Agency Pipe Dream

June 12, 2009

bo-jacksonOver the past decade or so many agencies have struggled to add digital services to their offerings. Those who succeeded realized the shortcomings that came with adding digital to the mix. For one, digital often became viewed as a siloed production group, where creatives and account service with backgrounds in traditional advertising, promotion, and PR called the tune for the unwashed geekdom. As a result we saw thousands of examples of print design and one-to-many thinking introduced to the Web by agencies.

Eventually these agencies made attempts in “integrate” digital into the agency culture and process. Their motivation was laudable, but the operational vision of the new agency was almost always illdefined and the methods used to achieve integration were doomed to fail.

One of those methods is to cross-train the workforce so the entire agency would eventually become conversant in and capable of producing digital marketing solutions, at least in the areas of creative and strategy.

On top of enriching the knowledge of the workforce, agencies thought their re-minted employees would provide a utopian flexibility: The Art Director who designs a print ad on Monday would pick up the website design for the same campaign on Tuesday.

Keep in mind the senior management in most agencies, those leading the charge for “integration”, come from a traditional marcom background. Most have/had little hands-on experience in digital.

sleepingFrequently the existing digital staff is tasked with developing both the curriculum and training for the rest of the agency, and this training strategy introduces many interesting issues.

Curriculum and content development for training isn’t a trivial matter. We’re talking about taking a huge amount of information and finessing it into bite sized pieces. This is a huge time-suck the employees who happen to have the digital experience, the “trainers”.

Because many agency leaders lack understanding of digital themselves, they significantly underestimate what is needed to support the most basic training needs. There is also a sense of resentment that grows amongst those designated as “trainers”. At first they’re flattered by the idea of sharing their knowledge and skills. But after spending a few months spoon-feeding traditional brethern with their hard-earned experience, they realize the structure of the agency will still position them as a downstream implementor, and very few of their “students” will ever spread their wings and fly.

The biggest obstacle to the cross-training philosophy is that the vast majority of folks in agencies who aren’t already doing digital don’t have the interest, desire or aptitude for it. This comment isn’t meant to demean, but to point out a hard, cold reality. You can’t take a talented athlete in one sport, train them in a sport in which they have no inate interest or desire, and expect good results.

mad signThe same goes for agency folks. Digital requires a different mindset and skillset – skills that only improve by being continually immersed in the discipline.

Sure, Bo Jackson’s of the agency world exist, but the idea of creating an agency were the majority employees are both multi-disciplined and highly-skilled is nothing more than a pipe dream.


  1. Good post. All true stuff. I guess the most obvious truism is that you can’t get people to change professionally unless their careers depend on it. Ironically, the thought of irrelevance for some isn’t enough.

    So, what’s your perfect agency? Or is that no longer the point or pipe dream?

  2. There are essentially three different agency models – 1) the “full service” agency who says they can do it all and integrate it all: TV, print, radio, interactive (including seo, sem, social media, application development, etc.) out-of-home, PR, experiential marketing, CRM, Direct, etc. 2) the holding company who says they can help integrate through their agency network 3) The specialty agencies who excel at a focused set of competencies and depend largely on their clients and the good will collaboration of other agencies to integrate.

    I’ve seen little evidence of any agency pulling off #1, R/GA and CP+B probably come closest, but not close enough to my liking. #2 Just doesn’t work, period. #3 is closest to the optimal model, but it’s missing a critical piece – the strategy/integration ringmaster. This element can’t be the brand manager or the traditional agency AOR. Imo, they should be an independent entity who recieves no compensation for production or media, has no incentives beyond meeting the brand’s marketing objectives.

    I’ll write more about this in the coming weeks.

  3. Look forward to reading it. I’m collecting a few thoughts from people on this subject as well. First in the series is here: http://bit.ly/10uwa6

    I like your thought about the ringmaster.

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