However, this is not a scientific process. It is a highly subjective process, but it is our process and one with layers and nuances. If there were unanswered questions, we worked with what was offered. We looked for agencies that distinguished themselves vis-à-vis interactive media strategy and execution. We were interested in genuine agency capabilities - planning, buying, consulting, search, Web development services, media creativity and integration, and the use of emerging media.
After a thorough vetting, OMMA honors Starcom MediaVest Group's Starcom IP as the 2004 Agency of the Year. Starcom IP stood apart from the pack in having strong interactive media expertise and leadership, innovative use of technology, and integration of offline media, among other strengths. "There's a lot of substance there," notes Allie Savarino, senior vice president, marketing and sales, Unicast Communications, and a judge in this year's process. "They're putting their money where their mouth is all day, every day."
The judges find Starcom executives accessible and eager for feedback. Further, they say that Starcom IP and SMG are united in their evangelism of integrated media, "Rishad and Jack [Klues] are joined at the hip," observes Joe Jaffe, president of jaffe LLC, who was a member of the judging panel.
Starcom has "a very forward-thinking strategy, they're thinking [holistically] in terms of digital assets," notes Craig Calder, director of Motif sales and marketing, DoubleClick. "The whole focus is on the future. ...Most agencies [just] don't [focus on the future]," adds Riley McDonough, newly named senior vice president-consumer markets for WebMD Health. At the time of our judging process, McDonough was vice president of ad sales at ESPN.com.
We are eager to see what role Starcom IP will play in the P&G account this year.
Digitas earned silver kudos. An unconventional choice perhaps, because the agency isn't necessarily known as an interactive media power but in 2004, it surely was. Teaming with American Express, Digitas created one of the most memorable campaigns of the year using comedian Jerry Seinfeld and a beloved hero: Superman. Acquiring Modem Media was a good move; we await how it will play out in 2005. And when it comes to client service, "Digitas will ask you 'What can we do better?'" notes Chris Theodoros, director of agency relations at Google and a judge.
OMD Digital, which took silver last year, didn't earn our recognition this time. We are waiting to see what Sean Finnegan's newly expanded role will mean for the organization. The judges noted that OMD does a good job as a large media buying entity mobilizing big clients.
Carat Interactive earned all-around bronze honors for excellence in its work for Adidas, Vonage, Pfizer, and RadioShack, and for being savvy about the changes in the digital media landscape. Avenue A and The Digital Edge share honors in a new category, Ones to Watch, for giving us plenty of food for thought in 2005 and for having incredible potential. We gave AKQA a special creative honor for delivering striking and memorable work. Turn to page 44 for our list of the Top 50 interactive agencies.
Finally, we'd like to thank our judges for their insightful views and time. Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Forbes.com was among our group, as was Adam Herman, the former managing editor of this magazine who is senior vice president-integrated media director at Beyond Interactive. Herman sat in on the discussion, graciously offering his time and expertise. Jennifer Coleman, assistant managing editor, wearer of many hats, and my right hand, coordinated the entire process soup to nuts. Congratulations to the winners; we look forward to seeing you January 13. And to all the contenders, keep working to distinguish yourselves because 2005 could be your year!
With several of the company's executives touted as provocateurs and evangelists, it's no wonder Publicis Groupe's Starcom IP stands at the helm of innovation in media integration. Starcom IP, the online arm of media-buying company Starcom MediaVest Group, isconsidered one of the most influential agencies in the media world. In its brief life span, Starcom IP has steered big-brand traditional advertisers and content publishers alike into a holistic realm that transcends segregated media silos.
Not only has Starcom IP exhibited a clear understanding of the ever-morphing media landscape, the agency has succeeded in translating that message to skeptical advertisers, and thus takes the gold as OMMA's interactive agency of the year.
"Starcom is really very comfortable leading the market," observes Allie Savarino, senior vice president, marketing and sales at Unicast. "They're working to be better for clients before clients ask them to; that is exactly the kind of agency you know will always out-perform their competition."
The firm's prescience regarding the integrated media space no doubt extends from its unified approach, one which stems from its manner of dealing with clients, media outlets, and partners, as well as by its internal structure. Indeed, many industry insiders agree that singling out one component of the Starcom family does a disservice to the company's cohesive nature.
"In meetings, they're always talking about what the application is for TV, what the application is for print, what the application is for radio," explains Riley McDonough, vice president of ad sales at ESPN.com. "They're inclusive of all other media. ...It helps accelerate the thought process."
Imagine a traditional media planner insisting on a search engine marketing component for a campaign. That's precisely what happened in the planning stages of one large advertiser's campaign, according to Chris Theodoros, director of agency relations for Google.
