When the internet exploded onto the media scene in the late 1990s, predictions and hype went through the roof. "Internet advertising to replace TV spots" screamed the headlines, sounding the death knell for traditional media as we knew it.
It was all rubbish, of course. Television, radio, magazines and newspapers continue to exist alongside the web. However, some of the early predictions from a decade ago are starting to take place. More money is pouring into digital communications, and traditional media content, such as TV and radio programming, is increasingly being delivered via the internet, as well as on broadcast devices.
Convergence has become a fact of life. The media and marketing industry has seen a seismic shift over the past 18 months, with the web now taking centre stage, graduating from a bit-part to a lead role in a very short space of time. As a result, digital, creative, media and communications agencies are all looking ahead and wondering who stands the best chance of leading the 360-degree strategy offering in the future.
Nick Lawson, group chief executive of MediaCom, says: "We are moving into a new age of communications - an age of dialogue.
"In that world, all the agencies are struggling to keep up with it and advertising is just one of many things that can have an influence over the brand or sales."
Specialist digital agencies are in a strong position to take the lead, having grown up with old media and skilled themselves in the new. Communications agencies such as Naked, on the other hand, boast the media agnosticism seen as so necessary for today's integrated strategies. Then again, media and creative agencies have made significant moves to adopt online, but have an advantage over the digital shops in the sense that they are also old hands when it comes to TV, press and outdoor and, crucially, have the client's ear.
Everyone tends to justify the machine they have bought. Below we look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of those four agency models in leading the way on through-the-line communications.
The only way is up for digital agencies it seems. Not only are they on the cutting edge of all things related to new-media communications such as online and mobile advertising - which they live and breathe - they are also increasingly a louder voice in conversations taking place with clients about how to reach and influence people.
Wayne Arnold, founder and managing director of Profero UK, says he has noticed digital being taken much more seriously by both above-the-line agencies and clients over the past 18 months. It's not just because of the increase in budgets, says Arnold, but also increasing consumption levels. As a result, digital has proved an indispensable part of any self-respecting marketing strategy, no longer considered a low-rent, direct response option for agencies.
Tribal DDB's managing director, Bill Brock, says his agency works much more closely with sibling shops DDB and WWAV Rapp Collins than it used to in the past, and that his company - technically a digital agency - is already influencing through-the-line strategies of its clients.
"We have done press ideas for The Guardian this year, as well as two TV ads for Thomsonfly, because it was a concept that we came up with," says Brock.
Other new-media outfits are dabbling in traditional media as part of the strategies they create for clients, and the line between what they do and their above-the-line counterparts is becoming increasingly blurred.
Profero and I-Level, for example, recently came up with the idea of producing a series of films about climate change with Channel 4 for The Energy Saving Trust. The web movies, hosted by Britain's Best Homes' Naomie Cleaver and Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud, were created in-house by Channel 4 working with Profero and I-Level.
Meanwhile, Profero's ideas for a recent child protection campaign for the COI, which featured real people with emoticon heads instead of faces, found its way onto the poster work for the push.
Likewise, agency AKQA has not restricted itself to the digital sphere over the last few years and was instrumental in the current outdoor interactive campaign running for directory service Yell.
"AKQA has been purpose-built for the changing media landscape," says chairman Ajaz Ahmed. "As a result, we aim to be world class in four areas: content creation and distribution; interactive experiences and customer relationship management; e-commerce; and interface design."
Arguably, it's easier for the new-media agencies to adopt traditional media than it is for the traditional advertising agencies to become dotcom literate. Digital agencies are younger and more nimble than most above-the-line outfit s. Their staff, culturally, are familiar with all media, having grown up with TV and radio. But they have also been thoroughly socialised into the internet, both in terms of consumer habits and popular culture. The structural struggle that behemoths such as Omnicom and WPP have experienced to factor in new media has been long, painful and only moderately successful.
Even so, there are a few factors working against the digital agencies, the strongest being that they do not have specialist creative skills in media, such as TV, press or posters to see through their ideas in this area. But, according to strategy development director Ed Ling, the film that I-Level recently thought up for Channel 4 and The Energy Saving Trust is going to become an everyday part of what the agency does. The agency, says Ling, is building up its skills in that area by employing more people with experience in traditional media.
"The whole Web 2.0 world is more about content, so we are thinking about how we can play in that space," he adds. And of course there's also nothing to stop them outsourcing the actual creative execution to either production companies or the media owners themselves.
