Feature

Adland's digital fightback

The 'old-fashioned' ad agencies are winning important digital awards. Was news of their digital demise much exaggerated? Alasdair Reid reports.

Judging panels at recent creative awards clearly haven't been reading the script - the one about how the advertising agency, that most precious and colourful of 20th-century cultural phenomena, just wasn't going to cut it in the new millennium. Seemingly trapped in the headlights of the new digital economy, the old-fashioned agency was surely about to be run over and flattened entirely.

There were, after all, new and better ways of doing things and new and better people ready to do it. Digital demands a whole new mindset: a root-and-branch recreation of the way brands relate to their customers, from distribution and retail channels on one hand to interactive modes of audience engagement on the other.

Advertising agencies, famously, just didn't get it. They had, it seemed, an immutable way of doing things. They expected the client to come up with a big-budget advertising brief, then the agency's creative hierarchy would disappear into a conclave, emerging several alchemy-filled days later with - kerching! - an idea for a television commercial.

The obituaries were almost starting to write themselves. Or so we thought. And then we just happened to notice that Bartle Bogle Hegarty had sneaked off with three Mobile Marketing Awards for its digital work for Lynx. And that, back in March, CHI & Partners had scooped four awards for its "X Factor challenge" work on behalf of The Carphone Warehouse, including Agency of the Year at the Revolution Awards.

What on earth is going on? Not a lot, really, if you listen to dyed-in-the-wool digital specialists. John Owen, the planning partner at Dare, says that two swallows (or winning campaigns, for that matter) do not a summer make. He adds: "There's no doubt that ad agencies - if you want to call them that - have upped their game. But they needed to, and there's still a long way to go."

He also argues that there's not been a discernible shift towards traditional ad agencies where the big blue-chip digital pitches are concerned. "If you look at recent (digital) pitchlists for Lloyds, BMW, McDonald's, Asda Vodafone and Sony, traditional ad agencies weren't even invited to the table," he points out.

Daniele Fiandaca, the global chief operating officer of Profero, tends to second that. "There have been some notable hires (at traditional UK ad agencies), but we're still not seeing a step increase in capabilities and in the work.

"At the same time, digital agencies haven't stepped up their game either, and that's why 2007 was such an average year for digital creativity - but expect us to be making a leap in 2008," he promises.

Average year or not, awards are awards - and, arguably, CHI and BBH are not the only "old-fashioned" ad agencies that have succeeded in reinventing themselves over the past couple of years or so. VCCP has always had digital at its heart, thanks largely to its hiring of a digitally inclined creative director, Steve Vranakis, not long after it launched back in 2002. And even digital diehards appreciate what Wieden & Kennedy has been doing for the likes of Nike.

All of this tends to reassure those who've always believed that, contrary to what digital agency evangelists would have you believe, history is actually on the side of the ad agency, not the digital specialist. The theory here is that ad agencies have always been good at delivering brilliant ideas - and that's always going to be the currency that matters.

So it will be easier for agencies to buy in the expertise needed to make those ideas work in the evolving digital landscape than it will be for digital specialists (which have tended to major on technical delivery issues) to embrace the scary world of big ideas.

Especially if you also believe the proposition that advertising agencies have always "owned" the client and that they always will. Agencies are (relatively) grown-up organisations, not prone to excitable behaviour or dangerous enthusiasms, and have earned the trust of senior clients thanks to decades of reliable service. That still counts for something.

You can always tell that digital specialists are sensitive to the elements of truth in this - because they tend to react somewhat aggressively when you put this to them. "Ad agencies are deluding themselves if they really believe that," one digital cheerleader says. "And, yes, it's true that, a few years ago, we'd have dealt with junior members of the marketing team. But now, the marketing director is our friend.

"The next person to convince is the client's chief executive, because going for a digital-only marketing approach is still a potentially job-losing move for the marketing director. A chief executive will take a call from a celebrated ad agency figure. He might not take a call from me. That's the next challenge. Once we've achieved that, creative agencies can no longer talk about owning the client."

But the ad agency people who believe that time is on their side tend to point to the US, and the shining example of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Three years ago, Goodby was best known for its multi-award-winning reel of TV commercials - and, indeed, TV accounted for more than 80 per cent of its output.

Then, in 2006, it decided, not least because of client promptings, to reinvent itself. It began by asking fundamental questions about the nature of the advertising agency, and then started hiring the sorts of people who not only had digital skills, but could also help it think differently - such as the former BBH managing director, Derek Robson. Now, Goodby is arguably best known for its digital work - which represents more than 50 per cent of agency output.

It's a makeover guaranteed to give courage to the likes of BBH on this side of the Atlantic. BBH took the plunge (like Goodby, in 2006) when it decided to end its business partnership with Dare, in which BBH had held an equity stake and to which it had passed on every single digital brief as a matter of course. This was an arrangement that was productive in its early days, but one that BBH began to find stifling, largely because it realised that it wasn't learning anything.

BBH began hiring digital expertise across all of its departments - planning, account management and creative. The results were not long in emerging, with Lynx awarding the agency its digital account in December 2006. Last year, BBH made two major digital appointments, with Dominic Goldman joining as the digital creative director from Hal Riney in San Francisco and Johan Tesch arriving as a creative director from Lowe Tesch in Sweden.

BBH's managing director, Ben Fennell, says he's aware of "the shape of Goodby's curve" and agrees wholeheartedly that the best advertising agencies are unrivalled when it comes to "the power of creativity and the power of the idea".