"On the traditional side of the business, someone [at Starcom] ensured that search was a key component. ...People at all levels of the organization are paying close attention to the moving parts of the interactive space," Theodoros says, continuing, "It's not limited to the interactive departments. It goes from the executive management to the day-to-day planning teams."
"Starcom IP is one of the most integrated online agencies Yahoo! deals with," agrees Wenda Harris Millard, Yahoo!'s chief sales officer. "Their online team is very connected with their traditional media and strategy teams."
This forward-thinking approach appeals to Starcom IP's clients which include companies like Miller Brewing, Polaroid, Discover Card, Hallmark, and the U.S. Army, and helped to win the agency new business from Sara Lee, The Disney Store, and Walgreen's in 2004. Both new and existing client relationships contributed to an estimated 25 percent boost in organic growth in 2004 for Starcom IP.
The agency's attention to genuine cross-media integration throughout the organization reflects its insistence on applying knowledge gained through research and analysis of consumer behavior. As consumers gravitate to media content via multiple platforms like PCs, wireless handsets, gaming devices, and TV, often simultaneously, advertisers must change the methods they use to reach them.
Starcom IP has developed a framework by which planners and buyers can anticipate just how receptive consumers will be to messages delivered within various environments. Starcom's Contextual Temporal Mindset (CTM) technique involves correlating advertising messages with the consumer's motive for accessing specific content in a particular medium.
A Deep Bench
Starcom IP isn't alone in its ability to conjure up impressive-sounding methodologies. While capabilities like CTM play a role in the agency's success, they only go so far. The personalities within Starcom IP breathe life into what sometimes can be a dry subject matter.
Take, for example, Rishad Tobaccowala, Publicis Groupe's chief innovation officer and a founder of Starcom IP. Tobaccowala helped spearhead Starcom's broadband upfront efforts. The urgency with which he speaks about the new era of consumer control feels more like a sermon than a business engagement. During DoubleClick's 2004 Insight Conference, Tobaccowala put forth the proposition that the new-found control consumers have over media endows us with godlike qualities. "How will you engage God?" he asked a room full of interactive media executives.
"Talk to him for few minutes and your head is spinning," says ESPN.com's McDonough, adding, "The fact that you have someone like Rishad Tobaccowala shepherding this whole process with leverage from the CEO and a mandate to go out and explore, and put new programs together says a lot about the company." In essence, McDonough says, that mandate via SMG chairman and CEO Jack Klues, is: "We are going to work together."
The agency's singular mission to understand the ebb and flow of media is apparent. Jeff Marshall, president, and Tim Hanlon, director of emerging contacts, have been instrumental in leading the agency's charge into emerging media including interactive TV, broadband video, and wireless. Not only has the agency committed talent to discovering and exploring uncharted media territories, it's allocated resources to creating new divisions devoted to them. The firm's wireless unit, SMG Digits, and viral marketing division, SMG Reverb, both launched recently.
Clients Disney and Allstate have employed mobile marketing strategies through SMS Digits. In an effort to attract elusive and cynical young males, Allstate deployed a wireless campaign in 2004, realizing that young men use mobile devices to keep abreast of sports scores and highlights when they can't catch game broadcasts.
Through the Allstate Bowl Championship Series campaign, sports fans opted in to receive Allstate-branded wireless alerts via ESPN.com. This was tied in with Allstate's sponsorships of Bowl Championship Series Standings information on ESPN.com and on TV.
Starcom scored with a viral campaign it developed for Kellogg's Smorz, which was aimed at kids and teens, a group that's highly skeptical of advertising, but values recommendations from friends and family. Through the buzz-building effort, teens who expressed interest received cereal samples, product information, and a behind-the-scenes DVD featuring Smorz commercials; in turn, they spread the Smorz scuttlebutt to their pals.
Starcom's focus on alternative media led the agency to create SMG Play, a practice designed to connect marketers with gamers, and SMG TV 2.0, committed to educating clients about media opportunities via personal video recorders, video-on-demand, digital data-casting, and other emerging forms of video. The agency's commitment to understanding and acting on media consumption shifts was reflected in its so-called "Broadband Embrace," a video buying program modeled somewhat on network TV's annual upfront buying extravaganza. The initial 2004 round was tiny, yet it was a stake in the ground branding Starcom IP, as well as advertiser and publisher participants, as broadband video advertising pioneers.
