SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - Sumee Chang, 26, an account executive with an interactive marketing background now managing an advertising campaign for traditional media, remembers the flexibility of her old interactive-only environments. "You could just renegotiate a schedule," she says. "You could say, 'Can we push that launch back a week?'" Like dozens of her colleagues at Think New Ideas in Los Angeles, Chang is working longer hours to play catch-up and learn the elements of traditional marketing, with its rigid scheduling and planning. Nevertheless, Think employees with such training are learning how to make interactive an integral - rather than adjunct - part of traditional account management and planning.
Chang exemplifies an emerging trend to bring interactive marketing to Madison Avenue. Expect to see the wall continue to crumble between interactive and traditional advertising this year, as top executives at major advertising agencies fully - some would say finally - embrace the Internet. For one, TBWA/Chiat/Day has begun a top-down initiative to re-educate employees about the Internet's role in a complete advertising strategy for its clients.
Meanwhile, other agencies have scrapped their fledgling Web development divisions to champion "integration," as it's called, in subtler ways. (New York-based BBDO Interactive, for instance, was disintegrated in mid-1999.) So what's happening? The old guard, which separated interactive from the process in the first place, now wants to bring it in-house. Paran Johar, an advertising consultant at Select Resources International, who helps clients find interactive agencies, offers one interpretation: "Unfortunately, ad agencies sometimes have senior executives who don't get it ... or who are intimidated by the technology. Long term, they've realized integration is going to be key."
Integration is forcing employees steeped in either traditional or interactive to adapt to new ways of doing work. The transition does not always go smoothly.
Consider what Think has gone through. This time last year, Jonathan Anastas, senior VP and director of client services at Think, oversaw a team of interactive specialists who had counterparts on the traditional side managed by senior VP Elizabeth Riddell. However, it became clear that this parallel structure wasn't efficient, according to Anastas. So last spring, the agency restructured. Anastas and Riddell helped lead the effort among Think's 70 or so employees that involved, in some instances, switching account personnel from one "side" to the other so the account teams would include both interactive and traditional expertise. "It was a realization of the inevitable," Anastas says.
The original account structure, with the parallel executives, led to complications. "We had classic problems. Either the interactive or the traditional team leader could have led the account, but each feared ... stepping on the other's toes. The client didn't get the best creative thinking this way."
Ultimately, about one-third of Think's staff was reassigned to a new account group. All media personnel and creative staff began reporting to a single lead manager (rather than multiple creative and media directors for each account); account executives also became responsible for learning about all media outlets, including the Internet, kiosks, interactive TV and CD-ROMs.
Furthermore, the agency stopped hiring creatives who lacked prior interactive experience. "The biggest feeling was of relief," Anastas says. After the shift, he adds, "it seemed like there were no longer any unnatural bureaucracies in the way."
While Think was reintegrating its interactive flock into the agency, across town, TBWA/Chiat/Day hatched a plan to lead hundreds of employees to embrace the Internet at an October powwow called Reboot Camp. The goal was to teach TBWA account executives like Darren Schillace to add interactive marketing to their lists of traditional advertising responsibilities.
Laurie Coots, chief marketing officer at TBWA/Chiat/Day, sounds proud that junior and midlevel employees like Schillace are now working harder and longer to get smarter about the Net: "Darren used to be a mild-mannered account guy with a predictable life," Coots says. "He's been catapulted into optimizing an Infiniti Internet [stock-picking] game."
Why a "reboot?" Coots notes that while the agency didn't really have an interactive "division," clients' questions about extending their brands online made her and other senior managers decide that the staff needed more interactive expertise. Prior to Reboot, a loose collective of executives who called themselves "the digerati" had already begun holding three-hour meetings once a week to study the latest trends in digital media.
"This started in early spring after an influx of calls from dot-com clients," recalls Coots, who says her clients were on compressed time frames. "They'd ask us questions like, 'How much do we need to spend in offline media to deliver 2.5 million unique visitors to our site?'" The digerati didn't always have quick answers, and the agency wanted to change that.
The firm's top executives closed for business for the last week of October. All 800 employees had to participate in Reboot's agenda of events. In addition to schmoozing at an in-house trade show where vendors such as AOL and Comet Systems showed off their technologies, employees were asked to rewrite their job descriptions. They also got primers on the Internet and digital media, complete with a "who's who" list of Internet luminaries and thinkers. The show will hit the road this year as TBWA/Chiat/Day offices in New York, Asia and Europe also "reboot."
The result of this massive re-education is that now at least one of 70 "digital ambassadors" - more than 10 percent of the Los Angeles office's workforce - takes responsibility for bringing interactive marketing to each account, even if the client didn't come looking for interactive work. "Digital ambassadors are charged with being hypersensitive to what's happening within their client's category on the Internet and within their department," says Jason Kuperman, director of convergence strategy at the agency. Being a digital ambassador carries other responsibilities. An account exec like Schillace, for example, may have official responsibility for Infiniti, but he is also expected to "consult" as a digital ambassador for two additional brands.
Even at agencies that aren't making so concerted a push to marry interactive and traditional, Jupiter analyst Michele Slack notes that senior-level posts like "chief integration officer" are popping up more and more.
Ad agency BBDO scrapped its BBDO Interactive group, named Susan Smith Ellis executive VP and director of integrated marketing, and now positions AtMosphere Interactive - an agency launched in late summer 1999, in which BBDO owns a majority stake - to help BBDO offer more integrated account management.
"I came here a year ago to help integrate BBDO's interactive work into the accounts," says Smith Ellis. "Its interactive capability had come out of the media department. As that group grew its business, there would be opportunities to do more than the media-buying ... and we'd scramble around to find outsource shops." While AtMosphere's role in handling business it shares with BBDO isn't entirely clear, President and COO Bill Katz says it's likely that a lead account manager would work with the client from the BBDO side. Still, it signals that integration is the new mission statement du jour for mainstream ad agencies.
Down in the trenches, folks like Chang and Schillace are rounding out their experience to prepare for the future of account management - where the Internet isn't a "specialty" but a medium like any other. "My days are longer now," says Think's Chang. "But there's more for me to learn." That's a metaphor, perhaps, for advertising agencies everywhere.