Digital Essays: Controlled chaos

It is inevitable that the worlds of advertising and digital agencies will collide. Traditional shops must change their mindsets to embrace digital culture.

The internet is the best thing to happen to advertising since broadcast TV and yet, all too often, we hear that we are witnessing the "death of advertising". This phenomenon has a familiar ring to it. It sits alongside other failed predictions such as "the internet will kill music", or "TV will kill the film industry". Indeed, there is little historical support for this notion either. In truth, new technology has often helped drive further growth and create value in markets that initially struggled to embrace change. The same will be true of the internet's long-term impact on advertising.

This is why we set up Grand Union. We were lucky enough to spend the first ten years of our careers at some of the best agencies in the world. We had a great time and learnt a lot from some very talented people. But we got frustrated by the inability of these great places to change.

We love change. This agency was born out of change.

Ironically, many digital agencies have grown up with structures that echo their traditional counterparts. So why do we feel so different when, in fact, we seem to be structurally quite similar, and how do we manage to produce such different results? After all, if it were simple, then the rest of the world would surely have caught up more rapidly than it has?

The answer, we have come to realise, is that there is a cultural divide separating the two disciplines. There is a big difference between just "doing" digital and "being" digital, as many traditional agencies are no doubt discovering.

"Doing" digital is simple. Creating a banner is simple. Creating something great within digital media is more difficult. It takes a new mindset, a different way of thinking and, above all, a different culture and that's hard to create. In the beginning, we fought hard to protect some of the strongly held views we had of how we should do things. Today, we do things differently.

Grand Union has a strong culture that is borne out of the complexity of the medium in which we work. It is a controlled form of chaos. To produce the best results demands a collaborative approach and a multidisciplinary team made up of highly skilled individuals each with an equal voice. It is a "team" culture that has evolved from taking the best of both worlds.

By contrast, the hierarchical culture that has made ad agencies so powerful within this market now makes it difficult for them to alter course quickly and dynamically to embrace this new challenge. We wouldn't say we've got everything right, but we're constantly learning and evolving how we do things. So what have we learnt about "being" digital and embracing the culture of digital?

A new mindset: We value the importance of having a different outlook. One that is hungry for change. However, coping with constant change is not easy. You need to find people who are comfortable with that level of turbulence. You need to be more comfortable with tomorrow than today and that can be a challenge. We work hard to increase our level of comfort with change. We talk about it, blog about it and experiment with it. Our website "Little Union" is a great embodiment of this new mindset. It is an open forum for playing with some of this new technology and getting comfortable with it.

A new approach: At first, it was hard to embrace a process that is so collaborative. We had been used to more demarcated roles and responsibilities. But it is refreshing to know that ideas can spring from the most unlikely places. This is something that we nurture. Having a transparent approach, partly delivered through technology, but mainly delivered through fantastic project management, is critical to success in a digital agency. It is a rare, but much needed skill to drive a project forward and yet at the same time skilfully engage the complex team structure within a digital agency. Enabling creativity to flourish within this environment is a matter of creating a culture that supports it. Preserving the purity of an idea across so many stakeholders requires an approach which can be described as "an iron fist in a velvet glove". It also requires trust and dedication.

A new team: Much has been written about the shortage of talent. It is an important point and one we wrestle with regularly. All successful teams need to find the right balance between experience and youth. We are employing graduate talent across all agency disciplines, but "growing your own" takes a lot of time and effort. Training is essential, but not always easy in an industry already struggling to cope under the huge growth in demand for its services. Increasing our share of experienced staff can also be a challenge. It's sad, but natural in a market with a shortage of talent, that much of this is supplied through poaching from competitors.

It seems inevitable that one day the word "digital" will be dropped from agency descriptors and that our two worlds will collide. It is a future we welcome. We believe we have a culture that is ready for tomorrow, but one that is built on some of the best traditions of the past. But, for today at least, we are happy to say we are "digital".

- Rob Forshaw and Matt Nicholls are partners at Grand Union.