I-RECALL: Spotlight On - The AAR digital division. The AAR's new division marks digital media's coming of age. The general consensus is that the AAR digital service will work

The AAR has come a long way since the days when it was known as the Advertising Agency Register. When it first launched, it was basically a central clearing house where clients could go and watch a bunch of ad agency showreels. However, over the years it has evolved into a broader consultancy role - helping clients draw up pitchlists and select partners in a wide variety of fields, including design, direct marketing, media planning and buying, public relations and sponsorship.

The AAR has come a long way since the days when it was known as the Advertising Agency Register. When it first launched, it was basically a central clearing house where clients could go and watch a bunch of ad agency showreels. However, over the years it has evolved into a broader consultancy role - helping clients draw up pitchlists and select partners in a wide variety of fields, including design, direct marketing, media planning and buying, public relations and sponsorship.

It wasn't surprising, then, when the AAR announced last week that it is to launch a digital division. The new division is to be headed by Juliet Blackburn, previously the head of broadband marketing communications at BT, where she was responsible for launching BTopenworld. Before that she was BT's head of new media.

But what does the industry think? Is this a welcome development? How much of an impact will it make? And will it benefit some sectors of the digital world more than others?

Ajaz Ahmed, the chairman of AKQA, hopes that the AAR's service is relevant to the digital industry. He says: 'To provide clients with the most effective service, the AAR will need to understand the capabilities of the agencies that it recommends. Digital crosses the boundaries of creativity, strategy and technology and very few agencies have depth in all three areas.

'Digital agencies are evolving - I hope that the AAR and agencies will make the investment to ensure that our industry is presented effectively to clients.'

John Owen, a director of Starcom IP, says: 'It has to be a good thing. Agencies have had it reasonably easy in the new-business area. In the past, most of them didn't even have new-business directors. Up until recently, there has been so much demand that business has rolled in. The market has changed, obviously. Now there are lots of agencies with a hole in their client base.'

So the AAR's move will help to raise the profile of digital as an area that clients should get into. It will also help to consolidate the presence of new media within advertisers' marketing communications strategies. Too many of them, Owen insists, still regard digital as an add-on. But the AAR initiative will, he argues, sort the good from the bad on the agency side. He adds: 'People were getting work because they had dotcom after their name. This will help the better players emerge at the top.'

Many industry sources agree, broadly, with these points. However, some observers have one or two niggling worries. As one puts it: 'A worrying trend is that many clients have begun lumping all things digital together.

Obviously, there is a world of difference between what Deepend and i-Level - to take two arbitrary examples - have to offer. Unfortunately, there are people out there who don't appreciate that world of difference. If there's an AAR facility for the digital sector, it might be attractive for the sorts of clients who haven't been paying attention.'

Could it encourage a rationalising mentality? Maybe that will be a good thing, especially if it encourages more 'joined up thinking' - a clearer integration of digital into the full marketing equation. As the business matures - and the AAR's involvement is, surely, a clear marker of maturity - more business will be subject to a formal pitch process. Pitches cost money. That factor alone will make more clients keen to bundle up as many of their digital requirements as they can.

Sources at the AAR don't quite see it that way. They point out that they will recommend an informal 'workshop' pitch process where the digital sector is concerned. Agencies will not be expected to know every tiny detail of the client's business. They will be given ten days to prepare and then the client will come in and spend a few hours getting a feel for the agency and its capabilities. That will be a lot cheaper than the traditional ad agency pitch.

Is it likely to work? Bill Roberts, Modem Media's European business development director, believes it will. He doesn't agree that the AAR's involvement will favour full-service agencies. 'A lot of clients don't have more than the most limited experience in this area.

Some of them don't know what they are looking for, or even what they should be looking for. In that respect, they need impartial advice. It's in everyone's interest that clients ask the right questions - and it will benefit good agencies,' he says.

In fact, Roberts hopes that it will make more clients ask harder questions.

The hardest questions, he believes, are usually the right questions - those that determine whether the client and the agency are right for each other. This works both ways. Good agencies and good clients want relationships that are mutually appropriate.

He adds: 'Over the past couple of years, a lot of agencies have survived with smoke and mirrors, and they are the ones that will fear the AAR situation. But I can't see it changing the way clients structure things. If they intended to go for a single vendor, then they are still going to do that. If they want best of breed, then they'll get best of breed. Clients are more than capable of knowing if they have a niche need or not.'



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