Advertising on the Brink of Interactive

Finally, ad agency managers have woken up to the realization “We’ve gotta be doing interactive!” This should be great news. Except that for many of them, “doing interactive” now means spending millions of dollars building databases, housing servers, and buying up interactive shops. Why, I ask, does the pendulum always seem to swing so far the other way?

In the early 1950s, the future of ad agencies turned on the battle cry “We’ve gotta be doing TV!” Of course, they made the transition. But it’s important to note that they didn’t build sound stages. Nor did they erect 70-story antennas. Or buy TV stations. And they didn’t staff up with DPs and lighting crews, either. They didn’t NEED to. They were content to remain advertising agencies.

So here comes the next big ad medium – and, excuse me, could someone tell me how the situation’s fundamentally different than what we saw with the advent of TV? Yet today, ad agencies are drifting into uncharted waters, committing long-term to things that have never been (and probably should never be) part of their business plans. This is serious stuff – dramatically changing the nature and scope of a mature business model without ever notifying the shareholders!

If management is unable to get a handle on interactive, perhaps it’s because “interactive” often means so many different things. The question management needs to answer is: “What about this new medium is relevant to ad agencies?” Again, in the early days of TV, the answer was crystal-clear. Ad agencies knew their role was advertising: creating it, placing it, managing it. Packing film? No. Applying makeup? Not for profit, anyway. Lighting sets? Absolutely not.

So should ad agencies concern themselves with interactive ad production? No. But, as with TV, they should master the medium to the point of being able to brilliantly conceive and direct it.

Should ad agencies concern themselves with the actual “serving” of interactive media? No. But they should be able to plan and buy online media with the same expertise, creativity and clout that they bring to the traditional media.

Should ad agencies concern themselves with measuring online media? No. But they should understand the issues inside and out so that they can analyze and interpret third-party audits of interactive ad performance and be able to explain them to clients. In plain English.

You get the idea. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that ad agencies are optimized to be players in the ad business. They aren’t properly set up to offer clients such unrelated “interactive” capabilities as database management or e-commerce any more than they’re able to offer unrelated “traditional” services like 800-number telephone fulfillment or sweepstakes management.

Ad agencies may attempt to provide these wonderful things and more, but at what cost? “A jack of all trades, a master of none” is one way to go. But the great ad agencies have always chosen the singular path of focusing on creating better ads.

So what’s a panicked agency manager to do: Watch as his clients give away interactive assignments like it’s Christmas? Are ad agencies supposed to just sit still while all sorts of known and unknown competitors pick the locks on the client’s back door? What’s wrong with evolving to better serve the changing needs of the client? (Answers: no; no; nothing.)

As long as we keep our heads, ad agencies will make an intelligent transition to interactive media. But it’s imperative that strong agency managers resist the urge to be “everything interactive” to clients – and instead lead along lines that build upon an agency’s core competencies.

This doesn’t necessarily mean turning work away. What it does mean is that ad agencies should be negotiating strategic alliances right now with the myriad companies out there that can actually provide their clients with e-commerce, database management and sundry other interactive services.

Agencies can learn to manage interactive projects much the same way they manage other projects – like TV or radio production, for example – using contracted vendors. We need to keep the faith in what sets us apart as trusted marketing partners in our clients’ businesses: strategic planning, marketing research, conceptual thinking, creative execution, media, PR. Interactive agencies alone simply can’t offer clients the brand-building expertise and creative focus of a topflight, full-service ad agency. End of story.

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