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At your service

3rd October 2008

At your service

At your service

Back in the 1950s, the advertising agency JWT had a client, Kraft, that wanted to sell more processed cheese. But rather than create an ad campaign that told people that cheese tastes great, or is good for them, JWT invented the cheeseburger.

By Michael Nutley, editor-in-chief of NMA (Original Article)

At least, that’s the story. And there are other examples of this kind of agency thinking; JWT again, tasked with selling more high quality flour, invented the Mr Kipling brand and sold the flour in the form of cakes.

Sometime between then and now, the advertising industry changed. It went from being the preserve of generalists who solved their clients’ business problems, to specialists who made ads. But in the digital sector at least, that’s changing.

This was one of the key themes that emerged as I was working on the introduction to NMA’s Top 100 Interactive Agencies guide, published on 27.09.07. Agency heads across the spectrum of creative and media talked about clients asking for a different kind of work.

The most powerful force driving this change is the much-discussed decline in interruptive advertising. As interactive media give people ever-more powerful tools to control their media consumption, advertising needs to change. In order to persuade people to let it through their filters, it needs to become more useful, to perform a service.

There have already been some great examples, including Modem Media’s site for Kraft that suggested recipes to busy mothers; Persil’s site offering ideas for kids activities during the school holidays, again aimed at mothers; and the baby development emails offered by nappy manufacturers.

The second driver is technology. According to Alastair Duncan, MD of agency MRM Worldwide, the desktop is now seen as a legitimate marketing domain, thanks to the rise of widgets and other web applications that push information to people.

Interactive agencies are ideally placed to take advantage of these trends. For a start they’re used to changing technologies and business models; their practices aren’t as solidified as those of their offline counterparts. They’re also used to interaction; everything they do is based on getting a response from its audience. And as a result they’re closer to those audiences and have an understanding of them at a very detailed level.

But this doesn’t mean that their success in this developing sector is guaranteed. Speaking at NMA’s Online Marketing 07 show back in June, planner and blogger Russell Davis was asked who he thought would lead the way in digital marketing in the future. His response was that it wouldn’t be digital agencies but interaction designers, “people who can create something useful”.

There are other problems too. Agencies are traditionally paid for what they produce or on commission for the media they buy; the thinking behind it is done for free. But while one of the characteristics of this web app approach to marketing is that there is no media, no one has yet established a satisfactory way of charging for ideas.

There’s also the question of the service’s lifetime. Web apps offer a way of maintaining constant communication with customers, and could spell an end to campaign-based marketing. But at least with campaigns, once they’re over you can move on to the next one.

With web apps, if they’re successful you have to keep supporting them, which takes resource away from the next thing, because the potential damage done by taking something away from people can outweigh the benefits of giving it to them in the first place.

However, the potential rewards for clients are dramatic. The web app that everyone holds up as a model is of course Nike+, the link between Nike running shoes and Apple’s iPod that allows you to download the stats on your run to your computer and set up challenges with other runners. To date over 100,000 challenges issued between runners using the site.

What’s more if, as seems likely, media continue to move towards on-demand models where ad avoidance is the norm, service-type advertising may become vital, rather than just desirable.

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