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It's the Message, Stupid


Do you remember when banner ads represented the extent of advertising opportunities available online? If you do, you’ve been in this business a long time. You’ll also remember how crude those online advertising formats were by today’s standards. 

Back then, advertising agencies often took concepts directly from offline campaigns and translated them into banner ads. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The unique opportunities made possible by the Internet weren’t yet being fully realized.

Today, banner ads are slowly becoming the audio cassette tape of the online advertising world. They still work when done well, but they’re not nearly as cool -- especially when compared to the lure of rich media to advertisers.

As rich media began to mature, the opportunity it represented for advertisers and brand managers was enormous. Finally, an advertising vehicle on the Internet offered a brand experience previously available only on television and other offline media.

It is now difficult to get through a day online without having something crawl across your browser window, pop up in the middle of your article or offer you a miniature golf challenge while you’re booking your next flight. More of a novelty just a year ago, rich media is becoming far more mainstream.

Here’s the problem: too many rich media ads today clearly focus their energies on the creative execution instead of the message. In an apparent effort to be the most creative (or the most interruptive), many advertisers and agencies succeed in getting the customer’s attention -- but fail to deliver the key message or persuade consumers to take the desired action.

This challenge with rich media can be a very slippery slope. But with a little effort and understanding of the medium, smart advertisers can be graphically exciting and deliver the right message -- clearly and successfully. Here are a few tips to make this happen:

Don’t be afraid to keep it simple

Rich media advertisements are by their nature more complex. Too often, that complexity leads to complicated ads. Some agencies and developers are tempted to flex their muscles to pad their egos and fill their trophy cases. But just because it’s rich media doesn’t mean your ad needs to be richly complex. If you confuse your audience with too much flash, the message is likely to get lost.

Take advantage of context

First, make sure you’re buying ad space on the right sites so your ads will be seen by the right audience. This seems basic enough. What advertisers often fail to think about is the value of customizing their ads to the specific context of each site -- maybe even specific sections of large sites. For example, a company selling vintage baseball jerseys has a natural set of sports-related sites they may target for their ad campaign. But do they customize the ad campaign for each specific site? Should an advertisement on ESPN.com, for example, make a special offer exclusive to that site’s visitors? Speaking directly to your target audience, not merely at them, will always yield better results.

Don’t forget the offer

Of course some rich media campaigns are primarily about brand awareness. But even brand campaigns should have a purpose. Tell your customers what to do next. Give them a compelling reason to do it now instead of later. Most rich media is far more interruptive in nature than ‘traditional’ online advertising (banner ads, even text ads), so it’s less likely that a consumer will want to interrupt their intended activity to take action on your advertisement. This makes an offer especially important to lift response.

Make it functional

Put another way, give your audience something to interact with. Here’s what I mean: interactivity for its own sake doesn’t usually do much. Functional interaction is more directional -- it drives your audience to an activity that calls attention to your product and/or brand. This can be as simple and functional as having consumers fill out a form or questionnaire for follow-up or profiling. Or offering some type of game or activity that reinforces your campaign objectives. 

Copy is king

The 40-40-20 rule (meaning good advertising is 40 percent list, 40 percent offer, and 20 percent creative) still applies. List (targeting and context in the online advertising world) is discussed above. Your offer, made even more compelling with good copy, is the next most important element of online advertising. Good creative can accentuate the message and the offer. Bad creative may cloud it. But outstanding creative and bad copy still won’t get you the results you want. Smoke and mirrors are still smoke and mirrors in any medium. Don’t skimp on the basics.

Use the right format

Despite the excitement surrounding rich media, make sure this format is right for your campaign.  Although rich media might be more exciting, would a banner or skyscraper campaign do the job at a lower cost? What about text links or newsletter sponsorships? Start with your objectives, then define your strategy. Don’t fall into the trap of working the other way around.

Matt Heinz is director of marketing for HouseValues, Inc., a marketing services company that provides residential real estate agents with technology and marketing solutions. Matt has more than 10 years of consumer and B-to-B marketing experience with technology, real estate and retail products. He previously held marketing positions at Microsoft, The Boeing Company, Weber Shandwick, The Seattle Mariners and the Washington State Attorney General’s office.

