The World: US digital shops fight to be the ideas generators

By Caitlin Fitzsimmons, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 01 December 2006 12:00AM

Despite having a spend that dwarfs the UK's, the US online market struggles to usurp traditional ads.

Just like cars and hamburgers, the digital advertising market is bigger on the other side of the Atlantic. As online adspend in the UK edges towards £2 billion, it is estimated that the US market will top $15.9 billion (£8.5 billion) by the end of this year.

A Brit may have invented the worldwide web, but the Americans have made it their own. And advertisers have recognised that this time it's for real. But how are agencies making the best use of all these new opportunities?

According to some in the industry, pretty poorly. Greg Stuart, the chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau in New York, is scathing about the quality of creative work for the online medium.

"It's an unmitigated disaster," he complains. "It doesn't have anything to do with the medium. Online advertising works; the problem we've got is that agencies are developing bad advertising. Online advertising must pass the glance test - that's how consumers interact with it, but we have ads where you don't have the logo until you click through, if at all."

Stuart believes the situation is slightly better for media planning and buying, but not by much.

Many agency insiders agree with him, although most say the situation is improving as the industry learns more about online - and naturally they believe their agency is the exception. Digital specialists argue that this is more of a problem for traditional agencies, which they say are stuck in an old-media mentality.

"Most agencies don't understand the digital landscape, and when they come back with the big idea, it's a TV or print ad and then the interactive department of the agency creates a derivative execution in the digital space," Bob Greenberg, the chairman, chief executive and global chief creative officer of the Interpublic-owned digital specialist R/GA, which represents clients such as Nike and L'Oreal, says.

Martin Reidy, the president of Modem Media, envisages a future where digital agencies take lead status and the traditional agencies will be there for execution. "I think digital is going to be the main place that ideas come from and we'll partner with agencies to transfer that to TV," he says.

It seems that many clients agree since specialist agencies such as Digitas, Avenue A/Razorfish, R/GA and Modem Media dominate the US league tables of the top agencies in terms of interactive revenue. Mark Beeching, the chief creative officer for Digitas, says the agency's background in direct marketing keeps it focused on producing effective work.

"There's a danger of falling in love with whizziness and technology for technology's sake," Beeching claims. "Our data skills really come back into their own with things like behavioural targeting."

For example, Digitas works for American Express and will serve up different ads depending on whether the consumer is already a card member or not.

Beeching says content creation is critically important, since the consumer effectively has the "mute button" on more traditional forms of advertising.

Many digital specialists have creative and media planning and buying under the same roof, and Jeff Lanctot, the vice-president and general manager of Avenue A/Razorfish, says this is an advantage.

"The digital landscape really lends itself to integration of media and creative," Lanctot says. "Much of the work we do is not standard ad placement, but is integrated."

Traditional agencies acknowledge that their sector as a whole was a little slow to embrace the web, but insist the situation has improved dramatically. They argue that digital media should be an integrated part of the media mix and not hived off to a separate agency with separate staff and processes.

Jeff Benjamin, the interactive creative director for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, says the directors at the agency value big ideas that transcend media boundaries and interactive ads are a big part of that.

"The thing that challenges a lot of traditional agencies is that they are used to thinking of the big idea as finally a television ad or print ad," Benjamin says. "If you get the idea, it's easy to think of the interactive stuff."

The Miami-based agency last year won the top interactive award at Cannes for its "Unpimp" campaign for Volkswagen. It allowed users to customise their car online and take a joyride with a character called Helga, with a different storyline for every car configuration.

Like in the UK, traditional agencies in the US have set up digital in a variety of ways, from standalone agencies to more closely integrated structures.

Leo Burnett's Arc Worldwide handles digital media, retail promotions, events and direct marketing and reports to the Burnett management. Sally O'Dowd, the director of communications for Arc, says 50 per cent of the agency's clients are shared by Leo Burnett and 50 per cent are unique to Arc.

Recent work includes the creation of TheBar.com for Diageo, a website with a virtual bartender called Jack to showcase Diageo's drinks range. Another is Verbnow.com/yellowball. This site was part of an integrated government campaign to tackle childhood obesity that involved giving children yellow balls and encouraging them to talk about what they did with them.

Arnold Worldwide recently took the decision to abolish all departments and disperse knowledge throughout the agency in the form of "creative tribes", each with an interactive specialist, a broadcast specialist and a print specialist.

Matthew Lindley, the executive vice-president and executive creative director for Arnold, explains: "The idea is not to throw it to the interactive guys, but that we all should have a seat at the table."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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