And for those whose clients are in a highly competitive product category-where creative and media strategies can change daily, if not momentarily-very soon these spies could be tracking your every move.
In the marketing wars of the late 1990s, combatants in such militarily intensive categories as fast-food, beverages, telecommunications, autos and airlines, are awaiting the arrival of upgraded computerized "intelligence" systems.
These services represent not merely improvements over existing technology or a sophisticated way of spying. Instead, they'll provide data that will let agencies adjust their clients' media and creative strategies by the moment-and react immediately to competitor moves.
"Up until now, we've made [competitive] decisions based on historical data and guesses. Now we will be able to move more quickly on our feet with real facts behind us," says Ann Meschery, senior VP-media director of the Campbell Media Alliance, New York, a unit of True North Media.
The systems also are fostering a new generation of media planners. These operatives have abandoned historical modeling, or plans based on competitors' previous spending and media patterns, in favor of reactive media plans based on virtually real-time data.
They've even formed covert teams, with names like the "Falcon Team" or the "Chess Team" (see story above). The first is a reference to the mythologies coined by the movie "The Falcon and the Snowman"; the second alludes to outthinking one's competition, as in a game of chess.
Few of the agencies or clients involved in these clandestine activities would speak on the record, for fear that publicizing their existence would spoil part of their competitive edge.
Though it's hard to believe that marketers in competitive categories wouldn't know their counterparts are tracking their movements and strategies via the new systems, the level of this warfare is such that few wanted to take that chance.
In reality, it's likely that their competitors and even advertisers and agencies in less embattled categories will embrace the new tracking systems to improve the efficiency of their media and marketing planning.
For the moment, costs stand in the way-the costs of not only the technology, such as state-of-the-art systems developed by Competitive Media Reporting and Nielsen Media Research, but the costs of labor and brain power needed to translate this new information into competitive responses.
If these systems fulfill their expectations, the insight they'd provide on competitors' current marketing strategies and directions would be keen enough to make the KGB jealous.
As a hypothetical example, assume a system subscriber is handling a financial services client and keeping tabs on a competitor. This competitor is running three types of ads: some to attract new customers, some to retain existing customers and some for overall image advertising.
For two months, spending is split evenly among these three types of ads. But suddenly, the tracking system notices the competitor's new-customer spots are running more often.
The service subscriber now not only knows the competitor's strategy but can recommend the proper client response.
"The company may be splitting its weight a third, a third and a third, but if all of a sudden 100% of its [gross ratings points] go into the acquisition spots, you know something is wrong and that they're not hitting their numbers. There's a lot you can learn from this data," says a competitive media planner who asked not to be identified.
True North expects most of those facts to come from Ad*Views, a new competitive tracking system being introduced this fall by Nielsen.
A similar system, StrADegy, being developed by Competitive Media Reporting, is being rolled out now with more limited applications. Future versions are expected to offer all the elements of Nielsen's Ad*Views.
Ad*Views, based on Nielsen's older Monitor-Plus service, will begin being tested at True North and other clients in late fall, with a fully deployed version on line early next year.
What makes Ad*Views so appealing to True North is the immediacy of the data it produces and the flexibility in which it's reported.
Ad*Views enables users to call data as needed from Nielsen's mainframe computer to fit specific client applications. Nielsen will refresh the data as it becomes available.
For TV spots, that means overnight; for other media, such as magazines, that means within a month of its occurrence.
"It will never really be `real time' for all media, but it will be about as close as you can get," says Joanne Burke, exec VP-director of worldwide media research at True North.
Because of the immediacy of the data, Ms. Burke believes competitive media analysis will begin to take on a new role with ad agencies and at advertisers, especially among upper-level staffers.
Historically, competitive media analyses were relegated to a junior account exec. On occasion, media planners would conduct similar analyses to deduce competitors' media flighting patterns in an attempt to replicate their media strategies.
The problem, Ms. Burke says, is these efforts used numbers based on previous strategies and didn't reveal anything about a competitor's current direction.
Because Ad*Views-and ultimately CMR's StrADegy-can prompt users when specific occurrences happen, the systems actually will alert media planners, account execs, brand managers and anyone else involved when an important event occurs with their competitors' media strategies.
For example, the systems can be programmed to alert users when a competitor introduces a new product, a new creative strategy, or with Nielsen's current version-when brands change media spending levels or change spending behind specific creative executions.
CMR executives say a "version 2" of StrADegy will offer similar features in early 1996.
These systems, in theory, should produce data that not only improve tactical media responses but take media planning into other key areas of the marketing mix. This will let competitive media planners alert account and brand counterparts when events occur in brand development, creative positioning or even promotional tactics.
"This information will lead to more joint decisions between the media team and the account team, because it will enable you to back into a competitor's marketing strategy and trend where they are heading," says Julie Chan, media supervisor at FCB/Leber Katz Partners, New York.
Ms. Chan says she has worked with a variety of competitive tracking systems to date that have all lacked the utility to track competitive strategies in real time.
CMR, for example, has a product called Ad Detector that automatically tracked competitor's creative executions and reported them to clients, including digitized copies of the commercials.
The system has been a significant improvement in competitive tracking of creative and some marketing strategies. But it's had limitations in its application for media planning because it doesn't provide information on occurrences: how many spots, or rating points were purchased for new commercials and how long they ran.
In the meantime, True North hopes to glean some competitive advantages from Nielsen's Ad*Views system. So far, it's the only agency to sign up for it, but Ms. Burke says Ad*Views "will save us money and will give us better analytical tools."