Close-Up: Live issue - Should staff defect to digital agencies?

Are staff in traditional ad agencies right to join the rush to get digital experience, Kunal Dutta asks.

Those who recall the frenzy of the last dotcom rush could be forgiven for wondering if history was repeating itself.

This year has seen Unilever's Alan Rutherford become the chief executive at Digitas Global, amid Publicis Groupe's prediction that a quarter of its total revenues will come from digital by 2010; DDB London has integrated its offering with Tribal DDB; Cossette Communications has swallowed up Dare, making the independent digital agencies an even rarer breed; while traditional shops such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R are staffing up their own digital arms.

These changes are not agency- driven. Clients are reacting faster to media fragmentation and changing consumer habits. Eurostar and 3 both sent a strong signal to the industry earlier this year when glue London emerged on their pitchlists against the likes of Euro RSCG and Fallon. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is looking for agencies proficient in digital media, stating that it doesn't just want "an advertising agency with bolted-on extra functions".

But what of the workforce driving this change? Mark Rapley, a planning partner at Garden Recruitment, says: "Many old-school ad men are fearful that they are going to be left on a desert island with a paste-up board, magic marker and a reel of old film."

Mark Tomblin, a former director of strategy at Publicis, who recently joined the digital agency TBG, says this is different to the last dotcom boom. "Agencies are expected to have a point of view about brands and how to make connections with people outside of the traditional channel creative."

Tomblin is among a number of ad agency staffers to move to digital. The most high-profile must be the former PHD chief executive David Pattison, who recently took up a senior post at i-level. He is joined by the likes of Giles Patterson, the former senior creative at Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, who starts this week at Grand Union, and Rebecca Jones, a former regional director of Saatchi & Saatchi, who recently joined the mobile marketing company Enpocket as its client services director.

Jones says the pace of new-media agencies sits in contrast to her more traditional agency experiences. "Vodafone, Pepsi and Ford work quickly in the mobile market knowing they have to lead in this market if they want to be seen as innovative. You don't have to wait for the big cigar chompers in New York to give the go-ahead on decisions."

Yet, digital agencies that have grown up with technical proficiencies are still hungry for the strategic skills that traditional agencies own. Rapley says: "As well as the output, clients still look to agencies to sit as an advisor on the strategic direction of their business. Traditional agencies have always done this very well. Those skills will be sought after as digital agencies look to extend the output of their offering."

Nick Grime, a consultant at the headhunter LizH, says: "Unless the mindset of traditional agencies becomes less linear and two-dimensional, staff will invariably get frustrated and turn to digital shops to fill the skills gap. On the reverse side, traditional agencies still own many of the highest client relationships. If they can succeed in breaking down linear cultural barriers, they'll invariably be in the most influential place to build brands strategically in today's digital world."

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DIGITAL CHIEF - Bill Brock, managing director, Tribal DDB, London

"There is a thirst in both directions to understand other channels. However, agencies are making mistakes in thinking of the digital space as a channel. Unlike a website, mobile or digital TV, the digital space is not a channel.

"People are moving to digital because they think they'll die if they remain in traditional media. The motivations should be to think differently, create multidirectional conversations and build experiences to engage consumers.

"In the past, DDB London has lost talented young planners to digital agencies, while Tribal DDB has lost staff to traditional agencies. Since we've combined, those sorts of moves have, by and large, stopped happening."

HEADHUNTER - Mark Rapley, planning partner, Garden Recruitment

"Digital pervades everything - it's the technology of the 21st century. There is a fear factor that if you don't get digital, you're going to be unemployable in a few years' time.

"Some of the things that make digital agencies attractive to people are their egalitarianism and pace of work. Stuff seems to be happening, content is always being created. Coming from that environment, you could be forgiven for thinking that larger agencies prefer to have meetings that prepare people to do stuff.

"Digital people are technology based and rooted. They tend to have less experience of brand planning, consumer planning and brand planning points. Those skills will be sought after in the future."

EX-AD AGENCY CREATIVE - Giles Montgomery, creative director, Agency Republic

"Digital is no longer the kid brother of traditional agencies. Both are heading towards the same place. Digital agencies are staffing up with digitally minded planners from traditional agencies, while traditional agencies are staffing up with digital producers from digital agencies.

"Digital creatives are, by and large, more into the technical side of digital, rather than the idea. That's why you're seeing more hirings from traditional agencies from people comfortable thinking in big ideas.

"Equally, clients are increasingly expecting the same standard of service they're used to in traditional agencies."

EX-DIGITAL PLANNER - Tim Millar, senior planner, Fallon

"In a digital agency you get very specific channel planners, but fewer staff that are able to apply general strategic and planning skills to client challenges.

"The UK tends to be quite conservative in how we structure our agencies. Across the pond, agencies such as Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Crispin Porter & Bogusky are producing great work without getting hung-up about what channel it was in.

"What I loved about Agency Republic was its entrepreneurial spirit that is open to change. Fallon has similar spirit and approach to growth, but also the opportunity to do work that will appear on a bigger canvas."