The Role of Interactive Agencies

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The business Internet is into its eighth year, but the advertising industry has yet to define what an interactive agency should be.


Do clients know what they expect from an interactive agency (IA)? Procter & Gamble seems to. It recently pared its IA roster from 40 to nine, of which only two are subsidiaries of P&G roster agencies. How did so many of the big agencies fail to offer what P&G thought it needed?


Multiple IA models exist -- independent vs. tightly integrated, marketing-oriented vs. technology-driven. Certain companies -- including my late alma mater, MarchFirst -- tried to declare anything digital, from banner ads to back-office software, to be their bailiwick. Perhaps predictably, these one-stop solution factories either failed or have slimmed their service lines. And many interactive divisions of traditional agencies have scaled back along with the drop in interactive media spending. But no reasonable person would argue that digital branding and marketing are going away.


So what should IAs be? At their core, they need to be their clients' trusted partners for achieving brand leadership in the digital space. To do this, IAs must behave more like their traditional counterparts. They must know and address the client's target audience better than the client itself can. They must play nicely with other agency divisions servicing the same client. They must partner with trusted suppliers of specialty skills -- integrators of packaged CRM solutions, for example -- while retaining ownership of the strategy and creative execution. And they must create relevant marketing and branding ideas for their clients, not merely repurpose material from print and television.


IAs also must be on the vanguard with respect to digital technologies that have direct application to the client's brand. But they must be "skeptivangelists," not slavish subscribers to the technological flavor of the week. The IA's role is to offer clients and agency partners a glimpse of the digital marketing future with enough lead time to prepare for it.


So what business are IAs in? Though one model will not work for all, certain practices or service lines are compelling:


· Building dynamic sites and applications that anticipate and respond to the user's need-state.


· Creating ad units that deliver effective branding messages and useful functionality with the proper degree of intrusiveness.


· Aggregating target users or finding places where they already congregate online.


· Creating brand-relevant user experiences and usable human-computer interactions, and acting as an advocate for the consumer.


· Maintaining relationships digitally with a brand's most valuable customers.


· Managing relationships with partners and affiliates that directly or indirectly promote and sell the client's brand.


· Delivering full-motion video and fat applications to the desktop.


· Delivering contextually relevant content, offers and branding messages to mobile devices.


· Identifying, creating, licensing and managing content in support of a brand, or content intended to "surround" a brand to provide context.


· Creating living digital repositories of brand-relevant information, such as target audience insights, historical advertising creative and spending, and competitive framework.


· Interpreting data from online behavior.


In the early days, IAs behaved like start-up companies, embracing and abandoning business models as fast as Hillary Clinton changed hairstyles. Now, agencies have to structure their service lines to address their clients' needs. Today, more often than not, client interactive marketing executives "get it"; it's up to the IAs to reinvent themselves appropriately. Agencies have a bright future in digital media if they remember what clients look to agencies for and tailor their services accordingly.


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