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Independent media-buying services are taking hard hits on a newly leveled playing field, but they insist they've got their defense ready to go.

The independents have capitalized on marketer interest in cost efficiencies. But after several years of celebrated account gains, they've recently lost some high-profile accounts.

Among them: Nike, which in March moved its account from SFM Media, New York, to agency-of-record Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.; and MasterCard International, which went last month from DeWitt Media, New York, to GSD&M, Austin, Texas.

Executives at independent shops attribute these defections to various reasons, including clients changing their goals, ad agencies creating and touting unbundled media services and the independent media-buying business maturing.

"Independents have reached a point of maturity, and every change is not in the acquisition of an account," says Walter Staab, chairman of SFM Media. "We're starting to lose some now. That comes with maturity."

A MasterCard spokesman says GSD&M won its media business because the ad agency handles marketers-such as Southwest Airlines and Coors Brewing Co.-that, like MasterCard, hold a strong No.*2 position in their field.

In addition, the company felt GSD&M could use media creatively and find ways to "extend media buys" through event sponsorships, co-op advertising and other opportunities, a MasterCard spokesman says.

Observers are saying ad agency attempts to catch up with the surging independents' have been successful, and that independents can no longer win accounts by stressing cost alone to potential clients.

"By unbundling, agencies have taken the primary buying-service [sales] pitch and neutralized it," says Jack Myers, president of Myers Reports, a marketing consultancy. "Now [independents] have a situation where they have to reinvent themselves to become more competitive."

"It's become harder to make your case just on cost alone, though that's still part of our story," says Susan Bentzinger, VP-strategic development at Media That Works, Cincinnati. "On any given day, any media purchaser, whether they're an agency, an independent or a free-lancer, can get better rates than everyone else."

One selling point the independents are using to maintain business momentum is taking a strategic, rather than quantitative, approach to media.

"Media is getting to be more and more an idea business," says Mickey Marks, VP-planning director at Creative Media, New York. "It was always a quantitatively driven business. Now you must have an idea that positions creative in an environment that helps it to stand out."

Ms. Bentzinger's service is integrating accountability with their strategic media thinking. "Every element in the plan has to pay its own way, contributing something at least equal in value to its cost. We use a rigorous cost-value approach," she says.

Other indies are broadening their service options.

SFM is using the international connections gained from handling Nike to pursue international business from other U.S. clients.

"With Nike, we had an opportunity to build an international network of strategic alliances," Mr. Staab says. "We now have four or five clients who avail themselves of the network [SFM has established internationally], and we're handling some overseas business as well."

(SFM is negotiating with Nike to be compensated for long-range media buys made before the account was moved to Wieden. Although shops normally aren't compensated for advance work done before being fired, SFM claims to have specifically worded its Nike agreement to deal with that possibility.)

SFM's recent account gains include the $20 millionRenaissance Cosmetics fragance account, and a $25 million account Mr. Staab declined to name.

Some independents are developing expertise in other marketing tactics, such as new media and database marketing.

Vitt Media, New York, is taking advantage of its new capabilities, says John Power, chairman.

His company's soon-to-be-released online service, Vitt Online, has been instrumental in generating most of the $20 million in billings the shop has acquired this year, mainly from existing agency clients. Vitt is currently developing Web sites for clients as well.

Mr. Power foresees business increasing for U.S. media-buying services just as it has in Europe, and new media will play a big part in future campaigns, he says.

"We're entering an age where there will be a premium on using the internet and making it a profit center for clients," he says.

Meanwhile, Creative Media has found a niche in direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical companies, says Robert Hanley, president.

"Database is not for everyone, but it allows some clients to run 60-second ads rather than buying :15s and :30s, which puts you at the mercy of the marketplace and is crazy," he says.

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