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Independent media services may still be regarded as the stepchildren of the ad business, but they're no longer a minority.

For the first time, the majority of advertisers responding to an annual survey said they're using independents for some or all of their media planning and buying.

About 100 advertisers, representing more than $4 billion in measured media spending, responded to the mailed survey, conducted annually since 1988 by DeWitt Media, a New York-based media independent.

Fifty-nine percent of the respondents said they use independents, up sharply from 26% in 1993 and 7% in the survey's first year.

"It's a huge number," said DeWitt President Gene DeWitt. "It almost makes me wonder about the response, but it's the same question we ask every year."

Mr. DeWitt admitted the survey is largely self-serving and isn't scientific, but said it offers valuable insights about media unbundling.

Indeed, Mr. DeWitt noted his 1993 estimate was very close to the results of an Advertising Age survey, in which 22% of respondents said they used media independents. However representative the DeWitt survey may be, it appears to reinforce what all sides of the industry agree is a growing trend toward unbundling.

"Media is no longer an agency's birthright," said Mike Drexler, president of the BJK&E Media Group, a media independent that has spun out of Bozell Inc. "Clients are going to pick and choose the services they get from an agency. It's not going to be housed under one roof anymore. In some cases, it will be independent media companies. In some cases, it will be another full-service agency."

Mr. Drexler said the DeWitt findings are more proof that "advertisers want to pick and choose their media services. It says that unbundling is a reality."

But don't tell that to agency executive Steve Farella.

"He's absolutely wrong," said Mr. Farella, exec VP-media services at Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor, who advocates the full-service approach. "At a time when our clients need us to improve our media operation, our reaction should not be to unbundle and get further from the [integrated] agency [services] and our clients. It's a bad reaction. Our reaction should be to get closer to our clients."

Mr. DeWitt said advertisers don't necessarily see it that way.

"This is a no-brainer. These services specialize and they offer good value" was one verbatim response to his survey that Mr. DeWitt would identify only as "someone in the florist services billing $10 million to $15 million."

Mr. DeWitt said the biggest obstacle for independents in pitching advertisers is marketers' concerns that unbundling will require more work on their part.

"For the people that haven't yet decided, their concern is that it will be more work for them to coordinate if they have two agencies working for them instead of one," he said. "That's the biggest concern that we need to address in a prospective client because the last thing people want is more work."

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