A good media first is like winning the trifecta at the Grand National: it can create standout for the client, win awards for the agency and, even, attract a higher premium for the media owner.
Small wonder then that media agencies frequently request firsts in their briefs and media owners bend over backwards to provide them.
But there's a risk. The value of media firsts can be overplayed and at worst, the interests of the agency and the media owner might be put before the needs of the client.
No one would admit to being anti-innovation, but there is a growing reaction against media firsts for their own sake.
As Alan Brydon, advertisement director for the Evening Standard, points out, media firsts can achieve impact, but sometimes the best solution might be a media second - or even a media third.
"Any medium only has a certain number of things that you can do a first time," Brydon says.
"If it was the greatest idea and only one person has done it before six months ago, it's still a good idea."
Simon Marquis, outgoing chairman of ZenithOptimedia UK, is another who believes media firsts can be overrated, claiming most fall into the category of "one-off extravaganza" rather than "strong new media ideas".
"Creating standout by doing something unusual is perfectly valid, but I wonder if there isn't a subtext to do with awards," Marquis says. "I've been a judge at awards and you're always looking for something original - 400 ratings into ITV is very boring."
As print technology evolves and marketing concepts become more sophisticated, this most traditional of sectors has continued to deliver.
For example, the Daily Mirror turned its entire newspaper blue for Pepsi in 1996. You couldn't do this every week, but it worked just as well nine years later, when it turned green for the release of Shrek 2 on DVD.
The Evening Standard's Brydon admits media firsts can be useful, but says when briefs have it as an absolute prerequisite, it smacks of agencies trying to make themselves look good.
"I don't think new business pitches are won or retained on promising a bit more discount these days. Agencies want a case history to take to clients," Brydon says.
Claire Myerscough, development director at Times Newspapers, says "media first" is an overused expression, but adds that it is less common than a couple of years ago.
She interprets such requests as a demand for originality and impact - which may or may not require a media first.
"Some media agencies still ask for it and feel they will get a positive reaction," Myerscough says. "We see a media first as an execution rather than an idea."
Such requests are usually code for wanting something bespoke, claims James Hayr, creative media director at Emap2.
"Historically, media owners were criticised for having a few good ideas they tout about town and change the client logo," he says.
"A media first is something to put in the brief, but if they think about it, they probably don't want a media first, but something that ties in with editorial or programming."
Hayr says some of the best media firsts create intellectual property - FHM hiring three girls to be the face of Fosters for the 2001 Grand Prix, for example, to tie in with the beer brand's official sponsorship.
Neil Perkin, advertising director marketing and strategy for IPC Media, says media firsts only really work when they bring campaign briefs and brand objectives alive. For example, last year Marie Claire became the first UK magazine to use a sound chip in an advertising context, with a campaign for Procter & Gamble's Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo.
"It's using another sense to communicate to readers and we achieved a very high level of standout," Perkin says.
Of course, while the campaign was bespoke for P&G, the sound chip could be used again if it fitted the client and the brief, although Perkin warns: "There are only certain situations where it makes sense to do that."
Nik Vyas, group press director at ZenithOptimedia, says all newspapers and magazines have recently bulked up their creative solutions departments, but The Guardian, The Independent and Emap have a stronger heritage because they began investing some time ago.
Changes in technology and shifts in business pressures have sparked innovation in TV as broadcasters and advertisers look beyond the 30-second spot and run-of-the-mill sponsorships.
Nicole Greenfield, strategist at Thinkbox, says media firsts are of course judged by impact but also, regardless of the benefit to the advertiser, whether they can be repeated.
"If a media first becomes entwined into the very fabric of advertising, then its overall value is undisputed, as it has paved the way for others to follow and ultimately moved media forward," Greenfield says.
But she warns: "Copying something so visible may create negative associations - there's no acclaim for a 'media second'!"
Rufus Radcliffe, head of marketing for Channel 4, says the broadcaster does a lot of media firsts in its own advertising campaigns, because it fits well with its younger target audience and the innovative value of its brand.
But the broadcaster will always consider media "seconds" when appropriate - the launch of More 4 last year, for example, was backed by Bluetooth-enabled outdoor advertising, which had been done by EMI for Coldplay's X&Y album launch.
"Quite often what starts as a media first moves into the mainstream incredibly quickly," Radcliffe says.
Greenfield points out that the real value of a media first comes from being noticed by the target audience, rather than by the industry. Unilever taking over ITV3 on launch night was more an industry event, she says, as most consumers wouldn't have realised every brand was Unilever's.
Pricing is another issue - it is difficult to have a currency for something unprecedented.
Some argue a media owner should be able to charge more for a media first, while others say the advertiser should get a discount for taking the risk and the premium should be charged to other advertisers once the concept has proved its worth.
Greenfield says the negotiation comes down to experience and knowledge and ultimately the market sets the rates.
Recent radio media firsts have included advertising in podcasts, cross-industry collaborations such as the GCap/Emap collaboration for Egg and the all-stations collaboration for COI's Big Quit smoking campaign.
Don Thomson, commercial and operations director for Chrysalis Radio, says one of the most recent innovations has been the invention of "blipverts" - three to five seconds of advertising in the middle of a news bulletin or traffic control report.
"They have massive impact," Thomson says. "The listener is not expecting it, so they take notice."
First used by DHL, the technique has since been picked up by other advertisers. But Thomson says he still finds some agencies demanding nothing less than a media first, sometimes at very short notice.
Achieving a media first in the digital space is perhaps easier than anywhere else, simply because it's the newest medium.
Richard Hartell, planning director at Starcom Mediavest, says digital innovation has forced other media to lift their game.