"Starcom certainly led the demand for the broadband marketplace," affirms Yahoo!'s Harris Millard. With its fall 2003 kids' buys, Starcom achieved a powerful position for clients adjacent to Yahoo!'s Yahooligan video content. Through its broadband push, "Starcom stepped up and made a commitment," ESPN.com's McDonough explains. "They were willing to put money on the table." According to McDonough, Starcom IP insisted that if publishers invested the capital to support more video inventory, the agency's clients would spend a significant amount of money to advertise there. "They took the risk out of the process," he adds.
"Due to the strong trust [Starcom IP] has built with their clients, they were able to convince them to take money from their TV budgets and move them online into the broadband world," Harris Millard notes. "Starcom IP's work in [the broadband] market has also led Yahoo! to be more aggressive in acquiring more streaming content to ensure that we help grow and lead this burgeoning marketplace."
Starcom IP is willing to shake things up. "They pushed publishers into opening up as much video inventory as possible," Unicast's Savarino says. "They clearly saw consumers' consumption of TV shifting."
Taking on an entire industry isn't easy. "I think there's a risk involved [for Starcom IP]," concludes Craig Calder, director of Motif sales and marketing, DoubleClick. "It's much easier to make money doing all TV. [Starcom IP's] is a long-term strategy," Calder says. "They've demonstrated a real vision that has helped the entire industry, not just them."
Starcom IP also benefits from a tight relationship with SMG. "The executives have a vision of reaching the consumer in an interactive fashion not limited to the PC and not limited to SMS messaging. It's a vision that speaks to the world where traditional media becomes infused with interactive capabilities. Their client education is paving the road." - Kate Kaye
The agency is a nimble and innovative leader that understands the medium.
Digitas proved itself to be a progressive and innovative leader in digital marketing media in 2004 with campaigns that broke the traditional mold. Strong creative talent, multimedia integration skills, and an aggressive site-partnership strategy pulled Digitas out of the pack to take silver in agency of the year honors.
"They have good people, they're very smart, and they keep them," says Chris Theodoros, director of agency relations at Google.
"Steve Lynch, executive creative director, is on a short list of interactive creative directors who have a combination of leadership, talent, and tenure," adds Joe Jaffe, president of jaffe LLC.
Digitas' work for American Express via the "Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman" campaign received well-deserved recognition and is regarded among the online media community as the agency's breakout work of the year.
The campaign, designed to promote the benefits of the credit card while also increasing brand awareness and credit-card acquisition, employed "Webisodes" featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld and Superman hanging out together.
The agency created a "multimedia surround" strategy to drive traffic online, where the financial-services firm engaged prospects on the benefits of the card. Instant messaging was used to generate a viral effect.
"It [represented] a total breakthrough use of the Internet to tell a larger story within an entertaining context," says Brian Quinn, vice president, Eastern Region ad sales for CBSMarketWatch.
But look across Digitas' client work and it's clear that one of the firm's strongest points is a noticeable lack of commonality. A glance at its portfolio shows that the agency goes to great lengths to create unique and individual campaigns that not only meet the specific needs of each client, but that also deliver a memorable experience for the consumer target.
"The agency business is famous for coming up with an idea and trying to sell it a thousand ways from Sunday," Jaffe says. Conversely, "Digitas seems to spend a lot of time developing a strategy that fits each individual client. And while other agencies may say they do that too, Digitas is either doing it better or clearer. They're an agency that truly understands the medium, its capabilities, and its potential in being able to deploy complex solutions that, behind the scenes, are intricate and difficult to put together," Jaffe continues, "They utilize the diverse capabilities of the Web to engage a consumer from a dialogue and involvement standpoint."
For the launch of Saab's 9-2X sedan, Digitas used an arsenal of rich media technologies, including PointRoll units and Unicast interstitials. It engineered an online chat session hosted by Saab president and COO Debra Kelley-Ennis. The campaign engaged prospects through MLB Rivalry Central, a new content area developed exclusively for Saab on FoxSports.com, and an online radio station on VH1.com, featuring summery cruising tunes and a photo gallery of classic road trip movies.
For Gillette's new Venus Divine razor for women, Digitas was challenged with making the product exciting enough to grab the attention of teenage girls - no easy task. Working with teen sites Alloy.com and Seventeen.com, Digitas created an online makeover tool with virtual talking models and offered an opportunity to win a makeover weekend in New York City with experts from top teen magazines. Unicast interstitials, home page takeovers, and large traditional ad units were used to grab teens' attention. On Seventeen.com, Digitas held chat sessions, offered beauty tips, and created a Venus Divine Goddess of the Month concept, as well as other custom content. The program generated a significant lift in key attitudinal metrics, according to the agency, and received an enthusiastic response from the target audience.
Digitas' eye on integration is also considered one of its strengths, as well as a model for the "agency of the future," according to online publishers and marketing experts. The agency's campaigns employ all types of direct and traditional media, as well as online advertising, e-mail, search, and emerging media like wireless and online gaming.
