MEDIA: FORUM - Is there demand for an internet media specialist?/An online planning and buying specialist called i-level launched last week Its aim is to be the Zenith of web media, not only by dominating the medium but making the internet accessible by o

It takes nerve to compare your new company with Zenith, as i-level did last week. The outfit, launched last week by Charlie Dobres, Andrew Walmsley and Craig Wilkie - some of the most experienced practitioners in this relatively young sector - is an online media planning and buying company which will offer its services not only to advertisers on a direct basis but to mainstream media agencies too.

It takes nerve to compare your new company with Zenith, as i-level

did last week. The outfit, launched last week by Charlie Dobres, Andrew

Walmsley and Craig Wilkie - some of the most experienced practitioners

in this relatively young sector - is an online media planning and buying

company which will offer its services not only to advertisers on a

direct basis but to mainstream media agencies too.



But what’s this Zenith analogy? Make big claims like that and you invite

all sorts of responses, some of which may not be polite. There are one

or two sceptical people out there. Some cruel senses of humour. Is that

Zenith as in big, bruising, ’don’t mess with us’ culture? Or Zenith as

in a watershed initiative, a defining moment for the structure of the

whole industry?



We are, after all, talking about an online market worth a total of

pounds 15 million in the UK last year. And while it may be growing

exponentially (and is already threatening to become a major medium in

the US), the whole business is still very conjectural. But i-level may

just have a point.



Its target is to command a 10 per cent share of the online media buying

market within weeks of launch. Like for like, that would put it in the

Zenith league.



And i-level just might help to change the status of the online

medium.



This is an area that many mainstream media specialists have arguably

failed to get to grips with. And when specialists don’t feel comfortable

with something, they don’t sell it to their clients.



Planning and buying in the web medium, you might think, isn’t exactly

rocket science. It usually involves the purchase of banner ads (little

coloured rectangles, usually animated) on pages within websites. Surely

it’s no more than an electronic version of the magazine market?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. It’s a fiddly medium.

Campaigns need continuous monitoring and tweaking. Measurement of

results is a full-time headache. There’s a lot of admin involved. In

fact, according to Charlie Dobres, i-level’s chief executive, it’s as

fiddly as the outdoor medium - and do mainstream media specialists buy

their own poster campaigns?



No, they do not. Mostly, they contract it out to poster buying

specialists.



But Dobres emphasises that the issue here is not about technology. He

comments: ’We are talking about an additional, hybrid skill-set

somewhere between traditional above-the-line media and things like

direct response and public relations. The important thing is that new

media is not a one-way communications process. But we most definitely

are not talking about computing skill sets. It should be seen as sitting

within the context of other media.’



Dobres is selling experience: ’It’s like a lot of things. By reading a

few books, you can learn 80 per cent of what you need to get by in

something within months. But the difference between knowledge and

experience is crucial. The end game is all about insight and experience

gives you insight. We will work with media agencies and can go as far

upstream on the planning side as they want us to go. We are the ’Intel

inside’ - with us as partners, agencies and their clients can tick that

box and be absolutely certain that the job will be done.’



Sounds plausible. But should online media really be regarded as a

separate market, a discrete skill set? Surely the whole point is that

online is about to take an ever greater role on centre stage. Isn’t it

dangerous for media companies to abdicate responsibility in this area?

This week, Western International media became i-level’s first major

agency client.



Mike Tunnicliffe, the managing director of Western, emphasises that

i-level will be used only for coal-face buying: He states: ’Online media

planning should be an integral part of the planning you do for

clients.



We assess its validity in exactly the same way as we would for press and

television.



But this is a radically changing marketplace, so you need as much

knowledge as possible and the people in i-level are as experienced as

anyone. If they meet their market-share targets, they will also have

significant leverage and, in the same way as volume counts in other

markets, that will produce better rates for clients.’



There are many sceptics, however. Iain Jacob, a founding director of

Motive Communications, says that Motive isn’t at all scared of the

fiddly side of media. It buys its own outdoor and plans and buys online

media for a number of clients, including NatWest, Whitbread and Levi’s.

Jacob states: ’The big issue currently for a clear majority of clients

is their desire to have someone offering media advice across the whole

communications piece. Web planning and buying can’t be divorced from

that.’



He believes comparisons with Zenith are over-simplistic. ’Arguments

about buying clout only apply when you are looking at a market where

supply is restricted. The web market is oversupplied, not

undersupplied.



’i-level’s expertise may be highly valuable on a consultancy basis at

two extreme ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, in technical areas

like response measurement and e-commerce, and at the top end on things

like the creative possibilities of the medium. But I think most of

i-level’s business is likely to come from clients who are not mainstream

media users.’



Bob Offen, the chief executive of Mediapolis, agrees: ’We have a lot of

IT clients but we would have wanted to change our business in this

direction anyway. This new company will carve out a decent business for

itself - and good luck to it. But I can’t believe it will get many

bigger media companies prepared to subcontract to it. This is the very

heart of where the business is going. We have to be there; it is vital

for our future. Our clients expect us to know about this area. You need

to be able to plan it in the context of everything else you are doing.

Even if you attempt to split the planning and the buying and use a

specialist merely in a trading context, you lose the learning on that

side of things. I can’t believe major players will be prepared to do

that.’



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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).