Adland's Digital Revolution: Advertising's changing times

Many ad agencies are still clinging to tapes, dubs, hard copies and couriers. But the tide of change can be resisted for only so long, Simon Meek writes.

It is hard to argue a case against making life easier, especially when it is coupled with cost-savings. Why send a letter when you can send an e-mail? Why book a plane ticket over the phone when the internet offers a cheaper, more time-efficient alternative?

Not only that, but we're all exposed to exciting visions of a hi-tech future through movies and the media. But the ad industry is already enjoying the benefits of some of these technological advances. So a number of technology providers from across the globe are trying to convince executives of the savings to be made by ditching tapes and hard copies in favour of digital solutions. Going digital could be as simple as centralising assets on to a database, right through to automating the pre-press production or TV distribution process.

"All agencies need to be helping clients take costs out," Jonathan Harman, the chief executive of rmg:connect, JWT's direct marketing arm, says.

"Digital solutions allow people to concentrate on the added-value and not perform tasks that can now be performed by a machine. It's really no different from robots building cars."

Relieving the advertising industry of inefficient and costly working practices is the mantra of companies such as Quickcut and Adstream, formed by merging of two of the biggest providers of workflow solutions, data management and media distribution services to the print, radio and TV sectors. It's all about simplifying the processes behind creating, producing, storing and distributing advertising materials.

The whole area of digital asset management (DAM) is now integral to the successful running of an agency - having a central location for visual assets such as logos and photography prevents duplication and unnecessary expenses, Harman says. "If you don't know what you've got, you'll more likely have to reshoot, which is just a waste of everyone's time and money.

"Technology now means that you can get away without having to perform so many manual tasks," he adds. "We are the European hub agency for Mercedes and, say, if someone else in our network wanted a picture of the new R Class, rather than phone a team administrator and say 'I need a picture of the R Class from the rear, but not a silver one', they can simply go on to our intranet, type in 'R Class' and see what we've got."

It's all about breaking down geographic barriers and embracing a global approach to media asset sharing. "We're at all corners of the world but we have a filing cabinet sitting in the middle of us all," Harman says.

An online management system has the potential to let an agency search and retrieve still images, audio and video previews, as well as giving clients the ability to access and comment on projects remotely.

"It's a shared pool of information on the internet so anyone can look at it irrespective of their location," according to Mark Keller, the head of post-production at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, an agency that has adopted Adstream's ProjectBank collaborative workflow system.

"You don't need anything special to view material, just a PC or Mac with a decent connection and a password," Keller explains. "If clients want to see their commercials in the morning, they can see them in the morning - they don't have to wait a day for them to arrive. The distribution is cheaper, so there's a cost benefit, and it's more efficient."

And during a project's lifecycle, systems such as ProjectBank keep a record of all interaction, including the attachment of files. Collaborators can also add comments, request more information and make changes to the media files, and clients can approve each stage as it is completed.

The AMV creative services director, Andy Smith, adds: "Clients are demanding a greater range of services for less money. So agencies have to review all of their processes." The adoption of ProjectBank and AdBank (Adstream's central storage, where broadcast quality files are kept) has streamlined workflow and reduced staff counts at AMV, cutting down "the number of staff doing the manual processes, shuffling the pieces of paper around, getting tape duplications and processing orders manually, which is time consuming and expensive".

The distribution of material internally - where internally is defined by those with privileged access to the DAM system - is just half of the battle, however. Most agencies will see immediate cost-savings and, providing the agency has the capital to make the investment in technology and the will to overhaul its working practices, there's no reason not to seriously consider the move.

But the cost benefits may not be so transparent to the media owners, who have buy into a media-distribution system in order to receive files digitally or, in the case of broadcasters, may already have a business model based around ingest and playout. For newspapers and TV stations, digital delivery and file validation is more about workflow efficiency and client satisfaction than immediate cost savings.

The Telegraph Group receives digital print ads via its own online delivery and submission system, Pre-Flight, as well as solutions such as Quickcut.

"Our strategy is to offer the advertising community a choice of submission routes to suit their preferences," Mark Fletcher, the group advertising production director, says.

"Essentially, the service gives designers, agencies and corporates the confidence to supply quality classified and display ad files directly to us with ease, at low cost and with the knowledge that they will be accepted without change and will print properly."

The Guardian's head of advertising services, Keith Fielding, adds: "It's all about making it easy for companies to send us digital copy by the route that suits them - while ensuring the copy we receive is correct and complete."

The take-up of file validation and delivery systems in the UK has been quite rapid - next to continental Europe and the US in particular - but traditional, direct delivery remains popular, "although it is the most inefficient route for us", Fletcher says. This percentage is kept up by the "casual advertisers" who, for the time being, don't have a simple portal solution to get their ads delivered.

When a publisher buys into an ad validation and digital delivery system such as Quickcut, it's then up to the supplier to have the same delivery mechanism. This generally means having more than one system, as industry opinion is fragmented as to which is best (or, more often than not, which is cheapest).

