Steve King is hoping that Zenith Media has already reached its nadir.
The European media-buying giant's first three years in the U.S. have been punctuated by client defections and internal bickering. But Mr. King, chief operating officer of Zenith's New York-based operation, believes most of the problems are a thing of the past and that the future is looking up.
"The initial few months were rocky [but] we have come out of our growing pains. It is not easy to make such a significant change," Mr. King says, noting that U.S.-only billings jumped to $1.6 billion last year, an increase of about 10%.
KEY GROWTH INDICATOR
More significantly, "direct" billings-business not generated through ad agencies Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide and Bates Worldwide, Zenith's sister entities within the Cordiant group-jumped by 50% to about one-quarter of total billings, he says.
After the well-publicized account losses of Miller Brewing Co. and national work from Wendy's International, Zenith has been on a bit of a mini-tear, pulling in billings from Darden Restaurants' Red Lobster and Olive Garden units, M&M/Mars, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Carter-Wallace and Calvin Klein, among others. These accounts, Mr. King points out, were not brought over from either Saatchi & Saatchi or Bates.
One current client that has stuck with Zenith is Little Caesars Enterprises.
The pizza marketer has always "had a great relationship with them," says a spokeswoman. "They have terrific contacts at the networks . . . They have done some very effective purchasing for us."
Some of Zenith's past problems could attributed to a particularly American school of hard knocks.
"The key lesson we learned was to get good, smart people in place. For an autonomous media-buying service, there is a much higher degree of expectations" on the part of clients, Mr. King says, requiring "great depth of management."
Indeed, management has been a problem for Zenith. The CEO post, vacant since William Grimes left for Netcast Communications Corp. last September, was finally filled late last month when Richard Hamilton moved over from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York.
The company also lost a major talent a few weeks earlier when Betsy Frank, exec VP-director of strategic media services and a high-profile employee known for her prime-time programming forecasts, jumped ship for MTV Networks.
More headaches may follow as Cordiant executes its announced attention to "demerge" Saatchi and Bates and split Zenith between them. Whether or not that will make Zenith a more autonomous operation remains to be seen.
'GIVES US OPPORTUNITY'
Mr. King notes that while there will be "almost no changes on an operational level, [the Cordiant split] gives us the opportunity to talk to other companies . . . to focus on areas where we don't already have the critical mass."
It has taken the company time just to learn to navigate the far more treacherous waters of the U.S. media market.
"The most obvious difference [between the U.S. and European markets] is the sheer scale and complexity here. There is a higher per capita ad spend, far more media choice and very, very sophisticated buying systems. People are trying to use more and more different media properties; one of our clients works with literally hundreds of media vendors," Mr. King says.
"Much of what we try and do is transfer learning and knowledge from one market to another," he adds, but the fact remains that "in Europe, you have a far more limited supply of opportunities."
An additional challenge, he says, particularly in the face of the complexity of the U.S. market, is the shaping of global brand messages that "must be consistent in every single market we operate in."
Yet Zenith's real task at hand, suggests one person who's familiar with the U.S. operation, should be emphasizing the substance of a client's message over the mass of media dollars.
"When you get to that size and scale, the model needs to be less Western International Media and more Andersen Consulting," says David Verklin, managing director of Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, who was contacted about the top job at Zenith earlier this year. He turned it down but has been following the company's ups and downs with considerable interest.
"You have to take things to the next level. It needs to be more than 'We buy a ton of media,'" he adds "You need to think about your job as managing messages [and] you need to learn a lot more about a client's business. . . .
"At this point, Zenith is still getting themselves organized but I think it is on the right path toward success. In my mind, it has incredible promise . . . The final piece is to get the right people in place," Mr. Verklin says. "If they get new vision, new leadership and superstar talent, then they are going to be a real force in the marketplace."
As far as Mr. King is concerned, however, Zenith already is.
He categorically rejects the notion that Zenith is all about clout and little else and notes that "many other companies are considering" using a similar mega-buying model, including Grey Advertising, in a quest for "the ability to put forth a consistent global brand on a media basis. Currently, we are alone in