The RECMA rankings: should we care about a self assessed beauty contest?

Nic ChristensenWhile some of the figures in the latest RECMA rankings are questionable Nic Christensen argues they still provide an interesting insight on the state of the media industry.

There’s something about the RECMA numbers that just does not make sense. But when you ask a bunch of agencies to tell you how much they spend every year you’re likely to get some very interesting results.

But despite the inconsistencies they are still the best map of media agencyland, are provide insights around the challenges of staff churn, the rise of programmatic and the broader challenge of falling client spend which are actually quite telling. 

It was only a couple of weeks since I was writing about how the new business beauty contest is bullshit and how the increasingly relentless pursuit of billings and scale is producing bad outcomes for agencies and clients alike.

Is RECMA a self assessed beauty contest? The short answer is yes. But with Nielsen no longer doing its own independent rankings RECMA is all we have, and broadly speaking it’s useful for understanding who is who in the zoo, in terms of size and scale.

RECMA claims it is the only independent company to publish “a wide range of media agency notation reports on a global scale” but it should be noted that agencies are asked submit their own figures on things like overall activity and staff numbers, and there are some figures that simply defy logic and/or reason.

For that reason the rankings have long been maligned. As media agency doyen Harold Mitchell told AdNews way back in 2007: “Some make it up and say bugger it.”

Just looking at the overall activity number shows there are issues. The Standard Media Index has total media agency spend (including all independent media agencies etc) at $7.8bn for the last financial year. But with RECMA just 16 multinational media agencies are claiming $10.3bn. What’s $2.5bn between friends?

On staffing RECMA says the multinationals employ 2,933 staff, which is interesting because the MFA has the industry (including independents) at 3,056 staff.

Now you can subtract 626 staff (Dentsu Aegis has long refused to join the industry body) but then you have to ask yourself if eight independents APD, Bohemia, Cummins, DWA, HM Communications, The Media Store and Match (which was included as an indie for these surveys) replace that 749 staff discrepancy.

I have no doubt that the industry will take great interest in where everyone sits in the rankings, who is up, who is down and how some media agencies appear to be defying gravity with some of their billings claims.

To my mind there are three things that stand out to me:

1. The challenge of achieving growth particularly on the agency holding group level amid declining media spends;

2. Questions about what the rise of programmatic will do to the industry;

3. The ongoing challenge of staffing and churn.

Source: RECMA

Source: RECMA

This year many of the major agency holding groups reported to RECMA single digit growth. That’s interesting and comes amid a climate where marketers are pushing more and more of their media agency spend towards owned and earned media.

Mat Baxter


UM’s Mat Baxter copped much flak from his rivals earlier this year for an interview with us where he said he wasn’t a media agency and saw his competitors as the likes of One Green Bean, Soap and R/GA.

Now while his competitors were quick to (I’d argue unfairly) poke fun at Baxter he was really articulating a vision of the future where media agencies aren’t just focused on paid media, but helping clients on all fronts.

The RECMA numbers show that many of the agency groups still need to do more in the space of owned/earned if they are to get the growth they want.

And related to this the media industry needs to talk more about how the rise of programmatic will and is reshaping it, particularly the agency landscape and the staff needed to service it.

Today media agencies still have a relatively young workforce of some 3,000 staff, many of whom spend their days buried in spreadsheets.

The rise of programmatic threatens to upend that. It is interesting to note that RECMA reports a wide discrepancy in staff to overall activity ratios – how much they spend on average for clients per staff member – anywhere from $2.6m at Omnicom to $5m at Mediabrands.

It is likely Mediabrands’ programmatic unit Cadreon, along with its diversified model with the likes of subsidiaries Ensemble, Reprise, Anomaly and Mnet, are part of why it is reporting the highest billings/staff ratio.

While this is one metric we can expect to grow in the coming years, as programmatic becomes more ingrained across media, agencies need to mindful of the strain being placed on the staff that remain. As the Mediacom misreporting incident appears to show big pressure is likely to lead to mistakes or misrepresentations to keep clients happy.

And if RECMA can help us keep an eye on that alone then it is a useful metric.

Nic Christensen is the deputy editor of Mumbrella 


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