CAMPAIGN-I: Spotlight on: digital networks - Are digital agencies muscling in on traditional ad territory? Should the digital houses be competing with offline shops, Alasdair Reid asks

Digital specialists have always known that their new-media evangelism may have paradoxical consequences. The more they manage to convince advertisers that digital is a mainstream marketing activity, the more likely it is that they'll drive some of their clients back towards mainstream advertising agencies - if and when those same mainstream agencies manage to get their acts together.

Digital specialists have always known that their new-media evangelism may have paradoxical consequences. The more they manage to convince advertisers that digital is a mainstream marketing activity, the more likely it is that they'll drive some of their clients back towards mainstream advertising agencies - if and when those same mainstream agencies manage to get their acts together.

This paradoxical outcome is especially likely where blue-chip consumer advertisers are concerned - and many of them are only just beginning to contemplate using digital routes to market this year. With a complacency that infuriates many in the new economy, West End ad agencies have always argued that they 'own' the big advertisers - and that, in the long run, it will be easier for them to colonise specialist craft territories than it will be for the owners of specialist knowledge to move in on long-standing client relationships. Ad agencies, after all, see more of the bigger marketing picture on a more regular basis.

Even the biggest and best of the agencies in the digital sector must, at moments of introspection, ponder this conundrum. And there are few bigger and better than AKQA.

Last week it got even bigger, having tied up deals with Accenture, the consultancy company formerly known as Andersen Consulting, and the digital specialist Francisco Partners LP. The deals will give it an international network with a clutch of offices in the US plus one in Singapore as well, of course, as its existing London operation.

But the deal isn't just about geography. One of the direct spin-offs of the Accenture tie-up will be an ability to restructure its offering in order to 'break down the silo between traditional and interactive marketing'.

Sounds intriguing. Obviously, it's about defying narrow specialisation and broadening your horizons. But how radical is this? Just what is the nature of AKQA's designs on traditional territory? And how far could it go?

Ajaz Ahmed, the agency's founder and managing director, will become the new network's global chairman and chief marketing officer: 'We're structuring the way we manage client engagements in a different way. It's closer to the consultancy model so we can have multi-disciplinary teams rather than the separated structure of agencies. Our client's teams can have the relevant resources in place. We think the time is right for a lot of innovation in the marketing sector. We can now add more disciplines and do more with more credibility. We want to attract world-class planning and creative talents in those disciplines.'

But what are those disciplines? Ahmed says we'll have to wait and see.

He adds: 'We need to focus on where we can have a credible offering for clients. Although we will be known for our new-media heritage, we will be structured to offer communications solutions and an especially important area is the one where broadcast and interactive are converging - we're going to have expertise in quality broadcast work. Do we want to be an advertising agency? The answer is that we will offer client solutions.'

Is this something that all digital agencies of a certain size will have to consider? Ahmed says it's only something you can contemplate if you're confident of being able to provide real quality. And you can't make abstract rules about structure. He adds: 'There will always be room for boutique-style companies - and, for some, a focus is critical. You can't make rules about who will and will not survive in any industry. The reason we're doing it is because there's a demand and a market need for this. There isn't another company doing it.'

Will others follow suit? Some observers are sceptical. They argue that growth opportunities aren't in traditional ad agency territory - they're in a newly defined no man's land between digital and traditional agency sectors.

But Andy Chambers, the managing director of Digit, believes it's more significant than that. He comments: 'If we had the same financial clout, we'd be doing something like this. We'd certainly look at going into online branding and integrated communications mechanics.

Both ourselves and AKQA started from the same digital standpoint. It's certainly bigger than us but we've both been motivated by the same fundamental principles of design and interactivity.

It's true that more and more clients have been using us across a wider environment. So, yes, I think AKQA is charting a course for the rest of us.'

And Chambers argues that, to a certain extent, it's all up for grabs.

He's certainly dubious about aspects of the mainstream agency world view: 'The question is about how far you stray. It's true to say that when advertising agencies have tried to stray into our area, they haven't been successful - that we are, in effect, the digital arm of several agencies. And I certainly don't believe in the 'owning the client' argument either.

'That's a mistake that several big companies in other industries have made in the past. I think what you can say with some certainty from our perspective is that interactive TV and broadband make it necessary for us to understand that medium from an advertising perspective, rather than hoping to pull the internet over on to TV. It's exciting. These are exciting times.'



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