Tuesday, May 28

In Western Europe, the 'Digital Agency' is already history


In the last few years it has become fashionable for Czech marketing directors to argue that their advertising agencies 'do not understand digital'. The beneficiaries have been specialist 'digital' agencies, some of which have become big and successful. The first such example was Advertures, which was bought by Ogilvy. More recently the names that feature most strongly are Nydrle and Symbio.

However following my visit to Amsterdam, I wonder if in fact it is the clients who do not 'understand digital'. The big brands working with Amsterdam agencies do not separate digital from the rest of their brand communications. It is simply an integrated part of the 'channel mix'. This mix may also include TV, print, event marketing, PR, alongside You Tube videos and the use of social media such as Facebook. However the key trend is this: one agency is likely to be responsible for all these elements.

Here are some examples of such work:

-  TNT TV channel - Duval Guillame Modem (Antwerp)

-  Ararat Armenian Brandy - Amsterdam Worldwide

-  Heineken Ignite - Tribal DDB Amsterdam

Now these agencies do not describe themselves as 'digital agencies'. Tribal was once the digital division of DDB, but in Amsterdam at least the two teams have merged. So these agencies are led by people who consider themselves 'advertising' people. Not 'digital' people. They have simply learned about the use of 'digital' channels in the same way that Don Draper in Mad Men learnt to use first TV, and then colour TV, in the early 60s.

This means that the agencies are full of people with exactly the same skills as were needed when I left DDB 19 years ago. Does the agency understand the client's business? Does the agency have a deep understanding of the target audience? Can it create a brief with a real insight, and does it have creative people who can use the insight to create a Big Idea? In the case of the agencies above, the answer is clearly 'yes' and that Big Idea has used digital channels to present itself to the target audience.

Now the question is, do digital agencies have these skills? The truth is that they will only have these skills if the top people had a chance to learn them in a disciplined environment in the past. In the Czech Republic, such an environment is only found in a network agency or those few independent agencies founded by people with strong network experience. There is nowhere else to get it, and reading books and articles on the Web is no substitute. Then again, two of the three examples above are independent agencies. The networks are accused of having been slow to integrate digital into their thinking, often because they approached the task by building a separate silo marked 'digital'.

The "digital agency' however has also profited from the fact that digital knowledge supports businesses in different ways, what is usually called e-commerce. The skills needed to build a good website for a bank's internet banking system are considerable. The  skills needed to build the bank's brand and it's messages, are different. I am not sure that many Czech clients have yet realised the difference. But it is now clearly understood in Western markets. There are big agencies which have the 'industrial' skills necessary to help clients with e-commerce; but when it comes to marketing communications, the power is swinging back to 'traditional' agencies - or at least those traditional agencies with people who fully understand the power and potential of digital channels and how consumers are using them.

As usual, the Czech market is several years behind Western Europe. It will be interesting to see how those agencies which now describe themselves as 'digital', evolve; and which 'orthodox' agencies start to regularly propose campaigns to their clients which use a variety of digital and traditional channels together.

Finally there is an interesting piece of news this week. Mall.cz is a formidable Czech business, for which I have enormous respect. It is of course an internet based business, and its founder Ondrej Fryc has built it with a ruthless focus on return on investment of every koruna. So it should give everyone pause for thought when we read that for the first time, Mall will instigate an ad campaign on mainstream TV. The company are going to use a small agency called Woman, run by Bara Novotna, whom I first met when Mark Zuckerberg was 12 years old. The internet has modified advertising. It has not changed its most basic principles.

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