BACK TO FUTURE FOR AGENCIES IN THE NEW INFOTAINMENT ERA

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Years ago, when i was green around the gills and barely inkstained around the thumb, I was asked by an executive at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles whether I wanted to see "the studio."

I asked, what studio? "The production studio," was the reply. What do you produce? "Television shows." For whom? "Procter & Gamble." Procter & Gamble!?

"Yeah," the bemused D'Arcy executive said. "Where do you think soap operas come from?"

I didn't know -- because by the 1980s agencies had divorced themselves almost completely from a classic function: development and production of original infotainment programming. Sullied in the '50s by its roles in the Quiz Show Scandals and the blacklisting of left-leaning entertainers, the ad industry began thereafter to devote itself fully to the creation, production and sale of ads.

But the technology-propelled transformation of production, distribution, marketing and media today requires agencies to go back to the future. The advent of broadband -- which, as I noted last week, obligates marketers to roll their own infotainment networks to forestall commoditization of their brands -- opens new opportunities for agencies to once more be creators of sponsored infotainment.

"Sponsored infotainment" has a nasty smell to it, and for good reason. It conjures up images of airline magazines and infomercials, of a hard sell unsoftened by any desire to edify or entertain the public. It calls to mind the classic image of the agency-client-audience relationship, as sketched by Frederic Wakeman in "The Hucksters." In that novel, Evan Llewelyn Evans, chairman of the Beautee Soap Co., counseled his new agency account man on what he expected from both his soap operas and his commercials. "All you professional advertising men are scared to death of raping the public," Evans said. "I say the public likes it, if you got the know-how to make 'em relax and enjoy it."

Like the agencies of old, the producers of much of today's sponsored media are driven first by a desire not to annoy mercurial clients, and only latterly by content considerations. Because the audience is deemed captive -- stuck in an airplane seat or a doctor's office -- sponsored-media creators feel it's their right to shovel any crap necessary to please the people who pay the bills.

The truth is it's possible to create sponsored media with the same values and value as those produced independently. Whittle Communications was reviled for the likes of Southern Style, a magazine sponsored by P&G and distributed in the '80s to beauty parlors below the Mason-Dixon line. But it also created a line of books for Federal Express that included a few classics and helped mainstream publishers recognize the public hunger for shorter books.

Agencies should have learned from that. In a cluttered world, only the most informative, entertaining and service-oriented communications will break through. Increasingly, in broadband media, those communications will be actual multimedia programs or fully programmed networks; traditional ads, whether a 30-second spot or a quarter-page or a click-through banner, will rapidly seem Paleozoic. Prestige and profits will belong to the programmers.

This message is beginning to penetrate. Ammirati Puris Lintas recently hired my friend and colleague, the writer David Bennahum, as exec VP of its digital media unit. Its business model is predicated on a dramatic rethinking of the agency's role in the new economy: Content creates relationships, and relationships are more valuable than impressions.

"Our job as an agency is to come up with compelling content that justifies the honor of getting someone's attention online," says Bennahum. "If you merely create promotional copy, you'll waste the audience's time, they'll grow irate and they won't want to come back. If you get their attention and hold it, they'll return.

"And it's necessary for them to return because that's the beginning of a relationship, which is infinitely more valuable in the long run than generating a single transaction. Because it's more valuable to the marketer, it will be more valuable to the agency -- much, much more lucrative than merely creating a Web site or a banner ad. That's commodity work. But quality content? That's huge."

Huge, but difficult. It means agencies must compete with Hollywood for the best writers. It means finding the next generation's Ridley Scott, and paying her enough so she doesn't leave the ad game. It means finding programmers with the Tartikoff touch and editors with Tina's traits, and setting them loose in multimedia. Most of all, it means starting today.

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