The future of the digital agency

We’re in trouble.

Yes, you’ve heard that for ages, and yes, a lot of it is scaremongering, designed to panic people into spending money in something they might not understand.

This isn’t one of those moments. We’re actually in trouble, as digital practitioners, advertisers, and as digital agencies — and that’s a subset of the trouble that the wider advertising industry is in.

The big problem that we face today is one we’ve brought upon ourselves — and one that we don’t want to admit. Digital agencies have spent years convincing clients that they need us and that we can do things that their existing agency mix can’t; we’ve built specialty practices as technology changed; we’ve adapted new processes to be real-time and reactive and do things now, now, now; we’ve invented new metrics to measure what we can do digitally and used them as ways to justify our success; we’ve helped enable new platforms to scale and change human behaviour by creating branded platforms and content, and spending on advertising. In short, we’re quite good at what we do, and we’ve created a whole new market for it.

Engage us if you want something digital, we tell clients. Work with us to use technology in an innovative way to communicate. Let us make a content series for you that will live on YouTube. If it involves the internet or your mobile phone, we’re the ones to do it. We even believe that we can address some of those bigger brand problems that big advertising agencies might do and we’re being backed up by the big brand platforms like Facebook, which are investing in ways to help us demonstrate that we might just be able to do that.

All sounds great, doesn’t it? So, what’s the problem then?

As a consequence of our need to build a market where one didn’t previously exist, we’ve limited our tools to solve the problem to ones that are digital. We’ve constructed our own artificial constraints, and have created our own way to measure our success within these constraints. We’ve built such a strong market that it’s now getting the attention of procurement and traditional networks — and it’s all becoming commoditised.

Traditional agencies, media agencies, PR agencies are all going after the same things, and clients want to spend less and less doing these things. Those with the key scale to deliver for cheaper will ‘win’, with the result of further commoditising our business.

We then try to justify our existence (and build our margins) by being on the cutting edge of technology and platforms — dealing with unknown ROI and taking risks on success not because we don’t know what we’re trying to do, but because the platforms and technology we’re trying to use don’t work with the masses we’re trying to influence. We use tech for the sake of it to win awards and to try to snaffle budgets — but end up making no impact because the audience we’re speaking to is too small to actually matter, or the platform we’ve leveraged doesn’t actually mean anything to anyone past the week or so that it was first introduced.

When it comes to the impact we actually have, we’re our own worst enemies because, if we’re not sure how to measure something directly, we hesitate to be held up against it. This means that we resort to metrics like clicks and impressions and earned media value and a whole bunch of things that don’t mean anything to the actual success of a specific business.

We can keep making lovely films, and people might see them if we spend enough money, and that might change the way people think about a brand, and then they might choose to do something different — that’s of course the ideal behind what we might do. But as people who understand behaviour and technology, it seems we could be trying to solve bigger, more upstream problems than just persuading consumers through creative expression that they might be more like a certain brand.

We could, and should, be the ones to take that sort of stand, consistently, on every client we choose to engage with. We should absolutely work with brands and probably make digital communications but as part of a much bigger business strategy and conversation.

If we know that a brand’s issue is that people perceive the brand and the industry as not something for them, we should commit to changing those perceptions as the metric against which we are measured. There are any number of solutions that, if we understand consumers, culture, and businesses, we can suggest and implement and make meaningful changes for brands — so we’re not just making another series of pretty videos that make a short-term impact.

We’re better than we present ourselves as — but we need to push to take the lead, take risks that actually deliver demonstrable business change, and find partners who require this sort of thinking. We should be gearing our remuneration around this — putting our own skin on the line with the belief that we can ultimately solve our clients’ problems.

We need to know our clients’ businesses as well as they do, and be able to anticipate what the technological revolution allows us to do differently now, tomorrow, five years from now, and 100 years from now.

The future of what we do depends on uniting behavioural planning and business needs, and on utilising new technology and the ability to make something out of nothing as a way to really make meaningful change for our clients.

It’s more than what we’re now all talking about from brands in being ‘customer-centric’ — we can’t just rely on what consumers say they want — after all, if Ford did that back in the very beginning, it would be the biggest horse breeder today.

We’re obsessed with the bits of the medium, not the medium itself. The internet and the smartphone have fundamentally changed everything, not only through different ways of communicating to people, but also flipping entire business models on their heads (including some of the oldest, longest standing models like accommodation, transport, payment, even purchasing of goods).

As digital natives and practitioners, we cripple ourselves by only looking at comms-based solutions — we should be considering the internet as a medium of communication, sure, but also as a problem solver, as a distribution model, as a way to start a whole new business, or as a way to shape and change a product. That’s a key point of difference with us digital agencies — we grew up on the internet, we were born in a different world and thus look at problems entirely differently to our traditional colleagues.

We need to change, or we’re just going to be another line on a procurement sheet that describes delivery for as little as possible. If we’re not essential to our clients, we’re in trouble — and right now, it’s getting harder to argue why we’re essential.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Dan Hocking’s story.