Quickcut claims to have the largest penetration among UK national newspaper publishers, with systems installed in four of the five major players.

It also says its systems are used on a global level to source and supply exact print specifications of some 11,000 newspapers and magazines, all of which can be delivered to online.

Dave Bedding, the pre-press production director of Saatchi & Saatchi's TfG, says the advent of digital technologies such as colour management and soft-proofing - where files are final checked on screen - has had a "dramatic impact" on how press material is supplied to publishers and printers alike.

These systems, which collect and replicate a publisher's mechanical print specifications and colour profiles, ensures an ad is reproduced accurately. In turn, it has helped to bring down the preferred-supplier scenario for hard-copy proofing among national newspapers and colour supplements.

"There are still a few stuck-in-the-mud publishers that have preferred-supplier relationships in place, but thankfully they're in the minority now," Bedding says.

Bedding says the colour management systems probably get you 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the way there, but "then it's down to the vagaries of the art director to make slight colour amendments after that".

For TV, the digital distribution and validation process is a little different.

Here, the sticking point is not in meeting broadcasters' to-air specifications - post-houses have been on top of that game for years - but is more to do with the size of the files being transferred and then tracking these assets while they are in transit.

The UK's two biggest commercial post-production houses have developed their own digital systems for client approval: The Mill has its beam.tv service, and Framestore CFC has Front. These systems give clients remote access to work-in-progress and allows them final sign-off with near broadcast-quality files. Both offer a digital delivery service to broadcasters but, by and large, rely on the likes of Adstream and its rival IMD to do this.

Agencies are buying into content storage and digital distribution as a way to save on duplication costs and dispatch times, prevent degradation of source material and increased security levels. To put cost savings into context, the cost of delivering an ad to the UK network is in the region of £2,000 to £3,000 (a combination of playout and dubs).

Ratecard delivery for digital distribution ranges between £500 to £750, without having to manipulate the data and with certainty that the material has been delivered on time.

Empire Design is a small agency specialising in the creation and distribution of UK film trailers. Its production manager, Alex Reid, says trafficking TV spots "was an horrendous headache. If you had, say, six spots that had to go on 15 different stations, you would first have to send your master tape out to be cloned by a facility; so already you've got the cost of tapes being cloned and the courier delivering the tapes.

Then, there's generation loss because you're effectively making a copy of a copy.

"The way we do it now is to send one tape over to Adstream, which then digitises the material and sends it via its network straight to the TV station. The most important thing is you're not losing any quality - you're saving a lot of time as well."

Other agencies have taken tapes completely out of the loop. AMV has a 100mb connection to AdBank. AdBank stores and manages all of the broadcast-ready files without the need for tape ingest. By combining this connectivity with its digital Lab department, AMV developed what it believes to be a UK first: creating and distributing a series of Homebase spots in a completely digital fashion - "we never hit a tape", Smith says.

"The client reviews the ads remotely, which is quicker and cheaper for them, and then it's sent out to the channels." He adds that, because Homebase is a retailer, it needs to be able to react quickly with its advertising - with the system in place, a new ad can be sent through to Adstream and be on air within six hours anywhere in the world.

When material is submitted to Adbank for distribution, it is quality checked and packaged for broadcast, sent to the BACC - via its swanky new computer system that allows online submission of scripts and digital video, also designed, maintained and run by Adstream.

Of the 330 or so stations in the UK, Adstream says it delivers digitally to 260 of them. One hundred are fielded through BSkyB, which was an early adopter of Adstream solutions. Surprisingly, ITV is one of the channels that is yet to adopt a digital distribution platform, but this looks likely to change over the next six months, as it sets about building its own digital receiving system.

In the meantime, Adstream's managing director, Andy Hopkinson, says: "we're very happy to deliver dubs to them. By the end of the year, we will be delivering 70 per cent to 80 per cent of our ads digitally, and the rest by dubs."

Continental Europe is a different story, however: "At the moment, there is only one way to send out to a station and that's a dub," he adds. The plan is to have all major European markets online for digital delivery over the next two years.

But tape is a resilient format and, for agencies, there will always be occasions when dubs still make sense, Hopkinson admits.

"There are some advertising campaigns where there are multiple ads for the same advertiser. If you need to send 50 ads to the same broadcaster and time isn't a consideration, it can be cost-effective just to stick them all on one tape and bike them over. There will always be a number of people who do it that way." Even in Australia - the most mature region for digital delivery mechanism - 10 per cent are still delivered by dubs.

The endgame for those companies supplying digital connectivity solutions to the advertising market is to create what is termed a global media exchange (GME), a discipline that converges workflow, management and distribution.

In its simplest form, GME gives organisations the ability to manage its creative assets from any workstation, anywhere in the world.

By merging, Quickcut and Adstream hope to have one up on the other suppliers in the market, bringing its technology from print and TV into one central location.

"We have three markets," the Quickcut operations director, Mike Parmenter, explains. "Quickcut is aimed at the press component of the media, who may say they want nothing to do with TV. Adstream works for TV and radio. But if you look in the middle, at the agency that deals with all media, that is where the collaboration tool is very powerful."

