Agencies Losing Biz To Publishers; Behavioral Data Is Top Concern

PHOENIX -- Online ad agencies are increasingly threatened by publishers offering "agency-like" services, according to Chris Vollmer, a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton, who warned they stand to lose even more business Monday at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Ecosystem 2.0 conference in Phoenix.

Vollmer buttressed his prediction with surveys of marketing execs that show they are "dissatisfied with the level of guidance" they're receiving from agencies. In particular, marketers say "consumer insights and behavioral targeting top their list of must-have capabilities," to enable more effective advertising.

"They're still challenged by the agency world," Vollmer said. "It's still too disaggregated for them in the distance they have to travel from creative to media planning" to buying and serving ads. As a result, "they're actually looking for media companies to partner more directly with them." Indeed, the Booz Allen survey shows marketers think that "media companies are their most important partners going forward--more so than agencies of record, which is quite provocative when you think about it."

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Many publishers are only too happy to cut agencies out of the question. Vollmer said media companies are assuming a number of new responsibilities, including creative development, custom content, campaign management, audience targeting, performance marketing, customer acquisition, lead development, email marketing, and measurement and analytics.

Echoing Vollmer's warning, a separate panel discussion Monday morning painted a portrait of media businesses aggressively moving into areas previously dominated by agencies--sometimes by buying agencies outright.

Lauren Wiener, senior vice president of Meredith Interactive Media, recalled that Meredith purchased a number of agencies over the last several years, including three in 2007 alone: Genex, an interactive-marketing firm that specialized in "online customer-relationship marketing;" New Media Strategies, specializing in interactive, viral and word-of-mouth marketing; and Dallas-based Directive Corporation, for database strategy, analytics and customer-asset management. These followed its acquisition of interactive-marketing firm O'Grady Meyers in April 2006. Meredith is currently the agency of record for Kraft's family-focused customer relationship management service.

As Vollmer and Wiener emphasized, measurement is of special concern to client-side marketing executives who are under pressure to show results. But Vollmer lamented that "there's still too much complexity for marketers to measure the relative importance of their media, including online." Overall, in terms of both logistics and measurement, cross-media campaigns are "still too time-intensive, too manual, and too dependent on legacy systems."

Indeed, publishers' most important advantage is their ability to collect consumer data: "That direct link is extremely powerful in terms of being able to offer the client the media-related consumer insights" to marketers who want "a more prospective, predictive approach to consumer insight." Behavioral insights are a top priority for marketers who "want to understand how consumers use digital media for information, entertainment and community."

In a separate interview, Vollmer said behavioral targeting can include creating profiles based on users' Web behaviors, but also less intrusive options, like lifestyle profiles going beyond simple demographics. For example, he cited the work of an advertiser who targeted consumers based on profiles showing who visited a particular retailer at least twice a week.

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