MTVs, the WBs and the Foxes of the TV universe. As the biggest buyer of Super Bowl ad time, it will also negotiate several spots in the big game, for which Walt Disney Co.'s ABC Sports/ESPN is compiling cross-channel multimedia buys. One of OMD's biggest integrated buys was a deal with NBC Universal's Sci Fi Channel that integrated 10 of its brands into the miniseries "Five Days to Midnight."

TALK TO GOTLIEB

At WPP Group's GroupM, which according to media-tracking group RECMA handles $47 billion in global media among MindShare, Mediaedge:cia, Maxus and the recently added MediaCom, each agency has its own strategy but "it's all put together at the Irwin [Gotlieb] level," says one media executive. Pre-upfront, the various national broadcast groups will team up to develop audience estimates for new and returning shows, and coordinate strategies.

Mr. Gotlieb, CEO of GroupM, will listen in on conversations and get involved with the broad strategies and the analytics, but he doesn't typically get on the phone unless something is going awry. Within GroupM, MediaCom Chairman Jon Mandel is known as a tough-nosed negotiator, Mediaedge Chief Investment Officer Rino Scanzoni is known as the dealmaker and MindShare North America President-CEO Marc Goldstein thinks about value. "I would like to be a fly on the wall between them," says an executive at another media agency.

MindShare consistently rates among network heads as one of the most creative buying agencies, with such noted successes as integrating Sears, Roebuck & Co. into ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Last year, the agency built on that relationship, writing an ABC Family deal that made the retailer the primary sponsor of its Friday-night movie series-the network overall is up 12% in 18-49s this season. MindShare also created "The Days," which aired on ABC and featured several of its clients.

Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA in Chicago wins praise for its outside-the-box departments-including the Video Investment Group, which takes a media-neutral look at visual media, from broadband to TV-and for taking creative risks, such as last year's deal with A&E Networks' History Channel to run vignettes featuring real-life soldier stories during the network's rebroadcast of "Band of Brothers" as part of a U.S. Army buy. "Band of Brothers" scored record ratings for the network. Starcom CEO John Muszynski is known for good intuition when it comes to TV deals.

"He plays the `aw shucks' Midwestern card but is really as smart as they come," one executive says. "He's sharp as a whip."

Corporate sibling MediaVest is another winner in the creative category. "It's done a very good job in terms of what you're seeing for Procter [& Gamble Co.], Kraft and Capital One," says one executive. "Think of what you've seen P&G do that's totally out of character, from running units in the Super Bowl to the idea-driven stuff with Viacom and Discovery." Last year, MediaVest wrote a deal for Tide that created an 8-minute animated film and interstitials that aired before and during Time Warner's WB holiday broadcast of "Samantha: An American Girl Holiday."

Magna Global, which negotiates for Interpublic Group of Cos.' media agencies, does things a bit differently thanks to its bulk buying approach. It has come under fire for being "slow" and "having too many layers"-though the extra layer is exactly what helps it snag the same level costs per thousand as the other bulk buyers. Magna typically holds out longer to get better prices, but some allege that leaves the agency with less desirable inventory.

Another Magna criticism is that the purposeful cloak over specific client needs for competitive issues among its agencies-Initiative and Universal McCann-diminishes its effectiveness.

Yet the company has gotten more creative in the last year, according to a few sellers. "Magna Global's charter is to use its clout to get its clients leverage in price, but once that was established-pretty much in the first few years-they began to look for creative things," says one cable executive. "[Magna Global Chairman] Bill Cella is a tough negotiator but also creative."

Ultimately, much of an agency's actions depend on the client roster and what the client wants the agency to do. Last year, when agencies were berated for again spending too much too fast in the upfront, the buying executives pinned the blame on the marketers, who they said still pressured the agencies to buy lots of broadcast, even while complaining about the prices.

"It all boils down to who gets budgets and to the agency's relationship with its clients," says one cable executive. "Some agencies don't get approval from clients and have to go back to the table."

Buy-ways

Old hands at negotiations, patterns appear as agencies haggle over upfront rates with their TV counterparts. But ultimately their marketer partner needs carry the day

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