Parmenter expects the northern hemisphere to take "big leaps" in the GME direction over the next six months. "Having talked about it, now everyone's realising, 'Hell, we've just got to do it'." The bigger clients will expect nothing less.

The managing director of TfG, Simon Steel, agrees. He says digital workflow and distribution is "becoming a hygiene factor" for the industry. "It's almost like a box-ticking exercise and if you don't have it you're going to struggle. This is particularly true on bigger pan-European or even national campaigns, where clients want their various outposts to be able to see stuff, and you're communicating with a number of different media providers."

He adds: "It's changing the way that our businesses work because obviously it's that classic thing where everything becomes less manual."

Of course, one of the hurdles all of the digital service providers face is persuading agencies that their technology is robust, secure and will have a positive impact on established working practices. For many agencies, it is still a wait-and-see game.

Harman adds that any resistance to change is only to be expected. "Think about resistance to e-mail - you used to get people e-mailing you and sending a fax as well. And now, who's ever heard of a fax machine?"

There is only so much that technology can do, however. "The limit for me, and the thing that we absolutely enshrine, is the creative process - idea- generation is never going anywhere near automation, not in this agency anyway," Harman says.

"The technology moves the data around more efficiently, but 'is this the right brief?' and, 'is this work good enough?' are the two things you can never automate. But hopefully this will buy you time. It gets you to market faster, which is essential in a lot of markets, or it buys you more time in the bits that make more difference."

RYANAIR TAKES ITS AD DISTRIBUTION DIGITAL

Ryanair has a reputation for being business savvy and keeping costs down. It is this acumen that has helped it become Europe's third-largest airline and the reason behind it adopting Quickcut as part of its advertising protocol.

The implementation of the software has cut expenditure on external agencies by more than 70 per cent and halved production times, Ryanair's media and production co-ordinator, Dara Brady, says.

"We no longer experience bottlenecks caused by ads waiting to be transmitted, and we receive confirmation that each ad has been received by e-mail, removing the need to fax copy over and phone each newspaper to confirm," he explains.

The Quickcut software checks the ad files Ryanair creates against the exact mechanical specifications and ICC colour profiles for each destination publication. Only when these are met is the file sent to the publisher.

Ryanair creates, validates and delivers more than 110 ads every week to more than 250 newspapers in 17 European countries. "We manage a deadline-driven workflow with a very tight daily schedule, so it's important that the process operates virtually automatically with no room for error," Brady adds.

The Ryanair solution uses QuickPrint, Quickcut ICC and Pagestore. Quickprint is a program that lets designers create a file meeting the exact specifications of the destination publisher. Quickcut ICC applies a publisher's specific colour profile to the ad. The PageStore database automates the entire delivery process to one or multiple destinations, automatically managing copy instructions, encryption and security.

The system was installed two years ago and integrated into the company's production workflow as part of Ryanair's strategy to bring control of its marketing material production in-house. Ads are delivered to 558 German, 43 French, 26 Italian, 16 Spanish and 14 Belgium publishers and printers.

In 2004, publishers in Poland, Latvia and the Czech Republic also implemented Quickcut to receive print-ready, colour-managed ads as a direct result of Ryanair launching and promoting flights into these countries.

JAMSTER! DISTRIBUTES RINGTONE ADS 24 HOURS A DAY

Ringtone downloads have become a phenomenon in the world of advertising, and one of the more familiar brands is that of Jamster!, the company that produces the Crazy Frog commercials.

These commercials, for the London-based Jamster!, and a variety of other ringtones are all produced in-house in Berlin. Adstream has been working with Jamster!, helping to establish the idea as a global product.

During the course of the working day, the completed commercials are digitally transferred to Adstream's London headquarters. As and when these files arrive, the operators ensure the files are in the broadcast format required for the specified destination. These files are then encoded into the Adstream Adbank, from where they are then streamed through Adstream's digital network to broadcasters across the globe.

Hundreds of different versions of the TV spots are created every week, within extremely tight deadlines as the company's business proposition is based on direct response advertising, Adstream's managing director, Andy Hopkinson, says. "The company is able to put individual telephone numbers on individual ads set for individual stations for individual countries," he explains.

"Jamster! then monitors response by spot by country by station and makes the decision whether to continue to run it or pull it and replace it with something else. We can be on air within six hours almost anywhere in the world."

Adstream has been delivering the Crazy Frog to broadcasters in several parts of Europe, including Spain, Portugal and France, Australia and now the US.

The digital connections in place mean that a commercial that is uploaded in Germany at 6pm (GMT) can be transmitting at the TV station in Australia by 9am local time."It's literally a 24-hours-a-day process," Hopkinson adds. "Without digital delivery, there is no way they could do it."

Jamster!'s production manager, Oliver Thiel, agrees: "It would be a nightmare to even attempt this without the Adstream distribution system. It's difficult to imagine how we managed the business before we started working with them."

Topics