CAMPAIGN REPORT ON NEW MEDIA: The Digital Effect - Digital has now arrived, but are agencies ready to seize upon its possibilities? Some are adapting with new structures, while others intend to rely on familiar models of working. By Richard Cook

The problem seemed straightforward enough. It was simply that the new-media revolution was supposed to be just that - a revolutionary overnight change. It didn’t happen that way. And yet, right at the beginning, ad agencies had been primed and ready for the suddenness of that change - they even assembled their snappily-named new-media departments to prove it.

The problem seemed straightforward enough. It was simply that the

new-media revolution was supposed to be just that - a revolutionary

overnight change. It didn’t happen that way. And yet, right at the

beginning, ad agencies had been primed and ready for the suddenness of

that change - they even assembled their snappily-named new-media

departments to prove it.



When it became clear that this revolution was, in fact, going to be more

drawn out, more complicated and more pervasive than anyone had realised,

the stakes were suddenly raised. Agencies needed to do more than merely

recruit someone who knew how to switch on a computer and call that their

new-media lab. They needed to make structural changes to the way they

dealt with new media to give a truly integrated offering to clients. And

this is where the main problems have arisen.



’The fact of the matter is that new-media adspend is still less than is

spent on radio,’ points out the Saatchi & Saatchi Vision commercial

director, Alan McCulloch. ’It’s clearly growing but the brutal truth is

that revenue - for the time being at least - remains at relatively small

levels. As a consequence, some agencies are finding it hard to be

persuaded to change the whole way they work just to accommodate new

media as part of the overall communications offering. While new media

remains a relatively small spend, it’s still easy for many agencies to

effectively dismiss it.’



That might just be a mistake, because new media is no longer a ghetto

and no longer a service that is simply bolted on to the core agency

offering for the sake of completeness. ’The doubting agencies are

waiting to see clients actually spend more money online before they

start to determine the value of new media, and how much they are

prepared to invest in it,’ McCulloch says.



’Meanwhile, they are quite happily making all sorts of exaggerated

claims about their integrated advertising offering. Our biggest task at

the moment is really to integrate our message, not just pay lip-service

to the idea.



And the task for us all in doing that is to recognise that the

challenges faced by new media are as much creative and strategic as

media ones. We all have to work towards the convergence of our offering

in precisely the same way as the advent of digital TV is starting to

help new media converge.’



Yet the problem is not simply what digital TV might, or might not,

eventually mean in convergence terms. The problem is that convergence is

already here. In March this year, for instance, interactivity made it

into 30 million US homes for the first time as part of the annual

Grammys presentation on network terrestrial television. CBS’s coverage

of these national music awards unmasked a digitally-derived process that

some commentators think will do no less than precipitate the end of the

TV ad break as we know it, and which immediately prefigures our own

immediate digital future.



The cause of all this consternation was nothing much more elaborate than

your regular 30-second TV ad for, as it happens, a client called N2K

Music Boulevard, one of the largest electronic music stores in the US.

The ad aired during one of the lead ad breaks and the majority of

viewers would have noticed nothing untoward.



But the ad had one important difference. It contained additional codes

from Web TV, the Microsoft-owned interactivity pioneer founded in 1995.

The codes allowed Web TV subscribers to view an icon in the upper

right-hand corner of the screen. If they clicked their cursor on the

icon, it brought up a small picture of the CBS awards in the lower

right-hand corner, while the rest of the screen was given over to N2K

Music Boulevard’s website.



’For the first time music fans were able to access the Music Boulevard

and the Grammy Guide directly from the broadcast for immediate purchase

of the music they were hearing and seeing on screen,’ the N2K

Entertainment president, JJ Rosen, says.



The broadcast itself was simply the first large-scale test of the same

interactivity we shall all be taking for granted in the imminent digital

age. It might take some years over here - ONdigital, for example,

doesn’t even launch its dedicated e-mail service until the middle of

next year.



The trouble is that many ad agencies are still not ideally placed to

meet the challenge that the explosion of new-media choices presents. ’I

think, nevertheless, we are all convinced that the ad agency must have a

valid part to play at the centre of this converging communications mix,’

Maher Bird’s planning director, Karen Enver, says.



