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There's an important trend taking shape in the creation of new, specialized media planning units for major advertisers. The hope is these new organizations will buy media more smartly, not just more cheaply, and will have more influence in overall marketing strategy. To establish them, some marketers are stripping media planning for their brands away from their agencies and moving it either in-house-as Anheuser-Busch did a year ago-or into dedicated media teams at customized agency units.

The idea has merit, and we expect to see more of it. But it will also require careful monitoring by senior marketing people at the companies that try it.

Campbell Soup Co. and Pepsico's big Frito-Lay subsidiary recently created customized media units following extensive reviews of their existing agencies' media capabilities. Both marketers concluded media is too strategic an element to be subordinated, as it often is, to the creative strategies developed at agencies. "We have always felt that media plays too critical a role to allow it to be treated as a second-class citizen," said Campbell VP-Global Advertising Gary Moss.

Campbell's solution is the Campbell Media Alliance, a team of media specialists at Foote, Cone & Belding's new True North Media unit assigned to work directly with Campbell's brand management to set advertising, media and marketing strategies. In the case of Frito-Lay, it is Team Frito-Lay, a similar media unit at DDB Needham Worldwide.

Campbell's media consultant, Jack Myers, who advised General Motors Corp. on a review last year that resulted in the creation of Interpublic's GM MediaWorks unit, sees more major marketers adopting the customized approach and is quietly working on two other similar reviews. "These moves are a far more fundamental shift than the wave of media consolidations we've seen over the past few years," he believes. "This elevates the role of media and empowers it as a part of the strategic marketing process."

These new units can help decision-makers at companies like Campbell and Frito-Lay break from old patterns to seize new opportunities that innovative media plans offer, and that's a big plus. But media strategy, no matter its new importance, still needs to complement and enhance good creative to produce effective marketing campaigns. It's the job of senior marketing execs to see that newly "empowered" media planning units work in tandem with ad creatives. If the two roads diverge in squabbles over which is most important, customized media units may disappear from the scene as quickly as they appeared.

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