Pioneers, as someone observed to me recently, tend to end up with
arrows in their chests. This is true, but others who survive tend to end
up with big chunks of land that translate into big chunks of wealth.
And so it is with many of the new-media specialists who helped usher in
a new industry three or four years ago and have since managed to avoid
biting the dust.
Of course, individuals tend to get overtaken by big corporations in the
end and every good pioneer will, at some point, be faced with the same
dilemma: to sell or not to sell? The latest to realise its capital is
Sunbather, the web designer behind the Radio 1, HMV and Spice Girls’
Spice Station sites, which sold out to CHBi Razorfish last week.
Such has been the rush to sell up this year that those UK web
specialists which remain independent could be forgiven for thinking time
is running out on them.
On the other hand, some, inevitably, will think of it not as selling up,
but as selling out, and will resist. In the traditions of the Wild West,
such idealists tended to die slower and more horrible deaths than their
Likewise, new-media specialists who believe they can continue to thrive
in their niche, offering an independent, full-service digital
proposition to clients well into the next decade are doomed. Let’s face
it, as soon as ad agencies and direct marketing agencies begin to see a
profit in digital, they will muscle in - as some are already doing - and
their clients will almost certainly welcome the move.
This follows not only because their relationships tend to be stronger,
but also because, increasingly, clients see integration as the key to
their future communications and it is easier to integrate across one
company than a variety of specialists.
But if selling is an imperative, this does not mean that the time is yet
right. Nor is there only one type of suitor. After all, how on earth do
you think those ad and DM agencies will manage to muscle in? They - and
not just their holding companies - will be looking to buy digital
partners soon. Some are already looking. For my money, they are the most
natural home of all.
For the likes of Sunbather and CHBi, selling to a big US online agency
like Razorfish makes sense - in the medium term. It gives them the extra
finance and the international links necessary to grow their
In the long term, however, it means they remain a niche player - albeit
a bigger and better resourced one. The only way they can break out of
that niche and ensure their survival is either via another sale - to an
agency - or by branching out into offline communication and taking the
ad agencies on at their own game. This would be a bold move befitting
the pioneering spirit. But it might leave them lying face down in the
dirt with only a chestful of arrows for company.