MEDIA FORUM: Can Eyre work his magic on digital advertising?

Could the appointment of Richard Eyre as the IAB's chairman make a difference, or is he too keen on too many things, Alasdair Reid asks.

The online advertising medium has recruited a new evangelist. And the appointment is rather appropriate really - the new chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau is none other than Richard Eyre. Who better to turn to when you want a bit of evangelising than the media industry's most prominent Christian? Appropriate also in that Eyre has worked miracles of a sort in two other media sectors. He raised the profile of radio immensely when he was the boss of Capital Radio and took on the ultimate challenge when he became the chief executive of the ITV Network.

And it was here that his magic was worked to its greatest effect as he charmed the birds from the trees and pacified the wild beasts of the media jungle, also known as advertisers, infuriated by rampant cost inflation.

In other words, his track record is second to none and there's no doubt that he's a smooth operator. Not that this is to everyone's liking in the online media industry. How come, the sceptics say, one minute he can talk so passionately and convincingly about ITV and the benefits of television in general and then the next claim to be digital's biggest fan? And wasn't he particularly sniffy about online media in some of his conference speeches a couple of years back?

"Is he really one of us?" as one agency source puts it. And another adds: "I'd be amazed if he hits the ground running. I'll be amazed he can talk at all convincingly about the pros and cons of online. It'll probably take him six months."

Doesn't this transparently opportunist hiring actually make the online industry look shallow, superficial and desperate, they wonder. Well, does it? What does the industry think of this appointment, especially the mainstream off-line practitioners who need persuading the most?

Mick Perry, the chairman of Magna UK, confesses he's an Eyre fan: "He's a charming, articulate and intelligent man - I've never met anyone who has a bad word to say about him. He's a fantastic presenter who cares passionately about everything he does. If he were to become an evangelist for advertising on match boxes then there are plenty of people who'd say, 'let's take a look at it'. I'd say that if perceptions need changing about digital media, then he is one of relatively few who can do it."

But, goodwill aside, does he face a huge uphill struggle? No, Perry says, and it's not as if agencies don't have people dedicated to new media.

"At Interpublic we have certainly taken the plunge. But, yes, there is a certain amount of caution when you're looking at something that is still a new medium. And we are going through a tough time in terms of advertising budgets. There is sometimes perhaps a tendency to cut from the bottom and work up. That might be a contributory factor."

Interestingly, though, many in the digital media industry itself imply that the battle has effectively already been won. Digital media is so powerful that its rise is a matter of historical inevitability, not something subject to the vagaries of rhetoric. But Eyre's appointment, if nothing else, will just add to that momentum, surely? And that will be nice, won't it? Absolutely, Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level, agrees.

He states: "Digital media has already turned the corner in terms of perceptions and usage by advertisers, so Eyre's job will be more about catching a wave than creating one. Because of his high profile as 'Mr Television', he will certainly be able to open doors and it is great to see that he's a convert to digital."

To back up his case, Dobres points to the revenue figures for 2002, which show the medium growing ahead of other major media. Or at least the estimated figures for 2002 show that. The truth is that the actual figures haven't been published yet. That aside, though, Dobres says that the online industry has a great deal of very convincing material to back up its arguments.

"There are effectiveness, research and case studies in spades," he says.

"That isn't the issue. The issue has always been to get online on the radar screen in the first place. It has been about getting people to see that it is a serious medium. Eyre will continue that. The appointment is very good news."

Robert Campbell, the executive creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, doesn't exactly share that optimism. And he doesn't believe that attitude is the problem, it's more engrained than that. He explains: "It's true that, in general, there is a deeply conservative attitude within agencies but the whole issue is really determined by the institutionalised way things are done at the client end and at the media owner. Until an advertiser backs lorry loads of cash up to the agency and tells them to get on and spend it in the best way, then things are unlikely to change in the short term. Cash is held in jealously guarded silos. That's just the way the industry is structured. But it's certainly good that someone's going to be addressing this."

The truth, Campbell adds, is that most of this stuff gets parked in the "too difficult" box: "Many clients come out with this thing that agencies aren't imaginative enough but it's usually just a stick to beat the agency with. There's a huge gap between the rhetoric and actually doing it. They don't free up the budgets. The whole drive is always to get a big TV commercial on air so that Millward Brown can measure it and that's because the people at the client end have people breathing down their necks.

"But, yes, creative directors are conservative. They get judged by the conventional reel they put out. They don't get judged by that clever thing they did last year. The way the industry is structured, no-one gets rewarded for thinking outside the box."

Well, is it true? That's certainly not been the experience of Paul Taylor, the chief executive of OMD UK - but he does agree that where knowledge is patchy on either the client or agency side, it may be difficult to get projects off the ground. But this is where Eyre's "bridge-building" skills will come into their own. Taylor comments: "Richard is a master of that and he is able to talk to clients, for instance, without agencies suspecting he's gone behind their backs. I think his appointment will be welcomed right across the industry. He's had exposure to the advertising world and the agency world and he knows how it all ticks. He will get access to all the relevant senior people - and he will certainly get this agency's ear. He will also be well aware of the way radio has evolved over the past decade. No longer is it an easily ignored and much-misunderstood medium. Now, more than anything, his appointment will mean that the digital sector will be seen to be robust."