Are digital agencies the new dinosaurs ?

It seems to me that the problem with dinosaurs was that they had such short arms. Looking at the small rubber T.Rex I have in front of me, it’s obvious that they were incapable of feeding themselves in a civilised fashion, they weren’t going to be able to punch anyone, and they’d never be able to knit the warm clothes they needed for the ice age.

But advertising is kind of like paleontology, in that we’re always looking to locate the dinosaurs; it’s like finding the fat kid at school, so at least you don’t come last in the 100 metres.

And various people have recently suggested to me that digital agencies are the threatened species – not the big bad indistinguishable behemoths of traditional adland, the agencies named after people whom even John Tylee has never met.

Some friends who run some of the sexier digital agencies are saying this because they can see complacency all around them. The generation that vowed to hole adland under the waterline is now in its mid 30s, married with kids and thinking that the industry owes them a living.

(Always an early sign that it won’t fulfil that obligation.)

Yet another accuser was a social media expert I saw who claimed that working on websites and banners was like working on dead media like bus-sides.

He was absolutely fascinating.

It was a seminar hosted by a school set up by EACA (the European version of the IPA) – so in my portfolio life I was there wearing my EACA hat.

This was based loosely on the sort of hat worn by John Lennon early in his career and later adopted by Joe Orton – a camp workers’ cap (because teachers wear that sort of hat) but garnished with Austro-hungarian feathers because of the European element.

I’m not sure that, as a hat, it worked at all. But the event was fascinating.

And now comes the meat of the blog. The stuff which Richard Stacy said at the seminar.

He said “advertising is the answer to a question nobody ever asked.”

As soon as he said that, I loved him.

Later on he said “the limited conditions of old media have created advertising. In the same way as the limited conditions of the ice age created the woolly mammoth”.

He carried on to quote Ron Bloom as saying that in the very near future 50% of all media consumed will be created by consumers.

He said that this insight alone prompted him to dive headfirst into social media – into working in “spaces” rather than “places” (hence the attack on websites).

He said the role of marketing would be divided into conversation, content-creation and community-building, and suggested that marketing departments should be re-named conversation departments. It’s now well-known that Dell, one of the leaders in this area, have a staff of 40 constantly working on the social media sites.

Andy Lark, the guy at Dell who has driven all this, has said that marketing is about “listening to and coalescing all the conversations going on out there”.

Richard then said that propositions, the backbone of old advertising, weren’t just irrelevant – their dead weight could kill brands off in the next decade. It’s all about stories not propositions. E.g. Apple’s story is built around Steve Jobs’ vision that it isn’t about technology, it’s about the users of technology.

By contrast to companies like Apple, giants like P&G, which have dominated marketing for the last 5 decades or more, are in danger of disappearing because they “burn” their brand stories. E.g. they buy IAMS and take away the passion and personality, and substitute a kind of empty, logical proposition.

The other thing that will threaten these big companies is that they’re still buying into the idea of buying media. As Richard said, the future is about making media, not buying it.

And if you look at the notion of engagement in this new world, you have to look very closely at what your story is. Consider the difference between Ryanair and Easyjet. Both products are quite similar but Easyjet’s story is “be smart, don’t pay for what you don’t need” and Ryanair’s story is “tough t*tty, you get what you pay for”. Anybody who knows both brands would choose Easyjet over Ryanair every time.

Richard took a group of us on a very exciting journey and I’ve only scratched the surface here.

It would be well worth dinosaurs of all types checking him out.

If they can just get their stubby little fingers to reach the keyboard.

  • Kate Spiers

    Steve, great post and a worthy wake-up call. I’d liken what we’ve seen in the past few years to a ‘digital snowstorm’ – you know, shake up the little glass thing and it’s all exciting, loads going on, looks great. But now it’s settling and we can see what has substance and what does not. Complacency must be fought. Interesting the point on ‘spaces’ rather than ‘places’ and I’m inclined to agree. Community is getting more powerful and prevalent, yet communities can’t always be found in a specific place. Yet they are the key to self-managed brand advocacy, message-dispersion, engagement and content creation. So as agencies, we need to get our heads around that, tap into and empower communities to play their part in driving the cause.

    Great examples, btw. Thanks again for a good read to start the week

  • Eddie Haydock

    Really good post and I can’t argue with anything that your guys suggest. Especially about websites and banners. As for the social media/conversation department bits however, I know of many, equally eminent and articulate industry observers who could easily argue and do. Guess we’ll all have to make our own minds up who to believe. Or just wait and see what happens when the temperature drops.

  • Mark McClure

    That Ron Bloom 50% quote reminds me of the “Compaq shock” in the late 80s/ early 90s when end users did an end run around the IT priesthood of centrally controlled “big iron” computers… by carrying in laptops and building their own departmental networks.

