Macro-Pressures 09, Some Ideas: Digital Creative Agencies…

This is the beginning of some general musings on macro-pressures affecting the digital creative agency. Thoughts?

Growing, growing…

The explosive growth of the digital advertising industry has been well documented throughout trade press, academic journals, and, of course, online over the past couple of years. Thousands of blog posts, tweets and diggs indicating developments pertinent to the industry – new technologies, new tools, new concepts and new opinions – can be read every day and from every perspective. Certainly, the new digital landscape is changing rapidly: the web 2.0 environment we now face is dramatically different from the web 1.0 world in which we lived only a few years ago – and even more so than the advertising world into which television, radio and print ads were born.

Indeed, technological development and industry fragmentation are driving the growth of a digital advertising movement able to serve today’s increasingly mediacentric, mobile and digitally accessible consumer in a manner generally considered more effective (eg more targeted, one-to-one communications and consumer-brand dialogues) and less costly (than traditional media). A rise in social media, user-generated content, blogging, microblogging, video, wikis and interactive mobile content, alongside the proliferation of increasingly mobile content devices means that many consumers have become publishers of digital content themselves; interacting with brands, opinion leaders, experts and other consumers (‘publishers’) on a daily basis.

Subsequently the number of potential touchpoints at the disposal of advertisers has dramatically increased both in terms of frequency and specificity. This requires a closer integration of communications and inevitably an increased use of digital in order to reach these consumers and become part of a continuous and open-ended dialogue that has moved media from ‘one-way’, to ‘two-way’, and now ‘many-to-many’. Resultantly, consumers have increased power relative to advertisers. With the proliferation of niche channels fragmenting a previously ‘mass media’ audience, coupled with an accumulation and dissemination of peer-to-peer knowledge and information sharing, the advertiser’s own claims are hugely distrusted against searchable communities of self-regulating, user generated information.

Advertisers need to become one of the ‘many’ speaking to the many, rather than relying on one-way methods of communication – and this fact also rings true when considered in a business-to-business sense, not just business-to-consumer.

Know Your Role?

So what is the role of the digital agency in this context? Often viewed and too frequently implemented as merely a production house for digital work, where above the line creative and predetermined media strategy are fed down (or out) to the bottom of the pile (or the edge of the network) and shoehorned into digital solutions with little consideration of the potential of the medium employed, digital shops are arguing for more and better strategic and conceptual (creative) integration in a cross-platform space. This would involve the integration of the client and the agency network at an earlier stage (consider ‘many-to-many’ communication, rather than simply ‘one-way’).

The single-minded proposition, tone of voice etc of a brand or campaign can be conceptualised and interpreted through each discipline, maintaining a consistent message whilst exploiting the possibilities of a particular medium through the plasticity of a creative strategy designed to work through the line.

The difference here is between an advertiser handing a digital agency the creative used in a print campaign, alongside a media plan set in stone suggesting a format entirely inappropriate to the execution they demand. Far better is for the client to have the digital agency understand the creative strategy from the beginning, and collaborate within the network of agencies at the advertiser’s disposal in order to develop a digital creative solution organically, that compliments the intended message, not merely attempts to replicate it online. In this way the creative lead could come from anywhere: from the media plan, from the ATL agency, from the digital agency. More on this later.

What must be fundamentally understood, though, is the context in which digital shops are currently operating. Adland is still very much focused on traditional media, where television and newspaper advertising budgets vastly overshadow online spend, and the industry still sees traditional executions as the bread and butter of the business. But this landscape is changing. ZenithOptimedia Group predict global ad spend to drop 0.2% in 2009, but online media to grow 18%, despite the economic climate , whereas eMarketer quietly revised their original prediction of a 27.1% increase in UK online advertising spend to a rise of just 7.2% in 2009 accounting for the recession. Still, WARC/IAB/PWC research suggests that online ad spend will be greater than that on television by the end of 2009. And, in an industry increasingly characterized by full service shops conceding to smaller, more agile and reflexive specialist agencies, utilized by advertisers through networks, the argument becomes about how digital creative agencies and specialist boutiques can not only survive, but ultimately extend or strengthen their offering and prosper in this context.