When Online Advertising Isn’t Enough

It happens, and it happens rather frequently. You run online ads alongside a few other types of media, and, at the end of the day, the spreadsheets don’t give the online media the most efficient rating. There might be some print and direct mail. Perhaps some TV. Maybe even some alternative online media like direct email, online promotions, or an online loyalty program. What’s a media buyer to do?

We could take a page from traditional advertising and claim that there are “branding” benefits missing from the spreadsheet numbers. Television and print have come a long way representing that a good part of their value comes from a certain je ne sais quoi. We see the larger online media vendors hyping the studies, showing a certain layer of branding clothing the naked, direct benefits of online media. I give them full credit, as they seem to show consistent results; but, in the end, clients often look to very specific behavioral measures — like who bought what.

Some agencies have the luxury of being able to adjust the media mix of a campaign, letting the success in the market determine how much spending goes into which medium. But this luxury isn’t available to most agencies. Often, any particular agency operates only within a limited number of worlds — maybe online media and traditional media. Maybe just online media and traditional promotions marketing.

Very few of us actually retain the media neutrality required to be agnostic about all these choices — it requires a diversity and scale that few agencies achieve without becoming large, overly bureaucratic companies, and don’t get me started on those.

The very biggest agency organizations frequently have an implicit policy of pushing clients into the media with the largest profit margin. “Yes, sir, that $80 million would be best spent on 10 network television contracts.” Of course, that did a lot of good to the tens of hundreds of Internet start-ups last year that blew through their VC funds. And there, but for the grace of common sense, go we.

Most buyers in the industry face a strange, invisible wall. They find vendors — maybe online loyalty-program vendors or email-marketing-program vendors — and they realize that the ROI is superior to throwing more money into the online media. But somehow they can’t get their respective organizations to start using these folks.

The creatives push back, saying that this isn’t part of their job description. The media director doesn’t quite know how the number results of this new service compare to the number results of other media work. The account folks turn their noses up at anything that isn’t “mainline” advertising, worried that their peers will see them as matchbook-cover marketing hacks. And, not to cast aspersions too widely, the media buyers themselves tend to want to consider only those options that compare directly with the other media offers they know and use.

I’ve found that in these situations, the most reasonable listener in all of this is usually the client. The client has the vested interest to spend the money in the best way, regardless of the status of the medium.

Sometimes that invisible wall isn’t so invisible. Agencies become quite conflicted when a client divvies up the different media among different agencies. So when your agency gets assigned online media, you better make darn sure that you’re spending every dime on online media. Or else. This is the most stifling type of relationship, and it makes us all somewhat dishonest. We become like lawyers who know our clients are guilty. We become honorable advocates of the wrong.

The correction to this blindness comes from the grassroots level of buying organizations everywhere. It’s the earnest, lowly media buyer who asks the uncomfortable question “Why not?” Why not spend a portion of the media buy on nontraditional online options? These folks often find the answers, like those listed above, insufficient or unacceptable. And it’s this pressure that slowly gets agencies to broaden their perspectives.

I speak as someone who’s built several large online agency organizations into very large groups, and I know that people like me — looking at the big picture, managing at the top — are incapable of introducing change like this. It’s the very lowest level of the agency, as it’s always been in the online world, that really knows what it’s talking about. People like me need to learn to listen and to accept the experts’ advice on what’s best for our clients.

Because in the long term — yes, there is a long term in this industry — that’s what will make our agencies stand out.

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