When I first sat down to write this piece, I began formulating my own ideas on the dilemma at hand. Then it occurred to me: Maybe the reason agency-brand negotiations are such a cumbersome process is due, in part, to the fact that most people in the industry are familiar with only one side of the story.

And so, in the spirit of social media and the wealth of networks, I decided to write this piece with a little help from my friends (i.e., you).

I started by creating a form in Google Spreadsheets. (For those of you who are not familiar with this tool, it is really simple and free. Go ahead, give it a try). The form I created asked the following questions:

  • Are you from a brand or an agency?

  • Have you ever been taken advantage of in an agency-brand relationship?

  • Do you believe in pay for performance?

  • Have you ever fired a partner?

  • What do you hate most about contract negotiations?

  • Now it is your turn. How do you avoid getting ripped off in negotiations?

You can view the form here. (The survey is still live, if you would like to rant. I may not do anything with your rant, but feel free to use it as a cathartic tool. After all, your husband, wife, or mother is sick of listening to you complain.)

As a final question on the form, I asked respondents whether I could use their real names. Six out of 17 respondents agreed to be quoted. (For those who submitted quotes that do not appear here, my apologies -- I really do appreciate your help.)

In order to drive traffic to the form I wrote about it on my blog and tweeted about it. (Thanks to those who retweeted it; shame on those who did not).

Before we get into specific ways that brand and agency executives can improve the negotiation process, I want to frame the conversation by illuminating the obvious: Most of us simply hate the process -- so much so that we want to stick toothpicks in our eyes! Check out these responses with regard to the most-hated element of contract negotiations:

(click to enlarge)

As you can see, 59 percent of respondents simply hate the entire process, while 29 percent (all of whom are on the agency side, by the way) hate the "hurry up and wait" game the most.

Admittedly, my process for attaining these data is less than scientific (OK, much less), but my guess is that a more robust poll would yield similar results. (And I am a pretty good guesser.) So let these percentages be a reminder as we work through the rest of the findings.

Who is ripping off whom?
In gauging people's disillusionment with the whole agency RFP process, it is interesting to see which party feels it is ripped off more often.

(click to enlarge)

Having worked in this industry for many years, it came as no surprise to me that more agency employees feel they have been ripped off. In light of the fact that many agencies feel they are getting ripped off, you might think that they would be more comfortable with the pay-for-performance model -- a model under which they could get paid exactly what they deserve.

(click to enlarge)

Although some agency folks say they like the pay-for-performance model, perhaps the split in responses represents the fact that it can be difficult to structure such a deal -- especially when you are not dealing with direct response marketing.

For those of you who hate numbers, take a deep breath -- we are done with that portion of this article. (Although if you are in this industry and hate data, maybe you should continue to hold your breath.) Instead, let's hear directly from some of the survey respondents with regard to their advice when it comes to how agencies and brands can avoid emerging from the negotiation process feeling cheated.

Let's start off with industry veteran John Durham of Catalyst:SF. His agency recently won a very big account, so I would give his insights a good deal of weight. "You always try to be fair on both sides," Durham says. "Each has to win. If you understand pain points and necessary points on both sides, you will get most of what you want."

Indeed, compromise and understanding on both sides are key to the negotiation process. As my former boss and mentor, Shenan Reed of Morpheus Media, puts it, "At the end of the day, every company wants to stay in business, pay its bills, keep the lights on, and maybe turn a profit. I firmly believe that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar." (And I can tell you that there are a lot of flies being caught at Morpheus these days.)

However, based on the data we saw earlier, it's obvious that the negotiation process is anything but a love fest. Despite the above comments, there is a great deal of contention that takes places between brands and their agencies. For example, many agency-side marketers feel that their organizations have rights beyond what they may currently be given.

Elizabeth Bleser, managing director at Incognito Digital, says agency executives have a right to put a monetary value on their intellectual capital. "There are so many situations where we expose our thinking to win an engagement, or sell through a concept that we are not compensated for," she says. "As an agency, we embrace the 'thinking' process, but if a client, time and time again, does not follow through on the request or provide actionable feedback, a costly loop is created."

As media planning is increasingly viewed by clients as a commodity, it is the art of marketing (i.e., the thinking done by an agency) rather than the science that will keep agencies successful and profitable, Bleser adds. "I believe charging for scoping or discovery is something that should be a recognized industry standard," she says.

