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Advertisers in search of strategic marketing partners should think twice before turning to management consultancies instead of ad agencies.

But ad agencies need to think twice, too. Are they delivering the big-picture thinking some advertiser senior managements think consultants provide? Or are they letting that franchise slip away? It's an issue that troubled agency chiefs at the American Association of Advertising Agencies annual meeting this month (excerpts from WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell's speech appear in Forum in this issue).

Advertisers, we're convinced, can get far more than advertising from many of today's best agencies -- if only they ask for it! When upscale department store chain Nordstrom shopped for strategic thinking on national branding, it didn't call a McKinsey, Boston Consulting or Cambridge Group. Instead it called in ad agencies, and then ran a review where the word "advertising" never arose.

Nordstrom expected the participants would understand from the start that a product, not just an idea, had to be delivered. For Nordstrom, the "product" was communication -- be it advertising, signage or store design. The retailer thus created the second hotly contested review this year where the outcome -- it hired Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis -- turned on which agency developed the most impressive marketing strategy. Earlier this year, TBWA Chiat/Day, San Francisco and Venice, Calif., was picked by Levi Strauss & Co. for its strategic thinking. Not coincidentally, both these agencies are highly regarded for creative ideas and their adroit execution of them -- Fallon, in particular, for the knack of doing so in media other than TV.

Advertisers will from time to time partner with resources other than ad agencies. But they have more in common with agencies than with either the top-line consultants or new ideas-in-a-minute creative and production boutiques. That's because delivery of "product" is as much the lifeblood of ad agencies as it is their clients'.

Countering these interlopers that would usurp portions of the ad agency's role should not require lengthy industry deliberations. Agencies by now should know their strengths and their rivals' weaknesses. They must decide to be the masters of the total marketing game, not one corner of it. Then let the newcomers beware.


There are problems with new Food & Drug Administration rules for advertising prescription drugs direct to the consumer. No one should be surprised.

Pharmaceutical advertisers, now free to run TV commercials that name their product and say what it does (a revolution in FDA thinking!), must refer viewers to print ads, 800 numbers or Web sites for detailed warning information.

Some drug advertisers, eager to cut print media spending, are turning this directive on its head. Their print "ads" are nothing more than FDA label copy (with a headline thrown in). Because they require less space, they cost less.

Drug advertisers piously claim the ads deliver product information "unfettered by a promotional message." Publishers have a pecuniary reason to be unhappy about this, but they also have a point. If they are right, and they have evidence this money-saving ploy confuses consumers, where is the benefit? Are print media eager to protect their share of the DTC drug ad category? Absolutely. But as long as FDA insists that drug advertising -- somehow, somewhere -- carry label information, it also has the duty to seriously weigh the publishers' concerns.

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