Forgive me if I seem a little skittish. But merely thinking through the complexities of the Internet apparently reduces me to a catatonic state while cowering under my desk.
At least that’s the impression you would get from Kate Eberhardt’s recent column, “Why Traditional Agencies Struggle With the Internet.” Ms. Eberhardt’s basic position seems to be that only interactive firms understand that it is a lot tougher to deliver Web sites that work than it is to crank out clever advertising that drives traffic to a site:
If users go [to a client’s site] and find out for themselves that it sucks, they hate you… Now you’ve wasted money and you look like a fool. And if you’ve got a traditional-agency mindset, that’ll scare the living daylights out of you.
To be fair, there are certainly agencies out there that don’t get it. And their options are quickly running low. Odds are they’ll retreat to a niche position or align themselves with interactive firms such as Ms. Eberhardt’s.
But the fact is, the days of the standalone interactive firms that could cherry-pick their clients from major agencies are gone. Budgets are getting tight. Not only are clients demanding results, but they are also realizing that an integrated marketing strategy includes Web sites.
Ms. Eberhardt says these are the facts that make traditional agencies squirm. But if we look carefully, I suspect traditional agencies are sitting very comfortably:
1. The Internet can be a medium or a business. I couldn’t disagree more. At the end of the day, a business is connecting customers with goods and services. Unless you’re selling bandwidth, the Internet is a new arena, not a new business.
That logic created the dot-com bubble that burst with such a resounding pop. Anyone who thought they could escape the fundamentals of business is facing hard times right now. Any agency — excuse me, firm — that offered such advice is probably out of business or heading down the drain.
2. There are no “rules,” no tried-and-true methods. Fair enough, but let’s look deeper into her argument:
There is no middle-aged white guy in charge of the business who gets called into a meeting and says, “Well, 20 years ago…” Please — 20 years ago? It might just as well have been Roman times.
OK, let’s set aside the ageism inherent in this example and consider the implications. Should we forget all that we’ve learned about how people respond to design? I guess the fundamentals of good writing have no bearing. And there’s certainly no reason to examine past business situations for insight.
The reality is that everything we are dealing with today is the result of evolution. The people who innovate do so upon the platform of what they’ve known and used before. To dismiss history is a dangerous and careless approach, especially when you’re spending your client’s money.
3. The target changes constantly. Really? Maybe this misperception is why so many interactive firms are failing. The target is helping the client to succeed. While the technology is still evolving rapidly (see point number 2), a good strategy keeps a laser focus on the endpoint and adapts to the obstacles along the way. Forgive me for being flippant, but if it were easy, why would anyone hire an agency?
4. You have to adapt on the fly. “You quote something from a year ago, and it’s worthless; it’s old news, and things have changed since then.”
Well, of course you have to adapt. That’s true no matter what the medium is. True, the online world is even more rapid. But myopic interactive shops would have you believe that they alone possess the ability to keep up with change.
5. Measuring effectiveness is a totally different ball game. Measuring effectiveness is easier online, but the bottom line is still the same: How much did you move the needle? A good agency, of any kind, knows what can be done and sets the client’s expectations accordingly. In fact, I would argue that it is far harder to measure effectiveness offline. I’d like an interactive firm to evaluate a $15 million top-60 DMA spot buy. There are no log files for that.
6. The Internet is not like any other medium that has come before it. I love the fallacy of this argument. It goes like this: Radio brought the world of newspapers into real time, and television added pictures. But the Internet is something of a whole new cloth. So of course we need agencies, er… firms, dedicated just to the Internet.
The flaw is that all of these are forms of communication, and the basic challenge has never changed: How do we deliver information to the people who need it, when they need it, in the form they need it?
It is as simple as this: At the end of the day, agencies — traditional or purely interactive — build brands. Brands that succeed have marketing strategies that weave together online and offline efforts, direct mail, and mass-media messages. Each touchpoint draws upon and extends the value of the others. That’s integration. That’s what wins business and keeps clients happy.
Ms. Eberhardt asserts that traditional agencies have the “living daylights” scared out of them by the intricacies of the Internet. I don’t buy it. In fact, I can’t imagine anything scarier than trying to do good work for clients, including their interactive strategy, without the benefit of the big picture.