Digital Essays: The new integration

Building meaningful relationships with brands is more important to customers than identifying the media that is used to reach them.

Ladies and gentlemen. In the left-hand corner, wearing the blue trunks: traditional agencies, still full of glamorous TV advertising, holders of the biggest budgets and busily hammering together an office out the back for their new digital departments.

In the right-hand corner, wearing the red: digital agencies, all pumped up with a new momentum, looking to seize the high ground.

And, in the front row, we have the client, intrigued with her new options and increasingly prepared to embrace the previously unheard-of notion of using a digital agency for overall brand activity.

Clients certainly have the most to gain from this new competitive arena. Every agency will need to raise its game and deliver increasingly innovative solutions.

The fundamentals of both traditional and digital agencies are now the same, and the gaps will continue to diminish as we learn from each other. We both place the same central importance on sound consumer insight and brilliant creative ideas.

It is how the insights and ideas are manifested that marks the point where we still often diverge, and our recent rebranding as Digitas from Modem Media is just one example of how digital agencies are evolving to provide a more comprehensive offering to their clients.

Traditional agencies still frequently start with a TV spot or print campaign and then throw in a few matching banners. If they are really clever, they'll place an extended version of the TV ad online. If they can't reach their target market on TV because of audience fragmentation and the personal video recorder factor, they simply upweight the spend online. So often we still see a "made for TV" brand message pushed across multiple channels with "interactivity" expressed via "click here".

Digital agencies, on the other hand, will start with a brand experience and then determine how best to distribute or interpret it on- and offline. For us, interactivity is more than a click; it is truly enabling customers to engage with the brand, to collaborate with it, to influence it, not just on the internet, but wherever and whenever the brand is relevant.

We believe brands are no longer boxed into 30-second packages on TV or half-a-dozen facings on a supermarket shelf. Brands are free to live a life of their own. They build relationships with us, growing in our affections, meeting up with us in unexpected places. We find them on MySpace and YouTube, we bump into them at exhibitions, on the streets, via our mobiles and PDAs. As the technology around us grows, we interact with them more and more. No longer is it all about what the brand has to say to us, or how intrusive and noisy it can make itself. Now it is about being relevant, useful and available at precisely the right time at the right locations.

Take a simple taxi journey. A quick dab of a button or two on our mobile dials us the cab from our trusted company. We can push another button and find out what restaurants are nearby. Interaction is all around us, and brands are only one click away. Never intrusive but always accessible.

If advertising makes the brand seem irreplaceable, the brand experience must make it irresistible across all its multiple touch points.

At Digitas, we have created a Brand Innovation team. Right now, it's growing by the month as household names such as Shell, Ericsson and Lloyds TSB leverage our expertise. A large part of our team's work is to ensure that, whatever channel, the brand delivers an engaging, valuable, consistent and innovative experience. It helps the brand build a participatory, collaborative, deepening relationship with each user. Indeed, we often place the user in control of the experience and surrender some of the autonomy that the brand once enjoyed. This is no passive, one-way street. A new value exchange is established. An organic relationship is enabled and, in many cases, shared with a wider community of brand advocates.

Marketers need to create loyalty beyond reason. Companies such as Procter & Gamble and Microsoft are harnessing the power of online communities to shape everything from their advertising to product development. Apple monitors its online customers across the internet to assess reactions to new products, leveraging both negatives and positives in new iterations of products. The great thing about a genuine dialogue in the digital age is that it is responsive, measurable, guided by metrics.

Creating brand experiences demands advertisers that understand new technologies. At Digitas, like most other digital agencies, our creatives constantly pressure our tech department to push forward the boundaries. Techs respond with proactive new ideas that stretch the creative process still further. At Digitas, you'll find art directors and techs sitting together, working together, even going down the pub together.

Technology is the enabler. But it must not be implemented for its own sake, rather to create new, but relevant opportunities for brands and customers to engage online and off. At Digitas, we don't see any dead ends. We are currently developing offline campaigns for several clients, and in each case, driving interactivity and innovation into the offline world. For example, we are working with HP to enable customers to engage with posters using Bluetooth technology.

You can see the process within our own Digitas brand. It is because our clients' needs have evolved that we have. And the place that we have evolved to has taken us way beyond just being the "internet guys".

Ultimately, customers don't care which agency created the TV spots, the website and the mobile advertising platform. They don't give a stuff about the production values or the location of the shoot. They do care that their relationship with the brand is seamless, tangible, meaningful, collaborative and delightful. This has always been true. What's changed is technology, and with it, customer behaviour and control. Finally, brands are catching up and have realised that, in this new environment, the "TV spot and matching luggage" approach to advertising is not enough.

The future requires compelling experiences, a genuine dialogue, tangible delivery of the brand promise, and a deeper collaboration. Call it the new integration, this time between brand and customer rather than just between brand and media. The fundamental question for clients is which agencies are best placed to help them in this environment?

- Norm Johnston is the president of Digitas London.