CAMPAIGN REPORT ON NEW MEDIA: Net buyer - i-level, which launched last month, is one of a new breed of agencies. But is demand high enough, Richard Cook asks?

Perhaps Ronco will have the last laugh after all. Thirty years ago, when the UK’s first media independents launched, it was only the brasher end of the client constituency - people like Ronco, K-Tel and the like - who felt able to take a chance on these aggressive media specialists.

Perhaps Ronco will have the last laugh after all. Thirty years ago,

when the UK’s first media independents launched, it was only the brasher

end of the client constituency - people like Ronco, K-Tel and the like -

who felt able to take a chance on these aggressive media

specialists.



They felt able to take a chance simply because these clients’ business

was driven by direct response - people answering the on-screen number

and, for them, media buying was as much calculation as inspiration.



Today, in excess of half of all media spend is placed by independents in

the UK, and blue chip clients have rushed to embrace the powerful

financial logic of a separate media function. And even if the

independents are no longer quite as independent as they once were, the

argument has moved on from whether the media independent had a role to a

more general discussion of the composition of any client’s marketing

partners.



New media is not a new phenomenon; NMC Adplan has been offering

independent new-media planning and buying since 1997. But it is a debate

that assumed importance with last month’s launch of i-level, the

operation started by the experienced new-media triumvirate of Charlie

Dobres, Andrew Walmsley and Craig Wilkie.



They initiated this comparison with the mainstream media independent

themselves, by pointing out that i-level was launching with the biggest

online market share since Zenith had made its debut. The three also

couched their positioning statement in terms that the mainstream media

understood only too clearly. ’Our volume will mean we are active in the

marketplace all the time, giving us a broad level of experience and

knowledge that cannot be matched by part-timers,’ Walmsley told

Campaign. He substantiated this with what, in the past, would have

seemed like hard-nosed evidence of buying clout. The new media

independent was prepared to claim a total of pounds 4 million-worth of

billings at start-up, including clients like Easyjet and Yell, in a

total online market worth an estimated pounds 40 million in the UK this

year. So are we seeing the emergence of a new generation of media

independents in new media?



’We welcomed the launch of i-level because we think it will help

reinforce the argument we have been making for the need for

specialisation in new-media planning and buying for two years now,’ Ray

Taylor, a director of NMC, explains. ’It’s no longer good enough for

companies to want to have a go at all parts of the new-media mix.



New media is not being bought competitively. That’s more because too few

people have a real idea of the value of individual ads than because

there aren’t buyers with sufficient clout. The fact that you are

spending pounds 40,000 not pounds 4,000 in this market should be able to

get you a healthy discount - pounds 4 million is frankly going too

far.’



The mainstream agency response has been muted. i-level picked up the

buying from Western International Media, but not the planning

assignment.



This is another echo of the distinction made in the early days of the

mainstream media independents.



’I don’t see new media fitting cosily into the old models of the

development of media independents and the battle with full-service

agencies,’ counters Paul Longhurst, managing director of Quantum Media,

a joint venture media planner and buyer set up with the media

independent, Booth Lockett Makin.



’Most of the agencies don’t think there is money to be made in new media

in the short term and so are happy to outsource it. But they make sure

that they claim to be keeping hold of the planning. What they mean is

that they want to keep control over the client relationship so that if

it does become big enough for them to worry about, then they can take it

back in-house.’



For Rick Sareen, a partner at Media 21, another of the new breed of

independent media planners and buyers, the waters are muddied by the

continuing struggles between technical web houses on the one hand and

insufficiently resourced mainstream agencies on the other.



’So many of the specialists are coming at the medium from a production

or technical background, not from media or marketing. Nor can the

existing agencies devote sufficient resources to the job. New media

differs from conventional media options in one important respect - its

interactivity. You don’t plan, buy and then dispose of the job. You have

to be constantly in the market; that’s why new media has to be a

speciality.



’On the other hand, I don’t think that billings or market clout are as

important in new-media planning and buying as elsewhere because there is

no shortage of new-media space. Clients are more interested in the

quality of the thinking and the cost is really the last thing they think

about.’



The picture is murkier than Sareen’s model supposes. The effect of

interactivity in new-media advertising is impossible to divorce from

digital interactive TV.i-level’s intent is clearly to be expert at the

buying function online, unlike Quantum’s current focus on digital TV

consultancy. Clients want to talk about how they can use interactivity

and convergence. The struggle now is to be the company that advises on

this big picture.



’The debate is really all about how you communicate one-to-one with the

consumer,’ Longhurst says. ’The notion that new-media planning and

buying is about ticking off the boxes on a media plan and then sending a

few guys along to try to beat the sites down on price is ludicrous. The

media buying companies that have one person handling the booking of web

site advertising are just as bad. On the internet superhighway, these

people are the lollipop ladies. New media is on the agenda of chief

executives now, it’s a global medium that they can use to export their

products around the world at a fraction of the existing price. The

battle is to be the ones advising them.



’The last thing we need is for the debate to be about average prices

Anyone who is being told to plough money in and secure a discount is

being badly advised.’



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