In five years, there will be no distinction between traditional and digital agencies, but we’ll all be doing things a lot differently.
I love the way we describe our agencies and studios. Be they “boutiques,” “full service” or offer “360-degree thinking,” we all secretly know that we’re knee-deep in our own custom brand of bullshit. Then, of course, it’s a messy space, and some of those terms do stick with customers, no matter how vague and indefensible they may be. In my last couple of columns, I’ve talked about some of the changes brought on by social media, and the challenges they have presented to agencies and clients alike. Actually, I have a hunch that there’s more to it than what we see on the surface. These are issues symptomatic of a dramatic change that will redefine the landscape for creative companies.
Are you a communication designer?
A few years ago, the blogosphere (well, at least the part focused on design) was abuzz with heated debate on whether we were graphic designers or if we should start to utilize a term like “communication designer.” I weighed in on this, too, in spite of the fact that I now ask: Who the fuck cares? But, I digress. I posit that this debate surrounding one descriptor relates less to the evolution of a single vocation, and more to a space that defies clear convention. Yes, designers face this, but so do a great many others. For better or for worse, few of us are assembly-line workers with clearly defined roles. Instead, we find ourselves facing challenges and tasks we’d never really anticipated.
Positioning versus practicality
In spite of our agency having assisted many groups with their positioning, we’ve struggled to do so internally. Sure, we were young when we started and we did stumble a bit. As I look back at the past decade, though, I attribute some of the meandering to an industry in dramatic flux. Our clients ask us to do things that go beyond what we were trained to do. Some of these are rather pedestrian odds and ends; others are more complex undertakings. Similarly, while we used to be able to think in terms of projects and campaigns, we now need to look at our efforts in a more ongoing fashion.
Our clients can’t be effectively served by simply getting good creative or a batch of handsomely designed assets. They need to stitch every point of engagement together effectively. This requires people like you and me to shepherd these brands and their interactions effectively. And, yes, the things we’ll be tasked with in order to do so will sometimes be “out of scope.” I truly appreciate the notion of restricting the number of services an agency offers, in order to gain operational efficiency and a more defensible position. I also have to ask whether that’s really possible any longer. While silos are awfully appealing, there are tasks that still need doing and that just don’t fit into these containers.
Time to get messy
I have no idea how your agency deals with social media and myriad other things you’re likely being asked to assist with. From a quick, informal survey of colleagues, though, it seems that we’re all grappling with where exactly we fit. Meanwhile, trying to find clear breaks between these tasks just isn’t that easy. Recently, I met with a company that was caught between their traditional and digital agencies. In spite of the millions they had spent with them, the two agencies rarely shared notes. For that matter, they hardly ever even spoke with their client. As a result, the work was disjointed and didn’t result in any measurable gain.
The ones left standing
I’m not saying that campaigns won’t exist in the future, or that agencies are a thing of the past. But I am convinced that today’s agency needs to be a lot smarter, more flexible and hard working than ever before. We need to adapt, because our customers are (or should be) asking for things that no one else seems well suited to doing. So, instead of worrying about whether our work is glamorous, or wins awards, we have to get used to doing the dirty work. We have to be on the phone with our clients, helping coach them to becoming social businesses. We need to remain up to date on technology, always on the lookout for potential opportunities.
Analytics and measurement must become central to our actions and, whether you like it or not, we have to start dealing with a whole raft of crappy little details that may feel “beneath” us. Years ago, Frank Palmer of DDB Canada shared a story about a business owner frustrated by an agency’s unwillingness to supply hot dogs for a store opening. Frank won the new business by simply responding, “We do hot dogs.” We’re in the midst of a lot of change, and the role of the agency will become a more organic one. My bet is that those who prevail will be willing to do their share of hot dogs, too.
This article originally appeared in Applied Arts Magazine.