Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
November 13, 200911:54 PM

Why Digital Agencies Aren't Ready To Lead (And Why Traditional Agencies Shouldn't Either)

One of the more dynamic online conversations about Digital Marketing over the past few weeks has been happening over at Advertising Age.

The conversation started in the article titled, Why Digital Agencies Aren't Ready to Lead, by Ana Andjelic and was followed up by the piece, Why Digital Agencies Are Indeed Ready to Lead, by Jacques-Hervé Roubert. Both articles (and the comments that go with them) are well-worth checking out. The spark to this debate came from Andjelic who stated:

"Digital agencies are having a ton of fun experimenting with ideas, technologies and strategies to find new alternatives superior to obsolete ways of doing marketing. That's what they do best. The problem is, this is the only thing they are doing. When they are asked to actually follow through on their ideas, they often come up short. It is because they don't know the business of marketing (or want to know it, for that matter), and they rarely have the organizational structure or past practices to guide them."

Roubert's rebuttal is:

"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."

They're both right. They're both wrong.

The Internet has proved that while things move fast, change is still slow - especially when it comes to big, old and traditional business models. Most companies only wake-up to change once their industry has already radically shifted beyond all recognition. That change is usually led by much smaller groups (or companies) who are rapidly innovating through an iterative process that engages their consumers as co-developers in the process.

Marketing is no different.

Let's forget the future and let's forget the past. Let's just focus on the present. It's also not about the advertising, the Marketing or who has the better creative idea - it's about the media channel. Because of the Internet we now have two types of radically divergent media channels. Traditional media has also become passive media because the New Media (the Internet, mobile, etc...) is not just interactive, it is created and controlled by the same people who consume it. In more layman's terms: you can't expect the same creative to work where in one instance the consumer is simply letting it wash over them, and in the other instance, the consumer is creating and navigating their own media experience.

Traditional media and New Media are so different that they require two very different types of agencies to lead.

There is no longer just one "big idea" that breaks through. More often than not, we're seeing many "big ideas" created for the different types of media working together to make a brand successful (more on that thought here: Maybe It Is Time For Marketing To Move Away From "The Big Idea"). Personally, I don't think that a Digital Marketing agency is best suited to help a brand with their traditional media (TV, Print, Radio Out of home, Direct, Public Relations, etc...) and the traditional agencies that have digital capabilities are failing to really drive the message through in a world where everyone has the ability to express their thoughts and ideas to everyone with equal distribution, volume and efficacy. Ultimately, both traditional mass media still works (and is powerful) and digital media continues to increase, grow and demonstrate ROI as well (just in a very different way).

It takes a village.

The brands that are getting the best results are the ones who are bringing both traditional and digital marketing shops around the table and working in tandem to figure out a creative brief that is in-line with the overall business strategy, and then letting each agency go off and lead/create the right engagement for the right audience for the specific media channels that they are best at. Creative rarely "wins" when the digital agency is simply translating a TV spot into an online campaign, and traditional agencies will have an equally hard time trying to translate a vibrant online community into a Cannes-winning ad campaign.

Until we get through this New Media Renaissance Period, we're going to have to work together - where both traditional and digital agencies co-lead.

Agencies (traditional and digital) are fighting for this pole position with the brands so they can stand up and proudly let their shareholders know where the real money is (and will be coming from). It's still too early for Digital Marketing simply because the clients are not able to see the same results (in the same way) that they get from their traditional metrics (no matter how wonky those are). Traditional marketing agencies simply don't have a business model that is iterative, driven by the types of insights we acquire from web analytics, and effective when it comes to digital (meaning, a traditional ad agency has a hard time making money on the development of a six-month website with multiple online campaigns because they are/were built to quickly bang out a 30-second spot and make the big dollars on the media side of things).

Much like the channels and the media, both types of Marketing agencies are going to have to deal with the very real reality that it's not "instead of" but rather "with" that is going to win at the end of day. Maybe that approach will create some kind of future shift that will see one of them able to take the lead alone, but we're not there yet.

By Mitch Joel