Develop Your Own In-House Creative Team

Let’s look at an approach that will give publishers a great deal more say about the long-term viability of an e-zine: How about developing your own in-house agency?

First, a disclaimer: This is not an original idea.

Back in the fall of 1996, when Adam Green and I were preparing to launch DaveCentral, we met with the online publishing team over at ZDNet (now a wholly owned subsidiary of CNET).

Initially, we went in to discuss a banner campaign that we hoped to run with them, but the meeting expanded way beyond a simple banner campaign. The folks there were brimming with ideas and approaches we might want to take to make DaveCentral unique, compelling, and magnetic.

They not only came up with some clever and edgy banners, they offered ideas that became central to our overall strategy. They formed a bond with us that went well beyond what one would expect from an online publisher.

That experience stayed with me as ClickZ began to grow. You may not be aware of this, but ClickZ has two offices, one in the greater Boston area and one in Los Angeles. The L.A. office, truth be told, is ClickZ’s in-house agency.

ClickZ Creatives Work With Clients

There we have a small but incredibly gifted team of designers and programmers whom I’d be confident to match up with the creative groups from many leading agencies. Not only are they talented, but they are incredibly customer-centric in their work. They are the most vocal in speaking up for both the readers and the sponsors when we discuss changes in design and flow.

When a client (like our good friends at BURST! Media) signs on to sponsor a column like the one you are reading, a member of our creative team contacts the client and initiates a relationship that lasts the life of the sponsorship.

That individual, Adam Hellman, consults with the client to develop the look and feel of the page and keeps an eye out for new developments at the company or its web site so that the branding and messaging are current. All of our creatives are “people persons” and develop great rapport with our clients.

We don’t shield our creative and technical team from clients; we showcase them.

But why go to the bother of having your own in-house agency when there are zillions of agencies out there serving clients? Doesn’t that put you in a competitive position with agencies?

Well, yes and no.

The Problem With Agencies

There are a few problems in dealing with media buyers and agencies.

Generally speaking, you interact with a media buyer. Only rarely do you actually get to speak to someone from the company the media buyer represents. In essence, you are nothing more than a commodity.

Your ability to offer anything unique, customized, or special for the client is severely hampered. The buyer probably has no direct contact with the client. The buyer’s interest is in getting you to submit your response to his or her standardized RFP, which doesn’t provide much room for anything beyond a standard Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) banner campaign.

If you seek to propose anything beyond the standard, you need to put it in a form that is understandable and digestible enough for the buyer to be able to present it to his or her supervisor, who most likely has little interest in passing it on to the people who manage the account. The supervisor just wants to get the campaign planned out. The odds of a client actually seeing your proposal is pretty slim.

Given that you know and understand your site and audience better than most media buyers ever will (in their defense, how could they possibly keep track?), you can go a lot further dealing directly with clients than going through an agency.

Rather than running a short-term, low-cost banner campaign, you can develop a long-term sponsorship that actually works for the client.

Rather than punching numbers into a template that is digested and passed along through numerous intermediaries, you work together in a creative fashion to accomplish the client’s objectives.

Relationships Matter

You develop a RELATIONSHIP with the client. You cease being a row in a spreadsheet. You become a partner, not some faceless third party.

There are, however, a few enlightened agencies out there that are more than glad to work with our creative team and, in order to enable us to better serve their clients, actually give us access to them. Our job in that situation is to make the agency the hero, not us. And we honor that relationship because we remember who brought us to the dance.

Unfortunately, those are the exceptions.

Our best relationships have generally been those in which we work directly with the clients. These relationships have been long term and mutually profitable. It’s far less likely that there will be receivable problems and far more likely that we’re on a first-name basis with the clients.

In these difficult economic times, everything you can do to strengthen the bonds you have with your advertisers will work to your favor. Every layer that separates you from them weakens your position, making you far less likely to retain that client in the face of cutbacks and budget reductions.

In order to build to and maintain profitability, you need to avoid becoming a commodity at all costs. Stand out from the rest in every way. Offer more, not less.

Just remember, the direction that commodity pricing flows in is always down. Specialized, custom, and rare items are usually priced high and maintain their value for the long run.

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