The media agency elephant and the 'niche' flea

01 Jun 2015  |  Dominic Mills 
The media agency elephant and the 'niche' flea

Fleas can make rich pickings off the back of elephants, writes Dominic Mills - so can Roy Jeans, the ex-boss of Initiative and Rapport, make the most of the rise in UK-based entrepreneurs?

You can't go anywhere in adland these days without hearing about scale and scaleability. But as everybody obsesses about scale, opportunities open up at the other end of the spectrum, in niche markets.

Of course that old adage - a gap in the market is not the same as a market in the gap - still holds true, but it seems to me the niches are becoming easier to navigate, and make profitable.

We see the latest example this week of niche, with the launch of Roy Jeans' new media agency, Communication Partners UK.

Standard thinking is that niche applies best to creative and digital agencies, and that media agencies - behemoths for the most part - cannot work without scale, preferably global.

But where elephants go, so do fleas. There's rich pickings to be had off the back of elephants.

I'm sure Jeans, ex of Zenith, Initiative and poster specialist Rapport, won't necessarily thank me for describing his new venture as a flea, but the analogy is an apt one.

As media agencies relentlessly pursue scale, so they fall victim to the side-effects: a culture prone to sclerotic bureaucracy, and a pyramid structure in which a small number of senior managers are supported by an army of relatively inexperienced underlings. The managers manage the 'business of the agency', but get further and further away from the day-to-day work and the 'business of media'.

The result: a structure that suits equally bureaucratic, global, clients, but doesn't work for small, entrepreneurial businesses.

It is exactly this niche that Jeans aims to exploit. As a refugee from big agencies himself, and by all accounts a man scarred by his latter experiences in the up-and-down world of IPG media (mostly down, these days), Jeans knows all the tricks and where the bodies are buried.

Clearly Jeans has no interest in returning to big-agency life, and the clue is, marginally anyway, in the name of his new agency.

You can see how this might appeal to small businesses, especially the dotcom ones, whose budgets are, by comparison with big clients, minuscule."

Yes, it's more Ronseal than inspired (or sexy/cool) but it describes the offer: it does 'communications' (while more and more of the big agencies add new services like content); you get to work with the experienced 'partners'; and it's 'UK' focused.

You can see how this might appeal to small businesses, especially the dotcom ones, whose budgets are, by comparison with big clients, minuscule. Even if they did manage to find a home with the likes of Zenith or Mindshare, they wouldn't get the service, experience and treatment they wish.

I'm exaggerating perhaps, but they would feel like something the agency had picked up on the bottom of its shoe.

And all this at a time when the UK is experiencing a boom in entrepreneurialism, especially in the dotcom sector, where start-ups pop up, well, like fleas.

If they can't go to the likes of WPP or Omnicom, where can these clients find a home? The owner-managers behind these businesses are business savvy, but not necessarily media or marketing savvy, and might prefer to deal with a grey beard (sorry, Roy) who themselves run a start-up or entrepreneurial business.

We should welcome start-ups; they're always exciting and inject new thinking and vigour."

Of course, Jeans and his mates at Communication Partners UK are not the only game in town. Total Media and 7 Stars, the latter now in its second decade, could both be said to occupy this space. And perhaps the regional offshoots of the big networks, like Carat Manchester and PHD North, might also tip their hat at entrepreneur clients.

Indeed, Total's tagline - 'launch and growth specialist' - is pretty explicit.

But there's always room for someone new, someone with a point of difference. One card Jeans can play is that of his partner, former Talk Radio sales director turned serial entrepreneur, Ian Merricks, who runs a VC outfit called White Horse Capital.

It invests in tech and digital media businesses, exactly the kind that Jeans is targeting (and has also invested in via his Grey Scorpion outfit).

You don't have to be a genius to figure out that that's where Jeans reckons he'll get a tranche of his new business leads from.

As I understand it, the plan is to start slow (so far, CPUK has just two clients: Outsourcery and a tourism promotion arm of the Malaysian government) and have Jeans and his third partner, ex-Zenith media director Rachel Hall, service the hell out of clients.

If I have one quibble with the tactics, it's this: the agency is set up to handle most media, apart from TV. Jeans is not convinced his target dotcom clients as yet have the budgets or appetite for the medium, but I disagree.

The long tail of niche channels (i.e. after page 6-7 of the EPG) has plenty of dotcom and e-commerce businesses buying cheap day-part and late-night inventory. They themselves are chasing scale, and TV is the medium that delivers it.

Anyway, that's a quibble.

We should welcome start-ups; they're always exciting and inject new thinking and vigour. Like fleas on their back, the elephant media agencies won't notice Jeans and his mates. But that doesn't mean they won't prosper.

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simon bollon, Director, We Are Boutique on 2 Jun 2015
“I felt compelled to respond with my musings. Check out my blog Dominic: http://bit.ly/1JngSaZ
Vic Davies, Senior Lecturer, Bucks New University on 1 Jun 2015
“But does television have to be big? Sky Adsmart and some of the interesting things provincial papers outside of London are doing with video, offer other ways of getting an ad/content to a highly targeted audience, not offered by traditional TV.

Good Luck Roy !”