Digital Essays: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Agencies should stop blaming clients for a lack of investment in digital and take these steps to earn a place at the top table.

Imagine what you could do for a brand, online, with £37 million. That's the average marketing budget of a UK top-100 company. You'd have enough to make the brand's very own versions of not just YouTube but Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and eBay - including all the marketing and advertising needed to make them famous worldwide.

So, how can digital agencies convince clients to stump up more dosh and invite them to be top-table partners? How can they get to deal with the big bucks and the big decisions and infect the totality of a client's brand strategy? In a nutshell, they need to demystify, humanise and support.

Step 1: Demystify digital

Because the digital space is changing so fast, and the possibilities are so vast, it's understandable that clients might be frozen in the headlights. For some, digital activity that isn't a mere translation of offline thinking is often no more than a hopeful, controlled experiment.

To help clients embrace the full opportunities of the digital world, agencies would do well to agree upon the enduring strategic principles for digital branded relationships. To accompany the 4Ps of classical marketing, should we launch the 4Cs: Conversation, Connection, Collaboration and Content? Perhaps that would provide large companies with the strategic framework they need to consistently invest large amounts of money into digital.

Digital agencies need to demystify their worlds. Without this, digital may remain intimidating and budgets nominal. By showing clients cool stuff and making it seem more accessible, we can get them excited about it too. It's our responsibility, as people who live it, to explain it. It's easier to sell in traditional ways of advertising because they make obvious, everyday emotional connections. Speak the same language when presenting digital. Don't blind clients with science. Keep it short and simple. And talking of being human ...

Step 2: Get emotional

Clients find it easier to buy big, expensive TV campaigns than big, digital ones because, traditionally, they've been taught the alchemy and emotional value of TV (with the bonus of guaranteed reach and frequency). In stark contrast, what marketers get up to digitally is scrutinised to death via hard metrics such as click-through, leaving clients more addicted to and excited by ROI than the huge emotional opportunities that can come out of a truly involving digital experience. As a consequence, the cooler, softer stuff that brands do invest in digitally is smaller and more experimental.

So, it's TV business as usual and despite the media-neutral rhetoric of the past ten years, there are still very few clients and agencies who do big ideas in the true through-the-line sense. Too often, they say there's no idea until there's a TV idea. Too much time is wasted using digital as a new media channel in which above-the-line messages are forced into standardised banners. The fact that TV ads need to be single-minded means they are easier for clients to understand. Online ideas are more complicated by their very nature and are thus sometimes more difficult to take on board.

If they want to be taken more seriously, digital agencies should be less concerned with gimmicky, technological firsts and more with forging closer emotional ties between the brand and its consumer. Clients could help, too, by granting agencies greater artistic license and being willing to take a creative leap of faith.

If agencies were more clearly able to describe the emotional ambitions of their ideas (as well as the commercial value of them), they might be able to earn a larger slice of the pie. It's time to get emotional online. When was the last time a piece of digital brand content brought a lump to your throat?

Step 3: Help clients let go

Digital agencies ask clients to relinquish brand control, yet control is what a client's culture is all about. Most companies are still genetically engineered to manage risk; to try to predict and control the outcome of all their activities. Telling clients to embrace the digital risk is like telling a climber to let go of his rope because you've switched off the gravity button. We need to tell them that it might hurt a bit, and to prove that the pain of the fall is worth the gain. We can't force clients to abdicate control, but we can help them to influence their consumers in a new way.

There's no such thing as control on the web. People are talking about brands online regardless. So, if clients don't get involved, it'll solely be those other people's views that represent them on the internet.

The beauty of online is that you can "fail" quickly and cheaply. You can instantly learn from those mistakes and turn them into valuable knowledge. Testing and collaboration are ingrained in online culture. By showing you are listening and acting, you can turn the very people who criticise you into your biggest advocates.

The opportunity is there for digital agencies to help clients deal with real life, one-to-one conversations, to harness the groundswell and respond to every single Tweet or blog post.

So there we have it. That's how the digital industry will accelerate its journey up the food chain. Either way, it shouldn't be too long until we have a permanent place at the top table. One day we'll own the bloody restaurant.

But hell, that's just what we think. What about you? Let us know at http://blog.saintlondon.co.uk/top_table.

- Zaid Al-Zaidy is the managing partner and Adam Graham is the head of operations at Saint.