"As a stand-alone agency, they seem to work quite well with major marketers' traditional agencies," Quinn says, adding, "This will be a key component of their continued growth."
Results and feedback
Digitas' direct marketing background is evident in all of its work; measurable results drive everything the agency creates. Brand perception, attitudinal shifts, customer value, and revenue metrics are used to gauge campaign impact at every point in the purchase funnel.
Digitas collaborates with account planning on syndicated and primary research; "test and learn" matrices are used to monitor, measure, and continually optimize campaign performance. The agency also incorporates what it calls an "outside-in" marketing mindset, which solicits campaign buy-in from front-line employees, or those who touch the customer. The thinking is that they are in the best position to know how well a program is being accepted by customers and employees and therefore, can recommend changes.
The agency's approach found critical momentum in 2004. Digitas began the year with a bang by pulling $60 million in America Online business away from Doner Direct. It won additional work from both existing and new clients, including FedEx, Gillette, Holiday Inn, Pfizer, and Saab.
Then there's the merger. "Digitas' acquisition of Modem Media [in July] seems to make perfect sense," Quinn says. "Modem's core business has evolved into more Web development than online media, so this should do a lot to fill out Digitas' technical and creative expertise. Plus, Modem Media has a blue-chip client list that seems very at home with Digitas," he adds. - Lynn Russo
Progressive leadership helps sharpen the focus on integration.
Mention Carat Interactive to a room full of digital media executives and you'll see heads nodding and hear buzz words like "progressive," "innovative," and "integrated." Mention "leadership" and heads nod again.
"Sarah Fay is in a unique subset of some of the best and brightest [visionary leaders] in this category," notes Joe Jaffe, president of jaffe LLC, while "David Verklin is one of most knowledgeable new-media people you can find," adds Riley McDonough, vice president-advertising sales at ESPN.com. That visionary leadership nearly doubled the agency's business in 2004 to $480 million in interactive billings, and earned the agency a bronze nod.
Last year, the Boston-based firm became the U.S. hub for a new global digital network called Isobar, an international network that aligns and integrates all of parent company Aegis' digital and direct services under a single umbrella brand.
Carat Interactive also launched an Internet Development Practice (IDP), a global, integrated interactive services specialty encompassing creative, media, and Web development, which has grown more than 300 percent since its inception.
The agency also created a Performance Marketing Practice to strengthen its global search and affiliate marketing expertise; the business grew 300 percent in 2004. The agency also shored up its data-intelligence practice to ensure that all decisions were based on proven insight.
Carat's focus on communications planning, the ability to look at all media and create an integrated campaign that serves client needs without playing media favorites, appears to be working. "Their win of a piece of the Procter & Gamble business is significant," says Brian Quinn, vice president of Eastern Region ad sales at CBSMarketWatch. "They won this not through demonstration of media-buying clout, but through their communications planning concept."
Carat was able to score John Deere a 340 percent return on the company's first-ever online campaign, and its "Impossible or Nothing" Adidas campaign was considered by Yahoo! to be "hands down, the best ad of the year," according to Allie Savarino, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Unicast, who adds, "Their work for Vonage has been amazing."
The Vonage effort was "integrated across TV, print, and online and uses multiple forms of online execution, from full-screen video commercials to in-page units to search. They've helped Vonage accomplish a very sizeable goal of creating name recognition while driving low cost per subscriber in a very short timeframe," Savarino says.
Carat also pushed Pfizer's pharmaceutical brands into innovative online programs that go beyond health content, more than doubling the firm's online spending in 2004. When the Baltimore Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro was close to hitting his 500th home run, ESPN.com worked with Carat to devise a countdown system that would change the creative on its home page to include a congratulatory message sponsored by Pfizer's Viagra every time Palmeiro hit a home run.
When he reached 500, "it was on the site literally as soon as it happened," McDonough says, a first for ESPN.com. "This was a powerful message that really connected to the sports fan and made the viewer feel like he was on the inside track and in touch with what was going on."
"They are just a first class, progressive media agency, and they will clearly be leading the charge into this brave new media world," Quinn says. - Lynn Russo
AVENUE A | RAZORFISH
The largest independent digital media shop takes a partner and is poised for takeoff.
The union between aQuantive's Avenue A and Web development shop Razorfish captured the attention of a number of agency players last July, with many wondering about what the combination of these two intriguing powerhouses would create.
Avenue A caught the attention of several judges, and in a tie with WPP Group's The Digital Edge/Outrider, is honored with a bronze award as an agency to watch.
