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

Posted by

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.


  1. Mitch, thanks for this post, I was meaning to sit down and write about this subject and the discussion on AdAge, but you’ve beaten me to the punch 😉
    Wholeheartedly agree with you and I’d like to add the following: yes, neither digital nor traditional can or should take the lead right now; actually it’s the brand/advertiser (marketer) that should take the lead, since they are perfectly positioned to have an Birdseye view outlining their core brand values and vision, coordinating and relaying the efforts of both types of agencies. This, in turn, would mean that the marketer has to understand branding and traditional advertising as well as understanding the inner workings and ecosystem(!) of interactive media.
    For example, when implementing social media and in order to stay true to the promise generated by such efforts, often the organization itself needs to culturally adopt to accepting outside input and (negative) feedback from clients/end-users up to a certain extent. Since this can’t be outsourced to any outside party, someone from inside the organization, i.e. the marketer, has to sit on top of these efforts.
    This doesn’t imply that I would place said marketer higher or traditional agencies lower, each is equal and serves their own purposes only I believe someone on advertiser side has to be the centrepiece / brand project coordinator in order to keep everyone in sync…
    In such a scenario ideally everyone is focused on doing what he or she does best, in keeping with their organizational DNA and mindset.
    Thanks for this,

  2. The third leg in this race are PR agencies, many of whom are also jockeying for position to ride this wave and win the social media throne.
    Unfortunately for clients, vendor management is only getting more complicated and blurry – another hurdle to overcome to achieve significant uplift.
    The level of teaming and complexity to integrate/coordinate/mitigate risk across multiple vendors is a barrier to entry for the majority of businesses.
    What is the better way?

  3. Mitch, as always, your words inspire and remind me why I choose a career in marketing. The challenge that vendor management brings to this multi-pronged approach that is today’s integrated marketing is both daunting and tremendously exciting. Conducting this orchestra of converging talent is an area that brings a refreshing facelift to marketing program management.
    And I love that you said ‘wonky.’
    Thanks for your energy and inspiration.

  4. Mitch: Here in Mexico, I’ve been many times in the situation where two or three agencies are sitting on the table: traditional advertising, PR and digital marketing. Best results have came up when the client’s business & objectives are in the center and we all cooperate as one team.
    I’m sure that marketers at companies are learning the lesson and will forget about “instead of” and embrace “with”.
    Thanks for your post!

  5. Mitch, I think for the first time I disagree with you. There will always be new media — the “Renaissance Period” will never be over. It’s not about traditional agencies vs. digital agencies but instead marketing agencies who can approach media strategy from a cross-channel perspective. The debate should focus on whether or not a given (and specific) agency has the leadership and people talent to evolve with the constantly changing media landscape. Fragmenting marketing into siloed channels (each with their own agency) is not the answer.
    I wrote a lot more about this as a response on my blog: http://bit.ly/2qW9G8

  6. I think you’re right that a business has objectives (and they’re not split by traditional or digital)… and that’s the point. They have many different objectives and to think that one marketing agency can help them accomplish all of their goals is unrealistic (IMHO). It’s going to take many agencies working together to really get to that level of integration and cross-channel optimization.
    Expecting one agency to be a catch-all for this would be a mistake. The different marketing channels have different operating strategies and talents… and that was the point of my post in the first place. It’s not about digital or traditional, it’s about a client engaging the right type of agencies to help them accomplish those goals and objectives.

  7. Thanks Mitch. It will definitely be interesting to see how this continues to unfold. We have two schools of thought:
    One is to have highly-specialized agencies by channel/medium working together based on a brand’s business goals. The other is to ensure that agencies have the right mix of people across channels who can tackle the uniqueness and depth of the various channels while approaching media as a larger and integrated consumer experience.
    I’m not sure why this isn’t realistic as what we’re talking about is leadership and talent. The former, while doable in theory (and we’ve all been there and made it work), will always come with it an intrinsic inhibitor to truly authentic and open collaboration given the nature of competition that exists amongst the agencies at the table.

  8. There’s going to be bigger changes than this agency discussion in store for marketing folks. Today, every organization is a publisher, and yet, they have yet to realize this. As they do, they will start to analyze how they do things today, which is terribly inefficient and wasteful. So, they’ll start looking for ways to optimize and reduce spending on tasks that could/should be automated – like formatting of documents, reuse of content between various deliverables, etc.
    Marketing departments and advertisers will be challenged to deliver the right messages to the right people at the right time in the right format and in the right language (imagine that!). This means they will need to get over their traditional approaches and begin understand things like personalization, XML component content management, variable data printing and personalized URLs (http://www.tcw.vdpcomplete.com/).
    I’m preaching to the choir — at least some of it here — but it’s really not about the agency type — it’s about the lack of understanding in technology, the changes needed to make these improvements work, etc. A new breed of content marketing savvy/advertising pros are emerging today. You’ll hear some of their stories at Intelligent Content 2010 in Palm Springs this coming February (http://www.intelligentcontent2010.com).
    It’s going to be exciting the next few years. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

  9. I’m 50/50 with you on this one Mitch.
    On the agreement side, I’m 100% with you that traditional shouldn’t try to lead the whole, nor should digital.
    Also 100% with you on the viewpoint that the two need to come together to create strategic leadership for the brand.
    But where I diverge, and I mentioned this before, is on the Big Idea issue.
    The big wins, in my opinion, are when all channels work together towards the realization of a truly big idea. (Not a big idea made for TV and then translated to the web, but a truly Big Idea that is platform agnostic.)
    Said otherwise, it’s not the technology. It’s not the platform, the medium, the channels, or any other word we want to use. It’s not dialogue versus monologue. A Big Idea bridges the gap between a brand and its customers.

  10. What Is The Cost Of Abilify,
    abilify 15 mg price 52535 [Http://Artubiseg1973.Yooco.Org/Forum/T.52535-Empty.Html], order aripiprazole online 52469 (prepniaszenni1976.yooco.org), abilify online pharmacy 52535, abilify 5mg order abilify online, buy abilify no
    prescription buy generic abilify online, aripiprazole 2 mg Abilify 5 Mg Tablet.

Comments are closed.