On November 23 last year I spoke at the AIMIA V21 Digital Summit in Melbourne. The topic I was invited to talk on was “The future of specialist digital agencies”. In a time when everything is digital, what is the purpose or role of a specialist digital agency?
Preparing the talk was interesting as it involved a review of all of the trends we had noticed in the past 2 – 3 years leading us to the current market. But more importantly, it was considering where the future trends are heading, especially overseas in some of the more technically advanced markets, particularly the USA.
The Digital Agency
The big issue is that marketers are generally still viewing digital agencies as simply operating in an extension of the traditional market. That is that digital agencies are often engaged as a ‘digital’ version of their creative agency. This is because for those marketers, digital is seen simply as another media, alongside television, press, radio and OOH.
In these cases, the digital agency is simply a specialist ‘media/channel’ agency like having a television agency or a radio agency or the like. That may seem ridiculous, but it is largely because for these marketers, they see the solution to their creative agency not ‘getting’ digital, is simply to appoint a specialist.
The types of services required at this level is developing display banners, web-landing pages, websites and setting up Facebook brand pages. The primary purpose is to develop communication concepts and publish or broadcast these out into the media hoping to hit the audience. It is a disruption strategy. Some try to extend this into an engagement strategy by calling it storytelling. i.e.. telling the story of the brand / service / company / product.
The fact is that any creative agency worth considering can operate at this level. After all, almost anyone can and do come up with a digital creative idea. Creative agencies have been creating messages in the form of advertisements for more than 100 years. All they need to be able to do this in the digital media is have the production expertise. We have seen many traditional creative agencies either recruiting or acquiring these skills over the past five years.
But this is an incredibly limited marketing view of the opportunities available through technology. And this is where the distinction between a digital agency and a technology agency becomes important.
The Technology Agency
The fact is digital technology provides marketers with much more than simply a way of gaining attention and awareness. You can engage with your audience in a meaningful way moving beyond simply storytelling into providing the audience with utility or usefulness. Technology allows you to capture data on consumer behaviour and it can facilitate your customers telling stories about their experience of the brand and sharing it with others.
But also digital technology, in a business context, is more than just communications. Within a business, digital technology is also driving inventory systems, payroll systems, financial systems, customer database systems and the like. The same technology platform is used to manage the business and not just run the marketing communications.
It is best demonstrated when we look at the implementation of e-commerce in a large organisation. The IT side of the business usually engages one of the big IT consulting firms who usually get the technology right but forget about brand and consumer experience. On the other side you have communication digital agencies who will get the brand expression right and perhaps the customer experience, but often overlook the integration of the financial system, the inventory system, the stock and distribution system, all of which are required to make the e-commerce platform function seamlessly.
This is where a technology agency is required. Someone that can bridge the gap between marketing on one side, responsible for the consumer and IT on the other responsible for the system integrity and security.
Digital agency versus Technology agency
In November 2011 I wrote a post about the need to get strategic business alignment around your digital agencies. This was around the time that a major global consumer goods brand approached TrinityP3 to assist in selecting a ‘digital’ agency. The discussion was around what was required of a digital agency that the marketers roster of creative agencies could not provide.
The fact was that the client had a number of ‘digital’ agencies – some part of a creative agency and some specialists. But there were conflicts between the various agencies and it was not surprising as most of the agencies on the roster, including a sales promotion / retail activation agency saw themselves as ‘digital’.
The problem was not the requirement for a digital agency. They had more than enough of those pumping out digital concepts and ideas. What they really needed was a technology agency that could pull it all together under their global digital guidelines, which were managed locally by IT. But the IT department was understaffed for the continually growing task and also they were not engaged by the marketing department.
By bringing IT into the process, TrintyP3 managed a tender process to select a technology agency with the capabilities to work with marketing and all of their current roster of agencies and IT to ensure the implementation was compliant and met the integrity of the global technology guidelines.
Although all of the rostered agencies put up their hands for the role, they failed on the first step, which was the technology capability to work with IT across all of the platforms the company currently used. In the end, marketing and IT agreed on a suitable technology partner and two years later this agency is successfully managing the ‘digital’ agencies, marketing and IT.
The future of digital agencies?
To talk about digital as ‘new media’ is a misnomer. All agencies will and by now do have digital as some part or all of their offering. So to simply be a digital specialist is to be like every other agency. However, many of the digital specialist agencies have either come from a technology background or built a solid foundation as technology companies. They are uniquely positioned to take this role. And therefore the future of the digital specialist is to be a technology agency. A much broader remit than simply digital communications and one that cannot be easily faked with a few select hirings or buying another digital agency.