It's encouraging to see i-level's campaign for EasyJet making it on to the shortlist for the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards. A first - but hardly, you might think, a surprising first. If anyone can prove the effectiveness of an advertising campaign, it's a specialist agency working for an online advertiser. This, after all, is supposedly the most accountable medium ever invented.
In online, you can apply pure direct marketing models where the effectiveness sum is usually a pretty simple one - response levels divided by media costs. And, sometimes, it's even more clear cut. When business plans are based on direct click-to-buy sales, the equation becomes revenue generated divided by media spend.
But we all know that things are not that simple. Take that oft-quoted legend that 90 per cent of online revenue still goes through ten or so websites. Not much evidence of thoughtful planning there, you might think.
And while we're at it, we could also point to last week's row over a low-price campaign click-through guarantee from Eyeconomy. Why would anyone want cheap clicks and nothing but cheap clicks? Surely the industry has moved beyond click-through as a useful measure of performance?
Is the industry really stuck at the starting gates when it comes to effectiveness? Is i-level's EasyJet campaign the exception? Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level, admits standards in the industry are patchy: 'Online should have a lot to teach other media but the truth is it still has a lot to learn. There are so many stories about what isn't happening in online but there's plenty of very positive stuff happening in pockets. There are two issues here - understanding what the effectiveness issues really are in online and then being able to go out and do it. I think we're really starting to see both aspects of that taking off.'
But it's advertisers, not agencies, who seem to be setting the pace here.
Advertisers such as British Airways, for instance, that have a presence in the US market. Clive Peoples, BA's head of digital marketing, states: 'We find we can get amazing accountability. The tools we use allow us to pin it down to individual media placements and we can do it during a campaign to optimise the campaign and really improve the results. A lot of this stuff is only available in the States. We're a global company and we do a lot of stuff out of the US office where we are involved in a lot of leading-edge stuff.'
Peoples points out that it's not just a case of having lots of numbers at your disposal. You have to be able to make sense of those numbers.
And you have to be prepared to apply appropriate effectiveness models. He adds: 'If revenue is the measure, great; but if it's customer acquisition, then we go that much more deeply into it, looking at the quality of respondents and their lifetime value. We also do brand impact studies. You can be information-rich but you have to integrate this with general marketing principles.'
One thing is sure - sophisticated advertisers such as BA seldom use click-through as a measure.
Simon Waldman, the head of Guardian Unlimited, would agree. He says: 'It's true that there is a huge drive for measurable results. We can't expect advertisers to look at this as a leap of faith. But you can't measure everything and there are privacy issues relating to some of the things people try to measure. It may be fantastic monitoring where people go and what they do (on the web) but as media owners we may feel that that's not the right way to treat our users. It's a matter of balance.'
Like Peoples, Waldman believes that it's also a matter of developing the sorts of models that take into account a wide enough range of criteria.
Worryingly, however, there are those who doubt the ability of UK agencies to deliver on that front. Peoples is certainly of that view but he's not worried - it means he can maintain a competitive advantage.
He states: 'There are some people who know their stuff but there are an awful lot who say 'let's stick to the tried and tested'. There is a lot to learn and there are a lot of people content to do what the previous generation did. The thing is that it takes a tremendous amount of resources to get to grips with this. So, yes, I'd say that agencies are not clued up when it comes to advertising effectiveness.'