Guest post: Interactive agencies need to stop being advertising agencies

Simon van Wyk, MD of HotHouse, is over advertising agencies

I had a bad new media week last week, a bad interactive media week, and a bad social media week.  It’s been coming for some time but it all culminated with ad:tech.  

I’ve been in the interactive media industry since 1994 when we were making CD-ROM titles for the US market. Like many others, I was attracted to the industry because we were given an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new technology.  We were in a position to challenge the status quo and to do something that mattered.  

As an industry the last 15 years have been extraordinary.  The world has changed.  Minnows attacked huge existing businesses and won.  In some cases those traditional businesses are still around. But in many cases they are not.  There are many examples:

  • Why did Brittanica not become Wikipedia? They had a start, they had the content.
  • Why did LexisNexis not become Google? They had a start, they had the content.
  • Why did Trading Post not become eBay?
  • Why did Dymocks not become Amazon?

Too lazy, too stupid, not ready to take a risk?

And the examples go on.  Small businesses have in a short time overtaken and beaten traditional business by changing the game.  To be part of all that has been a privilege.

So what started this rant for me?  Some of it was the plethora of new jargon at ad:tech – some of it was lameness of the examples, and some of it was reading B&T again.  I think the interactive industry wants to be the advertising industry, we think it’s cool.  They have great offices and the parties are fun but they work people like dogs, get treated like shit by their clients and we want to be like them.

Here are a few things that got up my nose:

Brand Dialogue: What a load of crap.  I’ve worked out what it means.  It’s a Flash site with some un-navigable metaphor and takes ages to download.  The interactive industry despise them because we know they are a waste of time.  Most of them get a campaign URL and Google does not take it seriously because it’s new.

Advertising agencies tell their clients it’s part of the brand dialogue and measure hits to the websites.  We never hear bounce rates quoted; that would be embarrassing.   Agencies tell clients they can do some things to help get the Flash site indexed by Google.  But we’re not really telling the truth.  Agencies build them because they are the closest thing to a commercial.  They understand those and clients seem to like them because they’re familiar.

Companies succeeded on the web because they solved a problem: they found a way to facilitate a transaction.  Even Apple, the high water mark of the “brand dialogue” debate, just facilitates transactions.  Everything they do makes it easy to transact.  Despite all the hoo-hah you read about corporate social media, consumers don’t want to talk with brands – we just want the Internet to facilitate an easier way to do business.

We, the interactive industry, know this, we can see it in the numbers.  Why don’t we adopt our own language and help our clients build business on the web?

Social Media: I was at a dinner party.  The people there all used eBay, bought music online, had laptops, iPhones and used BitTorrent for downloading TV series.  I asked if they knew what social media was.  They did not.  Sites I called blogs they called websites.  As far as they are concerned Facebook is a website, LinkedIn is a website, MySpace is a website.

PR agencies are distributing press releases to bloggers and calling it social media.  Banks are getting 50 comments on a blog and talking about it.  In the old days you took your clients to a lunch and got a better return.

In 1997 we built a website called Manhood in conjunction with psychologist/author Steve Biddulph.  We sold the site on and it’s untouched (you can still see it at www.manhood.com.au), so it’s a bit weird now; however, we built in every feature you see in a social media site.  Then it was common sense – now it’s social media.

As marketing people our job is to go where the customers are and find a way to tell them about our product.  We in the interactive industry know where these people are to be found, we know how to engage with them and we do really know what social media is, but we’re dumbing down our business is an attempt to look like an advertising agency.

Posting a few images to Flickr, the TVC to YouTube and putting the URL on the TVC is not really going to work.

Then there was the Naked stunt for Witchery.  The only interesting thing about this was the fact the SMH chose to publish it on the home page.  The interactive industry knows the only measure of success here is, “Did you sell any jackets?” That’s been the mantra of our industry – what’s the outcome – and yet we’re swept up into a cycle of debate on the topic.  It’s presented as an Internet/social media strategy, but it’s neither.

