MEDIA FORUM: What can Razorfish's failure teach the industry? What can we learn from Razorfish's demise? Is it being made to pay for its famous arrogance, or will we miss this pioneer, Alasdair Reid asks

The curators of The Victoria & Albert Museum should move sharpish

to seal off the offices of Razorfish in Smithfield. Sorry, the former

offices of Razorfish in Smithfield. It was no real surprise when the

agency called it a day last week - especially given that its US parent

company has been in trouble for several months now and there has been

wave after wave of redundancies across the Razorfish worldwide

network.



But the agency's presence in London has been wholly memorable in a

bizarre sort of way. Perhaps notorious might even be a better word. The

agency's offices should perhaps be preserved as the most evocative

evidence of a cultural phenomenon that defines an era in much the same

way as a time capsule of the Oz offices, for instance, might define the

late 60s or Sex, the Vivien Westwood- and Malcolm MacLaren-run boutique

on the Kings Road, would stand for the spirit of punk in the

mid-70s.



Smithfield could be a tribute to the spirit of Silicon Valley that came

to us via Seattle and the lofts of TriBeCa. It's not just about interior

decor, of course. It's more to do with attitude. Using skateboards and

microscooters in the office. Quasi-religious faith in cybernetics. Utter

disbelief in the need for sleep.



But what is there to learn from the agency's demise? Is this just

another dotcom-related crash? Or does it say more about the structure of

the marketing services sector? Patrick Burton, the director of the

marketing consultancy EMC2 Management, was a Razorfish client when he

was at Allied Domecq.



He states: "I suppose if I'm being flippant, the main lesson to be

learned is never sell out to the Americans. Our relationship was

originally with the company that Razorfish bought, CHBi. CHBi's founder,

Mike Beeston, had been our account man at Saatchi & Saatchi and when he

saw a vision of the future he persuaded us to go with him. CHBi did some

very good work in the early days. We had mixed feelings about the

Americans. But they also did a lot of excellent work and I suppose I

thought that if anyone would succeed, they would. They always produced

quality work and didn't seem to be doing a lot wrong. So maybe the

lesson is that if they can go under then anyone can."



The popular view is that Razorfish was eventually made to pay for its

legendary arrogance. An arrogance that at times bordered on

contempt.



And if you believe all you hear, Razorfish people weren't just odd. They

went well beyond carefully contrived eccentricity. It's a great wheeze -

and not everyone can carry it off.



As one source puts it: "We visited the New York office and were

introduced to a couple of people and then told that we couldn't actually

talk to them because they were too creative and they couldn't cope with

people talking to them. That was odd. I'll have to say it was very, very

odd."



"They had the arrogance of people who thought they were already

multimillionaires whereas, in fact, they had piles of ultimately

worthless share certificates," another client says. "They'd tell us that

we just didn't get it, this whole digital thing, and basically we never

would. I think it's a shame though that people are already assuming they

were charlatans. Look at the work. They were never as good as they

thought they were, but they weren't complete duffers."



Ajaz Ahmed, the co-founder and chairman of AKQA, points out that this

continues to be a turbulent business. And, obviously, you have to

address client needs: "Clients want creativity and ideas. They also want

credible service, so it's important for all agencies to provide good

service, without sacrificing quality or diluting the work and that's a

difficult balance to achieve."



He adds: "What's happening now is just another phase in the maturity of

the marketing and technology services industry and further proof that

there are no short-cuts to creating a good business. The most important

factor in people businesses is, of course, the people, so it's important

for agencies to make sure that they are keeping their best people

motivated so, in turn, the people can motivate the clients to do more

groundbreaking work that delivers success for the client."



But does the future belong to operators closer to the ad agency

mainstream?



This has always been the theory in some quarters. They say that ad

agencies "own" the client and that it is only by default that odds and

ends of marketing services budgets end up at niche players outside of

the mainstream.



Ad agencies know about servicing clients, they understand marketing

issues.



Increasingly, they'll start employing a few creative people who can

programme computers. How hard can that be?



Paul Longhurst, the managing director of Quantum Media, says there might

be something in the argument. He comments: "Mainstream agencies may well

feel virtuous that they didn't imitate the excesses of a Razorfish. But

if they believed that some of their clients who used agencies such as

that were being taken for a ride they didn't do anything about it. They

just sat back and let it happen. And while they are right to make much

of their client services expertise, they have to own up to the fact that

they didn't understand client needs at that time. Yes, agencies are

probably right about the way it will work in the future, but they still

have to work at it."



Marcus Vinton, the founder of a digital TV solutions agency to be

unveiled later this month, must have pondered this sort of question

recently. Of course he has, he admits. But he reckons that, where

Razorfish is concerned, the arrogance and weird behaviour angle is

overplayed. "Sometimes people say arrogance when what they actually mean

is confidence. Sometimes you need confidence. And let's not forget that

the digital sector has been an incredibly tough place to be - and if you

have problems with your parent company, the ripple effect can be

seismic. Some of the stuff Razorfish did was formidable but I'd agree

with some of the criticisms. There was little evidence of good planning,

no real evidence of strategic insight, little brand awareness and little

genuine creativity. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is just an

enabler - it shouldn't be an end in itself.



It's sometimes worth looking at advertising agencies and asking yourself

why some of them have had relationships with brands that go back 60 or

70 years. The answer has something to do with understanding brands and

understanding consumers.



- Feature, p26.



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