CAMPAIGN-I: SPOTLIGHT ON: DOTCOM ADVERTISING - A case for using old rules in advertising's dotcom arena. Are dotcoms beginning to think sensibly about their ads? Alasdair Reid reports

As anyone who regularly reads Campaign's Private View will know, dotcoms have a chequered past when it comes to offline advertising. Actually, that's not really true. They have an awful record.

As anyone who regularly reads Campaign's Private View will know, dotcoms have a chequered past when it comes to offline advertising. Actually, that's not really true. They have an awful record.

Or at least they did. The high-water mark of dotcom advertising nonsense was surely the stuff that ran in US coverage of the last Super Bowl. How we laughed at the ludicrous prices these people had paid to run commercials that nobody could understand.

But as bust followed boom, frantic 'cash burn' media strategies became less fashionable and a new generation of managers with grown-up business plans started coming through. The industry began to learn its lesson. Didn't it?

Apparently not. According to a new report from Roper Starch Worldwide, the venerable US marketing research and consultancy firm, things are still not looking good in the US. The title of the report - 'What's Wrong with Dotcom Ads' - tends to hint at where it's coming from.

A year ago, many people thought they knew the answer to that question.

The problem with dotcom ads, they presumed, was that they were commissioned by people who have the elitist detachment of self-appointed fashion leaders, people whose basic instinct is to treat Joe Public with contempt.

Indeed, attitude still seems to be a problem - and it's a problem that is by no means confined to the US. 'It's true that these are people who like to be seen to be breaking the rules,' Larry Barker, the creative director of BMP DDB, says. 'They focus on the mould-breaking nature of their businesses and feel it should run through every single strand of what they do. The last thing they want is ad agencies telling them there are golden rules. But sometimes you have to say: 'Sorry mate, but there really are golden rules.' '

But Roper Starch's report, which focuses on print advertising, tends to indicate that wilful obscurity isn't the only problem. There's a lot that can be attributed to shoddy thinking or laziness. Too much copy, impossible-to-read copy, poor art direction, idiotic use of colour. And there's little evidence of planning or research when it comes to dotcom work.

The well-worn excuse for half-baked strategic thinking is that dotcoms demand work produced at 'internet speed'. And if you want something by yesterday, quality is bound to be the first casualty. But hasn't everything calmed down? A bit, agrees Barker - the situation is certainly improving. Marcus Vinton, the executive creative director of digital communications at Ogilvy, agrees.

Vinton, who works on both online and offline platforms, is ideally placed to have a perspective on this. He reckons that we are seeing a maturing of attitudes on both sides of the fence.

He states: 'Initially a lot of ad agency people believed that digital was going to steal their future. They're wrong - but it might be one of the reasons that agencies acted a bit irresponsibly, in some cases in not applying the basic skill sets. Like knowing your audience and what you're selling. With a lot of the work we've seen it's been a case of all gong and no dinner. That's not to say there hasn't been beautiful advertising - look at the TV work for Breathe, for example, which is wonderfully lyrical work but ultimately obscure.'

The big difference, though, is that marketing people are being recruited by dotcoms. Some of them even have marketing departments these days.

Vinton adds: 'Some great thinkers are going to dotcoms - they're not just about cool digi-people from Soho any more. And when that happens, it's easier for agencies to establish a dialogue. The future is positive.

I think everyone realises you have to communicate with normal folk in a normal way. If you don't, you piss people off. Agencies have learned that the new economy isn't really a new economy, it's the old economy working in a new way.'

Barker will second that. There's definitely a more grown-up attitude to strategy these days. But he also believes it's inevitable that there will be creative tension between dotcoms and their agencies. 'These are entrepreneurial people and as clients they are a bit like media owners - what makes them great also makes them difficult. We have to work with that,' he reflects.


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