Let’s go back to what we know is true – if it works by delivering commercial value to the client it’s a good thing.  Let’s leave advertising agencies and PR companies to the rest.

FMCG: Every second person we interview wants to talk about our FMCG clients.  Well, we don’t have many.  Now Skittles is kinda interesting, but really who cares.  It’s a sweet.  The purchase decision is made in a store and this is more interesting to the industry than the target market.

There was more traction from the guys putting Mentos in diet Coke than any of this stuff and we, the interactive industry know this but we want to pretend to be advertising agencies.

When I was a kid you had cereal box competitions – collect tokens and win etc.  Most FMCG websites are nothing more.  They are not cool, they are not clever they are not worthy of debate, but they get written up and talked about at conferences like they matter.

Metrics: A friend of mine stopped reporting clicks, conversions, etc. to her client because it raised more questions than she could answer. Clients have been pumping money into TV for years without any real sense of a return. All they ever asked was how did the show rate.

Sometimes we can’t quite measure the impact on sales.  There is often a lot of air between the website and the sale but we can measure everything else.  We, the interactive industry, know how to do this. We’ve worked through the issues for years, but we’re allowing ourselves to be dragged down the reporting on ratings path when we know we can do better.

Media Planning: Rex Briggs, the king of measurement, says most organizations should be spending 20% of their budgets online.  It’s not happening.  Media buyers run the same ads on the major portals despite the fact the interactive industry knows creative wears out quickly. And why don’t we make more creative? Because the media buyers do a deal with the media companies for 16 sizes to fill all sorts of stupid holes.  Instead of running two sizes and rotating creative we get 12 sizes and blow our budget.  The interactive industry knows this is wrong.

Why are we on these portals, anyway?  Sometimes it makes sense, but most of the time it’s because it’s too difficult to do a proper job.  The real engagement is down the other end of the traffic curve – the niche sites where people are spending time and returning regularly.

Media people will tell you it’s because they want their brands associated with the prestigious brands.  What a crock – the interactive industry knows it’s a crock.  Have you seen the “quality advertisers” filling the unsold inventory on the major portals? It makes 3am TV look like quality.

Advertising Agencies: Every single agency in town had the opportunity to own the interactive space.  They had the clients they had the mandate and they blew it.  The top 10 digital services companies in Australia would, I suspect, all be web companies, not agencies.  Just like the Trading Posts of the world, the ad agencies did not grab the opportunity to change.

Some larger organizations use their procurement departments to run the tender and selection process for the advertising agency.  This puts agencies in the same league as stationery, toilet paper and the company car fleet.  They would not dream of doing the same for the legal partner, the strategic consulting partner or the HR consultants.

The interactive industry can avoid this horrible fate, but we need our own sense of pride and culture. We don’t want to talk like agencies, we don’t want to aspire to be part of their magazines; why would any digital person want to be on the Gruen Transfer for example?

It’s time for our industry to re-establish an identity separate from the agencies, to make sure the work we do delivers a real return and to work on things that use our energy and intellect to make a difference for our clients.

I’d like to propose an Interactive Industry Code of Practice:

  1. I will always propose the least expensive, simplest solution to any problem.
  2. I understand Google is the homepage and I will ensure everything I do is sensitive to this fact.
  3. My job is to facilitate business. When I start talking brand dialogue it’s only because I can’t find a way to really add value.
  4. My job is to help you with the interface between your company and the customer on the web. They are using the web for utility; my job is to find that utility wherever it may exist.
  5. We’ll be clear about the returns.
  6. We have a chance to do things better to improve from our learnings.
  7. The Internet has changed the world; let’s make sure we treat it with the respect it deserves.  It took us many years of TV to develop the technology to skip ads.  Let’s not clutter our communities and forums with useless messages that add no value. Consumers want to hear from companies who are relevant to their circumstance; let’s work with that.
  8. Our job is not to sell our ideas to the client.  Our job is to sell the clients product to their customers.

Simon van Wyk also writes on the HotHouse blog and this article can be found there too


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