Sally Cowdry, the marketing director of O2, certainly managed to set a proverbial cat among the digital media pigeons, when she decided to consolidate the company's online media planning and buying into ZenithOptimedia. Previously, ZenithOptimedia had done the old-fashioned stuff such as TV and press, worth more than £40 million; while Media Republic, the media division of Agency Republic, had handled digital worth £20 million.
No longer. "We've been taking stock over a long period," Cowdry said, explaining her decision. "And there has been a blurring between off- and online media, especially from a customer point of view. So our media will be more efficient and effective if it's bought together."
Words, you suspect, that will have been greeted with disappointment within the ranks of dyed-in-the-wool digital specialists. This blurring proposition has rarely been expressed so starkly before - and it must hurt that the source is not just a client, but a digitally literate telecoms client to boot.
For years, digital specialists have been fighting to counter what they've characterised as the smug and rather lazy propaganda emanating from the big media networks. This tends to state that the networks not only "own" the clients that matter, they own them on an international basis. When the time is right, they've always argued, they'd buy in enough expertise to swallow up any digital crumbs that had previously escaped them.
There are, of course, counter arguments to be put here. And some inconvenient facts. Like, for instance, the recent decisions at both Sky and the AA to keep on- and offline buying separate. But surely there's just not enough room for more specialisms in this industry.
Kevin Murphy, the joint managing director of Zed Media, is enthusiastic about the blurring proposition. He explains: "I don't think you can get too preoccupied with having absolutely everything in the same building - after all, sometimes people who sit opposite each other don't always communicate - but it is increasingly clear that advertisers are looking for an integrated solution. They want to ensure they get the best out of comms planning, the co-ordination of timings in on- and offline activity and in results analysis. The closer everything is the better. And the truth is, we have been in digital as long as anyone has. Digital isn't innovation - it's our heritage. Yet we've always been aware it doesn't exist in a silo."
Nonsense, David Pattison, the chief executive of ILG Digital, responds. He says: "Mainstream media companies are trying to tell people the digital space is merely another media channel - it isn't. The digital space is about commerce and it's about consumer time investment - they do their banking and their shopping there. You can't sell it as just another channel. Mainstream agencies tend to try to turn it into a commodity - and for most clients that won't do."
Andrew Stephens, a partner at the communications planning agency Goodstuff, agrees - though he comes at this more from a planning perspective. He explains: "Although we support a client having all its buying in one agency, we do not believe having planning and buying in one agency is the best answer for the simple, yet fundamental, reasons of cultural compromise and commercial integrity. Whatever fraction of a per cent a client may have saved by pooling all its media duties in one agency, the potential downsides far outweigh the financial advantage."
But Will Phipps, the media planning and strategy director at Profero, believes price is only the start of the process of delivering the campaign. He concludes: "Large so-called traditional media agencies have repeatedly proved unable to handle the complexities of digital, which is why many clients have chosen a digital specialist to deliver better and more effective campaigns. A full-service digital offering, like Profero, is able to offer the best option in a time when the blurring of creative and media has never been more evident."
YES - Kevin Murphy, joint managing director, Zed Media
"You have to understand the client's needs across all media as well as the essential part that digital has to play within that. Integration isn't just about digital - it's about a whole spectrum of things."
NO - David Pattison, chief executive, ILG
"You can't treat this just like any other space. Many clients know that and can spot the difference in what they're being offered by various agencies. They recognise the value they will get from a specialist agency."
NO - Andrew Stephens, partner, Goodstuff
"We know the big buying agencies are driven by the efficiencies of huge procurement assignments. It's what they excel at. But, this centralised power can fuel cultural compromise within a single agency."
MAYBE - Will Phipps, media planning and strategy director, Profero
"Online buying is best traded by specialists. The same with offline. Media owners need to be flexible to trade their offerings in one deal where it's relevant. As always, it should be about a perfect blend of flexible trading mixed with intelligent planning."
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This article was first published on Campaign