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Ad agencies had a chance over the past few years to be interactive leaders, but they seem to have blown it.

Their clients now view them as just another name in a roster of suppliers-not particularly better, and sometimes worse, than their new-media competition.

An exclusive survey by Advertising Age and Mediamark Research Inc. in this week's Special Report makes clear what agencies had feared all along: Marketers perceive them as having less technology savvy and fewer

skills than Web developers and interactive agencies. Fewer than one out of three marketers in the survey said their ad agency is the lead resource for interactive project work.

Agencies that once thought they could dominate the market must now fight tooth and nail for every scrap of business. More troubling, clients are giving a big thumbs-down to paying for interactive work on anything but a project basis.

There are still a few windows of opportunity for ad agencies, though they're not nearly as wide open as they used to be. Marketers in the survey said the skill they value more than anything else in their agency is the ability to link interactive projects with traditional media advertising. Agencies clearly can position themselves as the keepers of the brand in all media. And, unrewarding as it may sound, the other avenue is for agencies to position themselves as a team player, working side by side with interactive resources in the best interest of clients.

A phrase we'll avoid is "told you so." But recent events do bring it to mind. It was just last November when a warning was issued here on the perils of multiple agencies on one brand, and within the last week or so multiple signals of "message received" have come from marketers/brand stewards.

Last fall, United Airlines split its account, albeit along domestic boundaries, among two agencies. Now Southwest Airlines has consolidated its brand advertising at GSD&M, dropping Cramer-Krasselt. Even Cramer-Krasselt President Peter Krivkovich agrees, or understands: "You don't really need two voices when you are a national carrier," he said.

AT&T Corp. is breaking a new branding campaign that seems intended to correct a multiple-agency "fragmentation" that new Exec VP Marilyn Laurie says "has not been helpful to the trust between the brand and its customers." At the same time, Ameritech Corp. has just started an agency review apparently designed to make sure that this AT&T rival is competing in one voice.

Regarding another past lament, we're happy to see that H.J. Heinz Co., a marketer whose brands belong to the ages, is rethinking its recent pullback from the world of advertising. Early next month, Heinz is expected to go before securities analysts to say that its imbalanced marketing budget will be corrected. During much of the 1990s, the company cut advertising to the bone while it supported such brands as Star-Kist and 9-Lives with retail promotional dollars. That caused longtime agency Leo Burnett Co., creator of such ad stars as Charlie the Tuna and Morris the Cat, to quit and almost certainly has resulted in these important brand images sinking rather than swimming.

The values of focused branding are documented, but there are at times periods of doubt. This is not one of them. The need for a strong brand image is at an all-