As Clients Lose Confidence in Holding-Company Media Shops, Independent Agencies Win Big Brands

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This year has been a decidedly mixed bag for the biggest names in advertising, especially on the U.S. media side of the agency equation.

That’s the primary conclusion of a “new business barometer” report released this week by COMvergence, a Paris-based independent research firm focusing on agency account moves, mergers and acquisitions as well as changes in talent and leadership.

According to Olivier Gauthier, founder and principal at COMvergence, the most notable trend so far this year has concerned large and midsize brands moving their media business from agencies owned by the so-called “Big Six” holding companies—WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, Havas, MDC Partners and Dentsu—to smaller independent operations.

“This may be because of a drop in confidence in the major holding groups,” said Gauthier. “Midsize and larger clients are increasingly looking for opportunities outside the Big Six, and more are inclined to consider working with one of these companies. Out of 42 U.S. pitches, 16 have moved to independents.” Those 16 accounts amount to more than $2 billion in spending.

Gauthier specifically cited Sprint, Honda and Darden Restaurants, which recently sent their U.S. media planning and buying accounts to Horizon Media, RPA and The Tombras Group, respectively. All three are independent businesses not owned by one of the six major groups, and each account had previously been with a major network.

“There is no clear winner for 2017,” Gauthier said of the holding companies. While WPP’s GroupM saw the greatest increase in revenue for the first half of the year at approximately $240 million, it also lost several accounts including Accenture and Michelin.

He cited last year’s explosive ANA transparency report as one possible reason for the shift toward independent media agencies, with Horizon leading the pack in both total wins and new revenue.

The second major trend suggested by COMvergence’s research is bad news for incumbents: Clients who launch media reviews increasingly do so with the intention of switching agencies. Of the 42 reviews considered in the report, only two, Activision and Luxottica, ended with the agency retaining the account. In both cases, the winner was Omnicom Media Group.

“There are fewer and fewer retentions with incumbents having very few chances to retain their business,” Gauthier said. “Clients are more eager to make a change.”

The value, if not the pace, of media reviews has slowed since 2015’s “Mediapalooza” wave. By COMvergence’s estimates, the value of accounts that changed hands that year was around $25 billion. While 2017 has seen just as many, if not more, reviews, their overall revenues will amount to less than half that total.

When asked which ongoing reviews carry the greatest weight, Gauthier quickly named Amazon and AB InBev, each of which are worth well over $1 billion dollars.

In short, 2018 looks to be yet another cutthroat year in the media world.

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