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If Aegis Group is sold, the combined media-buying clout of the five remaining major holding companies would be $164.7 billion worldwide (based on 2004 billing totals), according to Paris-based researcher RECMA Report. Huge as that number may seem, it actually shows that, for all the consolidation taking place, the world’s biggest media agencies control just a fraction of total ad spending.

According to the most recent estimates from Universal McCann Senior VP/Director of Forecasting Bob Coen, total worldwide ad spending across all media grew to $543.6 billion in 2004. At $263.8 billion, U.S. ad spending represented about half the worldwide total. But according to the RECMA billings data, the six big advertising holding companies controlled merely 30% of total ad spending.

The data illustrates that perceptions of consolidation far exceed reality. The truth is that media buying is a much more diffused business than big ad agencies and the trade press usually indicate.

For certain national media, such as network TV and major consumer magazines, big ad agencies do dominate the media-buying process. The top 10 media-buying shops in the U.S., for example, account for almost all of network-TV spending—and virtually all the ad spending in magazines as well. But nearly half of all media spending is done locally, by retailers and mom-and-pop outfits that likely are not using big ad agencies.

Although the big companies may not wield the influence some believe they do, a large acquisition will certainly shake up the game. When WPP acquired Grey/MediaCom last year, it became the largest media buyer, leaping ahead of Publicis’ Starcom MediaVest Group and ZenithOptimedia Group. With $48 billion in global media billings, WPP’s Group M—which also includes MindShare, Mediaedge:cia and European media shop Maxus—accounts for 29% of the media spending by holding companies.

No. 2 Publicis Groupe Media, by comparison, has a 21% share. So whoever acquires Aegis—and its 12% share—will be a new leader in the business.