Can analogue elephants do the digital dance?

Step into an advertising agency and you hear everyone saying that digital is the in thing and the future. That revenues must be made from digital. They have been saying this for more than ten years now and the role of digital has changed quite a bit since then. Large agencies have long since passed the stage of doing digital tit-bits to moving to embrace the elephant in the room and become more digitally savvy to survive. While many an award has already been won by large agencies who farm out digital production work to third parties (most who have never been credited), this may not be the way to win long-term work. The kind of projects retainers are made of, that really earn constant revenue but are not creatively glamorous. Projects that can’t quite be farmed out because the work is proprietary and which is what earns it its retainer.  This old way of working has worked and continues to work in a model where agencies conceptualise and design the base project and the broad creative idea but farm out technical expertise that ties up all the pieces. The challenge  often in this scenario  is the mismatch between creative rendition sold to clients and the actual feasibility of rolling it out.  So it would seem you need internal digital talent. The question though, is in the ‘age of agile’ what is the best tactic to do this? Over the years I have seen quite a few strategies at play and have known people working in multiple agencies. While some agencies survive on an outsourcing model where technical builds are outsourced to cheaper markets that have the talent like India, Philippines and even Mauritius, there are large agencies who have tried other tactics. What I personally think, is that there are largely three playbooks.

  1. Grow them from scratch:

    This is probably the most challenging. A chicken and egg scenario. When agencies have limited digital experience, forming a digital team from scratch can seem to be a daunting task. Yet it can also be one of the most rewarding and cost effective ways to tip-toe into the digital game and scale up as you go. My first advertising experiences was in one such team that grew from a fledgling 6 to around 15 and is still going strong till date with a couple of large accounts under its belt on a retainer basis. Today its not just agencies  but clients who are growing in-house teams from scratch to take care of their social media accounts and even small design projects.

The challenge:

There are as many things that can go wrong in this set up as there are those that can go right. You are forced to play to the strengths of the team as you don’t really want to rely on outsourcing and being at the mercy of external vendors. Yet with a shoe-string budget you really need to know what part of digital you are going to specialise in. That one thing you can do really well, even with an arm tied behind your back. Whether it is designing sites, apps or social media your team size is limited as are its skill sets so you really need to pick an area that has demand where you can build your core and scale up. There is always the question of when is the right time to scale up and go all in with your investments. Everything rests on the ability to pick the right talent from the start (and retain them), since you don’t have the technical expertise in-house to whet your new talent. It often starts with picking a well-rounded leader who knows what talent you need and has enough savvy to jump in and help fix things when they start to fall apart. The rest you can rely on agency partners with vendors and freelancers to fill gaps for the odd project that comes your way. Though as the team gets more builds under the belt they are likely to move away from this and become more self sufficient.

  1. Absorb existing teams:

    For agencies with deep pockets this may seem like the best way to go. You buy out another agency, get them to work on your clients while retaining their existing client pool. This is a way of literally getting overnight expertise. 

The challenge:

The obvious hurdles are getting two new teams to gel together, and two organisation’s processes in sync. The challenge is looking at the whole agency and not having expertise exist solely in the silo of the agency that was acquired. If that happens the parent agency doesn’t really learn from its acquisition, but it does benefit holistically from it. What’s more it is critical for the agency that is acquired to not bleed any of its junior talent during the transition. Since it is this talent that is putting in the hours and is most attuned to the systems and churning out the work that is responsible for the digital agency’s existence. What’s more the team is already going to be performing to its limit with existing clients to take on the new parent company’s workload will mean scaling up the team. Still an easier option since the team already knows what it is looking for and is not growing organically from the start. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the absorbed team doesn’t lose its secret sauce or be diluted by the big brother that now owns the pot.

  1. Gel teams together:

You might be lead to believe that there is a dearth of traditional talent. So what do you do with them? Some companies believe that bringing in digital talent to work shoulder to shoulder with existing talent will have digital skill sets rub off. 

