On the MiC with Nick Lockett: Columbus Media International chair shares its battle plan

While the independent media services company may not be picking up Unilever's global account quite yet, Columbus is preparing its offence. Seven clients with US-based Horizon Media are exploring the idea of global media solutions with Columbus, and new media agency partners have just signed on.

Back in July, Quebec-HQ’d Cossette Media announced it was joining the Columbus Media International venture with UK-based BLM and Horizon, a joint venture that saw Columbus’ global coverage cover markets in 18 territories including Europe, North America, Russia and Asia Pacific. At the time, the world’s first indie international media company included CMS in the Baltic States, SVB in Belgium, Mediatop in France, Media Plus in Germany, GT Media in Ireland, Media Italia in Italy, Office ING in Japan, Eurizon in Netherlands, Sovero in Russia and Cencomed in Spain. Combined billings were pegged at $5 billion, and Columbus was the 10th largest network in the world. With management from two central hubs in London and New York, where most of the regional and global pitches also get decided, Columbus aims for media-neutral channel planning with rigorous local and multi-regional implementation across all media disciplines. And now it’s gaining momentum.

Columbus has just expanded its network from 13 partner agencies to 17, increasing coverage from 19 territories to 29. The new deals bring on Toinen Helsinki, The Engagement Agency based in Finland (clients include: Bayer, Tallink, Seppälä, Fonecta, PlusTV), Bizkit of Sweden (EMI, SJ, KPMG, Adobe, ABN AMRO, Volkswagen), Nova Expressão in Portugal (BANIF Bank, Portuguese Tourism Institute, Seiko, Vinalda Wines), and Protos Media in Dubai (Air Arabia, EFG-Hermes, Dubai International Financial Exchange).

In an interview with Media in Canada at Cossette Media’s Toronto office, UK-based Columbus chairman Nick Lockett says what began with BLM’s expansion of its EuroLab Media Services three years ago, has led to deals now pending with independent media shops in Australia, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, and Norway. ‘All of these companies have said yes, it’s just a matter of getting it signed,’ says Lockett. Columbus is also scouting for the best talent in South America, and within a year Lockett says he hopes to bring on shops in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. To date, Columbus has looked at about 200 independent companies in attempts to ‘handpick’ the best of the best.

What fuels the expansion is the findings of independent research carried out by EMM International. The study found that many marketers looking for international media solutions are dissatisfied with the current slate of multinational media networks, and that the networks are too similar in what they offer. Lockett cites old-fashioned, prescriptive media solutions, such as throwing money into TV, press and outdoor. On top of this, says Lockett, the internationals just aren’t as good in some countries as they are in others.

‘We want to go head-to-head with the networks,’ says Lockett. ‘We will start specifically attacking and pitching for those clients. What we’re looking for is the opportunity to take on the mid-sized clients in order to give them something slightly different, to help them get better value out of their media solutions. Some of the bigger, multinational advertisers will always get very good service from the networks. We’re not going to suddenly pick up Unilever on a global basis. But for clients who actually want to use this new marketplace, this is a great opportunity for them to really approach it in a different way. There are clients that are looking for more innovation in their planning on an international basis, and they’d be very happy to select independent companies, but they just don’t have the resources or the time to select in each country. So we’ve basically found the best independent companies, in terms of innovation and channel planning, and we’ve put them together.’

Columbus Media International now operates under a holding company with 10 shareholders, a move that raised investment in the neighbourhood of 500,000 euros. Within the organization, working groups are responsible for new business, financial, IT and research. Through ‘best learning’ from each of the indies in the markets covered, the knowledge is combined to form a blueprint.

Columbus’ Russian and Irish partners have now launched digital operations adhering to the standards of that blueprint, and Spain will follow shortly, while the mother indie plans to roll out Columbus Digital within six months. Columbus aims to unite its partners digital media solutions using this ‘best learning’ philosophy.

Lockett, providing some insight as to the nature of the country-specific digital gleanings, says, ‘generally speaking, the darker it is at night, the more people use the Internet. Scandinavia has always been very strong on Internet usage, Britain’s quite strong, Germany, all of those northern countries are quite strong. Spain, the penetration is only just now moving up, but it’s accelerating very quickly. The Mediterranean races generally never watch television as much, and they have a different lifestyle.
‘In the U.K., footfall around Christmas in the major stores decreased by about 10% last year, and undoubtedly it will decrease again, and that’s purely because of the effects of online in terms of shopping habits. Amazon is trying to employ 3,000 people in London. It’s not just a medium. It’s a retail outlet. A lot of advertising on the Internet is about customer acquisition in the U.K., where it’s far more about branding in America. America’s kind of gone to the next stage.’

And according to Lockett, as the catch-up period grows shorter, on-the-ground expertise in each market is increasingly key, and so is the impetus for the digital push.