What Digital Agency Clients, Staff and Leaders Say in Private

These Shops Market Themselves as Hip, but They're Actually Pretty Old-School

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Digital agencies enjoy a reputation of being cool, cutting-edge and creative. They even have a bit of a bad-boy persona because they talk about challenging the status quo. Their offices are hip and their employees are hipsters. They are positioned as the future of marketing and advertising.

In the past year I have consulted to six digital agencies on branding and marketing. Between them they operate in over 12 countries, employing over 2,000. The results are revealing. First up is the dissatisfaction among employees. This cannot be attributed solely to the stereotypical millennial, because,many who shared these experiences were over 35. Comments included:

  • "We lecture clients about technology when our time and expense sheets are manual."

  • "Fun perks promised are always sacrificed because of proposals or client work. I understand business is business, but don't promise it if you only hand it out when convenient."

  • "The agency head has his assistant print out all his emails. Then he would write out a response that the assistant would type and send."

  • "I was told the hierarchy was flat, but ended up with 3 layers above me. All with less experience than me."

  • "Having a pool table in the office is the equivalent of a mission statement engraved on a plaque hung in the lobby -- it's all for appearance."

  • "We are tied to a big old agency and get memos from them that are scanned attachments!!! Every one of these just tells us stuff we shouldn't do."

  • "There is no such thing as a career path. It is a vague and evil lottery."

For all the claims of being progressive, most digital agencies adhere to a business model that would be familiar to David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and Bill Bernbach. Because business models influence organizational structures, these agencies are old in construct.

To be relevant and appeal to clients, digital agencies dazzle and overwhelm with technology. In four of my projects, I spoke with over 40 of my client's clients. Among them were 17 Fortune 500 businesses. Clients said:

  • "We are interested in digital because everyone is. We're not sure we are going to do better with it, but we are scared we will do worse if we are not there."

  • "We used to hire experts as a 'safe pair of hands'. With our digital agency it is an ongoing experiment. That's not a bad thing, but its not a good thing either."

  • "Our agency loves to sell us on the next new thing. We constantly steer them back to how we make money and who our customers are."

  • "Digital is a better chance to measure, but when we point out our results are poor the agency blames it on everything else but them."

  • "These guys have a language problem. They only speak theirs."

  • "What am I supposed to do? I'm stuck. I cannot tell my boss we aren't going to do digital marketing. But I can't tell him it is working."

The leaders of digital agencies have their own frustrations:

  • "I feel like I am operating a theme park. It is a daily spectacle, but everyone forgets that someone has to empty the trash bins and clean up the vomit. All that clients and employees want is the glam."

  • "Our people hold us for ransom more so than our clients. That makes it impossible to build a culture."

  • "I had a nightmare that upon my passing the eulogist talked of the apps we built."

  • "Talent is both scarce and abundant. The issue is not can we fill the cubicle; it is can we fill it with the right person."

  • "We are always one day away from being a commodity. That should be a motivator, but all we are doing is milking yesterday's cash cow."

In moments of honesty, digital agencies admit they are not as cool as their marketing states and they want to change this fact. I tell them that the coolest thing they can do is help their clients sell more. Somewhere along the way, many digital and traditional agencies forgot that this is their core purpose.

There are three ways this can happen. First, demonstrate true innovation in service and delivery. I like that R/GA and Work & Company strive to create and design products for their clients. This is cool, as it changes the business model and helps clients prosper.

Second, update your own marketing. Use the amazing resources at your disposal and stop relying on old-school public relations. Press releases and award shows do not build brands. Each agency must be its own marketing and business-development case study.

Lastly, don't order the foosball table. Invest all you can in training and thought leadership. These activities attract and retain both talent and clients. If digital agencies want to be architects of the future, they need to strike a balance between the tried and true and the dazzlingly new. The winners will subscribe to Bill Bernbach's belief that, "Dullness won't sell your product, but neither will irrelevant brilliance."

Jeff Swystun is president and CMO, Swystun Communications, and previously held posts at DDB and Interbrand.
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