Complex Made Simple

Will traditional agencies ever become digital?

If you compare the process of advertising between its “golden era” and today, so little has changed, unfortunately. From a radio spot to a TV ad to a print ad to an outdoor billboard, the underlying premise is still the same: take a broadcast platform with an audience and interrupt the regularly scheduled programming with a product message.

Traditional agencies still manage to interrupt people’s time rather than be part of their daily lives, interests, aspirations, or needs. This is because the formula for creating campaigns has remained intact for more than half a century and the agencies that produce these ads haven’t evolved much either.

Agencies still silo their creative, production, PR and media buying as entirely different disciplines — or even different companies. Like any business that has been operating under the same model for decades, ad agencies have become rigid and increasingly slow to adapt.

With brands moving more of their overall spend to digital every year, traditional agencies have “tried” to keep up with the times, yet, so far, still fail at it.

The traditional ad agencies that dominate the mainstream advertising world have either acquired existing digital or social agencies or have brought into the region digital and social agencies from their global networks, but these cosmetic changes have not altered the fundamental threat that all large agencies face in an era of rapid technological change and audience fragmentation.


(Global digital advertising spend to reach nearly $300 billion by 2020)


Paradigm shift

Acquiring a digital/social agency or bringing in one from global won’t be effective if the DNA of those who are leading those agencies doesn’t change. Change must start from within. Those traditional ad agencies need a major paradigm shift in their thinking, in the way they treat digital/social, in the way they hire talent, in the way they fund their digital efforts, in the way they plan they budgets for digital activities, in the way they integrate digital in their core offering, in the way they lead on the transformation of their services.

If an agency is still seen by others as a traditional advertising agency, then the leadership has not done their job. You can’t have a digital cultural change without it coming from the top. Digital has to be at the boardroom table. It has to come from the CEO’s mouth; it has to be a part of the business.

A lot of agencies talk about getting digital and it really means ‘let’s get a room with a bunch of programmers.’ That’s not digital; technology has to be part of everything and working across the organisation, it can’t just be a function.


Just copies

Most large agencies’ existing attempts to advertise on the Internet is to treat it as a broadcast platform. That’s why online ads are digital copies of their analog counterparts — flashing billboards on web pages, interruptive pop-ups and TV commercials repurposed as 30-second pre-rolls. In the digital era, ideas spread not as a one-to-many transmission, but through the sharing of individuals and groups between one another. As such, the web required a new model for earning an audience’s attention — one driven by content. Brands want to build audiences and communities online, and the best way to do it is with stuff that people will actually seek out, talk about and share.

So much of what we find entertaining is driven by relevance and, in the age of digital, the pace of what is relevant to us accelerates every day. Just think about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, where a meme captivates the community, only to be discarded hours later.

Creating content that resonates with people requires a speed of production to ensure that the same idea you had in the pitch will still carry weight when it sees the light of day. No matter how loudly agencies trumpet their ability to be “scrappy”, their size and structure is simply not conducive to moving at the speed of digital.


(The human cost of digital technologies)


Cut through the noise

The only thing that is truly able to cut through online white noise is authentic, relevant content that feels unique to the web and its culture. For this, brands need lean, collaborative and flexible teams that are all committed to the same goal: Entertaining their audience.

I am convinced that it boils down to a difference in three things:

  1. Philosophy
  2. Tools
  3. Skills

Traditional Agencies:

  1. Philosophy– The brand/creative/idea is king. Clever headlines and high-production imagery reign supreme. Awards are highly valued.
  2. Tools– TV, radio, print PR, and web. Notice how web is thrown in there as an aside.
  3. Skills– Mostly made up of account managers, copywriters and designers. The principals often come from an advertising background and don’t fully understand the web.

Digital Agencies:

  1. Philosophy – Content/data/engagement/results are king. Awards aren’t as important as delivering measurable value to clients.
  2. Tools – Websites, apps, mobile, SEO, content marketing, email, PPC, UI/UX, UX research, development, social media, innovation, tech, programmatic, lead generation, analytics.
  3. Skills – Designers specialise in web interfaces, writers specialise in value-based content vs promotional “sales” copy. Account managers understand web strategy and data. People running the company live and breathe the web and don’t care about TV, radio or print.


Digital and traditional are very different and they have very different cultures. Merging those cultures is always going to be challenging no matter what you do and it’s important to get to grips with that reality.