Claire Beale on Advertising

It's the year to get with the digital project or tumble by the wayside

Ah, New Year's Day: a time for the sorrows of the past 12 months to melt, by way of a sozzled fug, into rampant optimism for the year ahead. But 2007 could be the year you face professional extinction.

Sure, there's plenty for adland to be optimistic about... if it's up for a challenge. But, frankly, anyone who isn't might as well stay in bed tomorrow. Because if there's one thing that will define the next year, it's dramatic and irreversible change.

The processes of advertising, give or take the arrival of television and computers, was pretty set for a hundred years or so. But digital is the rocket up the arse of the old world order and is about to blow it to smithereens. This year will be the tipping point, when advertising becomes democratised. Commercial communication can no longer be the preserve of the big ad agency, with its thick departmental layers, many-mouthed and hungry. The marketer's purse is now in open play.

From digital agencies winning traditional above-the-line assignments to branding agencies working across all consumer touch-points, to media owners cutting out the advertising middle-man, to YouTubers making their own ads, the marketer's options just exploded. And with this explosion some control - control over how a brand is portrayed, perceived - must be ceded.

The seeds of the 2007 revolution have already been sown. Here are just a few examples that should send ad agencies' blood running cold. Glue, one of the hottest agencies creating advertising online, is currently pitching for its first off-line creative assignment - the £10m Eurostar account. Why would any sensible advertiser have a digital agency and a traditional agency if it can get great work, on-line and off-line, from a single agency source? Meanwhile, new brands are emerging that are building their businesses without an ad agency in sight, thank you very much. Take Ella's Kitchen, a kitchen-table start-up (by Ella's dad, Paul Lindley) selling organic children's food that has become one of the retail success stories of the last year.

The brand has been advertised on satellite channels in a deal - sure to become a blueprint - with Viacom Brand Solutions, which sells ad-slots on channels including Nickelodeon. Viacom made the ad and then swapped the airtime (worth millions of pounds in revenue) for a share in Ella's Kitchen's profits. Without this sort of deal Ella's Kitchen would have struggled to afford TV advertising and the retailers (who like to see real marketing support for the brands they list) would have jealously guarded their shelf-space.

It's not just media companies that are making ads. Type "Diet Coke" or "Sony Bravia" into YouTube and you'll find plenty of films about these brands made by punters, some of them celebratory, some of them sacrilegious, all of them prime examples of consumers taking ownership of brand communications; marketing directors (and their ad budgets) go hang.

So where does all of this democratisation leave traditional ad agencies?

For those prepared to rip up decades of certainties and embrace a much looser definition of advertising, the revolution should be good news: creating compelling commercial content has never been more necessary.

The days of the couch-potato viewer waiting to be served a diet of mostly mediocre TV programmes, and mostly mediocre ads, are drawing to a close. In the new, digital, world, consumer empowerment rules and we're no longer happy to watch what the schedulers deem fit. So 2007 will be the year of television on-demand and, as broadcasters become content suppliers rather than content schedulers (most of them are well on the way to supplying content digitally and on-line for us to watch when we choose), the way we see ads will change. With TV on-demand, advertising will become both more and less targeted. More targeted because digital technology means advertisers will be able to identify exactly the right consumers for their brands and deliver personalised TV ads to individual households. Less targeted because, if viewers are watching TV programmes on-demand rather than to a TV schedule, the ability to determine when, where and how often a consumer will see your commercial message evaporates. And then, of course, digital technology also allows us to avoid ads more efficiently than ever.

For good ad agencies, all of this should be good news. For not-so-good agencies, it could be very bad news indeed. Great ads (like, say, last year's Sony Bravia "paint" spot by Fallon) will be sought out by interested consumers, passed around virally, pastiched mercilessly and TV sets will be sold. Bad ads will disappear without trace and so, too, will some bad agencies.

But it's no good just making a good ad anymore. In 2007 the pre-release activity behind a blockbuster commercial will emerge as a military operation in its own right. A blockbuster ad will be PR-ed (watch out over the next few days for the onslaught supporting the debut of the new PG Tips ad starring the old ITV Digital monkey and his side-kick Johnny Vegas for a lesson in how to do it). It will be seeded on the web (teasers, previews, making-ofs...). There will be planned word-of-mouth (screenings and brand experiences for opinion-formers)

So 2007 will demand a new advertising lexicon. "Advertising" is increasingly too scant to describe what ad agencies will have to do if they are to survive in this new world order.

NOW FOR some crystal-ball predictions for the advertising village grassroots. And, yes, change is top of the agenda.

There will be undoubtedly be more acquisitions this year: Clemmow Hornby Inge will continue to be wooed by several holding companies - will Havas prove the sweetest partner?

With creative media-led thinking in the ascendancy, Naked, now a fully-fledged international business, will be near the top of a few shopping lists too. Its rival Michaelides and Bednash, which has flirted with potential purchasers for some time now, could find itself back in fashion.

Meanwhile, the identity-less Draft/FCB could be the first creative agency to seriously pull media planners back in-house this year, but what would that mean for sibling media agency Initiative? Its sister Interpublic agency McCann-Erickson is said to be looking for a UK purchase, though there's not much worth buying unless Mother caves in (would there be any marriage more counter-cultural?). And definitely all of the best digital independents will be approached this year with acquisition offers.

Expect some dramatic changes at WPP after mixed fortunes at its UK agencies in 2006. Could success at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe Y&R foster a new start-up from amongst the management ranks? Could the lack of real success at Grey have a similar effect?

Change must certainly come at JWT, which limps into 2007 as a wounded concern. Meanwhile, over at the terminal, United, change must eventually be of phoenix proportions.

The fact is that, with the industry at large facing such seismic upheaval, no agency can afford to have structural weaknesses. The real - and largely unresolved - question is what exactly is the best agency-structure for the digital age. It's a question that 2007 must answer. Happy New Year.

BEALE'S BEST IN SHOW CHRISTMAS DRUNK IDIOTS

As you nurse your New Year hangover, a few uncomfortable questions: Did you vomit in the back of a cab last night? Or start a fight? Or wet yourself?

People do some quite disgusting things when drunk. Many of them are toe-curlingly portrayed in a new ad from JWT (quite possibly the best thing they've done all year) in association with MTV (which provides free advertising airtime) and Auto Trader.

Check out "Christmas Drunks Idiots" on YouTube to see the grisly, funny detail. I defy you to watch this ad and not have at least one moment of excruciating self-awareness: is there anybody out there who hasn't been this drunk?

The point of the ad, though, and the neat twist at the end, is that the real idiots are not the guys in such a state that they chunder in the cab. The real idiots are the ones who try to drive themselves home.

It might not have the gruesomeness of some anti-drink-drive commercials, but I reckon the target market will actually seek it out, choose to watch it. I hope it works. And respect to cabbies everywhere.

Claire Beale is editor of 'Campaign'

claire.beale@haynet.com

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