Digital Essays: Crossing the line

The technical chief and senior planner at Agency Republic explain why inter-departmental working is essential to reaching digital audiences.

It's appropriate that, while penned by both of us, this article speaks with a single voice. Conventional thinking tells us we should be at opposite ends of the agency process; a musty, pipe-smoking planner feeding down pearls of wisdom that will eventually be realised in digital form by a geeky creative technologist. But things have changed. That notion of planners and technologists is as outdated as the idea that a new-media audience can be reached through old-fashioned processes.

There has been a shift in planning focus from "demographic profiling" to studying tangible "user behaviour". We have to understand the way our audience behaves online in order to be able to talk to it. Our initial insights need to consider how and why a person travels from one web page to another, rather than look at their disposable income or whether they support Man City or Man United. There is even in-depth research tracking how the human eye moves around websites, how long it spends looking at specific items on the page, and how someone behaves as a result. This minute level of detail will increasingly need to be borne in mind from the initial stages of project development.

And what of the bigger picture? Digital users are active; they are searching for information or entertainment. What they are not doing is champing at the bit for brand communication, however much we'd like to believe they are. In the digital space, we communicate with users, we don't feed consumers. We can disturb, certainly; we can disrupt by waving a message, hoping it resonates. But this is akin to gate-crashing a party, without even bringing a bottle, only to drone on about tyres or shaving foam for a couple of hours before leaving without saying goodbye.

You're never going to get invited to parties if you carry on like that. We need to reach our audience with a different approach.

Digital advertising differs fundamentally from traditional media in that disruption needs to be largely replaced by engagement. We're looking for more than interruption; we're looking for a response. With traditional media, the consumer receives the message and may or may not respond at some later point. With digital communication, any response is nearly always immediate.

But if we are to get this level of involvement - filling in forms, scrolling, clicking, typing - we need to converse with, rather than talk at, people. That means treating digital users as individuals, not an amorphous mass. What's more, there isn't just one possible response, no single user journey. To create an effective piece of digital communication, our planners, as much as our technicians, have to consider multiple user journeys from the very beginning of a project.

Of course, this relationship between planning and technical works both ways. Technological understanding in isolation from awareness of cultural shifts is equally impotent. This is highlighted by the fact that social networking has been at the heart of digital growth and excitement in recent times. For instance, clients have been asking for MySpace-type pages for a while now, and, though the technology is relatively easy to master, the technicians need to understand what value exchange can take place to guarantee success. The myth that we can invade any popular digital space and our audience will grab us warmly with both hands is long outdated.

The reality is this. We're working with an ever-more cynical audience, adverse to brands plonking themselves clumsily and uninvited in their space. So, the need for collaboration between planners and technologists is imperative if we are to produce effective communication that is both useful and interesting to an audience.

In fact, the user-centric nature of the digital milieu means agencies as a whole need to take their lead from their audience. You only need to spend five minutes on Mashable.com to gauge the infinite creativity, expertise and energy that users are expending on useful digital innovations. We need to embrace this energy and harness it along with our own vigour to develop brand relationships that also enhance the user experience.

Our future lies in our flexibility. Our ability to shift the boundaries of roles and responsibilities distinguishes us from traditional agencies that are tied to individual specialisms. That linear approach to process, where client services feed into planners, who feed into creatives, and so on and so forth, along a creaking archaic conveyer belt, is irrelevant for us. It's fine when producing a 30-second ad, a poster or even an online banner ad. It just doesn't cut it when we're talking about the future of digital communication.

Our medium is fluid, so we need to be fluid. The traditional process doesn't allow, for instance, the level of research and development required to produce speculative work to excite clients about the possibilities of digital. We need to move quickly, and a rigid linear process can only hinder our progress.

We are not talking about stripping titles away altogether. There is still a need for departments to have their responsibilities in a project. It's just that the crossover is increasing swiftly and irreversibly. Planners are building MySpace pages, technologists are shaping briefs. We have to examine and reassess what roles mean and what responsibilities we attach to them.

We even need to create new roles to facilitate this evolution. Tim, our digital trainer, was brought in with the sole purpose of expanding digital understanding throughout the agency and its clients. Solutions, suggestions and creativity can, and must, flow forth from all corners of the agency. This is not idealism. It's necessity.

- Sam Court is the head of technical and Alistair Millen is the senior planner at Agency Republic.