IQ News: I’ll Take It From Here

Clients are bringing Web site maintenance in-house.
Nobody would call the task of updating advertiser Web sites glamorous work. Whether it’s plugging in press releases or switching pot roast recipes, Web revisions are generally heaped on the greenest of greenhorn programmers. So why are more and more advertisers anxious to take on the mundane responsibility themselves?
To free up cash and time, advertisers say, not to mention eliminating the layers of aggravation that come from dealing with new names and fresh faces at the Web agencies.
“Since we’ve taken [site update duties] in-house, it’s given us so much more flexibility than we had before,” says Estƒe Lauder Companies’ Angela Kapp.
Kapp, vice president, special markets and new media, for the New York-based cosmetics company, figures she has recouped 50 percent of her online marketing budget by handling upgrades for each of Estƒe Lauder’s brand sites.
But if advertisers think taking Web work in house will save money, they’re mistaken, says Fergus O’Daly, president CKS, New York, which designed for Estƒe Lauder. Though O’Daly says CKS encourages clients to assume some of the responsibility of Web maintenance as a matter of convenience, it’s no panacea.
The reliance on an ever-changing rotation of freelance programmers, who are typically less skilled than those at agencies, is a common problem. And as needs grow, more specialists–writers, designers, architects, auditors, IP specialists, all of which command higher wages–are required.
“The major brands in this country learned a long time ago you can’t spend your time on advertising,” O’Daly says. Among the reasons he cites is that ads produced in-house are usually dull compared to those created by agencies.
But at this point, there is evidence that a few advertisers are taking on some of the sexier advertising tasks, while their interactive ad agencies concern themselves with back-end issues such as creating and maintaining databases of online consumers.
Stoughton, Mass.-based Reebok International keeps an in-house staff of full-time copywriters and an occasional freelance reporter on its interactive marketing team. Its mandate? To keep brimming with updated sports and fitness content, says Marvin Chow, director of interactive marketing for Reebok.
Meanwhile, Reebok’s Web architect of record, Mindseye Technology, handles tasks a traditional advertising agency might consider drudgery.
“They do the programming. They have control of that,” Chow says of Boston-based Mindseye. The latter also assembled the database-driven Web site that enables Chow’s staff to insert the latest news about its athletes onto the site straight from their desks.
For instance, it was Reebok’s in-house team that handled dispatches from Julie Foudy of the U.S. women’s Olympic soccer team. Foudy recently traveled to China and sent back reports to Chow’s staff. Reebok editors didn’t alter her prose, but they still had “to lay it out,” he said.
Chow admits “publishing is definitely not our competency. But we have the resources to get it done.” The biggest resource: access. Reebok signs the checks for hundreds of pro athletes who wear the company’s sneakers and gear; relying on a middle man for the purpose of posting missives from the athletes on the site doesn’t make sense.
Some expect the formula will continue to change as more marketers look to convert monolithic, brochureware sites into storefronts. In the beginning, at least, such transactional sites will require more of a partnership between agency and client as fulfillment and customer response engines are required to pull off a sale, says Jim Martin, senior vice president of DVC Interactive, an interactive ad agency based in Morristown, N.J. For now, though, too many major brands are still stuck on version 1.0 of their Web site’s development, he adds. And working from a fixed budget, many would be better served saving some money on upgrades and maintenance now so there are a few dollars left over to promote the site, Martin says.
“We might charge $125 an hour where they probably can hire somebody for $75 an hour and come out ahead,” he adds.
But the extra money doesn’t necessarily end up being used for the media buys online publishers so covet. Compared to traditional media, advertisers’ online media spending ratio “is way out of whack,” according to Brian Sroub, vice president of New York-based Hearst New Media and Technology. For a TV campaign, 80 to 90 percent of the total ad budget goes to the media buy. In online media, even the biggest spenders are allocating approximately 40 percent of the budget to the media buy, he said.
Estƒe Lauder’s Kapp, for instance, says the money the cosmetics company has saved will likely go towards an enhanced email system to better manage the nearly 250,000 registered users of who request the latest information on skin care and product news, she says.
While some people insist these are cozy times for clients and their interactive agencies, there remains an obvious, lingering confusion that continues to beset the industry. Emblematic of this maw is the CKS-Clinique relationship. Kapp says the only thing CKS is on the books for is hosting O’Daly insists the ties go deeper than that. He says he expects the agency will hear from Kapp in a few months when a major redesign is required on the site.
For advertisers, the prevailing disconnect can be traced back to an insistence on accountability. Marketers still agonize over what their agencies are producing for all the tens of thousands they pay them, especially after they were promised so much when the business was first pitched. On the other hand, many Web agencies wonder when working all the long days and weekends is going to mean bigger dollar commitments from clients who spend gobs of dough on traditional media.
In the meantime, quibbling over who handles the minor jobs isn’t good business sense.
“The big picture is all about maintaining clients,” O’Daly says. “You can stay up night and day, seven days a week and continue to lose money. But you stay in there because you know that important piece of business will recur.”