NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Google has spent a lot of time in the past few years trying to quell fears it's out to disintermediate advertising agencies. Now it's undertaking a major effort trying to educate them on all things digital.
Enter AgencyLand. It may sound like an amusement park, but it's actually an online educational portal Google is developing for ad shops, one that likely will help the search giant deeper entrench itself in an ad-agency community that's often been wary of it.
The AgencyLand platform, now in beta with select agencies, houses a ton of Google-centric content created for agency staff. Naturally, much of it is focused on digital topics. There are webinars, a searchable library with more than 200 marketing case studies and short, on-demand video segments featuring Google leaders such as Chief Economist Hal Varian. It also aggregates Google's array of ad tools, such as a media-planning tool that connects advertisers and publishers and a website optimizer, which helps measure user behavior on web pages.
Google maintains it has altruistic intentions of bettering everyone's digital knowhow, but the program surely doubles as a marketing effort. Given that Google offers advertisers the chance to essentially help themselves create highly measurable and relevant, if unflashy, ads, agencies have been wary that Google could one day get between them and clients. Many shops -- perhaps realizing the search giant simply cannot be ignored -- have opted to work with Google rather than against it. Most publicly, French holding company Publicis Groupe has publicly touted partnerships with Google to work on digital ad technology. But there have also been moments of friction, such as when Martin Sorrell, chief of holding company WPP, took to calling Google a "frenemy" (which he later amended to "froe").
So could AgencyLand just be the latest PR flourish in a Google-Madison Ave. history that's seen plenty of them? That depends on where you sit. "We're not going to deal with an agency that doesn't know Google," said one digital expert at a blue-chip marketer. "It's a barrier to entry."
Asked whether Google's intention is to use AgencyLand for marketing purposes, Spencer Spinnell, director-agency development and strategy, said: "Our objective is really that it's an educational tool. ... I think it's good for digital media at large."
While there are some reasons for skepticism, Google, which needs agency buy-in for a host of reasons, has big ambitions for AgencyLand. Earlier this year it asked 10 shops across different holding companies, including Ogilvy, Initiative, Starcom and Carat, to serve as its guinea pigs while it works out the kinks. It's in the process of rolling the platform out to a second batch of shops for testing ( DraftFCB, Martin Agency, DDB, Digitas, Group M, BBDO, 360i and Razorfish) and estimates it will make AgencyLand widely available to agencies late this year or early next.
Usage of the portal is free. The search giant said it had received requests from the agency community for training that would help employees stay ahead of the digital curve. The timing of the platform's release is ideal, Google said, because it enables agencies to continue boosting their digital chops even at a time when most are cash-strapped.
"In a down economy, training is one of the first things to get cut" Mr. Spinnell said. He said he believes AgencyLand offers a way for agencies to "take their knowledge workers and make them smarter."
The biggest piece of feedback from agency users so far has been a recommendation to make the training sessions shorter and more digestible. Google went back to the drawing board and created a series of 15-minute graphical seminars with voice-over instructions. "The idea is that a planner or creative can [complete segments] while eating lunch at their desk," Mr. Spinnell said.
AgencyLand is tailored to each agency, co-branded with each company's logo, and dotted with pictures of agency heads and customized content. Agency management tracks individual employees' progress, and quizzes are offered at the end of each course.
The user interface as it stands now is Google-esque -- simple, tons of white space, no bells and whistles -- and the content is very Google-centric. Courses suggested for TV media buyers and planners, for example, are "How YouTube complements Television Advertising" and "Getting the Most Out of Google TV." For search specialists, "Google Maps and Ads" and "AdWords on the Go: Mobile Activation." Google is working toward embedding a certification program.
"There's no question the content is largely skewed to our platforms, today, but that's because we are in early stages," Mr. Spinnell said. "AgencyLand ... will expand and include the agency's own training materials and competitive materials."
"Google really has turned around; they really want to help agencies," said Amy Auerbach, senior VP-director of digital at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative, New York. "One of the challenges that agencies face on a daily basis is training staff. Some agencies have established programs and some do not, and that was something that we in the digital space were kind of clamoring for."
Initiative has historically offered a mix of training programs that are informal, such as its "lunch and learn" sessions, where experts give presentations, or more formal, such as a mandatory, nationwide digital training session the shop held earlier this year. "The good thing about AgencyLand is that it's a technology platform, so it was very turnkey for us," Ms. Auerbach said.
Still, agency leaders are quick to note that Google's agency training program doesn't trump internal ones, and should be used only in tandem with existing training programs.
Last fall, WPP-owned Group M introduced its first major online training program, dubbed Mspace -- a play on the name and style of News Corp.'s MySpace. More than half of the agency's staff -- some 1,700 staffers -- has already gone through the program, and "75% of those people have been people outside of digital," said John Montgomery, chief operating officer-North America at Group M Interaction.
Group M, one of AgencyLand's select test agencies, is in the midst of assembling teams that will work on the platform in beta and report back to the search giant.
"Even something like Mspace has to be used as an adjunct to a formal digital training program, for digital and for nondigital people," Mr. Montgomery said. "If it was their only training I would be worried, and the same would be true about AgencyLand."
Microsoft is launching its own agency-targeted training program this summer, called Digital Academy. It's not an online training tool like Google's but rather in-person educational sessions, expected to push the three-screen approach (web, TV and mobile) that Microsoft evangelizes.
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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen