Agencies drank the Kool-Aid, then spat it up. No more iDivisions. Digital's now fully integrated into the palette of service offerings. After all, it's just another channel... right?
The near future of Web marketing at the big agencies will be guided by two healthy tonics: failure and resentment.
The implosion of equity values pumped by stock jobbers and promoters, the headlong retreat of the dot-com upstarts beaten back by lumbering brick-and-mortar giants, and the slide toward bankruptcy of the wildly overbuilt infrastructure players (among other failed techno-promises) mean only that the Digital Age has not in fact "changed everything." What's more, if it ever does change a thing or two, it's not likely to happen overnight.
Life is no tabula rasa. Entrenched interests prevail. Why didn't someone remind the digital kids now licking their wounds that dinosaurs ruled for 165 million years? Did we all forget Marshall McLuhan's once-famous dictum, "The established order tries to force the new media to do the work of the old"? The established order does prevail -- for the most part, and for some time. Many, especially those hired to deliver working digital solutions, actually welcome its more realistic expectations.
Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far back. for many . The sigh of relief from gray-haired executives in every industry, knowing they can reach retirement without reinventing their businesses, is almost palpable. Indeed, many see the fizzle of the new economy as due comeuppance for soi-disant visionaries and Young Turk technologists. A complacent cynicism curls the lips of too many managers today.
The skepticism and resentment of clients and agencies alike very quickly brought the promise of the Digital Age back from the future, re-anchoring it in a here-and-now pragmatism. The banner under which interactive teams march at big agencies today is: "Digital is just another channel. Just another channel."
Integration Is the Way
Digital as another channel is a partial truth. It does scant justice to the whole truth, of course, but this particular partial truth is pretty much the only claim agency management will accept from digital specialists these days. Integration is au courant.
Brick-and-mortar companies have brought their dot-com spinouts back into the fold. The big standalone digital agencies are flaming out. Clients are turning to their traditional agencies. Among Adweek's top 10 interactive agencies in 2000, eight were digital boutiques; that dropped to three in 2001. Full-service agencies grew from two of the top 10 in 2000 to seven in 2001.
Inside agency holding companies integration of the digital dimension into advertising, public relations, and direct marketing is moving deliberately forward precisely because those disciplines' tasks -- branding, reputation management, and organization of data-based, rules-governed, and one-to-one contact systems -- remain important. The clients of my employer certainly expect to see a digital dimension sewn into the seamless solutions we proffer.
In these disciplinary contexts, digital media are just tools. Old disciplines guide when and how to use new media. Their professional and commercial rigors are the crucibles that determine the digital service offerings of today's agencies. The slogan is real in agency life. Digital is indeed becoming just another channel.
Innovation and Pragmatism
Of course, old mindsets of established disciplines can be creative straitjackets. There's the danger of lazy backsliding, allowing integration to become assimilation and dissolving any distinctive contribution from digital. Fortunately, just about everyone knows the Net is underutilized when used as just another channel for outbound, one-way messaging. That it offers more than sharp targeting, fast measurement, and optimization. At the same time, because of today's more skeptical environment whatever the digital domain offers to marketers that is indeed distinctive, such as peer-to-peer relationships, collaborative filtering, lead-customer listening, rapid-cycle testing, and customer-guided research and development (R&D), will simply have to face the normal requirements in proving business value. Now without the benefit of the new economy's faux momentum or its burden of exaggerated promises.
Embracing this tension -- assimilation to the discipline versus the articulation of distinctiveness -- is one way to make "just another channel" a path to innovation as well as pragmatism. The embrace must be conscious and explicit because the disciplinary forces are typically prevailing with unstated and unchallenged assumptions, definitions, and frameworks. It must be cautious and focused because digital forces do tend toward new directions where practical benefits are still unclear and unmeasured. "Just another channel" can be a balanced way forward at the disciplinary level.
A second, different opportunity for digital services exists one level higher in agency life -- the challenge of integrated marketing. Wherever two or more marketing disciplines are aligned, digital services can find multidisciplinary roles. They can be a behind-the-scenes shared resource, supporting the disciplines in their distinctive tasks. Or they can be a customer-facing front end, hiding the disciplines behind some user-centric experience. Either way, the digital domain's scope is expanded to multi-, trans-, or metadisciplinary.
Aligning disciplines has long been a promise of the big ad agency holding companies. According to insider newsletter "The Delaney Report," major advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric were griping at the recent Association of National Advertisers board meeting that the big agencies' multiple service offerings were not working well in terms of quality or efficiency. That's not new or surprising. Clients don't want multiple services as such. They want them woven into some seamless solution. One that addresses their particular problems
Integrated marketing is a path forward for big clients and big agencies. Each side knows before they even start that they will meet in their own silos. Ironically, the digital domain could prove the platform for integrating the disciplines -- behind them or in front -- precisely because it easily could be so much more than just another channel. It could be the two-way membrane in a virtuous circle of information exchange between co-evolutionary companies and their customers that one day will enable...
Oops, sorry. I forgot. Digital is just another channel. Just another channel. While we regroup, and until we can prove otherwise, let's just leave it at that.
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September 23, 2014