Logging In: Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm

Agencies need to embrace change and learn some new steps 

At one point in the epic HBO series Deadwood, one character turns to another and says: “Change is no man’s friend. Change is just the tune we all dance to.”

Of course, the difficulty of gracefully dancing to this particular tune cannot be understated. Human beings have never liked change; whether in the routines of our days, our regularly scheduled programs or the arrangements of our living rooms.

Yet, never has this particular tune played louder, faster or more persistently.

Nor has there been a time when the steps required more concentration and agility. To use a much older quote, “Change is the only constant.” So no one can legitimately clutch to the excuse of surprise anymore.

But surprised, inept and out of step would be a charitable description for some of the CEOs of major advertising agencies. Who knew that tone deafness could be so pervasive? Or perhaps they are just distracted by the sound of their plummeting bottom lines.

The calendar now reads 2008. It is no longer acceptable to say you can offer a client integrated media when all that amounts to is a Web site and some small percentage of the budget (or none at all) assigned to the Internet.

Can you imagine a major media company leaving the Internet off a plan targeting mothers with newborns when there are 32 million moms online (Source: eMarketer, 2008)? It happened — just last March.

Aren’t we supposed to start by looking at the goals of the client, the target market and the media they consume and work from there?

If an agency media planner actually did that today, they would likely allot at least 50 percent of their budgets to the Internet.

Fear of change is no longer a legitimate excuse. Some greater fear — like losing your business — should have begun to override this in about 2005.

The real reasons are much simpler to define — but harder to fix. What do you do with an entire creative department that really only knows how to make television spots when anyone who wanted to work on interactive creative has already fled to the “specialty shops”?

You can either fire them or find a media buy that requires that skill set, regardless of its effectiveness. Say, something like cinema advertising, which is exactly how Publicis Groupe proposes to spend $100 million of its client’s money.

Not only does it keep the creatives happy, it also takes less man hours for an agency to run a cinema advertising campaign than to run one effectively online. There are all the sites to select, the optimization that needs to happen and the continual re-evaluation. All that work, all the overhead: Better to just go to the movies.

If someone had told me in 1998 that 10 years later online advertising spend would still be determined as a percentage of TV spend (or that there’d be doubt that online ads drive site visits) I would have told them they were nuts. There are too many smart people in this business, too many people who were driven to understand consumers and deliver marketing that reflected that understanding. 

Today, however, the media companies are taking over. And their initiatives, spreading content that used to be must-see TV far and wide will force change. As this content is dispersed, so are viewers across time and space. What used to happen in one night (and still does with American Idol) will start to take months. Now, isn’t planning a season of TV just as time consuming as the Internet?

The media companies have changed, and now, or five years from now, we will see the agencies start to dance, too.

Kathy Sharpe is CEO of Sharpe Partners, a digital agency in New York City.

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