The net benefit of never having to meet the client

The traditional agencies had better keep an eye on a groundbreaking new website that has been set up to put advertisers directly in touch with creative workers.
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It describes itself as an "eBay for ideas" and it produces advertising campaigns. But there are no meetings, no painful development process, no agency overheads, no retainers, no creative tantrums; just an arm's-length transaction over the internet that allows advertisers, for the first time, to talk directly to a pool of high-quality freelance creatives, without the intervening army of planners, suits and mark-up merchants.

The company in question is a relatively minor Slovakian-owned internet operation called OpenAd. With only seven employees in this country (39 worldwide) and barely a couple of dozen projects under its belt, it could easily be mistaken for just another internet start-up with a good story to tell.

Yet it is of huge potential significance to the advertising industry because, if successful, it could pioneer a new way of working that would bypass creative departments in the same way record shops have been "disintermediated" by the internet. It could turn the ideas they peddle into commodities that can be traded at arm's length, like pork bellies. And it could give the smallest local advertisers access to the world's top creative talents.

Under the guidance of its managing director, the former Slovenian television and advertising executive Katarina Skoberne, OpenAd has spent the past two years enrolling 5,000 creative people from all over the world. They pay nothing to join its lists. Now it has moved to the second phase - enrolling customers.

"The client pays for membership, which allows them to post briefs on the site and view existing ideas, paying somewhere between $3,000 and $100,000 depending upon the number of pitches they want to hold, the number of categories they want to access and the number of staff who have access," Skoberne explains. "Anyone who has registered as a creative supplier - and anyone can - is free to answer the brief, or not, as they choose. Clients then pay a licence fee for the ideas they use."

Skoberne is understandably eager to stress that she isn't competing with advertising agencies. OpenAd, she argues, is simply a supplement for creative departments, a more efficient version of what already exists. "We are not an online ad agency, we are merely a resource of creative material," she says. Commercial edge comes not from bypassing agencies but from tapping into the vast reservoir of creativity all across the world that has been made accessible by the internet. But the bulk of OpenAd's customers to date have been advertisers and they seem to revel in the freedom it gives them. "We were a global campaign and the thing about OpenAd is that it opens the window to global ideas, even for very small clients," says Amanda Horton-Mastin, the new media and development director of the UK charity Comic Relief, which used OpenAd to create a campaign for the Make Poverty History movement. "It was quick, it was cheap, and the idea we chose was excellent."

The men's magazine FHM has used OpenAd three times in the past two years for various campaigns. "We started off with one-off tactical promotions and recently asked for a full-blown branding campaign," says the marketing manager, Ben Cordle. "The creative response was fantastic. It gave us access to heavyweight creative talent and saved us thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds on agency overheads into the bargain."

If OpenAd can establish the principle that top-quality work can be done via the internet, it's hard to imagine its not having a real effect on the advertising business. Even those in the agency world concede the question is not whether it will have an impact, but how big the impact will be.

"This is an idea whose time has come," says Judie Lannon, a marketing consultant and former planning director of JWT. "People have tried this before, but OpenAd is making it work. Their processes are good, their work is good. I have no doubt they'll make a good living."

But, she says, it would be unlikely to produce big enduring brand campaigns because the development of really long-lasting big ideas usually involves a lot of toing and froing, dialogue, and refining, which is not so easy when you cannot talk face to face with creative teams.

Greg Delaney, the chairman of DLKW, agrees. "The best creativity comes from a relationship, not a transaction. It's not just the creative people who are important, but the combination of everybody involved. So my feeling is that OpenAd will be an interesting sideshow." But for whom? There are 2,500 to 3,000 companies offering advertising services in the UK, but 85 per cent of all client budgets are spent through the 256 agency members of the industry body, the IPA. Even the IPA director general, Hamish Pringle, agrees that the advertising industry could be revolutionised by OpenAd, and not just the top end that his members are in.

It's the "long tail" that will be hit most, he argues. "I think it will cause a small ripple in our ocean but a large splash in the pool of "man and a Mac" operations servicing smaller clients."

The future starts here.

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