Why Digital Agencies Are Indeed Ready to Lead

They Understand the Technology, the Speed of Iteration and Analytics

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Jacques-Hervé Roubert
Jacques-Herve Roubert
Over the past 18 months, a great debate has consumed our industry: Are digital agencies poised to sit at the head of the advertising table? Depending on whom you ask and what you read, the answer seems to flip flop -- with a majority of people still having reservations and making claims that digital agencies aren't ready to lead.

So why does the debate continue? Does offline or online really matter to an oblivious consumer who's only interested in "no-line" communications? Are we spending too much time focusing on who should lead and not enough asking: What's next?

Ana Andjelic's DigitalNext post, provocatively titled "Why Digital Agencies Aren't Ready to Lead," mentions several reasons why digital agencies aren't ready to lead, one of which was their lack of experience in the business (as compared with the "decades of experience" that traditional agencies are known for). I'm sure there are instances where decades of experience can directly translate into success, but there are certainly instances (uh, Lehman Brothers?) where deep roots had no bearing on their ability to produce -- and produce well. Furthermore, a certain percentage of the individuals now working and thriving in digital agencies came from traditional agencies.

Additionally, most of the world's most ingenious inventions were not created overnight, but took years of hard work, research, observation, trial and error, and collaboration to fine tune. The digital ecosystem has required much of the same exploration -- and, in most cases, into technologies that are new to all of us. As James March himself said, "Exploration involves being an amateur for a while, but only as a step on the way to being a professional."

And while the structure of an interactive agency may often mimic "one big crazy family" (by the way: Whose family isn't crazy?), how could making sure everyone's opinion is heard be a bad thing? Most interactive agencies subscribe to the notion that you never know where the big idea or concept will come from. Sometimes the big idea can come from the exploration of a new technology or method that enhances consumer connection.

Here's why:

  • That was then, this is now. Like it or not, the days of the ingenious, 30-second TV spot are over. Today's creative ingenuity lies within the idea, the technology, the concept, the innovation and, perhaps most important, the Holy Grail: consumer connection. Word of mouth is more prevalent than ever and interactive communities have an increasingly louder and more influential voice and are stronger (and sometimes the only) sources of breaking news stories. No one understands this better -- nor is better equipped to handle the swift demands required -- than the digital agency.

  • Teaching an old dog new tricks. The "new trick" is immediacy. It's about faster response times and the concept of immediacy. E-mail, IM, Twitter, Facebook, cellphones -- all of these technologies set the stage for consumers wanting and expecting immediate responses, not to mention, immediate access to products and services. Traditional advertising agencies are not adapting to this mentality because they are still working with processes and organizational structures that were developed in a time when the internet and the concept of immediacy simply did not exist.

    Digital agencies understand that brands are being held to higher-than-ever consumer expectations. The plethora of data we can garner from a $50,000 media buy can leave traditional agencies' heads spinning with insight and analysis. The truth of the matter is: Interactive agencies are forcing traditional agencies to integrate with digital media to better track and measure campaign results through custom URLs, short codes, etc.

  • Kickin' it old school. Not only are the days of the 30-second TV spot gone, so too are the traditional advertising agency gurus like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach. Today, those figures have been replaced, instead, by financially backed entities. Rather than exploration and exploitation, digital agencies need their own gurus and legends that can lead by example.

Five or 10 years ago, I might agree with the argument that digital agencies weren't ready to lead, but after sitting at the table with other agencies for the past decade -- traditional, branding, public relations, marketing -- it's clear that digital agencies have proven their value, not to mention their ability to innovate, inspire, and create the big idea.

Perhaps the synergy and balance between exploitation and exploration is off kilter for digital agencies, but more and more we're starting to see the agency structure itself change with new hires in technology and social media. And marketers are noticing:

  • According to Media magazine, AKQA was named the lead agency for Nike India earlier this year.
  • Precor named Ascentium its agency of record in October 2009. According to Forrester's Q2 2009 Interactive Agency Wave, Ascentium "received the highest client satisfaction scores in this year's review." The assignment with Precor includes strategic planning and execution of all offline and online campaigns.
  • McAfee hiring Tribal DDB as its agency of record in 2008. This assignment included all TV, print, outdoor, and digital.

The balance may not be there today, tomorrow or next month. The truth of the matter is digital agencies have earned their right to sit at the head of the table because they've brought what consumers and marketers are looking for: new innovations in measurement; flexibility and nimbleness; and, most importantly, ideas that bring what a magazine spread or 30-second TV spot cannot.

Now president-CEO of Nurun, a global interactive marketing agency, Jacques-Hervé Roubert began his career in advertising at Havas Conseil and subsequently held senior executive positions with BDDP and Young & Rubicam.
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