Forty years of Total Media's independent thinking
Total Media launched on 1st April 1982. Founders Mike Sell and Mike Dinsdale were no fools though. Forty years later the business is still going strong, and remains proudly independent
22 February 2022
To some extent, Total Media's fortunes trace the arc of the development of media planning and buying as a standalone discipline in the UK.
Guy Sellers, who joined soon after Total Media's launch, and has held the role of chief executive for 13 years and counting, says it was one of the specialists in the 1980s that helped to pull media "out of the basement" of full-service agencies at a time when, in many cases, media directors were grudgingly allocated just two or three slides at the end of the client presentation.
Mike Sell looks back fondly on Total Media's early days, though it's fair to say that it took some time initially to build momentum. "Being three people, working out of one rented room in Charing Cross, within sight of a number of homeless people living underneath the arches – certainly kept us focused," he recalls. "It was eight months before we received our first client cheque – and that was for £125."
Thanks to its strength in research, originating with founder and research director Dinsdale (who left the business after three years), Total Media won early clients including London Underground and the publisher Penguin, and due to expanding its work in the publishing sector built an early reputation as something of a product launch specialist.
Throughout the years, Total Media has grown through acquisitions and joint-ventures, the majority of which, including Upward Brown Media, were successful. Its purchase of a travel agency, after working with clients in the sector, didn't go so well, says Guy Sellers, and it "moved the business on".
Mike Sell says that the Upward Brown acquisition, in 2004, was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the agency because it brought Tom Laranjo [now the agency's managing director] and Pedro Martins [chief growth officer] into the fold. In addition, says Mike Sell, "the Upward Brown acquisition gave us a powerful boost into international media – and our international spend now accounts for nearly half of our total billings."
Working on Amazon's launch in the UK in 1998, and holding the account for a further four years, was also a highlight for Mike Sell. As is the agency's significant investment in its behavioural planning specialism at a time when performance marketing was the focus of many rivals. Total Media has continued to display a distinctly forward-thinking approach. For instance, in May 2021, it became the first UK independent media agency to achieve B Corp status, a move that is already attracting like-minded clients.
Three years ago, the agency moved from its long-established Kensington HQ to modern, open-plan offices in Soho, to which its people are gradually returning after Covid lockdowns.
In addition to its agency in London, Total Media also has a presence in Solihull (Total Media Connect, led by Penny Took), Manchester (through joint-venture Running Total, run by Colin Reynolds and John Marshall), and Behave, a specialist behavioural science consultancy in London. Soon after Brexit, it took the initiative to protect its billings in Europe by launching Total Mediaplus International, a joint-venture with Mediaplus Group designed to grow international brands.
Led by Mike Sell, who remains fully involved as chairman, and Guy Sellers, Total Media has built a strong and diverse management team, which alongside Tom Laranjo and Pedro Martins also includes Celine Saturnino, chief operating officer, chief strategy officer Lucas Brown, chief client officer Andy Travis, head of media and investment Liz Duff, head of strategy Will Hanmer-Lloyd and finance director Daniel D’Mello. "We're still independent and it's still fun, we have a strong ethos," explains Guy Sellers. This has persisted in part, he says, because "there aren't any huge egos" among the senior team.
Standout client work has come recently through Total Media's relationship with TikTok, which included helping the social platform to change perceptions and boost usage among new audiences with an approach based on behavioural analysis and research. Its work for Investec has involved improving the financial brand's web-based experience by using eye-tracking analysis, and its media campaigns for BritBox, along with data-led buying for Young's Seafood, have also proved to be impressive.
Total Media positions itself as the "the behavioural planning and media buying agency", a fair claim to make given that its decision to go down the route of behavioural planning goes back at least 15 years, spearheaded by Tom Laranjo, who is an anthropologist by training.
The agency is in growth mode following the Covid-inspired downturn in 2020. Last year, says Guy Sellers, its billings rebounded by an impressive 54 per cent, client wins included Aqua Pura and MG Motor UK, and he predicts a further strong rise this year. In terms of people it's also larger - employing a team of 150 (120 at its London agency).
But what are Sell and Sellers planning next? Is it time to cash out after 40 years? `Mike Sell says that the agency's independent status remains an important differentiator for some clients: "They can be comfortable in the knowledge that we don’t have network priorities to meet, and so our advice to them is always impartial. We have no current plans, or intention, to change."
Both say that the behavioural planning positioning is meeting with growing interest from clients who are demanding a greater level of sophistication and understanding of how they're spending their media budgets, and that it's helped to drive new-business growth in recent years.
Ultimately, Guy Sellers says, that while "keeping eyes and ears open" for growth opportunities, Total Media is looking forward to the next big birthday: "At the back of your mind you think, could it be a 50-year company? That might be quite interesting. That's not the overriding driver but it's possible." Mike Sell agrees with his long-standing colleague: "Forty years is obviously a massive achievement – but 50 years has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? "