Some time ago, on Khalid Alvi Marketing Next (KAMN), a brand manager posted a simple question and it ignited a long debate. He asked for recommendations on hiring an agency to meet his brand’s digital requirements. As one might have expected, there was a long list of agency names posted on the thread, but more importantly, a member suggested that he first ask WHAT kind of digital agency he needed before actually starting the short listing process.
For some odd reason, our forum is blessed with (let’s say) a very involved and passionate membership. By the end of the day, arguments were made for and against each kind of digital agency. This, in turn, evolved into partisan industry politics, which eventually turned (as is usually the case) into a huge wrestling match with abuses hurled all over the place. Members were muted, marketers earned temporary bans for breaking rules and the circus eventually packed up for the day.
In all of this, it was interesting to note how industry lines were clearly drawn in terms of segmenting digital solution providers based on their capabilities. They fall into three categories. Traditional creative agencies with in-house digital capabilities, independent digital agencies spun-off from traditional creative agencies or fully independent digital agencies. There are strong advocates of each kind of agency, and for good reason, as each one has inherent advantages and disadvantages – which I want to explore here.
Whether they are small hot shops or large full-service setups, the traditional creative agency champions brand building and creative ideation. They look at a brand’s environment and its equity and build an intelligent communication around it to help it battle the competition. In this case, branding is their forte. With the rise of digital, these agencies have reluctantly set up internal departments to offer mostly social media based solutions to their clients.
Digital agency spin-offs
Eventually however, the more intelligent traditional agencies realised that a department can never do justice to an effective digital solution for a client, and they spun off independent digital agencies. Such agencies have an internal setup specifically designed to cater to digital brand propagation. They have the advantage of both understanding the digital business and brand building.
Independent digital agencies
They are the masters of digital and are native to offering digital solutions since inception. Their only disadvantage is that they are usually not great at brand building.
So the big question is: What kind of agency should you hire to solve your digital woes? One thing is clear – the agency you should not hire, in my opinion, is the traditional creative agency; it is your worst bet if you are looking for an effective digital solution. And this is coming from someone who spent 22 years in traditional agencies, including a small part of it providing digital solutions from that platform.
The big question then is would you hire a traditional creative agency for your digital campaign? Well, unless the entire brand team is as clueless as these agencies, no sane marketer or team of marketers should make that mistake. Even given the caveat that most digital agencies are not great brand architects, I would still bet my brand’s budget on a full-service specialised and independent digital agency.
From the start, it was painfully clear to me that solutions offered by traditional agencies are media-centric and rarely idea-centric. By media-centric, I mean that the campaigns are always built to serve TV audiences. The concept is then adapted for radio, OOH, print and finally, digital. Anyone who wishes to challenge this fact can take a look at the top 20 successful campaigns developed by such agencies and evaluate whether any of those campaigns were standalone digital or even digital-led initiatives.
Creative agencies have a huge mental barrier when conceptualising a communication solution for a brand’s problems – and there is a logical reason for this. Giants in terms of infrastructure and staffing, these 360 solution providers need huge revenues to just break even and survive – the kind you get only from creating mega campaigns involving TV productions. No business is going to sell a product that will make it bankrupt and digital solutions are usually not comparable in revenue to mass media campaigns.
Another issue is that the solutions brands require are becoming more and more digital in nature. For one thing, brand communication today requires engagement, and traditional media centric campaigns are crap at generating meaningful engagement. The agencies that develop such campaigns are great ‘talkers’ but really bad ‘listeners’. If you go and tell them you want to make a TV ad to convince people to buy your product, chances are they will make a decent ad for you. However, if you say you want a campaign where the brand wants to say something, get feedback and respond to it in order to build a more meaningful bond with audiences, they will not even know where to begin.
Case in point: this morning, going through my social feed, I saw a ‘digital campaign’ for a well-established brand developed by a creative agency. The campaign is simply a longer adaptation of the TV ad (possibly the director’s cut). I mean come on, what a waste of precious brand budgets. Firstly, just because there is no extra cost to uploading longer videos on digital media it DOES NOT MEAN THAT DIGITAL AUDIENCES ACTUALLY LIKE WATCHING LONGER VIDEOS! In fact, the opposite is true. They want videos that are short and crisp with a clear hook in the first three to five seconds. Secondly, the ad had no purpose except to tell audiences what the brand wanted to ‘say.’ On a platform where you can have a two-way communication between brand and audience, why in the name of Mansehra kay original chapli kababs would you want to just talk and not engage? It’s like going to a therapy session and the therapist talks about what he or she thinks about your problem and the solution to that problem, without even bothering to listen to you. Would you pay for such therapy? Of course not, because it is not therapy, it’s lecturing and you did not pay to be lectured. Yet, a lot of brand managers are doing that – paying for lectures.
Digital is evolving at a breakneck pace. The evolution is so fast that even digital agencies and born digital natives can’t keep pace. New platforms are popping up all the time. Platforms like Snapchat are becoming relevant for brand propagation. Digital analytics are evolving and becoming more complex. Intelligent campaigns can re-target and build on past experiences based on each interaction with an individual. A person who searched for a mobile phone will start seeing ads for mobile phones more frequently. All this has complex engines running behind it and traditional agencies do not understand any of it. Even today, most of them are still at the point of having discovered the Facebook ad.
The big question then is would you hire a traditional creative agency for your digital campaign? Well, unless the entire brand team is as clueless as these agencies, no sane marketer or team of marketers should make that mistake. Even given the caveat that most digital agencies are not great brand architects, I would still bet my brand’s budget on a full-service specialised and independent digital agency. Everything from the structure of the communication (talking versus engaging) to the propagation of the communication (running campaigns that filter out and target effective audiences) is too complex for anyone but those trained in the discipline.
The creative agency still has a role to play but it should not have a mandate beyond setting up the campaign guidelines and campaign objectives. Building on those guidelines in order to effectively deliver digital KPIs should be left to digital experts. And digital agencies have now realised that they need their communications to be built on branding principles and it is only a matter of time before they hire creative and brand strategy teams to build digital content.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have a very different perspective to what I have said above? I would love to hear from people who have an opinion on the matter.
Amir Haleem Syed is CEO, Kueball. firstname.lastname@example.org