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In online ads that launched the new VW Polo in the U.K. last month, Omnicom Group's Tribal DDB unleashed a guardian angel who takes a respite from his protective duties. Meant to highlight the car's safety, the idle angel wiles away his time blowing bubbles across a vogue.co.uk page. At lovefilm.com, the ad urges visitors to "Give your guardian angel some time off." Drag the mouse over him, and he leaps up, grabs the cursor and, wings open, floats off.

The ads' creative elements would never have been possible if media were not also housed at Tribal, says Bill Brock, managing director of Tribal London. Media, Brock says, had to be involved from the start to help ensure that sites would carry the complex ads. Further, the agency's media department answered creative's technical questions and identified technology vendors so the spots would function on targeted sites.

Bundling creative and media disciplines, a model once embraced by small, highly specialized digital shops, is back in vogue. Though the functions have been separate over the last few years as interactive shops followed the model of most traditional agencies, many shops of late have been rounding out their creative or media departments through acquisitions, less formal partnerships and hiring staff.

The trend is broad, as even traditional shops have begun to rethink the model. Agencies such as WPP Group's JWT and Omnicom's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, for example, are following a number of different paths to bring media thinking closer to the creative process.

Driving the trend in online advertising is the greater attention clients are putting on the sector. Further, online ad development does not conform to the relatively neat, linear creative process found with traditional ads. Because of the transparency with which digital media can be tracked, the creative process isn't so much a line as a rapidly revolving feedback loop. Ads are created, media is placed and the agency, in as little as a few hours, tweaks the media plan and the creative using the data it's acquired from the launch of the campaign. The process continues throughout the life of the initiative, and the need for communication between the two disciplines is constant.

The divide between separate media and creative shops is becoming increasingly clear and can slow the development process, Tribal's Brock says. "It's not that you hold back information," he says. "You're not as proactive in sharing it."

Of the top 10 interactive agencies of 2005, according to Adweek research, only Wunderman Interactive is sticking with an unbundled model. Wunderman outsources all media to fellow WPP shop MEC Interaction, the digital arm of mediaedge:cia. Tribal DDB and three other companies among the top 10 that had once separated creative and media have taken recent steps to pursue a bundled model. WPP's OgilvyOne recently moved media back in-house from combo mOne/Mindshare to form Neo@OgilvyOne. And Aegis Group's Isobar and aQuantive's Avenue A/Razorfish have been buying creative assets.

Agencies that have migrated to the bundled model say they are reinterpreting clout, often cited as a key driver of unbundled media and creative capabilities in offline media. Interactive ad executives question whether clout exists in their industry at all.

"The reality," says George Consagra, svp of interactive marketing and media at Omnicom's Organic, San Francisco, is that the need for clout in the interactive space "is zero." Consagra says digital media clout exists in other ways, like the ability of agencies with strong publisher-side relationships to nudge sites into creating innovative, custom ad units.

Organic points to an SMS service it built with Sprint and the Food Network in November. The application lets visitors build their grocery list online and send it via text message to their phone. The shop says the ad helped the client prove to its target-"mobile moms"-the utility of Sprint services. Having media and creative under one roof makes "a silly little germ of an idea" become reality, says group creative director Guthrie Dolin.

For its part, Omnicom's Tribal is rebuilding a robust media practice to include planning, buying and specialties such as search marketing. "To me, that's the real value proposition—when you make it integrated," says Tribal CEO Matt Freeman.

The bias toward integration wasn't always so overwhelming. In 2002, Tribal and its sister Omnicom interactive shops TBWA\Chiat\Day's Tequila, Rapp Collins Worldwide and Atmosphere BBDO moved media assets into OMD Digital, the interactive media unit of Omnicom's OMD. The idea was to build a fully integrated media powerhouse that could execute media in any type of platform, online or off.

Now, Tribal has hired media executives, and Rapp Collins may be looking to do so as well. The company is evaluating how best to handle media, OMD's strong suit, and analytics, Rapp's specialty, in a structure that would likely include workers from both Omnicom units. "We are looking at integrated teams to attack it," says Teri Hagedorn, Rapp's senior communications director. Some OMD Digital staff members work out of Rapp's offices.

The on-again, off-again relationship involving WPP's Mindshare and the OgilvyOne unit of Ogilvy Group attests to the need to bundle creative and media, says Carla Hendra, Ogilvy North America co-CEO. In April 2003, OgilvyOne partnered with Mindshare to form mOne, touted as a global one-to-one media company. But the partnership dissolved last month, and both parties took their clients.

"It didn't work as well for our clients," Hendra says, adding that "a certain amount of pressure has been relieved." The split has pushed creative and media closer, and Hendra lauds the efficiency the integration has created. "You can have serendipity happen in meetings," Hendra says. "It's just a little easier." OgilvyOne's digital media assets were rebranded Neo@OgilvyOne earlier this month. Nasreen Madhany, who had worked at Ogilvy and then moved to mOne upon its formation, is heading the new global unit as CEO.

Bundling has its detractors, too. David Sable, COO of WPP's Wunderman Worldwide—its interactive unit is the lone holdout among the top 10 interactive shops—says bundling is unnecessary. He finds no problems with outsourcing media to sister shop MEC Interaction. If the two disciplines work well together, he says, it matters little whether they reside "here or there."

One of the staunchest critics of integration is Sean Finnegan, U.S. director of OMD Digital. Now one of the biggest buyers in digital, Finnegan sees a clear advantage in the shop's specialization—and in having many creative partners. "I think as creative becomes much more crucial and important, it's exciting to be unbundled," Finnegan says, "to work with a variety of top-notch partners."

The focus, he adds, lets OMD build an advanced digital buying organization that has won it favor with with key media properties. Yahoo!, for instance, has sponsored two major studies of the digital consumer with OMD Digital, an outgrowth of his shop being, what he says, the biggest buyer of media on the site. "In the digital space," he says, "clout goes a lot further."

But other executives sense that media-only shops lacking a creative partner will not get invited to the dance. Unlike traditional agencies, digital shops must understand the technology that makes an ad run, while someone who buys TV, for instance, has no need to know how an LCD flat screen works.

The digital details can be endless, says Isobar CEO Nigel Morris. "Is it going to be a drop-down [ad]?" he asks of interactive's creative process. "If it's going to be a drop-down, how intrusive is it? How heavy is the file?"

The pendulum has moved so far in the direction of bundling that even the handful of media agencies that haven't fully jumped on board have formalized ways to bring the two closer. Publicis Groupe's Starcom IP has an in-house creative team of 15 people, called IP Pixel, for clients who need the resource. "Being in the media business, you have to be able to fit a lot of different models," explains Jeff Marshall, svp/managing director at the Chicago-based shop.

Although the financial benefits of bundling are difficult to quantify because other factors may be at play, senior research analyst Aaron Kessler of Piper Jaffray says he has seen advantages to Avenue A's business since it added creative services: The company has used its creative assets to leverage "cross-selling" opportunities, said Kessler, who tracks Avenue A/Razorfish parent aQuantive.

Avenue A, which during the 1990's operated as a media specialist, has bought interactive creative companies over the last few years, including Philadelpha's iFrontier and SBI.Razorfish. "We need our media and creative and analytics fully working together," says Darin Brown, president of the western region of the shop.

Starcom IP's Marshall says the advertising industry needs to look no further than the model being followed by such boutiques as Mother and Taxi, which push platform-agnosticism, to get a view of the future. "Essentially, what's at the core of these agencies," Marshall says, "is that there shouldn't be any separation between content and contact."