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November 8, 2007 / davebirss

The future of digital agencies

A few weeks ago I was explaining to a fellow digital Creative Director how I thought the industry had evolved and where it need to go in the future. Please let it be known that beer was involved. Since that blurry evening, my explanation has clearly spread and been resold to me a couple of times. So I thought it may be a good idea to share it on the blog. I’ve even created some images to compensate for the lack of wildly gesticulating drunken hands.

It starts like this. Up until recently Digital was seen as a distinct marketing discipline. It was as separate a skill as Advertising, DM or any other area of marketing . But this was only because of one thing – ignorance. Only geeks understood digital and the rest of the industry didn’t quite see where it fitted in to what they did. Digital became a marketing discipline by default. So this is how things looked:

Ye Olde Days

And to be honest most digital agencies are living as if this is still the reality. But it’s not. Things have moved on. The internet is part of everyday life and the other marketing disciplines understand it a lot more. They see how it fits into their own corner of the industry and offers them more opportunities. It has been embraced by all the other marketing disciplines as part of their services. And this is how the landscape really looks now:

Future of digital

So the question is – how should digital agencies respond to this change? I can see 3 distinct approaches.

The ‘LA-LA-LA. I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’ model

A lot of agencies seem to be pretending it’s not happening and are carrying on regardless. This may be OK for a few years yet – but they will eventually be forced into making a move into one of the other two options or die out.

The ‘you come up with the idea, we’ll make it happen’ model
Advertising agencies outsource a lot of production to specialist companies. TV production houses make bits of film, recording studios do their radio spots, photographers bring their print ads to life – so why wouldn’t other marketing disciplines just take control of the digital side of their business and outsource the production to the specialists? It makes sense. This appears to be the way they’re doing it in the States. The Barbarian Group has produced award-winning stuff for agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Mother and Wieden+Kennedy. Over in the UK we also have production hot-shops like Unit9 that seem to be doing well. But this is all high-production-values, eye-popping stuff. There is also a need for the digital equivalent of brochure, doordrop and scratchcard production – and everything in between. And there will be more of a need for this kind of facility as time goes on. Some digital agencies will do well as production shops.

The ‘ Wow! What an awesome idea’ model
If the first model is ‘be a bit creative’ and the second model is ‘let other people be creative’, the last model is ‘be awesomely creative’. This is the model I naturally prefer. The real value any agency can offer is strategic creativity. There will always be room for agencies that know how to engage with audiences in a fresh and relevant way. Strategic thinking, creativity and innovation needs to be at the heart of these agencies because if they start plumping for formulas they’ll be overtaken. They can’t limit themselves to thinking in terms of banners and buttons. They can’t limit themselves to what happens in a browser. They need to break new ground in mobile, applications, digital outdoor and whatever new technology emerges. This is the scariest and most exciting part of the industry because it will evolve from year to year.

What surprises me is how stuck-in-a-rut the digital industry is. It’s barely 15 years old and atrophy seems to have set in as much as in the more established parts of the industry. Change is the only constant and the future lies with the companies that are nimble enough to keep up.

And here endeth the sermon. If you think I’m spouting a load of old cobblers – or stating the bleedin’ obvious – please add your wisdom to the comments area.


Leave a Comment
  1. Rebecca Caroe / Nov 30 2007 6:01 pm


    Seems we are having a similar conversation. I like the three levels you describe.

    But there is more than this. The creative that is produced needs to START at your third level but create an environment where the consumer has an ongoing dialogue with the brand.

    There are two levels to this: the ‘marketing’ web (where just marketing stuff happens and there is little reason to return) versus the ‘real’ web where conversations start and customers have reasons to return to a brand site over and over again.

    It pretty much fits your model.

    Rebecca Caroe—new-o.html


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