But the more interesting--and less frequently debated--angle for approaching the "money flow" issue had more to do with the evolving relationships among publishers, agencies and clients. Traditionally, clients hired agencies to interface with publishers in order to reach consumers. And while that's still happening, a number of other client to consumer routes are emerging, all of them more direct, and many of them able to handle rush-hour traffic.
Shervin Pishevar, president and COO of Freewebs, Inc., was one of the panelists (full disclosure: my fiancée works in the finance department of Freewebs) and he provided a thought-provoking example of these evolving relationships. His company is a social networking play à la Myspace.com, with about 11 million citizen-publisher-members. Pishevar discussed a program Freewebs did with Sony Pictures to promote the movie "Zathura." Sony had developed some online games tying into the film, and Freewebs went a step further than simply running banners across its network to drive game traffic. Instead, it built a widget into the site builder tools so that all of its members could integrate the games directly into their sites.
Did it work and promote game-playing? Sure did. Better than a straight media buy? Most likely. But neither is the point. What's interesting about this example is that a publisher, not an agency, developed the media AND the creative platform for delivering a client's campaign. The client-to-agency-to-publisher-to-consumer relationship is upended because the publisher has found a unique and proprietary way to exploit its unique and proprietary inventory.
The ramifications for agencies are massive (especially when coupled with the realization that clients are paying as much attention to what consumers are creating relative to their brands as they do to their agencies' work), but more central to our purpose here are the implications for publishers.
Given the dynamism and interactivity of online media, and the unfettered fickleness of consumers towards marketing messages, publishers, not clients or agencies, now have the greatest opportunity to capitalize on the uniqueness of interactive media. Publishers have always held the right to say "no" to custom programs or non-standard formats. But increasingly, publishers will have to look at their assets proactively, and find ways to create clutter-busting programs for clients that are also scalable.
What Freewebs did is not just find a bigger or better place for a client to run its ad; the company approached the campaign like an agency would and fully leveraged its platform and member relationships. Certainly, it could have accomplished the same thing reactively, if the client or an agency had brought them the idea. But because this campaign was homegrown, it was faster to market. And more importantly, it could be constructed with an eye towards future applications for many clients, and so programmed for flexibility, not specificity.
This isn't by itself a doomsday scenario for agencies, but as more publishers obviate the need for additional creative executions, some agency work will inevitably dry up (and agency talent will be poached by proactive publishers). Perhaps now is the time for a forward-looking agency to launch a Media Development practice aimed at online publishers, and join forces with the sell-side instead of competing with it.