MEDIA: BEHIND THE HYPE - Is there reason as well as rhyme in Poem start up?

Will Ian Prager's new media agency offer anything truly different? Ian Darby reports.

Another media agency launched last week with the promise that its focus will be "true media neutrality". A hackneyed positioning offered, to varying degrees, by every media agency in town.

But Poem, the baby of the former CIA Direct and Prager Proximity founder, Ian Prager, is at least trying to put the necessary resources in place to deliver measurable direct media campaigns.

It combines Prager's traditional direct planning and buying experience with the list and data specialist Orca Media. Putting data at the heart of the offering is key to the idea but is Poem trying anything new and does its launch pose a threat to established direct marketing agencies that also purport to offer data services?

Andy Sloan, the managing director of a rival agency, the Havas-owned All Response Media, which has "direct, data, digital" as its mantra, says: "We've recognised that data is an important part of what we do and if Poem is doing this it's a good thing. If agencies don't embrace this they're missing a trick."

Perhaps the largest player in this space is Carat, which, on the back of its Royal Mail account, was required to build data planning skills to provide insight into direct mail campaigns. Carat's 25-strong data planning unit sits separately from Carat Direct, its direct planning and buying operation, and works predominantly for clients including Royal Mail and British Gas on evaluating the effectiveness of campaigns and evaluating the use of different media and how a media mix can create different results. For instance, it can analyse the impact of television campaigns on activity such as direct mail and press.

When Carat won the consolidated British Gas planning and buying account last year, it also took the data planning out of EHS Brann. A sure sign that direct agencies were beaten at their own game. Should they be worried? "Very much so," Sloan says. "If you look at what Carat has done with data planning work, it's very much a threat to DM creative agencies."

It seems that Carat, and other agencies operating in this space, can offer clients the attractive combination of understanding media channels with the ability to overlay this data on to customer databases. Andrew Mann, the head of marketing communications at British Gas, says: "Carat won the brief because it was the best agency to deliver integrated data driven communications."

Mann says Carat is able to take its TGI data and overlay this on to a customer database to provide him with a model that divides customers by their attitudes to purchasing and paying for products. He says evaluating the value of media and "joining up channels and product areas" is also vital. For instance, he can test the impact of a DRTV campaign on other media channels.

But couldn't a creative direct marketing agency do this? "You could argue that," Mann says. "But we've abolished the line, so consumers aren't thinking that above the line is supposed to change the way they think and below the line makes them respond. Carat was in the best place to integrate all communications and understand their interdependency."

Poem launches with a similar mission, albeit on a much smaller scale with £80 million in billings. As Sloan says of his own agency's positioning: "It doesn't do anything that we weren't doing before but it makes people realise that it's not just about buying media cheaply but is about understanding customers."

However, the real threat to direct marketing agencies may come from the top ten media agencies that are rapidly grasping the value of data planning.

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