  • Joel Cere

    Totally agree that many digital agencies are not structured to run social media campaigns. They make money by building stuff, not sustain conversation on Facebook. The demise of advertising however is as always greatly exaggerated. Seth Godin himself years ago after writing “permission marketing” acknowledged that you need to get noticed first before someone talks to you . That’s what advertising is good for.


    Steve, very good, we’ve been talking to a couple of marketing heads recently about just this idea, marketing depts becoming ‘conversation centers’. I don’t think this stuff should be (or can be effectively) outsourced. To ensure you remain consistent and true to the brand in many conversations across many channels all the time requires full time internal brand champions having those conversations. You’ll never find an agency with the same passion for your brand as your own people can have. If you’re managing these conversations internally, then what role does the digital agency play? Perhaps as one comment suggested, they’re more in the business of building things, which sadly pushes them into a more commoditised market offering, rather than creating value through conversations….

  • Jonathan Gibson

    Thanks for this, Steve – an interesting piece and as no-one else has yet said so, a ‘conversation starter’.

    To me, a conversational approach to marketing will certainly have a place for a number of brands but I can’t see it totally eclipsing the traditional proposition / owned media approach in a more general sense.

    Brand conversations add value by creating deep engagement within product categories that people already really care about (as per your Apple example).

    Where the approach falls down is when you try to start a conversation about something that nobody is really all that fussed about. So if nobody else is interested in holding a conversation about IAMS pet food (would you be??) I’d question the value of orienting your marketing ops team around creating that content.

    And when you go through each of the things you buy on a daily, weekly, monthly basis you’ll find that there are only a very few that you would happily start a conversation about. Point being, we don’t have time to care deeply about everything we buy.

    So if I’m buying food for my elderly cat (George), all I really care about is whether or not it’s tasty enough for her to ingest the stuff and healthy enough to keep her heart pumping for another few years. And along those dimensions the admittedly dull IAMS proposition really delivers. Moreover, because I would never actively engage in seeking out that information, receiving it passively through banner ads and 30sec spots actually works pretty well for me.

    To take it back to the original quote: ‘advertising is the answer to a question nobody ever asked’, I guess there are a lot of questions that all of us never ask (and indeed would never ask), but the answers of which we depend upon and would be somewhat lost without.

    Just because it’s not worth talking about doesn’t mean we don’t need to know about it – and traditional campaign advertising (whether offline or online) will surely continue to plug that gap.

  • Stefano Augello

    I think you’re talking about advertising, marketing and propositions while fundamentally misinterpreting what each one of them really is.
    Advertising is at its core “telling people a certain thing exhists and why it’s good”: it pre-dates old media, exhisted since humans started trading things (or services, or other humans), and most likely always will.

    Marketing is not the conversation around a product: it’s first and foremost creating a product that will people will like, and maybe even talk about. Once you rebrand your marketing department a conversation department, I wonder who will create the item that people are supposed to converse on. (“But it’s the community who will create it…!” Sure, try telling that to Apple…)

    Finally, a proposition is a brief concept that sums up what you stand for: “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the users” is, guess what, a proposition.

    There are many reasons to question the role of digital agencies, but none of the above is one.

  • Lisa Tomlinson

    I thought you were going to say they had short arms and could not feed themselves, that is the challenge of a “digital” agency that without other agencies or an integrated agency in places as well a digital agency can’t feed itself, it can’t get a brand noticed, it cant’ make monumentally great stuff.. or can it?

  • Iain Harrison

    “Propositions, the backbone of old advertising, weren’t just irrelevant – their dead weight could kill brands off in the next decade.”

    Of course he’d say that – it suits his social world.

    And the easyjet ‘story’ is also the easyjet proposition that they bury underneath a load of price-lead advertising.

    Those in social media are consistent with their belief that they’ll usurp all forms of proposition-based marketing. It’s not a bad challenge to aspire to: I remember Russell Davies once telling a conference that no-one should be paying for media any more – not in the digital space, at least.

    But, as we know, real life is rarely that simple.

    Joel Cere, above, tells of Seth Goodin’s realisation that you need to get noticed before someone will talk to you.

    In the case of parity products such as detergents, marketing can quickly explain what’s unique about a particular product over a rival’s. Or if it really is parity, it can build an emotional engagement more quickly than storytelling. It’s the trigger that encourages someone to formalise their own story with a particular brand. But you know that.

