LIVE ISSUE/NON-TRADITIONAL ADVERTISING: Agencies rethink role in world where anything is a medium - TV ads are just part of the package in the digital age, Francesca Newland writes

Top Man sponsors a group of Oxford University academics to research the attitudes of young men today. Major brand sponsorship of academic activity is no longer that unusual, but Grey Advertising’s involvement in the research programme is quite a surprise.

Top Man sponsors a group of Oxford University academics to research

the attitudes of young men today. Major brand sponsorship of academic

activity is no longer that unusual, but Grey Advertising’s involvement

in the research programme is quite a surprise.



Top Man is not a Grey client, so the move is clearly a new-business get

- nothing strange about that, but the fact that the agency is brokering

a survey to win favour with a client, and not creating above-the-line

advertising ideas, does highlight the changing face of agency work.

These days an agency might be required to produce an awful lot more than

a memorable ad to stay in business.



The trend has given rise to agencies whose speciality is not having a

speciality. There’s the ’media neutral’ Circus and there’s Michaelides &

Bednash, pioneers of media strategy.



Graham Bednash, founding partner at M&B, says: ’Everything communicates

and anything is a medium. We’re in the ideas business and not

necessarily the advertising or media business.’



The main reason for the change is that there are so many channels of

communication confronting the consumer - and not just the internet,

digital TV or satellite. Clients have realised they can no longer buy

some time slots on ITV then sit back and wait for sales to improve.



And consumers have less time to soak up advertising messages than they

did 25 years ago, when the nine to five working day was a reality. To

get the message home it’s now necessary to communicate with people at

every possible stage of their daily lives, whether this be on rail

tickets, boxes of matches or through a website.



Stef Calcraft, a founding partner at Mother, explains: ’There is massive

commercial white noise so, whenever you appear, you have to put out the

same message and you have to continually re-express that message. If you

haven’t got a consistent message you’re going to fail. There are so many

media channels, there are a huge number of competitive messages and

people have less time to assimilate advertising.’



Bednash agrees: ’Agencies are having to do it because there is so much

information, it’s hard to cut through. You need more imaginative ways of

getting on to the customer’s radar.’



The ways of sneaking on to radar have to be diverse or they won’t

work.



Bednash cites two examples. First, when M&B helped launch Apple Tango,

the brand took over the page three girl in the Daily Star, replacing her

with a can of tango in a bra and knickers. More recently, M&B applied

some lateral thinking for Channel 4 to promote Wednesday nights with ER

and Sex and the City, giving away a free George Clooney pin-up poster in

every national newspaper.



Circus sent actors dressed in period costume on to the Central Line to

promote the Museum of London. The agency also created an 8,000 square

foot ’brand space’ in the US headquarters of its National Cash Register

client to give consumers a ’living explanation of NCR’s role in the

world’.



’The fact is that advertising is not the standalone panacea it once

was,’ Tim O’Kennedy, a founding partner at Circus, says. ’Clients are

waking up to brands as things people experience in a number of ways.

They are experienced rather than observed.’



Bednash adds: ’There is no such thing as a unique selling point any

more. It’s about brand experience. You used to be able to just do an ad

campaign and that was the job done.’



But the agency’s role can run much deeper than producing alternatives to

advertising and, in many instances, the agency is called in to sort out

the client’s internal branding. Minnie Moll, head of new business at

HHCL & Partners, says the agency worked for 18 months with Pearl

Assurance before it even looked at external communications. ’It was an

internal focus on what Pearl’s raison d’etre was. It involved getting

all people - from the call centre staff to the sales force - to be

aligned.’



As the consumer gets more savvy, Moll thinks this area is becoming more

significant. ’Consumers have never been so sophisticated, so it’s never

been more important that the brand delivers the promise in its

advertising,’ she says.



This too is attributable to the rise in media channels. As O’Kennedy

points out, if an airline company now claims to offer the cheapest

flights, the consumer can check the claim on the internet. Customers can

get a better feel for what a company stands for than before.



There is also a cost issue. Richard Pinder, managing director of Ogilvy

& Mather, says: ’Media inflation, especially TV, has made clients sit up

and consider alternatives to traditional advertising.’



However, it would be a mistake for every agency to begin pushing

alternatives.



As Paul Cowan, marketing director of Delaney Fletcher Bozell, says: ’The

challenge for agencies is to know when they get into waters where they

need special help.’ O’Kennedy warns that agencies can’t simply change

overnight. ’The business of creating breadth is very different. The

hierarchy now is so focused on above the line. It’s not just a matter of

’how do I change the culture of my business from an ad agency to a

broad-based communications company,’’ he says.



However, no matter how mainstream non-traditional advertising becomes,

there will always be a need for every type of communication. As Pinder

says: ’We can all create our own niches.’



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