The challenge:

Unfortunately this is like trying to mix oil and water most of the time. This problem is also similar to finding the promising first few when you grow your digital team in-house. If you happen to pick talent that doesn’t have enough build experience, it’s going to be all talk and not much on the plate. What’s more its challenging to keep digital talent motivated in a non-digital environment. This is because their approach is very different. Digital folk are modular thinkers who understand how things are built, they err on the side of caution, knowing that every digital build is a living testament to Murphy’s law. Yet they are eager to take calculated risks to build new experiences. On the other hand their traditional counterparts often come across as foolhardy, using existing work as templates to create new things in mix and match iterations or trying to marry two things that don’t quite work together and not understanding the technical limitations of the way the web works. What’s more is there is a big gap in pace between traditional and digital. The former can stretch across months for a film to be sanctioned, shot and produced. The latter sees sites coming up overnight to a period of six week rush jobs. There are more iterations, there is more work to show on portfolios at the end of the day.

The silver lining

Amidst all this there definitely is a silver lining. There exists a cadre of Gen-X and older Millennial digital talent who have been dabbling in builds ever since Yahoo Geocities and Netscape Navigator were the go to platforms and Yahoo & Ask Jeeves was the place you went for your search queries. This talent understands the building blocks of the web. They may not be at the forefront of VR and AR and not well versed with the Apple and Android development kits yet, but they understand how the web was won and will evolve in the days to come. Sadly Silicon Valley treats this talent as if its gone past its sell by date. I beg to differ. These are the foundation blocks you need.

Where would you find this talent? I would like to think that these are the folk who are leading successful digital teams or sitting in digital consultancies. Companies like Deloitte Digital, KPMG and the likes, if filled with the afore mentioned talent would find themselves in the perfect place to assist clients and connect the dots between agency creativity, technical expertise, data management and ensuring end customer satisfaction. What’s more they have a perceptual advantage if they are in a consultancy. Clients have been arm twisting their agencies for eons when it comes to traditional medium that they’ve made it a science. We’ve seen the dawn of the all powerful procurement department as a result.  They know just about how much pressure you need to apply to realistically speed things up for lets say a print insertion or a shoot while lowering costs. But they don’t quite know how much they can twist to get digital projects rolled out faster. They also fail to understand the implications. What’s more, I would like to think they don’t treat their digital consultants in the same way that they treat their agencies. Digital consultancies are built with talent that started out building their own digital experiences and went on to run larger digital programs in agencies around the world before moving into a consultancy of repute. With the amount of money being paid to consultancies you can’t but not respect their opinion. I mean you wouldn’t question a doctor who you are consulting for a surgery would you? You might get a second opinion but once you are committed to an operation you aren’t going to let your own opinions to get in the way of what the doctor is going to do on the operating table. It is this kind of respect that clients hold for consultancies. Agencies on the other hand are treated like witch doctors whose voodoo wins business in a not too transparent manner.

So you might wonder where are the truly technically gifted? The garage stories of today who turn into the Googles of tomorrow? They are probably parked under the roofs of Google, Facebook and Apple and it would be hard to tease this talent out from there. Or they are establishing their own startups hoping to make it big with an app idea or a digitally enabled service of their own. This is talent that has a strong grounding in computer science and engineering. While their agency counterparts focus on design and experiences. It is this talent that shapes digital leaps providing the platforms that can be then leveraged creatively by their agency brethren. There is no mistaking this talent of specialists. Ad Land is in need of digital generals and generalists to build systems and processes where few exist and an understanding of what it takes to craft digital experience. People who can lead teams of specialists and guide outcomes by understanding potential road blocks. What’s more it is this talent that can teach the traditional agency to do the digital dance. Through workshops and digital build camps, this will be a painstakingly slow process of getting people to be interested in owning their own digital properties in-house and nurturing the necessary skillsets.

What about the analogue folk you wonder. Truth is that there is still demand for them in advertising. There always will be. They don’t really need to fear anything. Experience that has been earned on Ad Spots is still relevant in making short films for digital. Radio spot experience can be brought to bear while creating podcasts.  If you look closely, there is no drastic shift to digital, rather a balance between traditional and digital. It’s still two different pools or glasses. You still need traditional media to push awareness of digital properties. Think of all the ads for apps and mobile games you see today, or ads for e-commerce sites on the telly. We’ve tried all digital before, you just can’t quite get the kind of uptake you get when you ignore the power of print. If clients do shift drastically to digital it’s probably an indicator of a shrinking marketing budget combined with the fact that there is more accountability demanded for co-relating ad-spend with metrics and outcomes. Which means the agency really needs to ask itself not whether they are digitally relevant but whether they have a revenue generating model that is feasible as more business will move to consultancies who have both build experience and strategic expertise under their belt.