The death of the digital agency

James Kirkham, director, Holler on the future of digital advertising …

Just as everyone in new media begins to think they’re getting it all their own way, they might be surprised to learn that the end is on the way. We need to kill off the digital agency in its current form. We’re reaching a crossroads in media and it might well be time to sacrifice the digital agency as it currently stands, in order for its values to live on.

Not so long ago, digital agencies were right at the end of the food chain. Those in new media needed to shout to be heard. Such thinking was epitomized by the music industry. A good friend of mine was a product manager at a major label and recalls sitting in the weekly production meeting, looking on concerned at the ever-decreasing agenda. The meeting would interrogate how to market their newly signed artist by talking about TV, press, outdoor, retail, guerrilla and just before the meeting closed, as an afterthought, they would enquire about online.

Then of course, Myspace arrived.

This reticence to embrace new media was not confined just to the music industry. Around 10 years ago, I was working for a leading advertising company and a similar event would occur. The strategy would be signed off, the media bought and then about a week before the campaign was due to go live, someone would ask: “should we have a website too?”. These sorts of occasions would only cement the focus of digital agencies at the time. It means we were all born and bred with a sort of steely resolve. If you were in new media, you knew you had to battle for your share right from the start and this is something that has remained in our psyche right to this day.

But change occurred. Each passing week, people would need to sit up and take notice of new media as the digital revolution consumed every part of their waking lives. Communications moved quickly; email suddenly wasn’t quick enough for the impatient teenage generation. They instead got into instant messaging, and realised that chatting with friends in a space together could be even more fun. The advent of social media arguably caused the biggest change of all.

We spent time promoting television shows like E4’s Skins as though they were an emerging band. This emerging omnipresence of digital has meant industry people have had to shift and adapt. Because digital now permeates everything we do and everything we use, the knock on effect in agency make up is understandable. Production companies have spawned digital arms, bought in digital evangelists and made themselves more aware of how to act in this new landscape.

Advertising can cut budgets to shoot virals for brands, not just 30 second TV spots. They’re creating branded content, getting the stuff filmed and then documenting it all online. This is all digital, but it is no longer solely in the hands of the new media professional.

So the battle seems to be won. After spending years being the poor relation in the industry, new media experts no longer needed to fight their corner quite so hard. The convincing was all but complete.

Yet that is precisely why there needs to be a new movement now from this core of people who regard digital as their own. After years spent carrying the fight, we now need to change and adapt or the digital agency as we know it will go the way of the dodo. It has been encouraging to see clients giving the more established and respected digital agencies the opportunity to talk strategy across the whole of their brand. These days a good idea can work on any level and the best agency should be able to demonstrate that.

It is because digital has become so widespread, so omnipresent, touching everyone’s life in every industry at every level that I do not think there will be ‘digital agencies’ as we know them any more. Instead, digital agencies will just be outfits versed in communications and with a particular set of skills meaning they’re especially good at engaging through online. But with everyone else getting in on their act, digital agencies might need to first kill themselves off, in order to eventually live longer.