"Digital media is the most innovative since it is being continually re-invented, not just by media owners but by consumers," he says.
"It has raised the stakes (for all media) in finding new ways of providing valuable content and engaging people in it."
James Booth, managing director of online advertising specialist TangoZebra, says the biggest growth is in tailor-made designs or concepts that may only be used once. "It's about looking at the property itself and designing something unique in an interactive way."
Michael Steckler, head of sales and commerce at MSN UK, agrees, saying digital's flexibility means that advertisers demand more innovation. He says press coverage, usually trade, does not play a major role - the aim is rather to generate genuine word of mouth.
"It's more about the impact and the reason for wanting to do it is reaching out and getting closer to consumers," Steckler says.
"If someone's done it once and it works, it has credibility and other advertisers will come on board - it's a template for success."
Outdoor is one of the oldest forms of media, but also one with the most innovation, with everything from digital screens to supersize back-lit billboards.
Nicky Cheshire, sales director for the Impact and Digital divisions at Viacom Outdoor, claims Viacom has been responsible for innovations such as the digital escalator panels and the busking patches sponsored by Carling in the Tube.
The company works in restrictive environments such as the London Underground, so there are some limits to what can be done.
However, Cheshire says she prefers to focus on creative thinking and answering the client's brief. "Less and less we get the demand that it's got to be a 'media first'," she says. "Yes, you still get briefs looking for innovation for innovation's sake, but we always ask 'why do you want to do that and what are you trying to achieve?'"
Dave McEvoy, marketing director at JCDecaux, says that an outdoor format is a blank canvas and much of the innovation comes from the creative work. For example, the vertical panel on JCDecaux's V800 billboard can be remodelled and re-angled to look like an aeroplane or bottle of Coca-Cola.
Simon Wardell, project manager at Clear Channel Create, agrees media firsts are often about using existing techniques in interesting ways.
The outdoor firm has just created a snowdome effect for the release of the Chronicles of Narnia DVD, with real falling flakes. Wardell says this technique could be used again for something completely different - such as creating movement in a washing machine for soap powder.
The first cinema ads appeared in the 1890s, but the sponsorship and promotions side has only been around for a meagre seven years.
Jonathan Slot, sponsorship and promotions director for Carlton Screen Advertising, says this makes a lot of cinema activity, from ads on the back of tickets to foyer sampling - a media first by default.
Slot insists there is still an extra value in being first and the cinema sector is continuing to innovate. CSA recently reintroduced short films before the main feature as a sponsorship opportunity and signed up Boomerang to fund the children's presentation. Another innovation was to sell sponsorships for the mother and baby sessions, which Huggies has used to great effect, he says, providing changing facilities and samples, in addition to the ad on screen
CASE STUDY - PERONI AD GOES BACK TO BASICS
While many of today's "media firsts" are all about new media, the "back to basics" approach can still throw up innovation.
The traditional 30-second spot may be apparently fighting for survival amid a sea of fragmentation and PVRs, but that didn't stop Italian beer brand Peroni going back to the TV format for its latest campaign. The ad, a homage to Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita, is a whopping three-and-a-half minutes long and cost a massive $50m to produce. Rolled out across more than 10 territories, in the UK it showed in full on More 4, with 30-second trailers on Channel 4 promoting it.
Planned by The Bank, distribution was also a "first" with a guerrilla marketing exercise which has seen a period Italian van, dubbed Cinema Peroni, projecting the ad onto walls around London.
A podcast featuring original star Anita Ekberg, blog sites, a coffee table and a single release of The Shirelle's Baby It's You, from the original film, was used to back up the campaign.
Agencies are the ones writing the briefs and asking for media firsts, so what do they think?
Jean-Paul Edwards, head of media futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD, denies agencies put their own interests above the needs of clients.
"There's an element of pride and ego - yes, we want to be doing interesting things. But we definitely don't do it against clients' interests," he insists. "PR can be an added benefit for us and them, but it has to be a good idea first and foremost."
Edwards says there are a number of ways to judge a media first, but the prerequisite is the brand fit - Virgin, for example, always generates a lot of buzz because of its long history of media firsts, whereas the same activity for a different company may not be as powerful.
He adds that a good media first is also scaleable - it may be done initially with a small audience, but ideally it can be repeated on a grander scale. Starcom's planning director, Richard Hartell, feels it is important only to ask for a media first when it is a specific request arising out of the campaign objectives.
"A first for a first's sake is at best just simple award-seeking for the agency and at worst plain lazy, with the agency passing on their responsibility to the media owner," Hartell says.
But he dismisses the idea that agencies might use media firsts to fudge pricing, saying auditors will still distinguish between good and bad work.
ZenithOptimedia's Vyas believes the constant search for something new does put pressure on everyone, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
"Inertia would be a particularly malevolent force in our industry," he says. "The moment you stop striving for something better would be the time to make your exit."
TIMELINE - Media firsts
1859 - Beecham's ran first regular advertising slogan "worth a guinea a box" in the St Helen's Intelligencer
1896 - Kiwi Boot Polish books first cinema commercial
1955 - First 60second spot on TV - for Gibbs SR toothpaste on ITV
1973 - Bird's Eye runs first radio ad on air on LBC for fish fingers
1989 - Powergen sponsors ITV weather reports
2000 - Chicken Tonite runs first interactive TV ad on BSkyB
2005 - First digital escalator panels on London Underground with launch partners including O2, BA and Direct Line
2006 - First branded content in outdoor with Landrover sponsoring the ski reports on Transvision
2006 - Boomerang sponsors short films in Carlton Screen Advertising cinemas.