The best tool for the job?

With online set to topple TV as the major recipient of marketing expenditure, senior admen such as John Hegarty question whether brand owners really know how to exploit the medium, and if the Web can be used to build a brand from scratch by Dominic Dudley.

Online advertising is booming but John Hegarty, worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, has questioned whether the channel has ever built a brand from scratch without the help of traditional offline advertising (MW last week).

Unfortunately for the internet industry, most people agree with him. For all its success in attracting advertisers, branding is one area the internet has yet to crack. The challenge is to try to change that sooner rather than later.

Hegarty says: “We’ve got to start articulating examples of success in the online world. You’ve got to be able to say we did this and it built this brand. Where’s the brand building? There’s none. It is an incredibly exciting medium, but we’re still waiting to know how you build brands here.”

Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan grabbed the headlines recently by predicting that Google will soon overtake his company in terms of advertising revenue. But the truth is rather more nuanced. Google and other search engines are certainly bringing in billions of pounds of marketing money, but that goes on direct response advertising, rather than the branded campaigns that TV channels thrive on.

Tread Wisely
While the internet may be putting pressure on the likes of Duncan, high-profile names from the advertising world are starting to put pressure on the internet to prove its worth. In the past week Mike Hughes, director-general designate of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, warned that the internet could hurt rather than help brands, if used unwisely.

Hegarty, meanwhile, claims that brand owners are still too cautious when it comes to using the internet, although he suggests that the medium has yet to prove what it can offer them.

Comparing the internet to other media, Hegarty says: “Can you build a brand around football stadium signage? No, I don’t think you can. You use it as a means of presenting your brand to consumers and reminding them of it, but it’s not where you build a brand. If you look at television’s domination it’s because people really engage with it. The issue for online is how do people really engage with it? How is this medium working?”It is the sort of debate that many people involved in the internet wish was already behind them. A year ago the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) made a big push to get brand advertisers to move online. Yet, as the online industry gathers in London this week for the IAB’s annual Engage conference, it is clear that there is still much to do.

“We’re encouraging people to do more in terms of brand awareness,” says IAB marketing manager Kieron Matthews. “Obviously, direct response is tried and tested. The internet is about engagement and interaction. With the advent of broadband, people can do much more. [Brand owners] are realising the audiences are out there and can be very closely targeted.”

While the internet has proven to be fertile ground for several companies to become multi-billion pound behemoths, companies like Amazon and Dell rely heavily on traditional offline advertising techniques to build up their brands.

There are small signs of change. Mini recently ran an online campaign developed by digital agency Profero called “The White Rabbit”. It took viewers who chose to click on the ads through a series of niche websites with Mini ads running within them. It makes its intentions clear by stating in the first ad “This is not the way to the Mini site”. But such campaigns are the exception rather than the rule and in any case tend to be restricted to brands that are already well established.

Persuasive Failure
If there is one company that ought to be able to persuade more branded advertising to move onto digital platforms it is ITV. The broadcaster already has strong relationships with advertisers and is putting increasing resources into its online activity, but it has struggled at times.

It has failed to sell the digital sponsorship around Coronation Street, for example, with industry observers claiming that advertisers saw little value in competing for attention against Cadbury’s well known association with the top-rating programme.

It has had more success elsewhere. Supermarket chain Iceland is the sponsor for the new series of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, taking a package which includes mobile and online activity as well as the broadcast programme. Love Island also had TV-style ads running around its site.

“Quite a high percentage of our advertisers do a branded advertising campaign,” claims Vanessa Kent, ITV’s recently appointed controller of online sales. However, she does not say how much is branded rather than direct advertising.

If more branded activity is to happen, then video advertising is likely to be a key issue. ITV, in line with other broadcasters such as CNN and MTV, is working out how best to make space available on its sites. “Video advertising is quite big and we’re working on that,” says Kent.

Advertising.com UK managing director Mike Peralta is also keen to promote the possibilities of video advertising, and says it will help accelerate the willingness of advertisers to view the internet as a branding medium. Peralta claims that 6% of ads across his network in the first half of this year were branded, but that figure has doubled to 12% in September.

However, Peralta acknowledges that it is difficult to find the metrics that prove the effectiveness of the branded ads. Another issue is persuading advertisers to make content to suit the internet. To date, most video ads are simply repurposed TV ads.

Empowering Users
The Marketing Store head of digital Gray Sycamore predicts that the next 12 months will see far more experimentation. “We’re going to see brands try out interesting stuff,” he says. “The question is how fast they will get on top of this. Most brands are struggling. Neither e-mail nor Web pages will deliver the brand experience. They need to find new things. The whole thing points to user-controlled experiences.”

The implicit problem with this last point is that it involves brand owners having to be both more imaginative and ceding control – and that will not come easily to many of them.

Hegarty adds: “They’ve got to understand this is a medium where you’ve got to let go. And they don’t want to.”

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