Digital Agency Versus Agency Born Digital

Like everyone else I have been fascinated by the ‘agency of the future’ debate over the last few years. I now have the answer, I really do. The agency of the future is the agency “born digital”. Let me recap the debate or at least my take on it.

Is the old Ad Agency model dead or can they evolve by embracing and integrating digital? Can Digital Agencies come of age and become lead partners by offering more mature strategic planning and ideas that that integrate on and off-line? The answer is yes, no, maybe. My view has always been that as markets develop they segment to offer wider choices according who needs what, when and why (hate the word ‘needstate’). It’s a both/and world we live in. So there will be a place for specialists and full service, the digitally focused and the off-line oriented – clients will pay their money and make their choices.

That said, however, it seems clear that the conventional Ad Agencies are increasingly and more confidently offering a full service that includes digital. They are buying digital agencies, forming JV’s with them and in some cases bringing them into the heart of the business. I have been skeptical about this. It reminds me of how they used to treat media. “OK, we have about 10 minutes before lunch so here is Dan to tell you about the media plan”. They never really got or valued media, it was an after-thought. Same with digital. “OK, having shown you how the idea will work in press and TV it’s over to the geeky guy in the T-shirt who will tell you about some ideas we’ve had for the web site and a phone app”.

I don’t beleive that Ad Agencies really understand how digital people work and what creativity means to them. Digital people start with technology and data, this is as much (probably more) an inspiration to them as some flaky consumer insight gleaned from an equally flaky focus group. They need to be included at the formation of creative strategies. They don’t just consider ROI, they use it to optimize their implementation in real time. I could go on (and have in this short eBook) but the fact is their brains are wired differently. I can’t see how they can easily be integrated into a conventional Ad Agency team and Ad Agency approach.

Digital agencies for their part are beefing up their strategic offer by using digitally but also brand savvy people. That seems much less of a stretch. They are increasingly recognizing that the best digital campaigns work hand in hand with off-line activity, feeds off it in fact. Simple example – digital campaigns and assets (e.g. your web site) need content and that very often comes from the brand events (check out the Smirnoff Web site for and example of this). Digital agencies partnering with people with off-line skills seems an easier task for the simple reason that ego does not get in the way in the way it does with the Ad Agency. I may be a bit biased here but my experience of digital people is that they are more natural team players. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, technology is such that nobody has all the experts so you have to work with other specialist at some point. Secondly, digital people respect data and metrics. They will collaborate to get a result that can be measured.

I was confirmed in my view about the inherent ego of Ad Agency people in a conversation I had recently with the head of really successful Ad Agency. I really respect this person and the agency but was interested when they told me about the new JV they were forming with digital “partners”. There was no doubt they saw them as junior partners, it was clear in the body language. “We know that increasingly this is what client’s want so we will make sure we are the ones that can give it to them”. They did not include the new partners in the ‘We”. I’m not blaming the old guard in Advertising  – this is how they were raised, to believe that they are, or should be, the clients lead advisors in all matters to do with marketing. They are not team players, they are team leaders.

Anyway a fascinating debate, who knows how it will all play out, almost certainly with all colours of the rainbow being offered in terms of agency models. At least that is what I used to think. The other night I had an epiphany. I think it was started by a debate Quirk had been having about what to call themselves (in the context of all this momentum to embrace more than just digital). They used to call themselves an “eMarketing Agency” which as it happened I and the CEO quite like but everyone else felt was very 90’s thinking. No-one really liked the alternative, “Digital Agency” for the reasons outlined above – they are moving on from this. So they have settled  – as have a few others – for “agency born digital” with some nice words about technology, creativity and results.

But that got me thinking. What does ‘born digital’ mean? How would you spot the difference between a conventional agency and an agency ‘born digital”? How do you spot the difference between me and someone much younger than me who was ‘born digital’. In the case of the agencies is it all the stuff I have been banging on about, in the case of people is it obvious things like age or habits? Well yes, but that’s not the real point

And then it hit me with blinding clarity. A conventional Ad Agency is founded on, and obsessed by, paid-for media with TV at its heart. An agency born digital is founded on and obsessed by earned media with social media at its heart.

The difference between me and my kids is that I grapple and play with social media, they live their lives through social media (and gaming in a social context).

Then it struck me that this fits with where brands are going. Advertising used to be called ‘truth well told’ and I have heard people like Dan Wieden talk about how great brands that have a great story to tell. Marketing is about writing and telling that story. But in today’s noisy media rich world, you don’t just tell the story, the brand must live it and in so doing it creates word of mouth that is amplified to global proportions (sometimes) through social media. In other words brands earn their media through what they do not just what they tell you.

The agency of the future will be agencies that are born digital and that value earned media over paid for media. Or as the guy from the Geek Squad says “Advertising is the tax you pay for having an unremarkable brand” i.e. a brand people want to make remarks about in social media.

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