September 01, 2009

Ridiculously Rating the Digital Agencies Imagine that at the height of a recession when digital agencies were beginning to muscle traditional agencies by attracting bigger media spending and getting a bigger voice in strategy, you set out to help clients differentiate and understand the strategic and executional capabilities across the field. Then imagine that you only really looked closely at the top twelve biggest players, didn't talk to any independent clients, relied entirely on agency interviews and propaganda and then rated them all excellent or really strong by producing a magic quadrant where the scrum was all bunched in the upper left segment. Would this have any value to anyone or would anyone plunk down $1749 to read the detailed report? This is how Forrester created the new Forrester Wave:US Interactive Agencies -- Strategy and Execution, Q3 2009. Written by a former media guy with no senior management or client side management experience, Sean Corcoran, this is a laughable bogus exercise masquerading as strategic consulting. If the methodology represents Forrester's standard research and analytical approach cancel your subscription and run don't walk away as fast as you can. This is a half-assed attempt to extend their services and influence into the ad agency world. It's a world that barely tolerates search consultants who do a similar half-assed job without all the faux consulting rhetoric, artificial constructs and pedestrian graphics. In a field acknowledged to be relatively undifferentiated where agencies make almost identical claims and offer equivalent, if not exactly similar services, starting with only the top agencies billing more than $100 million who added 5 or more clients in the last year and offer 7 of 9 stated services skews the field from the get go. Interestingly my alma mater, Digitas, the biggest US interactive agency, opted out of this silliness and was rewarded with a gentle mealy-mouthed non-endorsement endorsement intended not to piss them off. Basically these guys talked to each agency and collected their propaganda. They quizzed 3 of each firm's favorite clients. Then they established 39 evaluation criteria in three big buckets -- client offering, strategy and market presence. Then they ranked each agency. Although the mean score of 4.3 out of 5 suggests how useless this exercise was. They all make the same claims. They all offer offer the same services. They all have marquee clients. And they all have impressive staffs. Now they all score roughly the same. Would you ace DraftFCB because their 3.0 on strategy doesn't measure up to R/GA or Sapient's 4.80? Garbage expressed in 3 digits is still garbage. Buried in the blab or implied in what is not written are several truths about the current state of digital agencies. Here's what I culled: Analytics is being used as a differentiator. As data becomes more important for driving campaigns and connecting marketing to business results, the size, quality and usefulness of analytical teams can distinguish one agency from another. In real life, this is much more rhetorical or aspirational than real for clients. It's not about services but solutions. In a field where parity reigns the component services are much less important than how an agency marshals them to achieve client business results. There's no easy way to measure or compare this kind of performance but its the meat that clients look carefully for in every pitch. There's damn little breakout creative. Clients and customers have sophisticated visual expectations set by heavy multi-channel and multi-media use. They expect eye-popping cool imagery and punchy copy in many formats. For agencies this is table stakes. With jaded clients and customers, even B2B customers, its particularly difficult to sustain creative claims. That's why ignoring smaller, younger more organically digital shops destined these "results" for irrelevancy. You can't escape heritage. Each agency started out specializing in something. R/GA was a traditional creative boutique. Ogilvy was a traditional and DM global network. Rosetta was an database analytical consulting shop. Rapp and Wunderman were direct marketers. Over time they added people and services. The extensions are a mixed bag -- some great, some not-so great. In some cases the old guard has been replaced. In other cases the original leadership, mindset and perspective still govern how they operate and go-to-market. Some get it and some are still trying to figure out what channel and creative integration are all about. Finding the point of origin and assessing the value and quality of the add-ons over time is critical to understanding what each agency is really good at and how well they can organize,...
Players & Pervs Come Out After Dark on the Internet An provocative study of Internet traffic by Arbor Networks, an online security firm, suggests that Americans jump online after dinner to play games and watch porn. The study based on traffic data from dozens of ISPs, tens of millions of subscribers and petabytes of daily Internet traffic indicates that "US Internet traffic reaches its peak at 11p ET and stays relatively high till 3 am." This suggests that 8p-Midnight is prime time on the west coast and Pacific Time. The traffic consists largely of consumer traffic which climbs later in the day and accounts for the bulk of after-business-hours activity. By looking at the sources of traffic and analyzing traffic by host sites, Arbor discerned that video usage increases later in the day peaking at midnight. Similarly servers hosting adult material draw a traffic spike daily between 10p and 1 am. Its reasonable to assume that gamers, prohibited by policy, sensibility or bandwidth at school or work flock to the web at night to unwind and to lose themselves in the games, the avatars and their alter-egos. With similar limitations, those seeking more prurient stimulation do likewise. The implications for marketers are: 1. Primetime TV has serious competition. Either people are bailing out on network fare in favor of more interactive, involving or targeted programming or they are multi-tasking and only partly paying attention to the new Fall season. A roadblock strategy should integrate online and offline media to truly cover the waterfront. Its a fair bet that covering both bases is the only sure way to penetrate the male 18-34 demographic. 2. Commercial or product placement and/or integration into games and porn have the potential to reach and persuade more people than previously thought. Maybe the early adapters of product placement tactics in games were no so crazy. Naturally this is a sensitive issue in terms of content compatibility, but I have a hunch that daring marketers can achieve breakthrough awareness and brand affinity by strategically embedding brand messages in related online properties. 3. Consider online "appointment" events to reach selected audience segments. Midnight madness sales, special hour-by-hour promotions or pricing, night owl content or copy might have added value and pulling power for those up late and active online.

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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