MediaCom’s Stephen Allan and the end of media agency era

An era is coming to a close in media agencies with another of the group of UK media traders who have dominated big media agency land stepping down, MediaCom head Stephen Allan.

Allan is being replaced by another Brit and long-serving Mediacom exec the highly capable Nick Lawson (both below) but Allan was a bridge to the buccaneering gaggle of British media buyers whose below-the-salt (as far as the full service agency establishment was concerned) rose to dominate the media landscape and, when they were bought, run the big holding company media agencies. WPP’s GroupM, which contains MediaCom, being the biggest.

Others included Chris Ingram, whose CIA succumbed to Sir Martin Sorrel in a bitter takeover battle to become MEC, now merged with Maxus to become WPP’s Wavemaker, and Jerry Buhlmann whose BBJ was bought by Aegis’ Carat, itself part-founded on another media pioneer, David Reich’s TMD.

MediaCom was arguably the most successful of the lot. Originally one of the first wave of media independents, it was founded as The Media Business by Alan Rich, former media director of an excellent but now largely forgotten London agency Davidson Pearce. Bought by WPP, it morphed into MediaCom and, under Allan’s reign, became probably the biggest single media agency, certainly in the UK.

A few years ago GroupM agencies ran into discombobulating headwinds, resulting in a number of high profile losses. In the US MEC lost AT&T (the trigger for its merger with Maxus into Wavemaker) and MediaCom lost the vast VW global account. Under Allan it fought back but WPP’s media operation had been holed below the water line, compounded by clients belatedly getting tough over trading terms following the US ANA report into undisclosed rebates in 2016.

Arguably this was the beginning of the end for WPP CEO Sorrell as the media profits which had fuelled WPP’s growth (and his vast earnings) slowed.

Do Allan (who can be expected to pop up somewhere else) and his hard-trading brethren leave advertising in a better place?

Arguably the full service system, which saw such agencies wax fat on guaranteed media commission levels, produced much better work – albeit in a completely different media landscape in which TV ruled. Once clients were paying separately for creative and media they began to drive down the price of both and the media agencies, who handled the money, took the lead in all sorts of areas like strategy, which they weren’t always equipped for. Some even have chief creative officers, which raises a wry smile.

But Allan was a formidable operator.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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