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Interview: Laura Lang, Digitas CEO: Starting An ‘Internet Upfront’ And Meaning it

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imageThe notion of a digital upfront similar to the annual TV dog and pony shows strikes some ad industry observers as dubious, but that doesn’t seem to stop efforts kicking it into gear. The latest: this afternoon, Publicis Groupe’s Digitas tries a twist with a presentation it calls “The Newfront.” Digitas CEO Laura Lang told me the company is sincere in its ambition to create an annual event specifically devoted to previewing digital content. She said that the Newfront will include companies outside of Publicis, but it’s not all altruism: Digitas wants the event to draw attention to its new branded content creation unit, The Third Act. I also spoke to Lang about how Digitas has evolved since being acquired for $1.3 billion in December 2006.

Not the same as the Oldfront: While the name references the TV upfront market, the Newfront’s ambitions are considerably more narrow, at least for its first try, Lang said. The goal is not to go out and immediately sell media buys for specific programming, but to spread the word about new content being created for the web. Of course, if an advertiser is interested and wants to strike up its own branded content deal, all the better. “The concept is meant to bring various parts of the industry together at the early stage of creation. For this to work, it has to be an industry wide dialog of competitors in the digital space and their clients.” After a taste of what’s being done, Lang’s hope is that marketers will be inspired to start conversations about getting involved with webisodes or creating blogs, as opposed to a more overt pitch that says “buy space on our site.”

The Third Act: Creating branded content predated the Digitas merger with Publicis, but the company felt it was important to give the capability a clear, identifiable form. Hence, The Third Act. “We realized that there was such demand, we wanted to make sure we had a group that could be recognized by clients and could specifically invest in. We’ve been working with clients on giving the discipline more shape over the past year. And as the demand rose, the members of this group began spending more time with the entertainment community and began developing ideas before clients even began requesting them.”

M&As: On the decision to sell Digitas to Publicis a year-and-half ago: “We saw where the digital marketplace was going two years ago and we recognized the importance of being global. It’s not surprising that following our acquisition by Publicis, a lot more began to happen. I think timing for us was right — it was the right company, the right price.” Aside from being able to tap Publicis’ resources to build up its own offerings, Digitas has greater ability to realize its own global acquisition plans. In the past year, the company has bought France’s Interactif and acquired China’s Central Group. And in March, Digitas expanded its footprint into India, with the purchase of Solutions. Lang hinted that Digitas is considering additional buys in emerging markets as well. As for why she feels the merger between Publicis and Digitas has worked so well? “We’ve been fortunate to be able to operate independently.”

Sky’s not falling: During her appearance at Advertising 2.0 this week, Lang tried to inject some sunshine amid “the doom and gloom” expressed by her co-panelists. Afterward, she offered her reasons for her “guarded” optimism: “This is certainly a challenging time for all businesses. But I think of this as a period of transition. When things are bad, the old ways of doing things are turned on their head. New talents and new approaches can be more easily introduced — after all, why change when everything’s going okay?”