Media Forum: Is media suspicious of Google?

There are still feelings of resentment towards the company, Alasdair Reid writes.

How can you tell if a computer geek is an extrovert? Answer: because when he talks to you, he stares at your shoes.

Google has come so far in such a short space of time that you somehow assume that it is a fully formed, grown-up company. It isn't. According to some critics, in terms of management sophistication and in terms of the way it presents itself generally to the commercial world, it has all the gawky charm of a bright but somewhat maladjusted adolescent.

And then, of course, there's the technology angle too. Successful companies at the leading edge of the second dotcom boom are often driven by extremely clever people who, with all the best will in the world, cannot exactly be regarded as rounded individuals.

All of which might help to explain the charges of arrogance laid at the door of some individuals in some internet companies - such as, for instance, Google.

The UK ad industry's particular take on this is rooted in Google's announcement, back in October 2005, that it planned to do away with traditional agency commission. No debate, no discussion, take it or leave it - and to add insult to injury, it began implementing its new incentive scheme, called "best practice funding", within weeks of the announcement, on 1 January 2006.

This caused no amount of grief at agencies, which had made financial planning assumptions based on the old trading arrangements. Interestingly, though, this turbulence coincided with the hiring of a UK boss who has more of an idea about how the world works - Mark Howe, formerly IDS's sales boss.

Howe has been at Google for a year now and last week he made (for the ad industry at least) his most important hiring to date. Jonathan Gillespie, formerly the head of radio at OPera, has joined in a newly created role overseeing relationships with UK agencies.

But are there still undercurrents of resentment towards the likes of Google? And does this appointment herald a new desire to work more productively with its media agency customers?

Mark Howe, the UK sales director of Google, argues that the company has been misunderstood: "We introduce new products very fast and because of this, and because of the technology involved, this can mean a very challenging ecosystem for agency practitioners. Many agencies have embraced these opportunities and the strong growth of the search marketing industry underlines this fact. I applaud their creativity. But sometimes our innovation and willingness to challenge the status quo is misinterpreted by some as a disregard for traditional industry practice."

But Robin O'Neill, the head of online trading at Group M, thinks that there are still some feelings of negativity stemming from Google's introduction of best practice funding. He says: "The way it was communicated and the timescale involved was not what you'd expect from a professional organisation. We were disappointed there wasn't more consultation and a longer lead time. In its defence, though, I think it's been improving and now welcomes constructive feedback. Everyone has to work with Google and we have always been keen on the levels of innovation that it offers - but we would like the relationship to be better."

Tellingly, however, Steve Huddleston, BT's head of media, is not entirely sympathetic to the media agency view. He points out that Google's inventory is auctioned, which isn't the case with conventional offline media: "It's true the media agency business model has been coming under pressure - but that is sometimes of their own doing. Media agencies would never have told old (offline) media owners to change the way they do things because they know there would have been a deathly silence. The truth is, at BT we would struggle not to do business with Google and we have no set view on whether that should be handled out of house or in-house."

Charlie Dobres, the founder of i-level, says he can't really agree with that - though he does concede that bringing more traditional media people in is the right thing to do. He explains: "They tend to be good at grown-up relationships, which hasn't been Google's strength. But Gillespie's role will be to ask agencies to suspend disbelief because he'll have no latitude on what he's allowed to do. I think Google has to be careful. Other search engines are coming along and Google is looking to widen its stable of offerings into advertising areas outside of search. So it needs to build goodwill because people in advertising have long memories."

NO - Mark Howe, UK sales director, Google

"The agency discount compromised Google's auction system and its removal has delivered a level playing field for advertisers. We are investing in helping agencies help their clients make the most of the value we offer."

MAYBE - Robin O'Neill, head of online trading, Group M

"If Google takes the attitude that it can do whatever it wants, then that will fuel resentment. It has been doing a lot more to involve agencies. I think there's every indication that Google now welcomes feedback."

NO - Steve Huddleston, head of media, BT

"For advertisers, Google's new way of doing business might be seen as the shape of things to come and it's interesting to see the preconceptions there are on the agency side about how online media owners should behave."

YES - Charlie Dobres, founder, i-level

"The new person will have a tough job because policy comes out of the US and the aim is to disintermediate agencies. A lot of Google's business has never come through agencies. That's why it steamrollered the commission thing through."

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