The Digital Dilemma: What is being a digital agency anyways?

I’ve worked for the Hispanic advertising industry in the US for several years as a digital expert / creative / developer / producer / guy. I’ve worked from static banners to developing highly complex SaaS websites. I’ve seen some extraordinary ideas, many lame ones and lots and lots of… well.  No one to blame, as there is one thing that this new digital fever really has for certain: nobody knows what to do. And you know what? That’s OK. We’ve been for around 50 years (maybe more?) doing advertising in the same formats: a TV scripts/spot, a print ad, OOH and other below the line mediums. Then digital is born… 20 years ago that meant banner ads and a website. Now, it means… well, it means too many things. What to do, how to do and when to do whatever needs to be done to become a digital capable agency are the big questions. Yet, throughout my years of working as an independent contractor and an employee for many Hispanic agencies (and some GM ones), I’ve seen a constant issue and that is of structure. What is a digital creative? where’s the line between creativity and production capabilities? What makes the agency digital or not? When is the agency doing advertising and when is it acting as a digital studio? These are some of the scenarios I’ve encountered in the past 5-7 years:

Some agencies don’t have any in-house digital creative and/or production capabilities, yet they offer digital services. How do they deliver? They rely only on third party vendors and not only for the development of the idea, but for the actual ideas. This is not a very good approach because the creative agency never grows as a full service integrated advertising agency for it always depends on a provider. Also, their creatives never become very savvy in digital and never move away from their safe priority of doing their regular ol’ TV spots. Not that it’s a bad thing for TV creativity is more challenging (and fun) than ever nowadays, yet we are talking about agencies that are aiming to have an integrated team with a very wrong approach.

The previous scenario leads us to a second issue which is that these third party vendors aren’t digital advertising agencies, they are digital studios, so their real strength is in building things. Some of them are really extraordinary from an art direction and development point of view but most of them are really weak in creativity, for the lack of better words to describe it. This is exactly what’s happening with Sapient. They are a true digital production powerhouse but they lack creativity, hence their acquisition of  La Comunidad in Miami, FL. Same thing is happening with many digital studios like Digitas and Red. They have the great advantage of being capable of designing, programming and building anything a creative mind can think of, they just don’t have the creative minds. Yet, they are in the works of leaving their “provider” status behind and becoming full integrated agencies.

Other agencies have the two previous situations combined. They have a full in-house digital team of designers, animators and developers. This may sound very nice at first but the same problem as before happens. The agency relies on this team to come up with all of the digital assignations, the problem it renders is the same as having the third party vendor, but in-house. The way a friend described to me was “this is like an agency within an agency.” This situation, in my opinion, is even more complex and challenging in transitioning into a full integrated advertising agency because the isolation between departments is greater. But even a bigger problem is that if the agency decides to integrate both departments it unavoidably becomes overstaffed being forced to 1) keep the positions and somehow make it work without overlapping responsibilities (and egos) 2) Reassign people to new positions (sometimes made up), which most likely leads to confusion an even more complicated processes and understanding of their own roles and responsibilities, or 3) Letting people go… not very fun.

One thing I’ve encountered in all the above scenarios described is the lack of identifying when a project is an advertising one or simply a studio one. You see, in my mind if I work in an advertising agency I should be working on… well, advertising! But a lot of people don’t understand this and think that if we do digital then we do web design and if we do web design then we do your website! This really bothers me. I’ve seen how agencies end up doing corporate websites for their clients as if they were the little web design studio down the street. It kind of reminds me of a prank an ex co-worker (and good friend) did to a advertising production house we used to work for. He called asking for film rates and services… for his wedding. “No sir, we don’t do weddings… But, you are a film company, right? Yes. And you do video? Yes. So why can’t you do my wedding’s video?” Same thing. The fact that you offer digital services doesn’t mean you are a webdesign shop or “do their wedding’s website.”

Now the big questions again, What can we do? How do we do it? When? Small questions, big answers. I think that the recipe (or at least part of it) is a little bit in all of the previous scenarios I just described. How come? you ask… All of the experiences I’ve had, in my opinion, have a piece of the puzzle. First, we must never forget that ideas are ideas and if a creative is good, ideas are going to be good. That is the essence of our jobs as creatives, right? The big confusion in the industry is the thin line between an idea and an execution. Both of them have to be creative, indeed, yet they are not to be taken as the same thing.

If your agency has good creatives, rest assure that you will get good ideas, the question is if they can execute them in digital mediums, and therein lies the problem. For starters, In my opinion, for those agencies that only rely on third party vendors: stop spending that money and invest it in your own company. Yes, hire digital developers/technologists to work along with your existing creative teams. That way there’s a streamline of conceptualization, design and development within your agency’s pipeline, probably saving you some money since good and reliable providers aren’t necessarily cheap. Also, the agency has to be sure that they start hiring integrated creative people or training the existing ones. There is no use of having the right teams to come up with digital campaigns if their Creative Directors don’t have a clue. Granted, it’s very hard to find these leaders since the true digital generation is just starting to get out of school and even harder it’s in the Hispanic industry but… it is what it is.

Now, there are other structure issues when having a development team in-house, and that is… what’s the difference between a project manager and a producer? If the team is in house, and the agency already has a project management team and a production team, then who’s in charge of what? Here is a little puzzle, because in digital you actually never know what’s going to be done until you get your idea and come up with an execution for it. In my opinion, the agency should simply have the capabilities. Project management should be in charge of managing everything that happens in-house and producers in charge of managing with third party vendors and providers. If the agency doesn’t have a project management department as lots of the digital studios, then producers are the project managers as well; and if the agency already have digital producers then they should be either trained to be capable of producing video, audio, photography and all of the offline stuff; or reassigned as PMs. Here the agency may end up with an overstaff issue as well.

Should the agency have exclusive digital creatives? With what I just said I think it’s very clear that the answer is no. Having exclusive digital creatives is not the right approach. Will it be good to for the transition? Yes. Will it ease the pain of transitioning to an integrated agency and being able to deliver the day to day work? Yes. Will it ultimately cost more and make things slower and painful? definitely. Does it make sense to have an executive overseeing digital? I’m not sure. In my point of view, the digital vein (because I don’t see it as a department) falls under the creative and the production departments. If the ECDs and Heads of Production aren’t savvy enough to oversee, then I think an executive digital person it’s necessary yet not crucial. It might help the transition a lot though, especially because it will have the power (or at least it should) to make some very tough decisions. But, then what? After everything is done, what happens with this position?

I never said it was easy, and I actually haven’t even done this myself. Shit, I’m even one of those unnecessary exclusive digital creatives myself!!! I just say this is what I would try to do given the power and the ideal scenario (not very common) to do it. For now, I just write and post these ideas in my blog and… wait.

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