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The emergence of two blue-chip ad agencies as finalists in the media portion of Burger King Corp.'s $180 million review is the most recent example of how the full-service business ain't what it used to be.

It's also a sign that ad agencies are becoming in-creasingly competitive about pitching media-only business as more marketers move toward unbundling their media and creative assignments.

At the same time, a variety of new media planning and buying technologies are transforming media departments into lean, mean and smarter buying machines.

"The whole media area is certainly becoming more competitive," said Larry Cole, exec VP-media director at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, which last week was named one of three finalists in Burger King's media review. "A large, solid media operation, such as our own, can more than hold their own against any independent media operation."

Few would argue with Mr. Cole's view of O&M's media capabilities. But the fact that full-service shops such as O&M and incumbent D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles-the other major agency to make the hamburger chain's media finals-find themselves in the position of having to compete for blue-chip media accounts underscores a major change. And the presence of the third finalist, independent media company DeWitt Media, is perhaps most revealing.

"A couple of years ago, you never would have seen a company like Burger King even split its account into media and creative, much less invite an independent in to pitch," said a major agency media director. "It either would have been handled as a full-service review or would have been dealt with in some form of AOR assignment to another agency."

Indeed, some observers believe Burger King has no real intention of reassigning its media but felt compelled to hold a separate review because of recent industry trends. They believe that in the end, Burger King will decide to keep its media at D'Arcy, which has been servicing it as part of an incumbent full-service account. (D'Arcy however, was thrown out of Burger King's creative review. Those still under consideration for that por tion of the account are Lowe & Partners, Ammirati & Puris and Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, three hot Manhattan shops, each with billings of less than $550 million.)

Though they might be considered long shots for the Burger King media business, O&M and De-Witt are serious about pursuing the account.

"We think media-only assignments are important," said O&M's Mr. Cole, "but we also think it is just as important to do excellent work for existing full-service clients."

Although O&M has not unbundled its media department into a separate unit, as have some other agencies, Mr. Cole said it has won a variety of media-only accounts, including Publisher's Clearing House, Paramount Communications, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals and network TV buying for Atlanta-based ad agency Fitzgerald & Co.

Mr. Cole said major full-service agencies are in an ideal position to compete for unbundled media assignments because they have invested in strong media resources, including a variety of new technologies, that enable them to handle media more effectively and efficiently.

Mr. Cole said O&M has a computer applications group that works exclusively for the media department to develop proprietary media planning programs specific to clients' needs.

"We have our own system that is proprietary to us," said Joe Ostrow, exec VP-worldwide media director at Foote, Cone & Belding Communications, New York. He said FCB developed its system because existing suppliers are too rigid and general for specific client needs.

"It isn't about agency philosophy. It's client philosophy. If I have client A who wants things done a certain way and client B who wants it another way and client C who wants it a third way, I have to design a system around those clients," he said.

Independent media companies agree that new media department technologies are becoming critical to the servicing of media accounts. But they say it is not something that is the exclusive province of ad agencies.

Jeanne Whalen contributed to this story.

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