Columbus Media International, as the entity is called, looks a little like one of those loosely affiliated groups of national agencies that cooperate with peer shops across borders to try to service their clients internationally. Indeed, it includes many of the players from the now-disbanded Eurolab network, just such an affiliate-group effort by a number of independent media shops.
But Columbus differs in that it involves the creation of a freestanding media-buying and -planning agency with its own resources-proprietary research, new business tools and employees -- that is co-owned by most of its agency members, which include Canada's Cossette Media, leading British independent BLM, Germany's MediaPlus and Japan's Office ING as well as Horizon. By giving the members equity stakes, the group clearly hopes that Columbus will be able to operate like a single entity-a trick that has eluded most affiliate-type groups.
More than loose association
"I was asked to join Eurolab but wasn't interested in that sort of arrangement," said Bill Koenigsberg, CEO of Horizon. "To compete you have to be more than a loose association. You have to have a financial center, money, employees. Columbus has all of those." Still, critics will likely carp that small equity stakes-Horizon, BLM and Cossette own 51% of the new shop, leaving only 49% to split among all the others-may not be enough to keep the various member agencies motivated.
Mr. Koenigsberg, whose Horizon is the biggest media independent in the U.S. and handles about $1.5 billion in media billings, insisted the stakes are large enough to negate such a concern and made it clear that he isn't content simply to improve on Eurolab. He wants to create a meaningful alternative to holding-company giants such as MindShare or Starcom Mediavest.
'Building a whole new car'
"We're not just reinventing the wheel; we're building a whole new car," he said. "What we can offer that [holding companies' media shops] can't is ... the free spirit and entrepreneurialism of agencies that care about getting the best out of each individual office."
In its country of origin, each member firm maintains its independence and name. Columbus comes into play when a partner firm cooperates with another to buy, sell, or plan on behalf of a shared client.
As yet the just-created group also appears to be unencumbered by any cross-border clients. But Mr. Koenigsberg-whose agency buys for Geico and ING Direct, but lost Ikea as a client last week-expects that to change pretty soon. "I've had a half-dozen requests from Horizon clients for international offerings in recent years. And then there's the potential to expand the relationships of other Columbus agencies. "
Columbus is counting on the idea that there is demand for a different type of network. Hired by Columbus' founders to study what marketers think of media-agency consolidation, Stephen White, CEO of London media consultancy EMM International, surveyed 42 companies and found "there's room where independents can play."
Among EMM's findings: Medium and small clients fear they are not getting quantifiable benefits from media consolidation, and many were worried about the continued reduction of choice in the number of media agencies.
Bigger is better -- usually
With the rapid evolution of media, "bigger is better, up to a point," said Erwin Ephron of Ephron Papazian Ephron, a media consultancy in New York. "But smaller is better in new media." What's more, in growth markets such as Russia, China, India and parts of Eastern Europe, there are many advertisers who don't think a global media network is always the best solution, Mr. Ephron added.
Columbus' plans call for further expansion in Latin America, China and India. Within the next year, the group hopes to expand the number of member agencies to 20.
Nick Lockett, a founder of BLM, will oversee Columbus' operations as chairman. Oliver Maletz, a recent hire at Horizon from Universal McCann, takes on the role of managing director for the Americas, while Kate Williams, former international business director of BLM, assumes the role of managing director, Europe. Horizon's Mr. Koenigsberg and Pierre Delagrave, chairman and CEO of Cossette Media, both are vice chairmen of Columbus.