As the second dotcom boom takes hold, everyone in media is galloping to keep up with the rate of technological change and commercial demand.
Publishers and broadcasters are diversifying at a rate of knots and now have a raft of digital products, from websites to mobile. Specialists such as Yahoo!, Google and AOL have expanded beyond niche online operators to become vast media owners in their own right. And networks such as Adviva, Unanimis and Media Brokers have established themselves as significant players.
But for some it seems the evolution is happening faster than sales departments can keep up with. Digital agencies variously report frustration with sales teams that are hard to reach, don't know their own products or who lose interest in campaigns once the deal is struck.
IPA Digital, the sounding board for these gripes, felt some kind of dialogue was needed to air such grievances and move the industry forward. To that end, it has carried out a survey asking its member agencies to rate the top media owners in the digital field, in both search and display, on a range of criteria.
Wayne Arnold, chairman of IPA Digital and Profero's European chief executive, explains that the aim of the survey - unveiled exclusively here - is to get media owners and agencies talking and to effect change.
"As we are seeing a second or third wave of investment into digital coming through, we want to see the professionalism of media owners kept at the highest standard to keep in line with that investment," he says.
The results - to be shared among agency members and their clients, as well as the individual media owners - show that while some excellent work is going on, the general level of satisfaction could be better. It averages just over 44% in display advertising and 43% in search.
Ed Ling, IPA Digital's deputy chairman and strategy development director at I-Level, believes the average score should be at least 50% across the board, leaving plenty of room for improvement.
Interestingly, satisfaction with the service provided by media owners was higher at executive level (just under 50%) compared with manager level (about 44%) and senior management (about 35%).
IPA Digital believes senior management is comparing its experience to more established offline sales and asking why the digital offering does not match up - a question media owners will have to answer if they are to restore confidence at the highest level.
But while the survey shows there is still work to be done, IPA Digital emphasises that the aim is not to criticise but to improve the industry's performance, and that this is an opportunity for media owners to air their own frustrations with agencies.
As Arnold puts it: "What's key is that it's not a name and shame exercise - the key purpose is to raise standards. This should become part of an ongoing negotiation between media owners and agencies."
The results throw up a number of interesting insights.
While nearly all sales houses seem to be good at basics such as "understanding their own products" and have sales teams that are "easy to contact", the survey showed a huge disparity between media owners in other areas, such as the quality of response to briefs and after-sales care.
The cross-over and specialist media (see methodology box for definitions, page 29) tend to be better at responding to briefs and coming up with creative solutions than the networks, with both The Guardian and Channel 4 scoring highest.
Errol Baran, head of new-media advertising at Channel 4, put his business' high performance down to its heritage of innovation in the more traditional medium of television.
"It's at the core of what we do," he says. "With innovation, to make it truly work, you have to have fantastic internal communications. We really have that. We're trying to make sure that everything we find out, we pass on to our clients and agencies."
But there were areas where no one did well. Agencies' experience of finance departments is woeful. In some cases, insertion orders still have to be faxed through - a true dichotomy in a supposedly digital world.
Such basics are critical for a good working relationship, suggests IPA Digital's Ling.
"It's extremely inefficient for us to be processing invoice queries that slow up our processes," he says. "We want the selling points to work with us to develop guidelines with the IAB, on acceptable levels of under-delivery and so on, which everyone can work to."
Phil Coote, chief operations officer of Adviva, says there is a gap between "running campaigns effectively and efficiently and getting the numbers to match what's written on paper".
"Finance people don't appreciate that campaigns need to be more flexible than standard bookings," he admits.
He believes technology could hold the key, adding: "We integrate the entire booking system, so the delivery of campaigns matches the invoices, which matches the booking."
But Glen Drury, Yahoo!'s vice-president for Northern Europe, points out: "I'd be surprised if any company got high marks here because it's a pain point to pay a bill."
After-sales care emerged as particularly poor and is an area of real concern, according to Arnold.
"With digital, the job's only half-done once you've taken the booking. It's like the iceberg analogy - the hard work only begins once the campaign starts," he says.
IPA Digital's new-media consultant Nigel Gwilliam adds: "It doesn't matter that your ideas are great or you pick up the phone quickly if your after-sales are poor. The continuing management of a campaign is meant to be something digital can excel at."
Within display advertising, the survey highlighted a gap in the quality of after-sales care that both the networks and cross-media owners provide, compared to their specialist competitors. Only two of the more traditional companies - The Guardian and C4 again - were rated in the top 10 for providing adequate after-sales support in terms of service, communication and optimisation.
This raises important questions about why the disparity exists, and what these more traditional companies are doing to catch up with their specialist competitors.
As Arnold puts it: "Cross-media guys have more money to invest and they have a good history of it. If any media owner should understand good service, it's those who've been in the business for 25-plus years."
Baran at C4 - which came out as one of the top performers across the board - points out: "In comparing ourselves to the AOLs and Yahoo!s, their core business is new media. While new media is absolutely intrinsic to this organisation, it's the young sibling of big brother - our core business is still TV."
While insisting it's no excuse, Baran adds: "The nature of new media is incredibly frenetic - when there's that much energy, pressure and speed, you can't help but just try and keep up sometimes. But if we can adapt anything and make our business better, we will."
Adviva's Coote admits there is room for improvement, but says his business has made a conscious effort to put resources into this area, adding: "Our ad operations team is only just smaller than our sales team. It's a big part of our business because it's about repeat business."
