Does the Digital Agency Have a Future?
Let’s admit it, the term ‘digital agency’ was a bit passé ten years ago. More recently, influential figures like WPP’s Mark Read have gone as far as trying to ban the use of the term ‘digital’ in their organisations, claiming that all their agencies should now be digitally- and technologically-focused. After all, the digital marketing future has become the digital present, so every agency is now digital, right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, it is true that most of adland now understand the fundamental impact of digital media on society and can therefore see that consumer behaviours have changed as a result. But, not all agencies are in a position to offer the necessary solutions to client’s new problems.
The reality for most CMOs I engage with, is that they feel they are perpetually playing ‘digital catch-up’. They perceive that they are missing out on opportunities, and that technology should be making their operation more efficient, if not more effective. Fueling this fire are not only their friends in the boardroom but also their friends in the larger consulting firms, who peddle increasingly sophisticated ‘digital transformation’ services for vast sums of money. Look no further than the consultants’ own homepages and you’ll soon feel wholly inadequate at your lack of ‘digital maturity’.
As a result, digital transformation is a hot topic for CEOs, and the value of this work continues to dominate the digital agency sector. Econsultancy’s recent analysis of sector growth showed that over the last five years, the largest ‘digital agencies’ have grown at over three times the speed of those outside of the top ten. And at the very top of that list, are three large consultants (Accenture, IBM and Atos) all selling fee-heavy transformation products.
Obviously digital agencies do more than large-scale organisational transformation, and for those of us in agencies outside of the top ten there has been a push to more clearly define agency offerings. While some of us continue to sell the benefit of being ‘full service’, others now specialise in ‘performance’, ‘technical’ or ‘design & build’. But irrespective of your particular flavour of digital, there are challenges common to most digital agencies – so what are they and how do you overcome them?
At Organic, we’ve spent the last few years working on four areas that we feel are key in helping us become more effective partners for our clients.
Digital marketing does require specialist technical understanding but it’s still marketing. Sure, we need to understand the landscape, the technology, the terminology, the channels and the platforms, but before all that, we need to understand consumers; their motivations, behaviours and actions. From experience, I have found that digital marketers, and their agencies, are often guilty of living in a tech bubble – a space where consumers are viewed as ‘users’ who live an exclusively online existence. This may be over-simplifying, but far too many digital marketing professionals prioritise tech understanding over a thorough understanding of audiences.
As an agency, we spend a lot of time getting to know our audiences both on and off-line. We use the expression ‘human-centred thinking, tech-centred doing’ as a way to anchor the application of our knowledge, because it keeps us honest and serves to underline that tech is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
Of course, understanding consumers is a means to an end, too.
A lot of work in digital marketing and technology unashamedly concentrates on function. We spend a lot of time gathering requirements, user testing, and identifying consumer needs, but quite often that misses the point. As marketing agencies, we’re not here simply to give people what they ask for (consumer experience), we’re here to build preference for products and services in order to ‘surprise and delight’ (brand experience).
The trick here, as all good brand, design and creative agencies will tell you, is to emotionally connect with audiences, which usually involves processing data and information as a springboard for creative leaps. But unlike brand agencies, a lot of digital agencies don’t consider creativity to be within their wheelhouse.
Our experience is that PPC, SEO, UX, and Technical teams all add the most value to client projects when they are creatively engaged. Successfully breeding creativity not only requires the right people and the right environment, it also relies on setting the expectation that creative thinking is a core requirement within any agency offering.
Way more important than whether or not you work agile, lean or waterfall is how you collaborate. The reality of digital tasks is that they are increasingly interconnected within the organisational ecosystem. That can mean that one specialist digital agency needs to work effectively with another, but more often it just means that cross-functional teams within clients are the norm. Fielding teams who are able to flex and adapt therefore becomes key.
We’ve tackled this head on by not only creating a programme of upskilling (a prerequisite for building digital expertise) but also by investing in reskilling. We have found that reskilling not only enables us to retain and grow the best talent, it also enables us to offer tight, nimble teams who generate more interesting solutions to client problems, quicker.
It is impossible for anyone to be an expert in all areas of technology and digital marketing; the world moves too fast, updates are frequent and tech advances and new players regularly enter the market. As a result, clients lack knowledge and understanding in the emerging landscape, opening them up to abuse from those of us slightly more in the know.
At Organic, we feel the role of a trusted agency partner is not only about imparting information but also interpreting the value of that information. We’ve watched one too many episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and decided to use our understanding of the digital landscape in the right way, which we’ve labelled ‘Digital For Good’.
We believe that those of us exploring the new frontiers of technology and digital marketing also get to decide if they want to be an amigo or a bandit. We chose to be amigos, and we hope you’ll do the same. Adios.