He's far from militant about this, though. "It's getting harder to pigeon-hole anyone," he argues. "Digital agencies - the likes of Profero - are hiring from what was our world, just as we've been hiring from theirs. In the future, they'll be pitching for all of a client's budget, not just the digital stuff. In the long run, the people who'll win will be the good communications agencies."

There are those at revitalised ad agencies who are less inclined to modesty, however. Buster Dover, the head of digital at VCCP, argues that traditional agencies have a huge advantage over digital-only agencies in the area of strategic thinking.

He explains: "With an agency, strategy goes far upstream, and I'm not sure digital agencies really understand that - or its significance. Agencies such as VCCP are producing comms strategies with digital there as an integral part. Digital-only agencies have been weaned on a culture of doing-and-implementing, rather than higher-level thinking. For instance, at digital agencies, you'll often find that the account management is done by the same team as the project management - which is not ideal."

Digital agencies counter by implying not only that they remain best placed to appreciate the bigger picture as it continues to evolve, but also that ad agency efforts in the digital arena are sometimes misguided and futile. All they're doing is attempting to re-engineer a television commercial mentality so that it fits, more or less, into new packaging. And that will be totally irrelevant as the game moves to its next stage, with more and more blue-chip companies committing more fundamentally to all aspects of the digital world.

When that happens, the creative communications partner of the future will need expertise in, or have a fundamental understanding of, web build, retail channels, and database management. Advertising agencies, no matter how shot-through they are with digital expertise, may find themselves off the pace again.

Interestingly, that's a view that's not entirely dismissed out of hand by Richard Pinder, the chief executive of Publicis. He, of course, has a dual perspective on this - the group not only owns old-fashioned creative agencies, but it also boasts a network of digital agencies grouped under the Modem banner.

He claims that the market is still somewhat schizophrenic: clients may say they want digital at the heart of everything they do, but they won't give a major digital project to people who don't have a clear brand name and reputation.

"If I went to a senior client and said, 'Publicis is now the world's best at digital', they might be a little bit sceptical," he admits. "But when I say the same about Modem, there's absolutely no argument - it has an incredible track record. Obviously, it depends on the project, and digital is such a big world. There's a huge spectrum, from a few guys in a garage doing banners on the cheap to major integrated e-commerce projects."

Pinder reckons there will always be a role for high-quality, independent creative shops, but he also believes it's true to say that digital-only creative agencies have had a bit of a free run up until now.

He concludes: "The big guys are taking it more seriously now - more seriously than some people might have believed possible. So the message is: 'Be in no doubt. The competition is here.'"

THE CARPHONE WAREHOUSE

The Carphone Warehouse's sponsorship of ITV's X Factor featured a talent-show-inspired singing competition created by CHI & Partners. Aspiring contestants were directed to a website where they could choose from a list of songs, whose lyrics were provided - they then called an 0800 number and were invited to sing in their chosen song.

When they'd finished recording, they were sent a text message allowing them to register on the site and check on their performance, now given an added dimension courtesy of a range of Mowbli animated characters.

If approved, this performance was then entered into the competition, with fellow entrants now allowed to vote on it, and a range of different animated fates - for instance, having your Mowbli squashed by a grand piano falling from on high - were inflicted on performances failing to make the grade.

During the campaign, more than 1,800 people chose to audition on the site and participants racked up a grand total of 150,000 votes. The best, or worst, entrants were also selected to appear in The Carphone Warehouse's television commercials and X Factor sponsorship break-bumpers, with an array of audition material being used in a total of 1,500 ads and break-bumpers that ran between October and December 2007.

The Carphone Warehouse's research indicated that its brand fit with X Factor strengthened over the three-month period, with 71 per cent of respondents saying they appreciated the logic of the association. The sponsorship was judged more effective than the company's previous high-profile sponsorship of Big Brother on Channel 4. Among the target audience, the likelihood of considering The Carphone Warehouse's products was markedly enhanced.

The campaign picked up four gongs at the Revolution Awards 2008 back in March, including category awards in B2C, Technology & Telecoms and Integrated, as well as winning the event's most prestigious accolade, the Campaign of the Year Award.

LYNX

Winning the digital side of the Lynx business in December 2006 was a breakthrough moment for Bartle Bogle Hegarty - and it was especially satisfying for the agency's management, as the pitch saw it prevail against some strong work from a clutch of digital-only agencies, including AKQA, Agency Republic and Viral Factory.

BBH had severed its ties with Dare because it had begun to see the relationship as stifling - it realised it was passing up on opportunities to learn about the digital world.

It began the (often painful) process of reinventing itself at the beginning of 2006, with a programme of hirings, secondments and training that aimed to inject digital expertise into all disciplines across the agency - planning, account management and creative.

The Lynx pitch was the first big test. BBH already had a fruitful offline relationship with Lynx, but it recognised that the client would be taking a gamble in giving it the digital work too.

Its winning pitch proposal was all about reinventing "the Lynx effect" online. It recognised that young men increasingly make their first overtures to members of the opposite sex in an online environment, where personal hygiene isn't the issue it might be in the flesh.

So, the strategy was to help guys play the seduction game online but also encourage them to get out there (or, actually, "get in there") and offer, via lynxeffect.com, all sorts of gizmos, gimmicks and gadgets - such as sound effects, including a whip crack and wolf whistle, that they can download to their phones - that could help them break the ice and impress women in the real world.

In the 2008 Mobile Marketing Awards, the work was judged "Best use of mobile in brand building" and "Best use of content in mobile marketing" - and BBH was also named Agency of the Year.

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