Agencies bulk up online skills

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To handle their clients' growing demand for interactive services, b-to-b agencies are expanding their offerings through new hires, acquisitions, partnerships and new service practices. Whether they are traditional b-to-b shops or pure-play interactive firms, agencies are finding they have to strengthen their capabilities in search, social media, mobile and analytics to keep up with this demand. “There is a lot of appetite [from clients] in exploring all of the new dynamics that are emerging in this space,” said Andreas Combuechen, CEO-chief creative officer of Atmosphere BBDO, New York, the digital agency network of BBDO North America. “From social media, to HD Web to high-level rich media content, there are a lot of opportunities,” he said. “The social media space is getting more and more robust, especially as it relates to b-to-b. Another important space is mobile. Clients are really beginning to implement activity on the phone.” Atmosphere BBDO has been working with such clients as FedEx and AT&T on mobile advertising initiatives. For example, it developed a mobile application for FedEx tied into its NASCAR sponsorship, in which users could sign up to receive phone calls from race car driver Denny Hamlin. It also developed a viral program for FedEx called Launch a Package, which lets users create and send virtual packages online, and it is now developing a social networking application for that program on Facebook. To handle the growing demand for mobile marketing, Atmosphere BBDO recently hired David Bear, previously with San Francisco-based ipsh!, to head up the agency's mobile advertising practice. Atmosphere BBDO is also expanding its analytics practice. It recently hired Sue Davidson, previously at Digitas, for the new position of director of strategy and analytics to lead integration of business strategy and data-driven insight into the agency's creative product. Full-service b-to-b agencies are also bolstering their interactive services through internal expansion and partnerships. HSR Business to Business, Cincinnati, last month partnered with ClearGauge, a Chicago interactive agency, to strengthen its analytics offering. Under the partnership, HSR and ClearGauge will deliver interactive marketing services such as Web site development, analytics, online creative and Web application development. “The work they've done in Web site analytics in the b-to-b space aligns perfectly with our 100% focus on b-to-b work,” said Rick Segal, CEO of HSR. “We have relied on them for some time in an adviser/supplier relationship. It became abundantly clear to us that we offered them expansion in their ability to offer more fully integrated solutions, while ClearGauge offered us the ability to take our analytics capability to a new level.” In addition to the ClearGauge partnership, HSR is also beefing up its search capability, with plans to hire a new director of search, as well as expanding its offerings in areas like Web 2.0, experiential marketing and mobile marketing. “We're looking at making some acquisitions in these areas,” Segal said. “We'll be very aggressive in adding to our capabilities along these lines in the year ahead.” Bader Rutter & Associates, another full-service b-to-b agency, is expanding its interactive services primarily through organic growth. “We are hiring people with more programming and IT backgrounds, who have the expertise in building the foundations under the hood that drive these digital marketing programs,” said Greg Nickerson, president of Brookfield, Wis.-based Bader Rutter. Nickerson said that while the agency has outsourced some of these database capabilities in the past, now it wants to bring them in-house. “This is such a strong direction for the future, we want to own the talent ourselves,” he said. Bader Rutter is also providing more services in digital asset management, content management and digital business strategy. “We are starting to see more demand for the development of a formal digital strategy that integrates tightly with clients' overall marketing strategy,” said John Gilbert, VP of Bader Rutter's digital solutions group. “A lot of customers ran off and built a lot of cool things, and now they have realized they have many islands and silos of digital product and not all of it is tied together nicely. They are asking us to tie it all together, and they are seeking synergies with other disciplines, like CRM.” Nickerson said the agency is also developing interactive programs to help b-to-b clients better manage their channel marketing. Gary Slack, senior partner at b-to-b agency Slack Barshinger, Chicago, said clients are much more focused on interactive programs that deliver measurable results. “We continue to see more and more interest in both search and programs with measurable Web interactions—lead generation, downloads, etc.,” he said. “We've been very surprised by how equipment manufacturing companies seem to be embracing and investing significantly in paid search.” Slack said b-to-b clients are also increasing their spending on online video this year and are exploring new areas, including social media and mobile marketing. “We believe we'll see more and more b-to-b marketers experimenting with, though not allocating big budgets to, mobile marketing,” Slack said. “We'll definitely see WAP versions of existing corporate sites on the horizon, as well as more spending on banners and text placements on news-based mobile sites.” Another big area of interest from b-to-b clients is measuring the effectiveness of integrated marketing programs. “We see more companies interested in and trying to measure and evaluate the combined impact of marketing and PR, not only for ROI, but to evaluate messaging and overall campaign effectiveness,” Slack said. 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