A Small Agency's Guide to Going Digital

Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago

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Andy Gould
Andy Gould
Some agencies were born digital. As they grew, they structured their companies around the demands of the business, hiring specialists as necessary and -- not bound by the traditional silos of account service, strategy, creative, etc. -- coming up with new models that look very different from traditional agencies.

Then there are the rest of us, who began life in a business called advertising. Bolstering our interactive competency means transforming our internal processes and structures, and questioning a lot about the traditional model, which can lead to plenty of upheaval and consternation.

As an agency that transformed itself from traditional to 100% digital over the span of about 10 years, the question we get asked most often at conferences and industry events is, "How did you guys do it?" The full answer to that is far too long for one of these posts, but in the spirit of hoping others can learn from our mistakes, here are a few tips.

Don't be afraid to blow up your process. Question everything. We kept our existing traffic system well past the point that it was useful. We went through at least five different "workflows" on the way to something better. Be flexible, and most important, keep track of what works.

Get used to including more people earlier. I wrote a whole piece about this last year. In a nutshell, it can be hard to let go of the "two guys in a room" mentality where every decision is a creative decision. Some of today's best digital shops are working more like software development teams and less like an agency.

Project managers, project managers, project managers. Digital work can be so much more complex to produce than, say, a TV spot, and project managers are the glue that holds it all together. Trust me, with so many moving pieces, it's helpful to have someone whose sole focus is getting every job done on time and on budget.

Pair up old school with new school. When creative people who grew up in a digital world are matched with old-school writers and art directors, magic happens. My co-ECD recently wrote a blog post on this very subject.

Hire for versatility. Gone are the days of one-dimensional creatives, when we might hire a writer just because he/she has an ear for dialogue or an art director who is brilliant with typography. We need smart creatives who can work (or -- maybe more importantly -- want to work) on everything from newsletters and rich media to widgets and videos.

Keep your development in house. A lot of agencies still outsource the "production" of their ideas. Building a staff of developers was one of the best decisions we ever made. It allows creative, strategy, account service and developers to check in with one another anytime -- a necessity when trying to resolve the daily barrage of questions that come up at this stage. It also allows us to check our ideas to ensure they can be built before presenting them.

Realign roles so the right resources are involved at the right time. Essentially, we've aligned strategy with account service for planning and project initiation phases. And creative is closely aligned with development for concept and execution phases.

Things like SEO, UX, usability testing and optimization practices are not optional. If you want to be taken seriously in the space, you need to commit resources to building expertise -- and a track record -- in these areas instead of just talking about them.

Talk more to each other, not less. Don't use technology as an excuse to avoid face-to-face conversation. At one time we had a web-based issue-tracking system that was taking the place of input meetings, and unfortunately, our lack of communication showed in the work.

Smaller projects can be painful to your bottom line. We still struggle with this one, but even the simplest websites require a relatively large number of people to touch them. While it took us a while to accept this reality, the economics of digital work forces us to turn down a lot of smaller projects.

In meetings, represent the same stakeholders that you'll be talking to on the client side. One of the most awkward moments for a digital agency is not being able to answer a software or technology question in a meeting. It's often just as important to bring people who can talk to IT as it is to bring people who can talk to brand managers.

Get ready to do more work in less time. I still see many agencies who take months to concept a TV spot or two. I'm not complaining, mind you, but we often have less than that to conceive a complex site and get it live. While digital agencies seem to be making some headway in being briefed earlier on projects, the reality is that we are often placed in crunch situations and asked to deliver because the advertising driving to the site is already purchased.

Stop thinking in campaigns. Digital is the one of the few parts of the business where you get to build something that lives longer than a single campaign. It's a big responsibility, but in addition to campaign-specific messaging you need to be thinking about creating brand assets for the long term. A good starting point is to get everyone -- from strategy to development -- talking about how the brand can be useful to people.

Commitment needs to come from the top. If the managers, creative directors, and principals of the company aren't serious about wanting to become proficient in digital, it's not going to happen. Embracing true change takes a commitment to learn as well as a significant financial commitment. Can your agency veterans speak intelligently about the digital space? What work is most celebrated at your company?

Maybe the most important thing we've learned is that you can't just adopt someone else's model and expect success. You have to find what works best for your own situation. I'd love to hear what things are working (or not working) for other agencies -- especially smaller agencies -- trying to make the transition.

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Andy Gould is senior VP-executive creative director of Biggs Gilmore, Kalamazoo, Mich. Follow Andy on Twitter: @AndyGould. Andy also contributes to Biggs Gilmore's blog, SlackerCEO

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