Close-Up: Live Issue - Will digital agencies exist in five years?

To what extent will the lines dividing traditional agencies and digital agencies blur, John Tylee asks.

There was a time, not long ago, when the demarcation lines between traditional agencies and the digital arrivistes were clear-cut and easily understood.

The mainstream shops, slow to grasp the implications of online and unsure how to make money out of it, preferred to stick to their knitting. Digital specialists took on the work that established agencies either could not or would not do.

No longer. Today, the old order has begun to turn topsy-turvy. The digital specialist glue London vies with Fallon and Beattie McGuinness Bungay for the £10 million Eurostar creative assignment; recently assumed lead status on Ikea's UK account.

And it's not all one-way traffic. In January, Bartle Bogle Hegarty won its first-ever digital project, the pan-European online brief for Unilever's Lynx/Axe deodorant brand. The business was previously handled by a roster of digital agencies.

Where all this is leading is anybody's guess. What nobody disputes is that a shake-out is under way, and that the lines are now so blurred that the term "digital" is rapidly becoming an anachronism. "Digital is just a new form of media, just as radio was 20 years ago, and commercial TV was before that," Peter Scott, the Engine Group's chief executive, says. "It will all go into the giant blender and we'll end up doing everything."

Some believe that should glue capture Eurostar, it will be a defining moment in the digital evolution, and would embolden other clients with marketing strategies weighted towards online to allow digital specialists to go up against established rivals. "We're all cheering glue on," the head of a digital agency says.

"Winning Eurostar wouldn't change us," Mark Cridge, the chief executive of glue, says. "But it would help us to step up to a higher level."

Few doubt that glue and a handful of other well-established digital operations will evolve into broad-based communications agencies capable of giving anybody a run for their money.

Less certain is what happens to the dozens of small digital shops as the market consolidates around them. Scott expects the pick of the crop to be absorbed into established agencies. However, Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, says: "As long as there are clients wanting somebody who understands digital from beginning to end, there will always be room for small specialists."

For a lot of small digital specialists, the upcoming consolidation may involve some difficult choices. "Digital agencies as we know them won't exist in three years' time," the head of a leading digital shop predicts. "The smaller ones will have to decide to become production companies within the digital space or grow bigger. But not many digital specialists have managed to do that in the past two years."

Daniele Fiandaca, the chief operating officer of Profero, believes the progress of bigger digital shops will take time, because traditional agencies still hold most of the aces.

"They may not be delivering the best solutions for clients, but they have the key client relationships," he says.

Fast-forward ten years and the UK's ten biggest agencies will still include many of the large ad agencies it does today, swelled by the billings of their one-time digital rivals. But you can be sure that there will still be one or two digital agencies among them.

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DIGITAL AGENCY CHIEF - Mark Cridge, chief executive, glue London

"There will be a differentiation between the digital agencies that can step up to a higher level and those that choose to stay as production companies. It's starting to happen already.

"Winning Eurostar wouldn't change us. We're already set up as an agency, with clients who know what we're capable of.

"I'm often surprised at how many of today's agency start-ups are much more conservative than they should be. But, that said, I'm sure Bartle Bogle Hegarty won't be the last traditional agency to pick up digital business.

"Traditional agencies must not be complacent. The worst thing they could do is to get into digital as a defensive measure."

GROUP CHIEF - Peter Scott, chief executive, Engine Group

"Agencies were wary about commercial TV just as they were about the headlong rush into the new world of digital, which led to the bursting of the dotcom bubble.

"Since then, there have been profound changes in the market in terms of media consumption. What will happen is that all the new forms of media will be blended together and we will all do all things.

"There are lots of talented people working in small digital agencies, but these places need to be costed properly. It may well be that a lot of talented digital people end up in established agencies."

GROUP CHIEF - Cilla Snowball, chairman and chief executive, AMV Group

"I think that in five years' time we will have dropped the 'digital' prefix. And the sooner that happens the better. Agencies of all kinds have got to become digitally fluent.

"In the end, though, what's important will be the quality of the agency and its people and the kind of service it gives to its clients. It's not just about technical ability, but the quality of the creative content. But that has always been the case.

"I think in time to come, there will still be traditional and digital agencies, both large and small. The difference, though, will be that digital agencies will not be called as such, because the digital discipline is something we'll all get good at."

AGENCY CHAIRMAN - Jim Carroll, chairman, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"The winners in this 'battle' will come from both sides. Inevitably, victory will be born out of inspirational, rather than executional, ability.

"Critically, however, the winners will be the ones who can bring some semblance of order, shape and direction to the chaos of fragmentation, co-creation and user-generation.

"We'll never be able to control brands in the way that we did in the past. But we will be able to impose coherence on them.

"So the value of agencies in this near future will derive less from their ability to execute from one platform to another and more from their ability to create, coach and steward ideas."