He believes the crucial problem area might be communication. For its part, he says, Adviva tries not to "hassle" agencies, which could be misconstrued as disinterest.
The relative success of the specialists is, he ventures, down to the scale of their businesses and that "a lot of agencies like dealing with them".
The specialists' expertise is even more pronounced in the difference in after-sales support between display and search, where the importance of maintaining support throughout a campaign is crucial.
The average satisfaction level for display is just 24.1%, while in search it is 31.6% - still low, given how important such support is in managing an ongoing campaign, but significantly higher.
This is perhaps, as Yahoo!'s Drury suggests: "It's all about customer care because there isn't that much of a sell.
"What return on investment you want, what conversion rate are you getting - it's not rocket science. We need to get you better performing ads - what key words you might be missing, for example," he says, adding that a new tool already rolled out in the US - Panama - will help Yahoo! to improve optimisation when it arrives in the UK.
Google's London office topped the poll in this area. UK sales director Mark Howe explains: "One of the major strengths of online advertising is that campaigns can be tested, refined, and react very quickly to changing conditions, and so it's important agencies get the right support throughout the duration of their campaigns.
"Our operations are structured with agencies' and clients' needs top of mind and we have a dedicated team providing training and support programmes to help agencies make the most of advertising online - a team in which we are continuing to invest."
Indeed, what will encourage agencies is the level of "staffing up" going on across the board. Yahoo!, ITV and Emap are among those to have recently beefed up their digital teams.
Both ITV and Emap, who scored relatively poorly in this survey, believe their investment will soon start to pay off.
Emap has spent the last three months recruiting to build a team as big as its sales team, as well as taking all its traffic in-house.
Bruce Daisley, digital sales director, says: "We've always had a service mentality, but we maybe underestimated how hard it is to get it right in this space. When you sell radio spots you don't need that big a team, but we recognise now the difference it makes.
"The diagnosis is something we're ahead of. We've committed more resource into getting senior people to spend time with customers."
And Gary Knight, ITV's brand partnerships director, adds: "We may have been a small player in the past, but having recently increased the number of sales staff and appointed Vanessa Kent as controller of online sales, we hope we will become one of the leading players in the marriage of internet and TV."
While criticism is always tough to take, however constructive, most media owners have embraced the survey with impressive good grace.
Adviva's Coote calls it an "incredibly positive step", adding: "In a strange way, it's good when you get a negative response because then you can say 'what are we going to do to make this better?'"
In fact the company has done its own survey, which echos the results found here, as has Yahoo!, with Drury saying: "What we're very concerned about as a company is understanding what our clients and agencies are looking for from us."
Likewise, Emap's Daisley says it has carried out research that again back up the IPA's findings.
With plans for the survey to become a regular exercise, IPA Digital hopes that the next set of results will reflect that these findings have been taken on board and acted upon.
SURVEY, METHODOLOGY AND SAMPLE STRUCTURE
- Every agency that took part was an IPA member. Those who were selected to take part included both media independents and specialist digital media agencies
- The survey questionnaires were only completed by individuals likely to have knowledge of the digital media owner landscape. In order to ensure this level of expertise, key senior representatives within each agency were selected to act as distributor of the research invitation to their most appropriate media owner-facing individuals
- Two questionnaires were sent out: 42 agencies each received a questionnaire covering the display sector and 40 received one covering the search sector
- The display questionnaire covered 20 display media owners, while the search questionnaire covered five search media owners. Those selected for the research were identified as those that member agencies of the IPA Digital Media Group traded most regularly with. Each agency submitted their top trading partners and a master list was collated by the IPA, based on those most frequently mentioned
- Media owners in the display survey were divided into three categories for ease of comparison:
Cross-over - media owners with established offline and online media brands and sales functions
Specialist - online-only media owners whose media sales function is handled by a dedicated in-house department
Network - internet advertising sales houses who do not own their own media properties, but sell advertising on behalf of two or more separate media owners (members of the Ad Network Council of the IAB)
- For each questionnaire, respondents were asked to rank media owners against a total of 14 variables
- Access to the questionnaires for the survey was via a web link, with the respondents asked to complete the survey questionnaires online
- A total of 140 display and 121 search questionnaires were received from 26 and 24 agencies respectively. In each case, the responses came from across the experience spectrum, ranging from senior management through to executives
All the surveys were anonymous. Here is a small selection of the more general responses
"Most of the sales forces do not have a wide knowledge of what can and what cannot be done on their sites. For a medium that has grown so much, sales personnel knowledge appears not to have grown at the same pace."
"Media owners do not efficiently use the time they have with us, be it face to face or on the phone. Instead of hard-selling, they should focus on our individual clients and why their site/product may be of interest."
"The spectrum between the worst and best media owners is vast and much can be done to improve."
"Media owners' reps are generally under-resourced and unable to understand clients' strategy, sell inventory, manage campaigns, develop bespoke solutions, develop agency relationships and provide market understanding. The best trading relationships are the sites that offer a team who together can deliver."
"None of these media owners gives an adequate, let alone exceptional, service. Proactivity does not exist and they are more than happy to just let accounts run without any interactions with agencies."
"The finance and insurance vertical reps are very good. The retail sector is not as good in terms of quality of work delivered."
"As a whole, the search media owners are not proactive."
"Support for international accounts is extremely poor for all search engines."
General level of satisfaction
Source: IPA Digital