FMCG companies have frequently been lambasted for being slow to adopt the internet as a serious advertising and marketing medium.
With the rise and fall of the dotcom world causing a mass of burnt marketing fingers, this early criticism of the FMCG sector is now being reassessed as wise caution towards an untested platform.
However, experience has been garnered, research has been published and the possibilities of the internet are gaining momentum within FMCG companies.
Procter & Gamble's move to hire a digital agency across a consolidated pan-European web design account is a departure from the more fragmented approach that has been the norm.
It is a sign that the company is taking digital seriously and seeking uniformity and consistency for its portfolio of health- and fabric-care sites (such as Ariel and Daz).
The pitch is understood not to include any of the digital divisions of P&G's above-the-line agencies in the UK. However, a report by the research agency Forrester, dating from December 2001 but still containing an element of truth, found that the use of separate digital agencies is a market-wide phenomenon. Sites designed by different agencies can make internal management and content changes difficult as well as being frustrating for consumers.
Some 74 per cent of marketers in the research stated that they used different agencies for digital and traditional media. This may well vindicate the criticism that above-the-line agencies pay lip service to digital and have lagged behind in developing in-house or standalone digital operations to service client needs.
P&G has certainly reserved the right to look broadly for the right new-media agencies to service its needs. Nadya Powell, the account director for P&G and Glaxo SmithKline at Grey Interactive, says: "P&G's policy is to work with roster agencies and, if they have a digital arm or skill, most of the time it will work with that resource. But P&G does have the right on the digital front to work with wider digital agencies."
Grey Interactive has little involvement with P&G's websites and primarily operates on the interactive television front. Glaxo SmithKline also fits this profile of seeking specialists if the case requires it, but shows a desire to keep work within the overarching advertising group if possible.
Andy Oei, the associate director of global e-marketing at Glaxo SmithKline, explains: "Depending on the requirements of the project, we go for the digital arm of the relevant advertising agency. For example, for an integrated campaign, we tend to work digitally with the agency that designed the campaign. But if it is a very bespoke piece of work, we look for a digital agency with a speciality."
However, many of the products that are produced by FMCGs are, well, boring - the purpose of a standalone web presence for every product has to be questioned.
The likes of P&G and Glaxo SmithKline have hammered out similar policies to focus digital investment on particular brands. For Glaxo SmithKline that means a two-pronged strategy, developed over several years, which varies depending on the online strength of each product.
Strong brands, such as Ribena and Lucozade, lead activity and have different sites in different markets. Often, the most successful site in a specific market is then developed globally. Sites such as Horlicks.com, which have a less developed online presence, are built around what Glaxo SmithKline calls a "centrally driven approach", with the whole online identity aiming to have a uniform look and feel.
In the early days of the internet, Unilever fell into the trap of developing websites for every product imaginable and at one stage it was reported to have the management nightmare of more than 75 sites to run.
When sanity prevailed and Unilever realised many products within the portfolio were low interest, strategy shifted and it concentrated on developing a presence for key brands such as Persil.
Last July, Unilever began to get its house in order with a rethink of its digital requirements, resulting in a major shakeout of the 30 or so agencies it used for creative projects down to a roster of just three - two of which are independent.
Zentropy Partners handles the media planning and buying for Unilever, and creative work for its Birds Eye Wall's division. Alastair Duncan, the managing director of Zentropy, says: "Unilever is a consumer-focused business. Over the past year, it has shown a desire to rationalise value from digital agencies and this will mean a smaller, more focused group delivering work."
While it is easy to criticise FMCGs for not having the clearest strategy, they are getting there and it is important to take into account the scale of the operations each handles. A supertanker takes a fair amount of time to turn around.
"You have to remember that digital is a specialist skill and it is tough to expect brand managers to understand it fully," Powell says. "It will take two or three years for a significant interactive marketing spend to develop but FMCGs will spend when it makes sense and that is likely to be on interactive TV."
And it is true that moves such as that of P&G show the increasing recognition of the importance of digital marketing as it matures to become a medium to be ignored at any brand's future peril.
"Big FMCGs' audiences are changing and consumer behaviour with the internet and mobile technology means marketing needs to change to reflect that," Powell says. "Mobile, in particular, will be key for promotion and impulse-purchase driving."