Are clients ready to let digital agencies take the lead? (Roundtable summary #cssf)

We have beaten the digital vs advertising debate to death and all agree that it is simply the best agencies that will succeed. However the debate does not seem to be going away and there have been a few articles in Adage around whether digital agencies are ready to lead. We all know the answer to this but we have to admit that progress has been slow. Therefore is the real question Are clients ready to let digital agencies take the lead (the old adage of you don’t get sacked for buying IBM springs to mind)? If so what can digital agencies do to make it easier for clients to now make this leap?

The first conclusion we made was that it is time to place your bets and decide what agency you are/want to become. Are you willing to take on more than just digital or do you stay die hard interactive and if so what cap are you wearing? The production cap or stick to the creative & conceptual positioning? Note that the feeling in the room was it will not get easier for interactive advertising agencies (focussing just on digital conceptual creation).

For those of you who decided to be the main agency at the table, but who are facing a slow take off, we looked for afterburners you can use to speed things up. Among other things, there are two main drivers you need to look at: the perception of your agency and the way you handle strategy.

Change is always difficult. Especially during the hard times clients face, it’s easier to hold on to what they know, which is the traditional way of doing things. So if you go in hardcore digital guerilla style, most likely it will be difficult to convince clients to trust you with their radio, tv, print and other media.

Perception of your agency is key. So what can you do to show those clients you are ready?
– Do as the Romans do. Enrich your team with senior advertising strategy, creative and account people. Preferably people who are well-known by advertisers and who are perceived as respected and experienced advertising makers. It might take some time to find and convince them and it won’t be easy to make them fit in, but we have to keep on trying. Don’t say we’ve tried it and it didn’t work because they don’ get digital. But find out what went wrong and try to do it better next time. Remember this is still pioneering.
– If you want to talk to clients, hire clients. They know how to talk to them, what they need to say and especially how to say it.
– Start over. It may seem crazy, but some agencies or people who are contaminated by digital made the jump, started something new (new agency, new name, new story,…) and voila , problem solved.
– Stop calling yourself a digital agency.
– Take care of your PR. (or at least also expand it to publications, blogs, magazines etc. that are not just digital driven). We should do it more.

Perception is important, but it is what it is of course, a shiny layer of make-up. Obviously you need to get your hands under the hood and get them dirty. Probably the best advice possible (if you are not already doing right now) is to make sure you present and sell a powerful strategy. Show clients you are not just there to give them a website or a twitter thingie, but you are using interactivity in whatever shape or form as a backbone of your campaign with the other media built around it. Show them more than campaigns, but how they can profit long term from your approach.

Very important: if you go in with strategy, break through the fat and talk to decision makers. If not, you will find yourself wasting a lot of time and energy on internal politics and convincing people who were never planning to stick their neck out.
Choose your battles wisely. But if you receive a brief that allows it: shake the tree and deliver more than what is asked for.
And don’t forget to acknowledge the strategists. Winning awards and earning recognition is probably a bit too much focused on the creatives, whereas great strategy is just esssential to produce great creative. So share the credit.

Not sure if these answers will do the trick on their own. Probably we just need more time. And a bit of luck. But if you can twist luck’s arm a little bit… why not?

One Comment

  1. Aaron Savage says:

    Excellent article. You are spot on that if digital agencies are to lead they need to stand up and talk about strategy in a meaningful and powerful way. For a lot of digital agencies this won’t be easy because most of them came from tactical boutiques (offering web design, or search or email or social media etc). They never had to think strategically because the best strategy was ally with a top ad agency that already knew about the client’s strategy, and just feed off of their client list.

    I see this debate going on all over the web and a lot of what is being spoken of as strategic, isn’t, it’s still tactical.

    Interestingly enough when I formed Interactive Mix a year ago I knew that we needed a rock solid marketing strategy to offer to clients, so it’s nice to see that I was right, but I am still less than impressed with a lot of the digital offers out there, and I think clients are as well. Offline agencies have the strategic way of thinking down to a T already but their focus is on the concept of ‘the message’ and they still think in terms of ‘broadcast media’.

    It’s going to be interesting to see which agencies get from their respective corners into the middle ground and what they will look like when they do.