Digital Essays: Don't believe the hype

A mountain of hype is clouding the great digital debate; now is the time to sweep it all aside.

So there we were, halfway though our Campaign digital essay draft ("User-generated branded content is king 2.0" ... the title escapes us for a moment), when something grabbed our attention. Brand Republic, referring to the fact that glue London didn't win the recent 3 above-the-line pitch, had posed the question: "Is it all over for digital agencies?"

That certainly seems like a question worthy of discussion, so let's discuss. Pitch specifics aside - although it does seem ludicrous that two pitches should suddenly be taken to symbolise a "movement" fought and lost - what this question wades into the middle of, rather appropriately we thought, is "the great digital debate". And entering into this debate, there is one prevalent theme that we thought worthy of further exploration - hype.

A lot of it about at the moment, isn't there? This is thanks in no small part to Tony Blair's government, perhaps. We know the lessons from that.

But when it comes to digital, the hype seems to be reaching almost epidemic proportions. Not that we advertising types haven't always been partial to a bit of the old huff and puff, but the past six months or so have seen that rise to almighty levels.

What we'd like to try to do for the purposes of this essay is cut through the bullshit, and take a look at what we think is really going on.

So let's start with the whole notion of "digital" in advertising. The word suddenly seems to have taken on reverential importance in certain quarters. Why this about-turn?

Well, it certainly wasn't led by the old guard having suddenly "seen the light". In fact, it was consumers who set the agenda. Consumers who began to explore the web in such numbers that clients started asking questions about how on earth they could reconnect with them. And those clients increasingly found that their traditional agencies - many of whom had been depended upon for many years previously as the fountain of all knowledge and wisdom - couldn't tell them.

A trend was starting. But as is so often the way, this trend only got out of hand when the media got hold of it. Seminars, articles, conferences and thought-pieces abound with "The digital revolution", "What does the agency of the future look like?", "The future of advertising", "Blah, blah, something about 2.0", etc.

And while there's much to be said for finding oneself as the "dish of the day" rather than "didn't quite make it on to the menu", there are many dangers inherent in believing too much in what you read (and hear).

We all need to get a bit of perspective on this, and not least the "digital" agencies. The move to digital media is a natural, if somewhat accelerated evolution, rather than the revolution some are subscribing to. The real danger is believing the latter and ending up with this period of advertising being passed off as a fad with no substance when, in reality, there is plenty of substance to get excited about.

Digital agencies need to be wary of getting too bogged down in the "traditional agencies just don't get it" school of thought. Complacency is the worst enemy of any agency, digital or otherwise - something that events of the last few years have only served to reaffirm.

If we, as digital agencies, believe we are going to inherit the earth simply by virtue of being digital, then we will run into trouble sooner rather than later.

It's partly why we at glue London are striving to keep evolving and throw off the "digital" jacket that we initially put on and now want to take off.

It's not easy. Just getting on to traditional pitchlists has been a struggle, and one that elicits extreme reactions, from back slapping to back stabbing.

And it's a public, stick-your-neck-out strategy, especially when none of our digital rivals have had the inclination to do it yet. But we believe it is an absolute necessity to push things on. From strategic, creative and budgetary points of view, we need to be able to influence higher up the food chain if we are going to deliver the most effective campaigns for our clients. And we'll only do this by challenging what feels to us like an out-of-date and unhealthy status quo in the structure and outlook of many UK ad agencies.

Shouldn't that be the aspiration of all digital shops - to make a lasting impression rather than a fleeting one?

One of the most frustrating by-products of the advertising hype machine is our propensity as an industry to navel-gaze. How many hours of brainpower are wasted by us theorising, hypothesising, modelling and pontificating on how we define ourselves?

Consumers really don't give a toss and, in the meantime, are "out there" finding ever more progressive, innovative and interesting ways in which to receive, interact with, create and share digital content and media without us.

We are trying our best to get past the hype. The irony that we seem to create more of it as we go isn't lost on us.

We challenged the notion of creativity, or, more specifically, the lack of creativity in online advertising when we set up glue London in 1999 by marrying traditional advertising talent and skills with the best of the digital world.

Now we're ready to take everything we've learned over the past eight years and apply it to re-engaging consumers by creating great creative work across a massively fragmented and shifting set of media. Skills, we believe, that are essential for the future.

Perhaps even more important is our ambition. We believe all digital agencies have a choice. They can either take a step into the spotlight, by directly challenging the old order, or they can evolve into high-quality production houses along the lines of the Barbarian Group in the US or North Kingdom in Sweden. It's not as if there isn't a need for them, and this is exactly why we recently set up Anorak, our purely digital design arm, which has been working flat out since day one.

No agency, however steeped in tradition, has an inalienable right to exist any more, or to claim its usual chunk of client time and money, without properly adapting to the changing times. The whole thing is Darwinist. Only the fittest will survive. For many traditional agencies, the question is whether or not they are too far gone to get fit again and if they genuinely want to anyway. For digital agencies, the question is: can we can grow up fast enough while retaining the spirit that got us here in the first place?

So that's all from us. We're off to read some e-mails that our assistant has printed off about the importance of face-to-face communication in this ever-changing world.

- James Sanderson and Jo Hagger are the joint managing directors of glue London.