Finally, one respondent, who wished to remain anonymous, provided a somewhat grim view of the state of client-agency negotiations. "Frankly there's not a lot you can do other than be clear about expectations and responsibilities," the agency representative writes. "Someday, clients are going to begin realizing that all the efforts we put into CYA and protecting ourselves are actually getting in the way of us doing what we're supposed to do -- help them communicate with their stakeholders and audiences.

"Maybe clients will begin to see that they're paying a price in the marketplace for the unethical behavior of other marketers -- in the form of pricing based on marked-up costs instead of value, CYA busy work, reduced respect, and other games we have to play," the person adds. "If they see that, maybe they'll be more likely to take a stand. Otherwise, it's going to stay a cost of business for everyone involved."

You are probably thinking, "Adam, we know agencies complain a lot. Can we please hear from the brand side of the fence?" Sure you can.

Melissa Hudson, director of digital media at A&E, says that the key to not getting ripped off in agency-brand negotiations is to do your homework. "If there is a fee or cost that I am not familiar with, I look up rate cards, or find out more," she says. If the RFP went to multiple agencies, Hudson says she may even request that others include the line item in their proposals so she can gauge their responses and see that they would charge for it.

Furthermore, Hudson says she always challenges a fee or cost that she feels is even the slightest bit too high. "Sometimes agencies will come back with a good argument, and the fee or cost stays the same," she says. "I always ask the agencies to provide less-expensive alternatives in their proposals. Even if I provide them with a budget up front, I want to know what the 'cheaper' version of the product will be." Also, Hudson adds, if she knows what she should be paying for a given service or product, she will make it clear as to how much she is willing to spend for each part of the project.

Another common complaint arising from the brand side is that an agency's pitch team and its subsequent account team are often not comprised of the same players. Larger agencies tend to have a team focused on new business, and that team is generally comprised smooth-talking thought leaders (or, at least. it should be). Once a contract is signed, the old bait and switch occurs. So, to all the brand managers out there: It may be a good idea to ensure that the agency roster servicing your business is set in stone, with as much detail as possible.

For many professionals working in the new media landscape, forging lucrative relationships is not defined only by capital gain. Some of us are fighting the good fight for the creative use of new media (which is not an easy fight at all). C.C. Chapman, partner at new media marketing agency The Advanced Guard, says that his firm likes to evaluate how potential clients are participating in online conversations in order to gauge their tolerance for experimentation and new ways of thinking.

"We pride ourselves on coming up with creative new ways to use media, but I get tired of pitching ideas that don't come to fruition," Chapman says. "Anyone can come up with ideas and share them, but I want to make sure we are working with a team that is ready to execute. This is very important to us in the negotiation process."

Well, there you have it, folks: interesting insights and tips on the brand-agency negotiation process from people within the industry. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Do your homework.

  • If you take advantage of people, you may be the one that suffers.

  • Brand-agency relationships should be partnerships.

  • Be prepared to deliver what you have sold.

  • Be fair, but don't just give it away.

The more I write about this industry, the more insights I gain -- and the more I realize that the rules of industry are identical to the rules of human nature. So in the immortal words of Bill and Ted (from their excellent adventure, of course): "Be excellent to each other; and party on, dudes!"

Adam Broitman is a creative marketing strategist.

Analytics and internal search

Look at your site's analytics data for organic keywords that are driving traffic. Also look at keywords that drove traffic from search engines (both paid search and organic search). Internal search data logs can produce interesting keyword opportunities. Plus, the demand is often inherent making the keywords more likely relevant even though they may not be obvious to people working within your industry. 

Online text analyzers such textalyser.net will list the frequency of two to five word phrases. These recurring phrases that are driving search traffic are good sources of keywords and excellent sources of inspiration for content.

Google Adwords Keyword Tool

When working on client projects we commit to items one through three first, and then turn to the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. The Google Adwords Keyword Tool does a fairly good job of covering the most important search terms, but the long tail of search is not always available. Sign in and run small groups of keywords through the tool to generate other keywords. There can be a wide range of relevancy already, so be sure that groups of keywords are small and very closely related around a theme. Using the United Van Lines example, "corporate moving," "corporate movers," and "business movers" might be searched together, but "military moving" should be done in a separate group.

