Internet Salad Days

You will recall Gramercy Park Advertising, the mythical downtown ad agency created by Messner, Vetere (the real-life Manhattan hot shop) to help sell MCI’s business-to-business products. Gramercy Park’s campaign was an instant hit, spawning other rollouts and even a mini-series.

It recalled in spirit what Fred Gwynn (the late TV comic… AKA Herman Munster) created in a copywriting stint at J. Walter Thompson in the late ’50s, inventing a freelance writer on the giant Ford account whose “work” was so good that the non-existent freelance allegedly was routinely copied on call reports and invited to agency meetings.

I’d like to continue the kind of advertising invention that bright stars like Fred and Gramercy Park pioneered, with a new dot-com flair that explores the real-life impact of our media dot-com world. With the sounds and words of two media experts talking by computer near Washington Square Park, just a pleasant stroll down from Gramercy Park itself.

It’s Monday morning and an electronic debate is raging between Babs and Denise, our “Gen X” media heads on the agency’s Intranet – on the “instant-messaging-chat-war-room.” The issue is whether the agency’s HTML, new business presentation should emphasize media planning or media negotiation/stewardship. This is for a credentials pitch on Thursday.

Babs, a native of Bangalore, India, (the Silicon Valley of the Far East), is director of media planning and has the virtual floor as he types:

“Denise, we need to emphasize planning because it’s more conceptual and thus on a higher pecking order than buying. Remember when rich media reps used to call on producers and project managers to sell in their stuff? First they had to call on media strategists to get the big picture right. Dot-com media choices are so much more robust and varied that planning must first ensure that the client’s online thinking and strategies are sound. Media negotiation and implementation are tactics, and take their rightful place down the pike once direction and strategy are nailed down.”

Denise, a Chinese-American director of media negotiation still thinking about her weekend, fires back:

“Listen #26 (Babs’ old baseball #), no one’s debating the pecking order. But how will you ever know what direction to choose unless you know the media options? It’s this vital back end that makes this medium different from offline. Measuring the rich and robust feedback/response from a client’s investments online is what wins the day over television or radio. Why get hung up on strategy? This marketer is new to the Internet and needs to learn the playing field. Educate first… de-mystify the Internet haze… then they’ll sense how to grab onto the controls and take charge of their identity. And that begins by demonstrating what the capabilities of online communication really are.”

Babs, who sips his black coffee and momentarily wishes he were going to “the stadium” to catch the Yankees in the playoffs, patiently replies:

“Yes, yes 99 (sarcastic reference to his number and “Get Smart”) – it’s getting ugly, but without context. The Energizer bunny dancing across the banner or interstitial is confusing and distancing. We have to understand the client’s primary concerns and needs first, and these almost invariably tend to be conceptual. Planning is the front end of the horse; negotiation, trafficking and reporting bring up the rear.”

Denise is sipping her second Starbucks and imagining herself back at the spa when she replies back to this “country mouse” (a dig at his traditional background):

“While planning has to coordinate all the client’s initial processes, every brand manager wants to know how we’ll interact with media suppliers on their behalf. That’s half of why they’re seeing us and not their AOR in the first place. This is a new business pitch, Babs. We have to demo our full-service capabilities – research, analysis, production, negotiation, stewardship, verification. And we have to show how we think about all these things, which means laying out the types of properties we think they should consider. Not paper buys, but directional digital insights. How can you not agree with this?”

Babs considers the minutes that are slipping away as the agency comes to life around him, sighs, and creates the compromise that has brought him wealth and fame all his life in the industry:

“Okay. I’ll agree. I’ll agree that the media, creative and production processes each include at least 40 steps. So we separate the media piece into two groups: planning and negotiation/stewardship. This way the client receives a more efficient process, which lets strategists focus on a smaller list of key deliverables, so the work quality is top-notch. This is our critical difference. Let other online shops cobble planning and buying together, along with stewardship and ten other functions. Their media strategists end up doing everything, and that means they can’t do anything as well as we can.”

Denise high-fives her screen and writes with a big smile:

“Great. We’ll separate planning and buying, giving equal emphasis to each in the deck. I’m making a Starbucks run. You want a muffin?”

This made-up conversation takes place in reality every week… in at least one online media universe. The situation we see in all the Silicon Valleys, Forests, Deltas, Rockies, Prairies and Alleys across America today is that online agencies need to create a process both efficient and robust. One that can be offered to all clients economically. One that includes tangential elements specific to every business category. This is how successful online shops will separate themselves out from their bricks-and-mortar ad agency relatives, as they must.

Online media planning and media buying are two intrinsically different enterprises. They require different skill sets to bring higher value and quality to advertisers. And advertisers expect this – as well they might, since planning and buying have been separate entities in offline advertising for longer than most specialists today have been around.

Keen leaders like Babs and Denise recognize all this intuitively as they work to maximize their agency’s strengths. They know that the “salad days” of the Internet are behind us, when planning and buying were by necessity combined to eke out a profit.

With bigger quarterly budgets and Internet growth a solid reality, the model that’s always worked is working again. At Agency.com, we can apply emotion and feeling to abstract concepts, just as the two media pros above have shown. Out of a fictional conversation comes true-life marketing.

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