The Small Agency Interactive Blues

A Lot of People Are Faking It

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Unless you've been on a retreat for the past two years, the holy mantra is how to transform your advertising agency into an interactive agency. A proof point for me was when Greg, our VP of business development, dragged me to a conference on the West Coast and they had a track for ad agencies and a track for interactive agencies. The traditional ad people seemed to be talking about how to generate leads and get into a couple of pitches, while the interactive agencies were talking about how to trade up accounts and the challenges of managing 50% growth. Who wouldn't want to be an interactive agency?

We're not stupid here. We want to make more money. We don't want to end our days as washed-up dinosaurs on the agency landscape. Here's what we've done to accelerate our own metamorphosis and also what I've observed taking place amongst our peer set.

First, a nod to the great agencies that understand how to innovate and transform themselves and who genuinely struggle with relevance for their clients while transcending categories like traditional and interactive. (Hey no names; they don't need any publicity from me.) They're alive and, like me, you probably lust after their success.

There are a lot of ad agencies talking a mean game and touting their capabilities in pitches. To paraphrase the head of a web-development firm (after I plied him with a few cocktails), 90% of the small agencies out there chasing interactive business have one guy on staff who knows anything, and if they're lucky maybe a Flash developer. According to my buddy, they're subcontracting all their development work to him, and he's growing at 50%. And the word from my friends on the client side is that every agency knocking on their doors can show you at least one respectable interactive program. Just don't scratch too deep. In other words, a lot of people are faking it.

I've been on my own personal quest to remain relevant, and have made a number of moves to create an agency that fully integrates the technology tools as well as the societal sea-change that defines the world of interactive marketing and social media. Like most of my endeavors, the path was treacherous. We bought a web-development shop in 2001. Bought is an overstatement and web development is just an outright lie. What we really got was a respectable designer and a guy who knew html. It didn't stick. They were unhappy that I discontinued massage Friday, and I was unhappy because they couldn't build websites that stood up under their own weight. The great thing about a failed experiment is that you're driven to try again.

In round two, my partner, Mike, hired a really smart guy named Doug. I don't even remember his original title, but he was wired and knew all the right people. He had built some elegant websites and loved the technology. To paraphrase my interactive buddy again, we became an agency with one smart guy, and our smart guy took us a long way. Best of all, Doug was, and is, an insatiable and voracious reader who filled my inbox with ideas, reports, case studies and books. Doug became the viral agent that drove the change. But one man is an island, especially in ad agency where everybody is getting rewarded for doing the stuff they were hired to do, which isn't to build an interactive capability. This was actually a frustrating period because I believed we had a lot of the answers and just couldn't act on them. It was like being given a table covered with beautiful, fresh ingredients -- but no one had time to cook dinner.

A couple of cool things happened in pretty quick succession. As we started doing more interactive advertising, we recognized that if you wanted to optimize online campaigns, media planning and buying had to be fluid and dynamic. We made the decision to bring media in-house and chose a director with a strong interactive background. That alone upped the innovation in our program thinking, and we broke the evil cycle of proposing print and banner ads that lead to a micro site. We actually created some interesting programs.

Throughout, I've driven people in the office crazy. Every time I read an article, or talk to somebody new, I come in with a new strategy. We need to build a search capability. We need to hire someone who understands mobile applications. That kind of exuberance doesn't translate into useful action.

One deliberate step I took was to discover what truly separated interactive agencies from ad agencies that were pitching interactive capabilities. I'm simplifying, but I found three qualities in the interactive agencies that were missing in traditional agencies.
  1. The truly interactive shops had senior technology leadership that was shaping agency direction and client engagements. That's a big difference than having a wicked smart programmer who's dancing to the tune of the creative department.

  2. They worshipped information architecture. The interactive agencies had a deep respect for a discipline to which ad agencies, at best, play lip service.

  3. The agencies that got it didn't try to push interactive engagements through a process developed 100 years ago for advertising. If you're an ad agency, you will need to break some bones to reset them correctly. We should be walking again soon.
The interesting point is that as we made these changes, we stopped thinking as much about interactive. We began to talk more about the multitude of options we had for communicating with people. We became obsessed with the idea that the new channels demanded a new definition of content and began to define content strategies for our clients. (OK, I admit that I still like to chase after bright shiny objects.) Beats me whether we made all the right bets, but that's the story of what one agency has done to join the party. I hope I'm still standing to talk about it a year from now.
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