Who’s afraid of the WWW?

Blinded by technology, marketers have allowed the Web to become a niche area. But it should be a mainstream medium, says Bruce Haines

Happy Birthday WWW! It’s 15 years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee launched the worldwide web to keep track of “all the random associations that one comes across”. We’ve come a long way since then, but the way our industry develops work for the Web makes the word “random” still seem appropriate.

The Haystack Group’s recent survey of client views on how advertising agencies are handling the provision of digital services makes depressing, but not surprising, reading. And, as usual, one can look to both sides of the client/agency interface to find the reasons. Both have become transfixed by technology rather than regarding it as simply a mechanism through which brands can communicate with consumers.

When commercial television first appeared, agencies and clients didn’t bother to comprehend how a cathode ray tube worked – or even to fully understand how film-makers wove their magic to shoot commercials. They just accepted it as an exciting, fast and persuasive route to a sale. In the 1950s, the people who had previously only written copy for press and posters quickly learned the skills to write for TV. So why haven’t we taken that approach to new media?

Perhaps one answer is that it’s only recently become obvious what new media is actually for. I remember attending client meetings only ten or 12 years ago when we advised that &£50,000 of the budget be set aside to “play” with the internet – to experiment, to see what it could do and what it couldn’t. Those clients found the investment paid back in spades. But even so, the agency giving the advice wasn’t the agency that did the playing. It was considered too specialised a skill.

Today, to compound the problem, the creative agency is rarely in the room when the media budget is discussed and agreed.

Somehow, some day soon, we will have to work together to join up the dots. Despite significant changes in consumer behaviour, investment in the true potential of digital media remains at levels that common sense would suggest are too low.

Evidence shows most clients are spending 1% of their budgets or less on digital media, a smaller group spends 5-10% and a very small percentage (mostly in financial services) upwards of 25%. Of all of those, you can bet your bottom dollar that most of the clients buying those services will not be the same marketers who are clients of the ad agency. Clients have siloed the responsibility for commissioning work – and the communication industry has matched it.

This has to change. We keep hearing about the digital revolution but, in reality, that hasn’t happened yet. We’ve read the figures and all but the ostriches among us accept we are about to witness an all-out explosion of activity as agencies and clients seek to catch up with consumers.

The emergence of new communication technologies and the complexity of managing campaigns across a diverse array of media has led marketers to spend much more of their time managing large agency portfolios and less time focused on developing brand ideas.

Another survey, this time by McKinsey, shows marketers blame the plethora of new media vehicles for driving up costs and pushing down return on investment, as they struggle to manage specialist agencies and in-house teams. For clients there are obvious additional costs related to extra heads in marketing teams structured by discipline, procurement, travel and handling multi-agency relationships. Budget restraints have squeezed agency margins which, in turn, limits agencies’ ability to invest in developing the skills to service client needs in this vital communication area. If, 15 years ago, we could have foreseen what was going to happen, I think it’s true to say we wouldn’t have ended up here.

The truth is, the future of marcomms is digital. So digital, in fact, that the term “digital marketing” will become all but redundant as all disciplines switch to that kind of mindset – as has happened at media agency Carat. It is essential that both clients and agencies are open to all new technologies, but the pace of learning and cross-fertilisation will be slower if the process is not managed by one integrated team.

I don’t doubt the problems that integration will bring – I’m leading such a movement myself – but I also have no doubt that if we don’t get to grips with this issue soon we will have missed the biggest opportunity since the birth of television.

As Leo Burnett said: “Growing-pains can seem unbearable, but they are nothing compared with the pain of standing still”.â¢

Bruce Haines is group chief executive officer of Leo Burnett London

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