CLUED-IN: Web talent agencies cast free-lancer roles

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If I'm having trouble understanding the Web development business these days, I can only imagine what you're going through.

While the biggest agencies are growing through acquisitions, some of their best people are hitting the bricks. Most aren't going to smaller agencies either -- they're free-lancing.

Figuring out where these bodies are, then putting them together on projects, has become the latest new-media niche. One of the early players in the game is the Digital Talent Agency. Paul Smith is CEO in the New York office, while Steve Kirsch heads the San Francisco side of the practice.

Mr. Smith said his agency has been called everything from a high-class headhunter to a new-media William Morris agency, but it's really neither. "We're a third-party advocate for buyers" who are looking to build new-media project teams, he said.

But the Digital Talent Agency doesn't make its money from buyers. Instead, it collects what Mr. Smith calls a "finder's fee" from the boutiques and free-lancers for which it finds work. He wouldn't discuss prices but said a lot of companies spend 20% of their money on sales and marketing.

The Hollywood model

Mr. Kirsch said the Web is developing a Hollywood business model, with the project manager in the role of the director.

On the Web, however, the definition of talent is broad. "The most important talent may be the technician" or the graphic artist or even a strategic consultant who understands online retail, he said. The key player differs from project to project.

Messrs. Smith and Kirsch, who were previously at Red Sky Interactive, a San Francisco new-media company, have to know not just whose talents fit the needs of employers, but also who has time to take the job.

"We only bring these people work they want to do," Mr. Kirsch said.

Mr. Smith's term for the role is "infomediary." Hollywood might call him a casting director. Digital Talent Agency tries to do due diligence on the talent, and fully understand the projects it's working with, so "when the client meets the developer, there's no dog and pony; they can talk about the work," Mr. Smith said.

The skills needed to define, build and launch a new-media project are much like those of a movie director, Mr. Kirsch said. And while the great ad agencies of the 20th century were based on creative talent who executed strategies to move product, tomorrow's big agencies will be built around project managers, the Digital Talent Agency partners said.

Mr. Smith seems to know his role is a simple one.

"One of the things we've made sure we do from the get-go is make sure we're a thin intermediary," he said, building a Web agent rather than a Web agency.

Tech talent

To me, this means most of tomorrow's David Ogilvys haven't hung out their shingles yet. They're heading teams, managing projects and still learning the business.

Someday soon, however, a great project manager, someone with marketing vision and a deep understanding of technology, will leave his or her job for the last time.

Today's Web shops might prove to be the studios of the next century, but the talent will drive the business. Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues and is publisher of the Web site

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