"The acquisition of Razorfish really completed their brand marketing circle," remarks Brian Quinn, vice president of Eastern Region advertising sales at CBS MarketWatch. "They have really evolved in a relatively short amount of time."
Avenue A has long been known for having sophisticated analytics and research capabilities that go a long way in impressing heavy-hitting clients such as AT&T Wireless, Expedia, and Starwood Hotels. The agency snared a bronze honor for analytics and research in last year's competition. Pair this with aQuantive's acquisition of iFrontier just two years ago, and Avenue A is becoming a force to be reckoned with from all sides of the online equation.
"Avenue A has really fielded their growing pains very nicely, staffing accordingly, and accurately outfitting their regional offices," explains Chris Theodoros, director of agency relations at Google.
With a roster of more than 200 clients and 830 employees, the Seattle-based agency has earned every bit of its reported $300 million in online media billings, along with the title as one of the largest independent interactive agencies in the country.
This past fall, the agency further extended its reach with the launch of Avenue A/Razorfish Search, a new division dedicated solely to search engine marketing. The division means that clients will no longer have to look outside of Avenue A for search services; search comprises an estimated 25 percent of the annual billings, according to the agency.
Avenue A/Razorfish Search representatives will attend each and every media planning discussion to ensure campaign integration whenever possible, according to Jeff Lanctot, vice president of media at Avenue A/Razorfish. The judges agree that this recent development gives the agency yet another advantage, since most marketers and agencies outsource search services.
"It truly provides a one-stop shop for their customers, especially when it's something that most agencies are unable to provide in-house," Theodoros says, adding, "Client retention is a real key to their overall success."
In the coming months, industry observers are sure to pay close attention to just how aQuantive will integrate Razorfish into its day-to-day business, and just how effective the acquisition is when it comes to Avenue A's media buying and planning business and new business pitches.
"The coming windfall of online advertising dollars will be more and more driven by brand campaigns," remarks Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Forbes.com. "Avenue A sees this and has made very smart moves to take advantage of it." - Tricia Despres
ONE TO WATCH
TDE aims to stitch the pieces together and integrate offerings across all platforms.
More and more marketers are finally beginning to see the benefits of meshing their Web advertising with their offline advertising. In the past year, WPP Group's The Digital Edge/Outrider (TDE) has increasingly taken a seat at the table with sibling Mediaedge:cia, taking the lead in promoting media integration at all points along the media food chain. Whether it's search, behavioral marketing, direct response, or event sponsorship, TDE is looking at the benefits of integration.
"The Digital Edge has really stepped up its efforts in evangelizing the Web and bringing clients a much better understanding of what is happening in the online world," explains Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Forbes.com.
TDE and Mediaedge:cia are also getting a boost from Rob Norman, chairman of Mediaedge:cia U.K., who this month relocates to New York to lead what he refers to as a "communications planning and implementation" approach to the market. TDE has already made significant progress with clients such as AT&T, Accenture, Xerox, and some industry observers believe that Norman's arrival shows signs of significant movement for the agency.
"Undoubtedly, Rob Norman is in charge of orchestrating all of the moving parts while looking for and creating efficiencies whenever possible," remarks Chris Theodoros, director of agency relations for Google.
"We are looking at things that will engage a media action, or an action that encourages users to engage with deeper and evolving content," says Norman. "We are applying the disciplines of channel planning and channel neutrality to that whole space of communications planning. But in order to do that, we need to unify that offer across all the platforms," he explains.
For example, a text link in Google would seamlessly link to a TiVo download and a direct-response TV ad. "We need to give clients a view across all of those pieces," Norman adds.
Just two years ago, TDE integrated the services of Outrider into its business; Outrider is now the world's largest search marketing agency with 18 offices in twelve countries. "It's all about paying close attention to market opportunities and then capitalizing on them," adds Theodoros.
TDE has more than 40 clients in the United States including AT&T, Best Western, and Pizza Hut. Apart from the inroads it's making with integration, industry insiders have also been impressed with its creative product. "[The Digital Edge] continues to really push the envelope and produce great work at a fast pace," remarks Walter Geer, product specialist and interactive designer at Eyeblaster. "I'm particularly impressed by the way they use interactive creative much more than the majority of agencies out there right now."
In the coming months, watch for Alan Schanzer, managing partner at TDE in New York to join forces with Norman to push the integration envelope with Mediaedge:cia's client stable and to lure new business. Industry insiders also predict that the agency will further develop the way in which it tracks interactive ads to deliver greater accountability for clients.
"They understand the medium, they are willing to try new things, and they are great about conveying their insights to offline marketers," Spanfeller concludes. - Tricia Despres