What exactly is a “digital agency” anyway?

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It’s that time again.

This week, the timeless debate over whether digital agencies are ready to take the lead role in brand stewardship has come to a frothy boil. The familiar comment flame war has erupted and the traditional flurry of blogging is already underway.  Meanwhile the Twitter-sphere is sinking their teeth in like a frenzy of sharks at an all-you-can eat steak buffet.  There’s blood in the water, people.  Everyone to their posts! (Pun intended.)

My colleague, Richie Cruz, has already penned an excellent POV on the subject and the last thing the internet needs right now is another opinion on the subject.  As CNN is apt to say, we’re going to leave it there.

But the whole snafu has really got me thinking, what do we mean when we talk about “digital agencies?”  From what I can tell, the term “digital agency” is a self imposed label that can refer to a range of capabilities and offerings.  We often find that in client meetings, we need to take time to define what type of “digital agency” we are.

What types of digital agencies are out there?

Excellent question.  From what I can tell, there are three different types of shops referring to themselves as digital agencies.  It can often be difficult to distinguish between the three types at first glance, and, while none of them are inherently superior or inferior to the other, each offer a very different service to their clients.  Broadly speaking, they are as follows:

  • Digital Production Houses – These shops focus on producing top notch creative work from client or agency briefs.  They use their web savvy to execute and often improve upon the ideas and briefs they are provided with.  They are responsible for infusing technical, digital and creative expertise into everything they touch.
  • Digital Think Tanks – These shops don’t actually produce anything.  Their role is to help clients strategically navigate the digital ecosystem and create smart briefs to task digital production houses with.
  • Full Service Digital Agencies – Many of these shops began as digital production houses but have evolved their strategic capabilities.  They are increasingly being asked to take leadership roles on brands and bring their creativity and strategic prowess to bear on the overall brand.

For the record, we consider ourselves in the third category.  We take equal pride in our strategic thinking, technical innovation and storytelling/brand building and embrace them as tools necessary to deliver on our client’s objectives.

But if we, and other digital agencies, are looking to take leadership positions as brand stewards, why call ourselves “digital” agencies?

Why do agencies looking to take the lead role call themselves ‘digital’?

Brands span many channels and utilize a wide range of marketing vehicles.  Some of the biggest are customarily the domain of the “traditional” shops – TV, print, radio, and out of home (OOH).  Most traditional shops are fairly comfortable asserting that they can also operate in digital.  Originally, digital referred to “the internet,” but the term has expanded to cover a wide range of touchpoints including mobile, social networks, digital OOH, kiosks, software, and more.

It is, as anchorman Ron Burgundy might say, “kind of a big deal.”

Based on the level of client disappointment, it’s fair to say that traditional shops have struggled in the new medium.  But if products must be marketed through multiple platforms, don’t traditional shops have an inherent advantage when it comes to brand leadership?  Haven’t they been bringing brands to life through multiple vehicles for decades?  Why don’t they just blow the message out across the digital platform?  And why would a digital agency be better at it?  I think my colleague, Alex Morrison, hits it right on head when he writes:

“The problem is that digital is not just another content distribution channel. It’s not that consumers’ core expectations and behaviors have changed dramatically, but that Digital itself is fundamentally different from other media in its very use and purpose.”

What do digital brand ideas look like?

There is a fundamental difference between a “digital” idea and a “traditional” idea.  And it’s not the technology that delivers it.

Good digital ideas are based on interaction, social connection, and consumer value. Good traditional ideas are based on a compelling message. Both work to deliver a brand perception and ultimately a brand positioning.

The problem is that many traditional agencies are struggling to express their message-driven communications on a medium built for two-way communication and selective attention; where the visibility of an execution is based, not on the size of the media buy, but on its ability to generate social traction and pass along value.  Many marketers (ourselves included) believe that it is easier to translate a digital idea to the traditional space than vice versa.

That is why full service digital agencies insist on using the term.  It’s not just the technology that’s digital, it’s the ideas too.

Who should lead?

The quality of an agency (digital or traditional) is determined by how well it can craft and manage the brand positioning. A good agency should be able to take those brand ideas and ensure they are compelling and engaging across all mediums.

Any agency that can do that is fit to lead.  Any that can’t… well… throw em’ to the sharks.