Close-Up: Has the UK managed to crack digital?

Success at Cannes suggests Britain's agencies have stepped up their game. Anne Cassidy reports.

Digital advertising in the UK has had a tricky adolescence. It ambled along for many years, content to remain in the long shadow cast by US shops. And, while some pure digital agencies produced progressive work, many traditional agencies saw digital as just an opportunity for a bit of creative fun. It was only part of the campaign, never the campaign.

Now digital is growing up. Some above-the-line agencies have become ardent suitors of the medium and we saw a bit of a fairytale result at Cannes this year, what with AKQA grabbing a Grand Prix for Fiat "eco:Drive".

Traditional agencies also impressed and the UK snared a veritable pride of Cyber Lions, with Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Barnardo's ad winning two golds, and many others, including Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon, picking up awards. The results built on last year's impressive performance. Are we finally catching up with our garlanded rivals on the other side of the Atlantic?

It's not easy to pin the UK success at Cannes on one defining factor. Budgets have increased, which certainly helps oil the digital cogs. That said, many winning campaigns at Cannes, such as CumminsNitro's "The best job in the world" for Tourism Queensland, were made with a small budget and a big idea, indicating a levelling of the playing field.

Of course, bigger budgets mean bigger agencies have been tempted on board. Whereas until fairly recently, the UK seemed to be represented at Cannes by a coterie of small boutique hotshops, now the line-up of award-winning digital entries includes agencies from across the spectrum.

Clients are being more demanding and throwing more digital work in the direction of agencies, which no doubt spurs progress. Dave Bedwood, a creative partner at Lean Mean Fighting Machine, explains: "It's a more mainstream medium now, which means better work."

The growing appetite for digital at above-the-line agencies has seen a bigger investment in the medium and new strategic hirings. Ben Fennell, the chief executive of BBH, says: "We are making progress. When you get great strategists, creatives and technologists working closely together, great things happen."

But Fennell cautions there's still a long way to go: "We're at the start of our journey, still in the foothills, really."

Amid all the back-slapping, it must be remembered that only a relatively small number of ad agencies are really embedding digital. And the agencies that do can lag behind digital shops in terms of the depth of interaction offered by their work. BBH's Barnardo's campaign, while a brilliantly crafted and compelling spot, did not generate the amount of internet chatter enjoyed by AKQA's "eco:Drive" product encouraging drivers to reduce their carbon emissions.

The challenge for agencies remains to come up with digital work that operates way beyond the confines of an ad campaign. As Mark Collier, the managing director at Dare, puts it: "Successful interactive marketing will be more about ideas that travel across multiple platforms in differing guises and less about one-off executions."

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CREATIVE - Ewan Paterson, creative director, CHI & Partners

"This isn't the first year UK agencies have won golds and silvers at the likes of Cannes and One Show. What this year's success shows is that our digital expertise is coming from a greater range of agencies. Both pure digital agencies, which have been doing great work for many years, and from agencies that have historically been known more for their above-the-line work.

"The trick for these previously above-the-line agencies is to bring in great digital talent, mix it up with the existing ideas people and work collaboratively so everyone has the appetite and know-how to create great digital work."

CREATIVE - James Hilton, European chief creative officer, AKQA

"The UK has always been extraordinarily influential as a creative centre of excellence for the arts, music, culture and advertising.

"The Grand Prix win, at the toughest annual brand communications competition, signals that the UK can also lead when it comes to digital innovation, which shouldn't really come as a surprise given that so many people from Britain contribute to the creative ecosystem globally.

"It's also worth keeping in mind that Cannes is a global competition with a jury from all over the world, so it proves that great ideas transcend language."

CLIENT - Luis Cilimingras, advertising manager, Fiat

"No-one discusses the quality of the marketing work coming from the UK, be it traditional advertising or digital.

"Now digital allows brands to create products that transcend advertising, engaging with customers at a different level. If the UK wants to lead the way on digital, it is necessary to learn to work closer with brands that are more often abroad and have a different culture of work."

AGENCY HEAD - Mark Collier, managing director, Dare

"It's not a case of the UK finally cracking digital. But what we are seeing is digital finally entering the marketing mainstream. It's evident that more marketing budget is being directed into this area. As a result, it's no longer digital agencies alone that are submitting work into the Cyber category.

"It's very encouraging that there have been some UK successes this year, most notably AKQA's Grand Prix for its Fiat 'eco:Drive' work. But it's also worth noting that the US still leads the way - the top two interactive agencies were both from the US in Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Crispin Porter & Bogusky."