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DESPERATELY SEEKING THE SUPERHIGHWAY AGENCIES FACE A CHANGING AND UNCERTAIN ROLE

By Published on .

Interactive media is Madison Avenue's newest religion.

Problem is, no one knows what to wear to church and a few still don't even know where the sanctuary is.

The ad agency world has come under heavy fire in the last year-often deservedly-for being slow to rise to the challenges of the changing media landscape. Critics blame the lack of enthusiasm on the fact that interactive services do not yet fit the mold of commissionable media, and therefore do not make easy economic sense.

Others wonder whether agents of any type will have a continuing role in an environment in which sellers can communicate directly with buyers, bypassing middlemen.

To their credit, many agencies are now attempting to rise to the challenge, either because they recognize the potential opportunities or because they fear being left behind. They are forming interactive task forces, conducting research, encouraging clients to get involved in various testbeds and forging alliances with multimedia developers and consultants.

Those who can't do it with homegrown resources are buying their way in by acquiring outside executives and agencies, but it remains to be seen whether those tenuous marriages will survive the inevitable culture clashes.

The strongest wake-up call was sounded last May at the annual American Association of Advertising Agencies meeting, when Procter & Gamble Chairman-CEO Ed Artzt challenged Madison Avenue to lead clients into the new-media age.

"That got agencies' attention earlier in the evolution of this than otherwise might have happened," said Four A's President O. Burtch Drake. "But I also think there's an awful lot that has to be proven in technology and software before this thing becomes anything approaching a commercial reality. I don't think it can become a commercial reality unless there is a place in it for advertising."

Some agencies, of course, are merely blowing smoke to give the appearance of being on the cutting edge. Others are committing substantial resources in an effort to get out ahead of their clients and lead the way.

In the industry's first comprehensive scan of agency interactive actions, Advertising Age grilled more than two dozen of the top U.S. ad shops about their interactive theology to determine exactly who's up to what. And the results, detailed this week and next, are quite eye-opening.

Ranked on a scale of one to four stars, only one agency-profiled next week-earned the top grade, and even that shop is losing its guiding force.

The gap among agency abilities is quite wide, although large New York-based shops tended to be further along the information superhighway than their smaller brethren in other cities, a lead often attributable to deeper resources and proximity to the action.

During the past year, a number of agencies-most recently Bates USA, NW Ayer and Ketchum Advertising-have formalized their interactive groups; others such as Ross Roy Communications, McCann-Erickson Worldwide and J. Walter Thompson Co. began contemplating new-media technologies years ago.

"What agencies do best is creative thinking, so they ought to be able to think about creative media opportunities," said Arthur Anderson, managing partner at New York consultancy Morgan, Anderson & Co. "They ought to be smart about this. Clients are so hard-pressed they look to agencies to come up with these ideas."

To find out who's got the interactive edge and who's missing in action, read on.

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