    The advantage traditional marketing media has over digital media is brevity and concision. Storytelling and content co-creation is more time-consuming. Not everyone has the time to co-create – and not everyone wants to spend the spare time they have creating content for brands. (IPA research from 2009 found that just 2.8% of the UK’s online consumers bother to blog, 8.8% read them and just 3.7% comment. I’d wager these figures are now higher, but not much higher.)

    I’ve just worked on a website for a detergent brand. We realised that no-one would want to, or indeed find the time, to create content for it.

    So the site is all about quickly delivering information on removing a certain stains from certain fabrics. It’s an
    open directory of cleaning knowledge and people are engaging with this strategy. We gave them the tools to easily share their tips with others and to receive feedback from product experts themselves.

    For the vast majority of visitors, it’s not content they’ll check on a regular basis, nor form a relationship with. But as a piece of utility it gives you the information you want, when you need it. And quick.

    It’s classic service marketing, done by brand advocates, internal and external.

    Yet without classic advertising, people won’t know that this space exists for them.

    I welcome the challenges and opportunities that social brings. But predicting it will replace much traditional marketing is falling into the same trap that digital agencies made for themselves.

    What matters is what’s relevant to the audience – and where.

    Some will only need a nudge from a TV commercial or poster. Some will happily sign up for CRM programmes – based on interest or product experience. Some will want to go further and engage with brands. And of that lot, only a few will have the luxury of time and inclination to co-create content and hold conversations about the brand story.

    But that’s a very tiny minority indeed. The vast majority will be happy just to update their Facebook statuses, email some baby pictures around and tweet about the late-running of the 7.31 train into Kings Cross.

  • Luke Tipping

    Earn credibility rather than buy it. Use advertising only as a last resort – Yvon Chouinard.

  • Grilla Login

    Steve, Mister Harrison is right to questions how much of their life an average human [you lot might be human but you ain’t average] is prepared to devote to creating brand content, being a spokesperson/advocate for a brand, bigging-up a brand, becoming pals with a brand, kissing a brand for the first time, sleeping with a brand but keeping your socks on in case you have to walk on cold linoleum on the way to the bathroom during the night, forming a deep and loving relationship with a brand, having a brand’s babies. Thing with online is, it needs feeding + lots of it – but, just cause this means people can interact with brands don’t mean they want to, or invest a lot of time and effort in doing so. In the overall scheme of things, brands are really only important to the people who own them, work for them, or, earn their bananas talking up their importance in peoples lives.

  • Milly Diaz

    Re. Tom’s comment — in some cases, I think having a good social media agency work alongside internal champions is a sound strategy. They can provide fresh, unbiased (free from internal politics, brand ‘tunnel vision’) opinions. Pluss the right agency will be just enthusiastic (if not more) about a brand…

  • Simon Robertson

    “Consider the difference between Ryanair and Easyjet. Both products are quite similar but Easyjet’s story is “be smart, don’t pay for what you don’t need” and Ryanair’s story is “tough t*tty, you get what you pay for”. Anybody who knows both brands would choose Easyjet over Ryanair every time.”

    But they don’t. You’re presupposing that Easyjet’s extremely bland (advertising) message is somehow superior to Ryanair’s (engaging, character-based) message. But which is the most compelling story? Which starts more conversations? Which is more effective? Only one winner there, I think.

  • Alistair McKechnie

    Ate my keyboard, yum. Sorry to type with my mouth full, but you know that ‘viral’ with the bear and the tent? Quite a bit of money changed hands to make it so omnipresent. Social media isn’t necessarily separate from paid media.

  • Chris Palengat

    Excellent post. Many thanks. To Ron Bloom’s prediction, based on available research today, more than 95% of the media absorbed by under 24s has been created by consumers – Facebook.

  • Dhiren Shingadia

    Some very intriguing points here…we also have to take into account that marketers have to be more proactive at managing and participating in conversations themselves.

    Agencies, whether they’re traditional or digital, need to understand the communities their clients are active in, communities they wish to engage, and then develop content and creative strategies that will stimulate conversations, advocacy and interaction.

    Some agencies have started to proactively manage brand presence on social networks but this is not the complete answer¬-nor is it entirely scalable or transparent. The role of the agency isn’t to become a community management resource, but instead a think-tank that produces culturally relevant ideas that amplify brand presence.

  • Richard Stacy


    Thanks for this post. Glad to see it generated a fair bit of comment, including some naysayers – which is to be expected. I must read the comments in more detail and possibly post some answers on my blog. However, one point in the long response by Iain Harrison stood out – namely Seth Godin’s assertion that you need to be noticed before someone will talk to you. Not true – you need to be noticed before lots of people will talk to you and when that happens it stops being a conversation and becomes a monologue. You can only have a conversation with small groups of people – that is the fundamental difference, and skill, inherent in operating in social media.



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