The problem seemed straightforward enough. It was simply that the
new-media revolution was supposed to be just that - a revolutionary
overnight change. It didn’t happen that way. And yet, right at the
beginning, ad agencies had been primed and ready for the suddenness of
that change - they even assembled their snappily-named new-media
departments to prove it.
When it became clear that this revolution was, in fact, going to be more
drawn out, more complicated and more pervasive than anyone had realised,
the stakes were suddenly raised. Agencies needed to do more than merely
recruit someone who knew how to switch on a computer and call that their
new-media lab. They needed to make structural changes to the way they
dealt with new media to give a truly integrated offering to clients. And
this is where the main problems have arisen.
’The fact of the matter is that new-media adspend is still less than is
spent on radio,’ points out the Saatchi & Saatchi Vision commercial
director, Alan McCulloch. ’It’s clearly growing but the brutal truth is
that revenue - for the time being at least - remains at relatively small
levels. As a consequence, some agencies are finding it hard to be
persuaded to change the whole way they work just to accommodate new
media as part of the overall communications offering. While new media
remains a relatively small spend, it’s still easy for many agencies to
effectively dismiss it.’
That might just be a mistake, because new media is no longer a ghetto
and no longer a service that is simply bolted on to the core agency
offering for the sake of completeness. ’The doubting agencies are
waiting to see clients actually spend more money online before they
start to determine the value of new media, and how much they are
prepared to invest in it,’ McCulloch says.
’Meanwhile, they are quite happily making all sorts of exaggerated
claims about their integrated advertising offering. Our biggest task at
the moment is really to integrate our message, not just pay lip-service
to the idea.
And the task for us all in doing that is to recognise that the
challenges faced by new media are as much creative and strategic as
media ones. We all have to work towards the convergence of our offering
in precisely the same way as the advent of digital TV is starting to
help new media converge.’
Yet the problem is not simply what digital TV might, or might not,
eventually mean in convergence terms. The problem is that convergence is
already here. In March this year, for instance, interactivity made it
into 30 million US homes for the first time as part of the annual
Grammys presentation on network terrestrial television. CBS’s coverage
of these national music awards unmasked a digitally-derived process that
some commentators think will do no less than precipitate the end of the
TV ad break as we know it, and which immediately prefigures our own
immediate digital future.
The cause of all this consternation was nothing much more elaborate than
your regular 30-second TV ad for, as it happens, a client called N2K
Music Boulevard, one of the largest electronic music stores in the US.
The ad aired during one of the lead ad breaks and the majority of
viewers would have noticed nothing untoward.
But the ad had one important difference. It contained additional codes
from Web TV, the Microsoft-owned interactivity pioneer founded in 1995.
The codes allowed Web TV subscribers to view an icon in the upper
right-hand corner of the screen. If they clicked their cursor on the
icon, it brought up a small picture of the CBS awards in the lower
right-hand corner, while the rest of the screen was given over to N2K
Music Boulevard’s website.
’For the first time music fans were able to access the Music Boulevard
and the Grammy Guide directly from the broadcast for immediate purchase
of the music they were hearing and seeing on screen,’ the N2K
Entertainment president, JJ Rosen, says.
The broadcast itself was simply the first large-scale test of the same
interactivity we shall all be taking for granted in the imminent digital
age. It might take some years over here - ONdigital, for example,
doesn’t even launch its dedicated e-mail service until the middle of
The trouble is that many ad agencies are still not ideally placed to
meet the challenge that the explosion of new-media choices presents. ’I
think, nevertheless, we are all convinced that the ad agency must have a
valid part to play at the centre of this converging communications mix,’
Maher Bird’s planning director, Karen Enver, says.
’But where some agencies are struggling is in adjusting to what sort of
creative and strategic talent they now need to recruit if they really
are going to continue to play their full part. The simple fact is that
agencies will have to widen the gene pool if they are going to maintain
meaningful involvement in new media. They need to recruit - or have
access to - people with design, broadcast and journalism skills in new
media. And that throws up all sorts of potential personnel and political
problems for the traditional ad agency model, not least that they have
to convince their young creatives that sometimes their role will be more
of the impresario than the traditional copywriter.’
But it isn’t just the make-up of the skill sets in an agency’s new-media
department that is important. Just as crucial is the relationship of the
new-media department to the rest of the agency.
’I think at the beginning it was something of a Wild West out there in
new media,’ Marc Cave, the executive vice-president of the Lowe Group,
says. ’Every cowboy was riding into town as a Jack-of-all-trades and
master of none. Part of the problem was that they all saw new media as
one homogeneous field. Whereas, in fact, it encompasses a wide range of
specialist skills - systems integration, e-commerce software design,
database marketing and front-end creative design.
’ We established Lowe Digital at that time to try to learn along with
the client but have now moved on from there. We know we can’t be master
of all the different skills. What the market really needs now is
Quality work can only really come from expert practitioners of each
individual discipline. Our new subsidiary, Decipher, which aims
specifically to discuss the commercial implications of new media with
clients, is the first example of us doing that.’
Indeed, for all the undeniably exciting potential of new media itself,
the suspicion persists that the mechanisms adopted by many of the
agencies to accommodate it remain resolutely old-fashioned.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the way agencies have so far
organised their own new-media departments. The structures so far adopted
have all borrowed heavily from already familiar aspects of traditional
The preferred option for agencies at the moment is a TV production
model, where they get to keep their position as the brand guardian and
maintain the client relationships, but actually farm out much of the
responsibility to third-party companies - in much the same way as the
production of TV ads works.
Broadly speaking, it’s how things operate at full- service offerings
such as Leo Burnett or Saatchis, which offer themselves as a strategic
resource to agency creative teams who want to make the most of the
new-media opportunities. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of
new-media production, outside contractors are brought in.
At the other end of the spectrum from the TV production model lies the
likes of Bates Interactive or the Leagas Delaney subsidiary, Media
Both were founded as independent profit centres, and both pay more than
just lip-service to the need for dedicated new-media expertise.
’We realised as early as 1994 that there was no structural template to
follow and that to participate in defining the future of communications,
immediate active involvement at a practical level was essential,’the
managing director of Media Direction, James Waite, explains.
’We brought a number of existing clients on to the web and discovered
some key distinctions between the management of traditional advertising
accounts and the requirements of maintaining an online presence. The
volume of content required to sustain a convincing website, for example,
makes for frequent and ongoing contact between the client, all areas of
the client’s organisation and the production team. In short, the client
becomes a member and titular head of the team producing their material
in a way that traditional advertising need not, and probably could not,
’Leagas Delaney decided to set up a subsidiary to deal with the online
component of its business. While business objectives and creative
standards retain their single provenance, we see a divergence in the
practical realities of working in traditional advertising and commercial
online publishing, and have reflected that in the establishment of Media
How much agency structures will need to alter, however, as convergence
comes into sharper focus in the agency world’s perspective, remains to
be seen. The consensus is that the hands-on approach of companies such
as Media Direction will be closer to the eventual solution than the TV
’The fact is that no strategic thinking, let alone any real creative
work, can really be done outside the agency - for instance, down the
road in a production house - and I think that is what agencies are now
going to start to realise,’ Alex Letts, the president of Publicis
’I think the position of the programming side of new media, on the other
hand, is still up for grabs. In the immediate future, programming
departments will probably become outsourced digital studios that work in
much the same way as TV production companies, but agencies will have to
seize control of the creative and strategic side, or they are really
going to end up being left behind.’