TOP 300 AGENCIES: Coming of age

Online advertising grew up with renewed client confidence being manifested in serious budgets. The IAB and the ISPs decided the next step was to educate ad agencies about digital media.

In 2003, the cautious optimism that marked 2002 was cast aside and replaced with bullishness as agencies clamoured to sate renewed client confidence in online advertising.

The internet's unique strength - its infinite measurability - appealed to clients in the belt-tightening climate of 2002. In 2003, these toe-in-the-water budgets were upgraded to a serious financial commitment.

As such, client spending went from a steady stream to an outright flood as record amounts were spent. Growth outperformed expectations, topping £300 million for the year, according to figures published by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Digital smashed the glass ceiling of 2 per cent market share - a full nine months ahead of the expected breakthrough date of autumn 2004. It is now comfortably twice the size of cinema.

Far from resting on its laurels, the IAB announced that radio, at roughly twice the size of new media, was its next growth target. In March, to help achieve this goal it lured Richard Eyre, one of the media industry's biggest hitters, to become its chairman. If Eyre, the former chief executive at ITV, Capital Radio and Pearson Television, can emulate the success he achieved driving the growth of radio advertising as the founder of the Radio Advertising Bureau, expect big things in 2004.

Consolidation was a welcome trend in 2003. The industry's perceived immaturity had in part been fuelled by the presence of the seemingly endless supply of "here today, gone tomorrow" two-man agencies that undermined client confidence.

2003 saw a core group of the most successful, stable digital agencies emerge to dominate the major pitchlists - the likes of Profero, Dare, glue London, itraffic, Wheel, Arnold Interactive, Tribal DDB and AKQA.

This development has been reassuring for clients and the wider advertising industry. Suspicion has been replaced by credibility.

A bell-wether of the shift in client attitude came early in the year when COI Communications, which handles the largest domestic advertising budget in the UK, announced a radical overhaul of how it handles digital.

The review led to the development of COI's first structured roster for digital creative agencies - a move which put it on a par with how traditional agencies are managed.

The biggest test came when COI decided to consolidate its £6 million digital media planning and buying into one agency. The pitch was a watershed moment for online advertising. It pitted a range of independent digital specialists against the big networks. The review was the ultimate test of the argument long espoused by the likes of Charlie Dobres, the co-founder of i-level, that the networks could not offer the level of skill and focus that specialists could. A loss would have been a major blow to the raison d'etre of the independent digital shops. I-level's subsequent win was a major vote of confidence in dedicated digital agencies.

Alongside COI, heavyweight clients including Camelot, ICI, Heineken and Abbey all decided that online was now a serious enough marketing discipline to warrant a pitch divorced from the above-the-line contest.

However, there is still some way to go for digital to achieve true parity.

Figures show that digital accounts for more than 9 per cent of media consumption in the UK, but only 2 per cent of spend.

Client confidence has driven this revitalisation with increasingly large proportions of marketing spend being diverted to digital media. Despairingly, it is the wider ad industry that is blocking the next stage of growth for the digital industry.

Traditional ad agencies hold the closest relationship - and therefore the purse strings - with clients. In a television-obsessed industry, new media is still by and large dismissed as a marginal, one-dimensional technology-bound medium.

As Eyre says in his mission statement for the IAB: "The key will be my outward-looking role, educating and marketing to the advertising industry about digital media ... the advertising industry isn't quite sure what to make of it."

An important focus for online advertising agencies and media owners alike in 2003 was to tackle this issue. The tactic used was to bring in heavyweight names that would resonate with creatives in above-the-line agencies.

Yahoo! ran a one-day creative conference, called Digital Art Work, to espouse the merits of digital creative using figures including John Hegarty, Keith Reinhard, Jeremy Bullmore, Steve Vranakis and, er, Bob Geldof.

MSN targeted offline planners and buyers with a roadshow called "Let's get it on" to de-jargonise the medium.

In a bid to bring the message to adland's backyard, both Yahoo! and AOL appointed traditional ad agencies - Maher Bird Associates and cdp-travissully respectively - to extol the virtues of online to creative and media agencies through above-the-line advertising in key trade titles.

Digital agencies have approached the problem with a common strategy of co-opting heavy hitters as non-executive directors. Such figures lend extra credibility, strategic insight and provide a familiar foot in the door that will grab the attention of the traditional agencies.

Glue hired Ken New, a former vice-chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and the ex-chairman of the media agency New PHD. Dare counts the Bartle Bogle Hegarty co-founder John Bartle as a non-executive director, and Profero recently formed an advisory board comprised of senior adland figures including Christine Walker and Amanda Walsh.

Perversely, it is measurement - new-media's oldest selling point - that is now its biggest stumbling block. Campaigns are infinitely measurable but agencies are not. It is a continued glaring lack of transparency that is stopping digital from being taken seriously by the wider industry.

With no generally accepted industry standard in place to measure billings, client spend and agency performance, there is still a great divide to be broached to create a truly level playing field.

For 2004, the "how long is a piece of string" self- reporting method needs to be overhauled and a commonly accepted - and adhered to - standard developed to allow true like-for-like comparisons between agencies and advertising sectors.

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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).