If using the Google Adwords Keyword Tool for SEO, be sure that you are searching for "exact match" search volumes, and not "broad match" search volumes. There are checkbox selectors on the left.
Select "Exact Match" for SEO

Source: Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool

The tool returns search volumes which may seem off based on intuition and your analytics data. This is because it's a data sample and not an accurate count. When looking at search volumes, think of them in relation to eachother -- for example, keyword A has five times the volume as keyword B.

SEM rush

This tool is adored by many search marketers. The free version is interesting, but does not have the recommended depth for a proper keyword research project. It does give interesting competitive intelligence on which keywords are driving traffic from search engines to your competition.


Excel will be integral to the management of keyword lists, but can also help generate additional lists. Using keyword elements (city names, product categories, adjectives, etc.) discovered in the other methods, keyword lists can be expanded using formulas that pull individual keywords together into keyword phrases, for example, "cheap Austin moving companies" and "cheap San Francisco moving companies."

An online thesaurus can also come in handy when expanding lists of adjectives that can be merged in Excel to create additional keywords.

There are many other keyword tools we use on a given keyword research project, both paid and free, but these are our first go-to tools for keyword list building. Now get busy building those lists!

Jessica Bowman is CEO of SEOinhouse.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Audi: Slide Track

Every day, ads appear in new places. Airline trays. Urinal cakes. Golf balls. Golf cups. Just when you think there is nothing left to use for marketing, along comes a stroke of brilliance. Make the slider into a race car. Who could resist unlocking the Audi magazine delivered in tablet editions of leading magazines! OK, this is more fill-you-with-smiles versus yucks, but it's just too brilliant not to highlight!

Lanvin: Dancing

The democratization of...well...everything, is perhaps the biggest trend of the last decade. It seems even to be affecting the couture fashion business, if this Lanvin video is any indication. The genius of it is that the clothes continue to be defined by a design elite, but the approachable execution makes the brand more contemporary and relevant. Sort of...exclusively inclusive. Either that or that last sentence was a complete pile of crap. Either way, it's fun to watch models that lack rhythm.

The Last Testament of God: The Tweet of God

Verily I say unto thee -- scratch that. Verily He says unto thee. To support the release of the book "The Last Testament: A Memoir by God," Yahweh and his able acolyte David Javerbaum provide bits of sage wisdom that are at once biblical and hilariously un-PC. Writing a very funny book is one thing, but offering up a stream of consistently funny tweets every day...for weeks...shows a tremendous commitment to Twitter and its power to drive buyers. It's a darned popular Twitter account. Of course, the slogan "Follow God. Or be smited." may have something to do with that.

Jimmy Kimmel Live: Hottie Bodies Humpilates

Millions seek out Jimmy Kimmel's promotional parodies the instant they hit the web. It's a brilliant strategy, because it captures the essence of what makes the show different in a very crowded late night talk show market. And because celebrities need to be good sports to be on the show anyway, Jimmy makes the most of their good nature in these excellent uber viral promos.

Jameson's: Jameson1790.com

This complex and engaging brand experience asks the user to identify the thief of a barrel of Jameson's. What makes 'er inneresting is that the thief is one of your friends, and the game asks you to determine which one by revealing clues based on their Facebook activity . These clues are seamlessly embedded in high quality videos starring eccentric Oirish folk. In addition to the concept and the watchability, the experience also incorporates great little dexterity games. When you identify the crook, the experience goes viral on your Facebook page and that of your criminal friend.

Toddlers and Tiaras: Miss Ultimate Sexy Baby Nevada

Reality TV's biggest train wreck was beautifully spoofed in this parody featuring Tom Hanks and his daughter. Was it an official Toddlers marketing effort? Dunno. But clearly they garnered a lot of cooperation from the pageant circuit for this send up, and I am certain it got more than a million extra people to park their middle-aged rumps on the couch for the season premiere. There are so many superb lines in this masterpiece of tight writing, physical comedy, and spot-on timing. I think the best is when Tom tells his daughter "Don't be a hooch."

Jim Nichols is a marketing and strategy contractor.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Matt Heinz is senior director of marketing for Verdiem, a green technology company dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of every IT device worldwide. Matt has more than 10 years of consumer and B2B marketing experience with technology, real...

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