Buyers skeptical about BCE/Thomson deal

Another day, another media giant....

Another day, another media giant.

A $4-billion deal uniting The Globe and Mail, CTV and the Internet portal Sympatico – the latest in a series of massive media convergence ventures – has brought the usual promises of integrated, cross-platform packages for advertisers. Media buying experts, however, remain skeptical.

On Sept. 15, Montreal-based BCE announced a deal with Thomson Corp. to combine their media assets into a single company. BCE will contribute CTV (which it purchased in the spring, pending approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) and the network’s various specialty channel holdings, along with the Sympatico-Lycos Network. Thomson will contribute the Globe and its Internet assets, plus its stake in ROBTV.

BCE will control 70.1% of the new company, which has yet to be given a name. Thomson Corp. will own 20%, while the Thomson family holding company Woodbridge will claim the remaining 9.9%.

And the deal-making may not be over. BCE has also indicated interest in acquiring a sports property – possibly Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, as well as the Air Canada Centre.

BCE chairman Jean Monty says the creation of integrated packages that combine multiple media platforms will be among the pillars of revenue generation for the new company.

Indeed, some consideration will be given to the establishment of a ‘joint sales organization for multi-platform selling to advertisers,’ he told reporters following the news conference to announce the deal.

In the media buying community, however, there’s concern that neither Monty nor any of the other Canadian media moguls leading the march toward convergence have demonstrated much understanding of the particular needs of advertisers.

Hugh Dow, president of Toronto-based M2 Universal, says the major media players still have a long way to go in terms of developing the in-house expertise necessary to help advertisers develop multi-platform packages.

‘There are some major, major issues for these companies to address in terms of breaking down the silos, and finding people who understand how various media relate to one another and can put together sales packages that exploit the synergies available within the portfolio.’

Media companies also need to start providing combined data that gives more of a global picture of their various properties and how they work together, says Doug Checkeris, managing partner of The Media Company/ MBS in Toronto. Advertisers require that kind of research and analysis in order to figure out how they should allocate their dollars within a multi-media package, he says – and to compare the packages offered by competing media titans.

So far, however, media sellers in Canada haven’t demonstrated that they comprehend the need to offer such data, Checkeris says. ‘If you consider the research tools that are available to us now, they’re all medium by medium.’

News of the BCE-Thomson alliance comes in the wake of several other recent power plays in the media industry, including the purchase of Hollinger’s media assets by CanWest Global Communications, and the acquisition of Videotron by Quebecor (see story, opposite).

Ultimately, the goal of the companies involved is to prepare themselves for the future of interactive media, in which the various communications channels will increasingly be intertwined.

With the control of this country’s media becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, some buyers are concerned that their clients will see ad rates climb upward.

More concentration means sellers can control pricing, warns Mike Dougherty, vice-president and associate media director with The Media Edge in Toronto. ‘We prefer to see competition, obviously… [where] we can play one [seller] off the other and negotiate better deals.’

Fair pricing is one of the key issues that the federal Competition Bureau will address in its planned review of the BCE-Thomson deal. Raymond Pierce, the Bureau’s assistant deputy commissioner, says the watchdog agency plans a close look at the deal’s potential impact on the competitive environment for advertisers.

While the Competition Bureau doesn’t have the power to kill the deal, it could recommend changes – such as divestiture of certain properties – that could limit its scope.

The Canadian Heritage department, meanwhile, is planning a review of its own on media ownership (see story, page 2).

BCE, for its part, is anticipating few hitches, and expects the deal to be finalized by early next year.

While media planners and buyers continue to watch the convergence trend closely, few are rushing to develop strategies. Even if the big media players come through on their promises to deliver integrated packages, it’s not certain whether any but the largest of national advertisers will be able to afford them.

‘On the face of it, there appear to be more opportunities, because suddenly there are more options to sell to advertisers,’ Dougherty says. ‘But unless you’re a very large advertiser, it’s often difficult to take advantage of all those segments that have been [packaged] together.’

Telecommunications consultant Ian Angus, president of Ajax, Ont.-based Angus Telemanagement Group, goes even further. He predicts that many of the big convergence deals will fall apart within a few years, and says few advertisers will see any benefit at all.

For all the fanfare that has surrounded them, Angus says, most of these transactions are simply grand experiments on the part of the various players involved, all of whom are still trying to figure out how best to position themselves to thrive in the new media world.

‘If you’re a CEO, you can’t get up and say, ‘We’re experimenting with billions of dollars of shareholder money,” Angus says. ‘But that’s what they’re doing. [And] I actually think it’s a good thing that companies experiment. If they don’t, they die.’