SPECIAL REPORT: Editorial lines blur as advertisers create sites

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Agencies question whether marketers should stay in the Web content business

Go to http://www.leggs.com and you'll find a lot more than panty hose.

Talk of nylons and tights takes a back seat to fashion and career advice, information on government officials and even a recipe suggestion box.

L'eggs Products is just one of many marketers that have constructed sites on the World Wide Web that contain far more than just marketing material.

Toyota Motor Sales USA offers a slew of lifestyle-oriented publications at http://www.toyota.com. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. operates Women's Link, a site whose Web address (http://www.womenslink.com) says nothing about who the sponsor is and everything about its target audience.

The theory behind all of this has been that no consumer would visit a marketer's site if it were just about products. It has to be entertaining, the philosophy goes, or they won't come back.

Now, however, some agency and media executives are questioning the practice. Agencies say they're only creating content because there aren't enough good media sites to advertise on.

Media sites, meanwhile, are telling agencies to stay out of their turf and stick to what they know best: moving product.

Marketers and their agencies will "come to the realization that it might be a better use of their resources to piggyback on a publisher's message and focus instead on developing their brand," said Brian Sroub, VP-marketing for Hearst HomeArts .

But until there's enough good, sponsorable content on the Web, agencies and advertisers will continue to be in the business of creating editorial, said Norm Lehoullier, co-director of Grey Inter-active, New York.

"I can't advise my clients to get into the publishing business," said Fred Rubin, director of interactive marketing at TBWA Chiat/Day, New York. "Nobody is going to wake up in the morning and say, `Gotta go to that Bridgestone-Firestone site today.' "

Toyota, for one, feels differently. The auto marketer has worked with Novo Media Group, San Francisco, to create several content areas that are designed to appeal to the psychographics of the ideal Toyota consumer.

"People don't care where the content lives as long as it's there," said Kelly Anthony Rodriques, Novo publisher-CEO. But he hastens to distinguish Novo's offerings, which are created by an editorial team and marketed as a package to companies like Toyota, from advertiser-created editorial.

There's no arguing the allure of the Web for agencies, though. As in the early days of TV, when agencies and marketers helped create soap opera scripts, agencies see the Web as wide-open terrain with few rules and many opportunities.

"This is the opportunity for agencies to get back into the programming business," said Page Thompson, exec VP-U.S. media director for DDB Needham Worldwide, New York.

The debate is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Brands that are information-intensive will probably find it easier to act as content providers than, say, Bold detergent.

"If you're an advertiser, why go through the effort [of content creation] when you don't have to," said Sarah R. Cohen, senior editor-new media at teen magazine react .

Should agencies be creating original content for clients? Are too many lines between editorial and advertising getting blurred on the Web as a proliferation of marketers and advertisers become new-media publishers? E-mail interactive editors Debbie Williamson at [email protected] or Kim Cleland at [email protected] or go to AdAge.com/InterActions/index.html to post your ideas on our bulletin boards.

Copyright February 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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