Every now and then, we're given a reminder of the fact that the digital medium is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy. Last week, it was the announcement by ZenithOptimedia that it was to roll out its Zed brand across all European markets - and the focus will be on Zed's role as the network's vehicle for digital media, especially strategic planning and search marketing.
Two somewhat contradictory thoughts spring immediately to mind. First, the assumption that Zed was surely already an international brand. But second, having digested the fact that it wasn't, there's a gnawing suspicion it's a bit late to be developing a standalone digital brand, especially when an increasing number of people believe you don't need one. Digital is just another facet of the mainstream media picture these days, isn't it?
Most media agency bosses talk a good game when it comes to digital. They have been to the conferences, they have noted the online revenue growth figures and they're well-versed at dropping words such as "convergence" and "mobile" into the conversation. And yet there's sometimes a suspicion that the closer you get to the business end of this market, the more confused the picture becomes.
That's probably the product of its rollercoaster history. Some media agencies bought digital operations here, there and everywhere during the first phase of the digital boom and when the crash followed, some failed to take it as an opportunity to tidy up disparate portfolios of investments.
Other networks, which had attempted to grow their own expertise organically, have also been inconsistent in their investment histories - bequeathing a similarly patchy spread of expertise across their networks.
1. Most of the major media specialist networks in Europe offer digital operations as sub-brands. Thus: Starcom Digital, Initiative Digital, OMD Digital. Zed is closer to a real standalone brand but it's related to a mother agency within Publicis Groupe. Its boss will be Frederic Joseph, currently the head of ZenithOptimedia's digital resource in France. Its pan-European clients will include Toyota, HP, Puma and British Airways. Joseph will report to Steve King, ZenithOptimedia's global chief executive.
2. The capabilities of Aegis and WPP demand special consideration owing to their range and complexity. Aegis launched Isobar as an umbrella brand for its digital agencies in July 2004 and as a focus for continuing acquisition. Recent purchases include Molecular, Prospect and Ammo in the US, Farfar in Sweden and glue London in the UK. Its main network brand is Carat Interactive.
3. WPP has the broadest range of digital assets of any of the holding companies - including four international digital media networks: MindShare Interaction, MEC Interaction, OgilvyOne Worldwide and Media.Com. MEC Interaction emerged last June from the merger of Wunderman Media, the Digital Edge and Outrider Worldwide. MindShare Interaction was created in January following the disintegration of MOne, which was created in April 2003 from the merger of mDigital and OgilvyInteractive. Media.Com also includes the Beyond Interactive brand, mainly in the US.
4. The most prominent independent digital network is Profero, which has offices in Paris, Munich, Madrid, Milan, London and across Asia-Pacific. London is home to i-level, which has a UK focus but also undertakes international campaigns.
5. The European pecking order, in terms of billings, technological expertise and network consistency, is disputed. But many observers agree that Isobar, MindShare Interaction and Zed (when rebadged across Europe) are in a leading pack.
6. Reliable or comparable European billings figures are almost impossible to come by, with the US-owned companies citing Sarbanes-Oxley as a reason for withholding their figures.
7. Some observers say most of these networks are incredibly flawed. Typically, they boast one or two centres of excellence, a chain of workmanlike offices in other major markets and a token nameplate presence in smaller markets. International business is rarely won independently - it's usually a case of servicing the mother agency's clients.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Advertisers will be encouraged by signs that their agencies are continuing to give digital the highest of priorities.
- On the other hand, clients have tended to be conservative in their approach - there are few separate digital pitches. But they are well aware that digital technologies will increasingly be at the heart of developments in all media.
- However, some might be tempted to see this latest phase of media agency network branding as merely the latest passing fad in the sector's development.
- Soon, they will all have to grasp the nettle - putting digital at the very centre of their mainstream media offering. The media companies that have the strongest digital spin-off brands may eventually find this process rather painful.
- Independent agencies have consistently argued that attempts by the big holding companies to construct digital network brands have tended to act in their favour.
- Advertisers, they argue, aren't fooled. Some digital marketing techniques need so much finesse that (at this stage of the market's evolution, at least) you have to appoint the real experts, whether they are part of a network or not.