’But where some agencies are struggling is in adjusting to what sort of

creative and strategic talent they now need to recruit if they really

are going to continue to play their full part. The simple fact is that

agencies will have to widen the gene pool if they are going to maintain

meaningful involvement in new media. They need to recruit - or have

access to - people with design, broadcast and journalism skills in new

media. And that throws up all sorts of potential personnel and political

problems for the traditional ad agency model, not least that they have

to convince their young creatives that sometimes their role will be more

of the impresario than the traditional copywriter.’



But it isn’t just the make-up of the skill sets in an agency’s new-media

department that is important. Just as crucial is the relationship of the

new-media department to the rest of the agency.



’I think at the beginning it was something of a Wild West out there in

new media,’ Marc Cave, the executive vice-president of the Lowe Group,

says. ’Every cowboy was riding into town as a Jack-of-all-trades and

master of none. Part of the problem was that they all saw new media as

one homogeneous field. Whereas, in fact, it encompasses a wide range of

specialist skills - systems integration, e-commerce software design,

database marketing and front-end creative design.



’ We established Lowe Digital at that time to try to learn along with

the client but have now moved on from there. We know we can’t be master

of all the different skills. What the market really needs now is

specialisation.



Quality work can only really come from expert practitioners of each

individual discipline. Our new subsidiary, Decipher, which aims

specifically to discuss the commercial implications of new media with

clients, is the first example of us doing that.’



Indeed, for all the undeniably exciting potential of new media itself,

the suspicion persists that the mechanisms adopted by many of the

agencies to accommodate it remain resolutely old-fashioned.



Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the way agencies have so far

organised their own new-media departments. The structures so far adopted

have all borrowed heavily from already familiar aspects of traditional

agency set-ups.



The preferred option for agencies at the moment is a TV production

model, where they get to keep their position as the brand guardian and

maintain the client relationships, but actually farm out much of the

responsibility to third-party companies - in much the same way as the

production of TV ads works.



Broadly speaking, it’s how things operate at full- service offerings

such as Leo Burnett or Saatchis, which offer themselves as a strategic

resource to agency creative teams who want to make the most of the

new-media opportunities. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of

new-media production, outside contractors are brought in.



At the other end of the spectrum from the TV production model lies the

likes of Bates Interactive or the Leagas Delaney subsidiary, Media

Direction.



Both were founded as independent profit centres, and both pay more than

just lip-service to the need for dedicated new-media expertise.



’We realised as early as 1994 that there was no structural template to

follow and that to participate in defining the future of communications,

immediate active involvement at a practical level was essential,’the

managing director of Media Direction, James Waite, explains.



’We brought a number of existing clients on to the web and discovered

some key distinctions between the management of traditional advertising

accounts and the requirements of maintaining an online presence. The

volume of content required to sustain a convincing website, for example,

makes for frequent and ongoing contact between the client, all areas of

the client’s organisation and the production team. In short, the client

becomes a member and titular head of the team producing their material

in a way that traditional advertising need not, and probably could not,

support.



’Leagas Delaney decided to set up a subsidiary to deal with the online

component of its business. While business objectives and creative

standards retain their single provenance, we see a divergence in the

practical realities of working in traditional advertising and commercial

online publishing, and have reflected that in the establishment of Media

Direction.’



How much agency structures will need to alter, however, as convergence

comes into sharper focus in the agency world’s perspective, remains to

be seen. The consensus is that the hands-on approach of companies such

as Media Direction will be closer to the eventual solution than the TV

production model.



’The fact is that no strategic thinking, let alone any real creative

work, can really be done outside the agency - for instance, down the

road in a production house - and I think that is what agencies are now

going to start to realise,’ Alex Letts, the president of Publicis

Technology, says.



’I think the position of the programming side of new media, on the other

hand, is still up for grabs. In the immediate future, programming

departments will probably become outsourced digital studios that work in

much the same way as TV production companies, but agencies will have to

seize control of the creative and strategic side, or they are really

going to end up being left behind.’



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).