Net slashes time from hello to adios

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Web marketers are quick to hire and quick to fire their ad agencies to keep up with Internet time. But while speed to market is crucial, some Web players make the case not to be so quick to pull the trigger on a shotgun marriage.

"Agency searches that traditionally have taken four to six months now take three weeks or less," said Paran Johar, managing partner, Select New Media, an arm of Select Resources International, West Hollywood, Calif. "There's barely enough time to do due diligence, much less determine whether there's good chemistry between agency and client."

Select tries to "slow down the process long enough for both clients and agencies to determine whether they have a good fit or not," Mr. Johar said. "We want these to be long-term relationships."

Men's Wearhouse recently hired Select to find the retailer a good match for its interactive business--its third interactive shop in less than a year, having just parted company with iXL, Los Angeles.

While Men's Wearhouse executives declined comment on failed agency relationships, industry executives point out there is tremendous pressure to pick an agency very quickly.

"There's some belief--among dot-coms in particular--that any interactive agency will do as well as the next," said J.G. Sandom, director of interactive-North America, OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York. "A dot-com is a brand like any other brand . . . and its marketing and all the other things that go along with branding have to be taken into consideration. That includes the cultures of the client and the agency, and whether everyone is really going to get along."

GRABBING MARKET SHARE

Relationship-building is lost on many dot-coms "simply because everyone is intent on getting out there on the Web," said Bob Moog, chairman, areyougame.com. The games retail site hired Zuckerman Fernandes/Marc USA, San Francisco, in September after a "multimonth" search to handle its estimated $5 million account.

"What investors and entrepreneurs perceive is that there is a great deal of market-share grabbing going on in e-commerce, and that you have to be out there and be out there fast," said Mr. Moog, who put in a short stint this year as CEO of Toys "R" Us' online site. "You've got to get an agency to show VCs (venture capital companies) that you are making progress with your business plan; having an agency is a comfort factor for VCs."

Even before many dot-coms get their sites up--or before they know what they want from an agency--"they've gone out and hired someone," Mr. Moog said.

An agency with a well-known name gets "asked to participate in a lot of reviews," said Bruce Carlisle, president, SF Interactive, San Francisco. "But we run into the same thing over and over again: Many of these dot-coms, in their race to be first to market, don't know what they're buying. Their venture capital companies say they need an agency and they just go out and get one."

SF Interactive "looks a lot harder at the clients than the clients do to us," said Mr. Carlisle, who considers a client's stage of funding, management and potential success for its business model.

WHAT DOT-COMS FORGET

"What it really amounts to is that dot-coms are in such a rush they forget about the basics, like compatible cultures, compatible working styles and compatible mindsets," Mr. Carlisle said. "They forget they have to live with these people."

Living with people was paramount to Karen Edwards, VP-brand marketing at Yahoo!, who's been working with Black Rocket, San Francisco, since March 1996--a long-term relationship in the short-lived realm.

"I chose Black Rocket because my thought was, 'Could I be on a flight to New York with these people?' . . . I wanted them to get what is in my head. If you don't have a good meeting of the minds, you won't have a meeting of the hearts, and it's got to be both."

Doing a complete analysis doesn't have to take long, "but you do have to spend the time to think this through," said Erik Moris, senior director-communications, Drugstore.com, which recently took its $30 million to $40 million account to Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, after parting with McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Seattle.

"McCann did a great job for us, getting us up and running this summer with TV and radio in four markets," said Mr. Moris, who added Drugstore.com knew McCann lacked some capabilities it wanted longer term.

AGENCY HELPS WITH STOCK IPO

McCann gave Drugstore.com breathing room, Mr. Moris said, to explore agencies in more depth while satisfying Wall Street as the online company went through its initial public stock offering. In late August, after a intensive six-week review, Drugstore.com signed with Fallon for offline ads.

Left Field, San Francisco, resigned the online part of the account shortly afterward; Drugstore then shifted online to Fallon-owned Duffy Design & Interactive, Minneapolis, and an in-house group.

Recognizing that a good match is well-worth the effort it takes to find an agency, Deirdre Polson, VP-marketing at Shockwave.com, Macromedia's Shockwave Player rich-media site, is formalizing an agreement with SF Interactive after a six-month search.

A formal agency search forces a business to define its needs, she said. "As a small company we felt we needed to go though all the steps, to really assess creative expertise, media buying and planning strategy, whether the agency had the ability to change and grow along with the Internet space," Ms. Polson said. "Being able to explain what your needs are gives the agency a chance to give you a presentation and proposal that matches capabilities and resources to your needs."

Duncan Drechsel, marketing director of BabyCenter, San Francisco, drew up a shortlist of seven agencies. "We looked beyond their reputations to who they are as people and would we want to work with them. We researched the market thoroughly."

BabyCenter is working with SF Interactive for creative and Mediasmith, San Francisco, for media.

NO 2ND CHANCE

David Peebler, VP-interactive, Mintaka Technology Group, Los Angeles, which markets computer control-management software, said having someone else prescreen agencies saved him valuable time. The company is preparing its Web site for a February 2000 launch.

Mintaka, working with Select New Media, in September chose Nine Dots Corp., Irvine, Calif.

"Achieving less than an optimal relationship . . . would only hurt our company's chances for survival," said Mr. Peebler. "There's no room here for a second chance."

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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