Pitching Creative Versus Returns

Web advertising has changed so dramatically over the course of the past year that agencies — interactive agencies, in particular — have had to make serious adjustments in the way they service their clients and pitch new business. They’ve even had to reconsider the types of clients they approach.

Naturally, spending constraints have tightened with the markets, and media planners and buyers are expected to produce greater returns on ad dollars spent than ever before. This has developed a greater need for price negotiations and often means sacrificing high-profile ad placements for second-tier, performance-based ad placements.

But a major (and obvious) change that has occurred is that interactive agencies are servicing far fewer dot-com clients (mainly because there are fewer of them and they have less money to spend) and have shifted toward traditional advertisers as clients. It has become apparent that, as dot-com clients’ advertising dollars have shrunk, the traditional players have begun to seriously incorporate the Web in their global advertising plans.

A subsequent change in the overall agency game is the way an interactive agency pitches new business. The older Web-based clients, for the most part, are quite familiar with the Internet as an ad vehicle and have always been comfortable allocating their dollars there. However, as traditional clients continue to show more interest in advertising on the Web, the way interactive agencies approach these clients has changed as well.

Big, traditional advertisers are used to being pitched by traditional agencies, many of which sell themselves on their creative capabilities. Because most traditional media-buying options have been around for so long, almost every traditional agency has strong relationships with all the major advertisers, and pricing is fairly set.

Of course, media is still media and is always negotiable, but traditional media pricing is more standardized than interactive media pricing (although interactive media pricing is starting to stabilize). Basically, advertisers are more easily sold on a traditional agency’s ability to create a fresh corporate image or a great creative ad campaign. Much of the back-end fulfillment (planning, buying, trafficking, etc.) is often overlooked since it seems to be a more standardized service.

But this is an area where interactive agencies differ. When pitching traditional advertisers, it’s often a bigger hurdle to sell the Internet as a viable advertising vehicle than it is to sell your agency’s qualifications. Naturally, the biggest difference with the Web versus most other media is that it offers a way to measure and optimize campaigns.

Therefore, a large amount of an interactive agency’s sales effort is often focused on the actual medium itself and the back-end fulfillment capabilities, rather than simply on a creative pitch that the advertiser generally expects from traditional agencies.

The ultimate goal of advertisers is to generate ROI. And they do this through branding. Those familiar with online media buying also understand how pricing resembles a virtual flea market, where someone who doesn’t truly understand how far their ad dollars can go on the Internet will likely suffer, whether they realize this or not at the time of purchase. Therefore, ROI via branding on the Web can be attained through aggressive media buying and optimization, often more so than with a brilliant (traditional) ad-campaign theme. Purchasing text links and search results are perfect examples of this.

As impressive as these features are to those of us behind the scenes, the traditional client still seems to be more easily sold on an agency’s creative capabilities rather than on its overall fulfillment services that allow for the client’s dollars to be far better spent.

People are most impressed with creative visuals — and this is very apparent when someone sees a piece of creative. I remember a strategy meeting that I held with a client and a market research firm. The client was a real marketing guru with deep roots in traditional advertising, taking his shot at the dot-com dream. The conversation was all numbers and acquisition strategy; no creative aspect was on the agenda.

Toward the end of the conversation, I pulled out a few color printouts of some creative mockups I was going to introduce at the end of the meeting and put them on the table in front of me. The client’s eyes were immediately fixed on my printouts, his concentration on the topic at hand lost. Realizing I had created a distraction, I pushed the printouts aside; but, still, the client could not take his eyes off them. Needless to say, all we discussed from that point on were the creative mockups!

The fact remains that even the most strategic thinkers are visual thinkers. This is a concept that interactive agencies (like mine) are realizing as they adjust with the markets and reconsider the types of clients they approach. It’s just one critical part of an interactive agency’s overall strategy that needs to change as the industry matures.

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