Although relations are improving between clients and the digital agencies, another weakness web agencies face is that often they do not have the clients' confidence in the same way traditional shops do. But, as Profero's Arnold says, this is changing.
The case for media agencies is convincing. They are closer to media owners and, crucially, consumers than any other part of the agency chain, standing them in good stead for developing what promises to be the next big thing in media and marketing over the next couple of years - content.
"Media agencies are going to score very heavily in developing content with, and for, media owners for their brands," says MediaCom's Lawson, whose agency recently developed the Transmission programme on Channel 4 for client T-Mobile.
Carat restructured the way it works completely in August of this year, creating integrated client teams rather than media or skills silos. That means each client team has people working on it with creative skills across all media. Managing director Neil Jones thinks competition for creative solutions is actually going to come from the media owners themselves. "The interesting trend is how many entries [for creative awards] are from media owners, a lot of whom are doing creative in-house for the client," he points out.
Working against media agencies is the fact that, traditionally, these companies are built to make money out of trading mass media - TV, press and outdoor.
If you take those deals out of the picture, and instead start an idea from a creative concept rather than what media costs and how much the agency is going to make out of a deal, it's hard to see how media agencies can justify working in a more integrated way without fundamentally shifting how they do things financially.
"Creativity is a skillset they have not traditionally had," says Brock at Tribal DDB about media agencies. "Having worked with an agency that has a media group, generally speaking it's difficult to get a media team to think about an idea in the absence of the planning process - thinking about them in a broader context than media partnership, sponsorships, tactics and so forth."
Creative agencies, traditionally at least, are seen as the home of the "big idea" - the concept that powers and shapes a campaign, both above and below the line. But, as history has shown, their success in adopting online has been mixed, with many creative shops launching digital departments in the period around 2000, which were then discontinued and subsumed back into the main body of the agency as the dotcom bubble burst.
Often as not, creative agencies call in the specialists to work on the digital part of their campaigns.
Craig Davies, worldwide chief creative officer at JWT, says: "Things are happening very quickly and there's no point in being so precious about it that we think we have to build it to use it. What we will do is beg, borrow and steal from the rest of the group.
"No one has a mortgage on talent and where we need to be is at the table at a key influential positional and pulling together all the contributors necessary to bring a proposition together. We have to be very good at collaboration and project management."
Simon Summerscales, head of communications at Wieden + Kennedy, is not convinced that the creative agencies should go head to head with media agencies.
"We as a creative agency are very interested in the product; media agencies tend to look at it in terms of the ability to reach audiences. I don't think that we are really competing - smart clients look to both for a perspective and just want the right answer," he says.
One of the strongest criticisms to be aimed at both creative and media agencies is that their culture is not conducive to embracing 360-degree solutions. Creative directors still do not think there is much prestige in creating a brilliant digital campaign - they still want to be the brains and brawn behind that TV or poster execution that wins a D&AD pencil.
The case for communications agencies could have the edge on media, creative and digital agencies. Their media agnosticism, or "neutrality", means they are not preoccupied with using TV and press as the media and creative agencies might be - neither are they gunning for the internet or digital as a must have.
Niku Banaie, UK managing partner at Naked, says:"How can a client rest assured that they are receiving an unbiased solution? Opt for an agency model that has no interest in the money made from execution."
The communications agency model is better placed than advertising agencies to generate strategies addressing specific business problems.
An agency model such as that is more likely to look outside the traditional forms of advertising in order to to solve problems - by using tools such as internal communications, events and loyalty schemes, for example.
And if everything from creative to media buying to events and stunts can be outsourced if and when it's needed, the "jack of all trades, master of none" criticism holds little weight.
Ultimately, it is unlikely to be just one of the four agency models that succeeds in mastering the 360-degree strategy offering. Although without a crystal ball predictions are always a gamble, the probability is that all four models will mutate in different ways to handle through-the-line solutions, and that the choice of procedure will come down to proven results and client preferences.
There will also be a huge amount of collaboration in the market, as we are already seeing, with a lot of begging, borrowing and stealing going on. No one has the monopoly on the " big idea" and it is worth remembering that those ideas can come from a creative agency, a media agency, a direct marketing shop, an events company, a digital specialist, a marketing director and so on.
The only certainty is that those companies that do not change with the times will die.
This article was first published on Media Week