Online/Offline Integration

I’ve lived through two historic and very formidable integration milestones. First was the American civil rights movement (not that I really remember it, but it was in my lifetime). Then there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which, as a resident of that city, I recall vividly. Both events were of immeasurable significance not only because of their positive social effect but also for their accompanying economic benefits.

If American business and social institutions could be integrated and Germany cobbled back together, how hard could it be to get online and off- to integrate and end years of lip service?

Harder than you might think. I’ve been shuttling from one industry event to another recently. AD:TECH; a Yahoo/Advertising Club lunch to honor top interactive creative; Jim Perdiew’s annual invitation-only gathering of top direct marketers; and our own Jupiter/ClickZ Advertising Forum. What’s remarkable is how all this shuttling still smacks of shuttle diplomacy. As Perdiew quipped, “Online and offline are still dating. Marriage seems a long ways off.”

The Yahoo/Ad Club lunch, to its credit, managed to get on- and offline advertisers literally to break bread with one another (the only event I’ve attended recently that did). I was seated next to a veteran executive at one of the top five agencies. In January, he’d been asked to form a group to integrate the online and offline operations at his global shop.

January?! Wasn’t this integration supposed to have happened, oh, three or four years ago?

Jupiter Research’s latest forecast shows the online advertising market is poised to grow to $16.1 billion in 2009, up nearly $10 billion from $6.6 billion in 2003 (leaving magazines in the dust). The day The Wall Street Journal jumped to report that news, the direct marketing (DM) folks I was with were utterly convinced our industry is in decline. A sought-after DM copywriter told me he flatly turns down all requests to write for online campaigns: email, Web sites, you name it. “There’s just not enough money in it.”

I had all this in mind when I pulled together an AdForum panel on the future of agencies. This month alone, Digitas gobbled up Modem Media; Avenue A reeled in Razorfish; and Grey E Marketing dissolved into plain old Grey Direct. I wanted to see what some of the heaviest hitters in this space, including (ClickZ’s own) Sean Carton from Carton Donofrio; Sarah Fay from Carat Interactive; Mark Kingdon from Organic, and Andy Hobsbawn from Agency.com, had to say about the Great Divide.

“The problem with integration in the past is that you just have different factions coming together, and it becomes a religious war,” said Fay. She’s pushing the concept of independent, neutral central strategy groups for each client — sort of in-house Switzerlands. Hobsbawn made a rather wry remark about how the milk of progress doesn’t always flow from cash cows. Carton, with characteristic bluntness, said the two sides aren’t sharing the information they could, or should.

During the Q and A, an audience member requested a show of hands. Who, among a few hundred attendees, worked at a traditional agency? One hand went up.

Yahoo’s chief sales officer, Wenda Harris Millard, who’s been in interactive since the beginning and in traditional for a few decades before that, believes 2005 will be the year of détente. Harris Millard unfurled a dizzying array of stats favorably comparing online usage and penetration to those of magazines, cable, and newspapers that made the thesis appear inevitable.

Still, other AdForum sessions underscored just how painful the transition will be. If traditional advertisers aren’t yet versed in how to create, price, or place simple banners or strategize a search campaign, how will they grapple with rich media, home page takeovers, placements on shopping search engines, or ads on blogs, RSS aggregators, and mobile devices?

They will because they’ll have to. Shopping.com’s Sean Behr surprised the audience and got MSN’s Gayle Troberman and eBay’s Jed Savage scribbling notes when he disclosed the two most-searched categories on his site are clothing, and home and garden — not laptops and software, as you might think.

Clearly, online isn’t just for geeks anymore. Integration may no longer be a goal but a fact of life. What remains to be seen is who follows the consumers… and the dollars. Global agencies? Will client-side marketers juggle a handful of small, specialized shops? Will major advertisers continue to engage one large agency for interactive and another for traditional?

No one ever said integration was easy. And though it’s usually a good idea in advertising, there isn’t any law.

Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies 2004 in San Jose, CA, August 2-5.

Vote for your favorite product or campaign from July 20 through close of business August 2.

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