The modern digital shop faces an existential crisis

The term "digital" worries me. This is not because I'm a luddite (indeed, I still bear the scars of a stint as the managing editor of a dotcom start-up). No, it's because I'm not sure what the word really means any more.

When one meets any sort of agency boss, the opening gambit is still along the lines of "We’re great at digital" or "We’re investing heavily in digital". This attitude is so prevalent (thank God) that it renders the sentiment redundant.

The pioneering work over the past 15 years was done by a raft of brilliant digital start-ups, many of which – AKQA, Razorfish, Agency.com – have since been bought by major groups.

You need to be a specalist at having ideas for the digital world, at building them, or at measuring them

Equally, most traditional ad or media agencies that one visits quickly introduce you to their newly hired head of digital (or "innovation" chief), who invariably has been poached from a great digital agency of the past decade.

Bearing in mind the feverish acquisition by bigger agencies of digital skills, staff or even whole shops, the interesting question is whether specialist digital agencies can continue to exist.

Many now face an existential choice: to sell; to concentrate on production and relinquish any attempts to secure strategic control of brands; or to continue to struggle "upstream", taking the fight to traditional shops and gaining creative and media agency skills themselves.

But while a more customer-focused and data-centric trend in marketing does favour the latter approach, doubt remains as to whether digital shops are making the margins to invest in top-end talent – or whether clients really trust them to provide "agnostic" strategic advice.

As ever, there will be success for those who can get, and stay, close to the chief marketing officers and chief executives, supplying them with game-changing advice and effectively creative ideas. But this requires investment. It may require significant scale.

As one agency boss told me this week, you need to be a specialist at having ideas for the digital world, at building them, or at measuring them. Ideally, you will be able to do all three.

These are the specialisms one needs in marketing today and within a culturally integrated offering. Simply "being digital" is no longer enough.

danny.rogers@haymarket.com      @dannyrogers2001


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