During the first dotcom boom, there was a fortune to be made in all things digital. Salaries were rising through the roof, and traditional admen were keen to get their hands on a share of the spoils.
Some of them did: Andrew Walmsley, who began his career at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, co-founded the digital media agency i-level; Mark Collier worked at Collett Dickenson Pearce and BBH before founding Dare (which sold to Cossette Communications in July for a potential £30 million); and Rob Forshaw and Matt Nicholls, the founders of Grand Union, were former managing partners at M&C Saatchi.
But plenty more got their fingers burnt, which might explain the historic reluctance by traditional agency people to get involved in the now not- so-new new media. But with digital agencies selling at multiples far higher than their traditional brethren, and the internet now an accepted part of mainstream media, isn't it time you got some online experience on your CV?
The attraction this time around isn't the money. Unless you're a technical specialist, where salaries have seen considerable inflation, pay packets in digital now are broadly in line with those at traditional agencies (see graph). Neither is it the size of budgets, which remain smaller than those in traditional advertising - and client contact on digital accounts is often with marketing managers rather than their bosses.
Nevertheless, the list of people switching from traditional media to digital is growing. Last week, Indy Saha left Xbox, where he was the head of advertising and brand for Europe, to become the planning director at Agency Republic. Earlier this year, David Pattison moved from PHD to head ILG Digital, the i-level parent company; Alan Rutherford, the vice-president of global media at Unilever, left to run the Publicis Groupe-owned Digitas Global; and Giles Montgomery, a creative at Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, went to Grand Union as creative director.
Planners and account men have also been tempted. Toby Horry, now the joint planning director at Dare, is an ex-Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO senior planner; Mark Tomblin, a former director of strategy at Publicis, is now at the digital agency TBG; and Stuart Barnes, a group account director at St Luke's, has just moved to Agency Republic as the group business director.
Montgomery spent 13 years in Amsterdam before leaving last month to join Grand Union, one of the UK's last major digital independents. He had no experience in online - other than setting up the W&K Amsterdam blog - and, he says, was becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunity to do anything outside the traditional creative heartland of TV and print.
The attraction of Grand Union, he says, was the chance to come in and make a difference (the agency has been without a creative director for months) and what he saw as a genuine creative opportunity.
"I knew budgets weren't the same - I'm used to $1 million to make a TV commercial - but that didn't bother me," he says. "What I find interesting at the beginning of a project is that part where anything is possible. That's the difference with digital rather than traditional advertising, where the possibilities are limited to TV and print."
Montgomery is in somewhat of a minority as a traditional creative who believes that digital media offers more, not less, than TV from a creative point of view. In June, the blog Scamp (www.scampblog.blogspot.com) ran a post from the DDB London creative Rob Messeter, in which he described the majority of digital advertising as "really pony". "If I presented anything so woeful to my creative director, I'd be laughed out of the room," he added.
The post got lots of responses, many of which agreed, calling digital advertising "puerile" and "boring" and digital creatives "not good enough to get a job in an advertising agency".
Montgomery thinks that's rubbish. "What about Crispin Porter's work for Burger King in the US - they encouraged the client to put the entire budget online and created console games that are actually selling and making money. Or Nike+, where the guys got a marketing brief and came up with a new product category?"
Both examples are US-based, but demonstrate the creative possibilities. If you just want to make great films, that's fine, too - last year's Cannes Film Grand Prix, Ogilvy's Dove "evolution", was a viral.
Even senior creative directors with years of advertising experience, such as Robert Campbell, the Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe founder, and Nick Bell, the former executive creative director at JWT, have been doing the rounds of the digital agencies looking for work experience.
Barnes admits that while creativity in digital was something he thought about before he made his decision to join Agency Republic, he doesn't believe it should be a concern.
"I used to work on Clarks, and it's great being on that kind of account, but big-budget TV ads have become so few and far between that I sit at home now and cringe during the ad breaks," he says. "In digital, the exciting thing is the strategy and how you connect with people. It's frustrating working at a traditional agency now because they don't have the skill-set to push the boundaries into new areas of advertising," he adds. "Here, there's a tangible level of excitement about the opportunities and work coming up. There's none of that jaded attitude that means no-one ever explores anything or tries to do new stuff."
Although he admits that client contact can be more junior, Barnes says that many advertisers, particularly in sectors such as telecoms, financial services or travel, are taking digital seriously because it's financially imperative for their business. For companies whose successful online presence means increased sales, chief executives as well as marketing directors are keen to get involved in online strategy.
Even clients that don't use the internet to sell product are starting to agree. Stella Artois, famous for its brilliant TV ads, recently decided to commit a serious portion of its budget to online, and launched www.stellaartois.com, created by Lowe Worldwide.
Being able to talk to clients about how they should approach digital is now a prerequisite for even the biggest of traditional advertising agencies. As a result, people with good digital experience are in high demand, according to Mark Rapley, the planning specialist at The Garden Partnership.
So, if you need some digital on your CV, what's the best way to get it? Join a specialist, Rutherford says. According to him, although he had an understanding of digital media before moving to Digitas (Unilever was one of the first advertisers to use digital in the late 90s and has continued to do so since), his knowledge was not extensive. However, he feels technical expertise is not necessary for people wanting to make the move into online.
"All media will be transmitted digitally over the next few years," he says. "That doesn't mean you need to understand technology to be able to work on strategy for brands that want to use digital - you just need to be able to understand the outcome."
And as budgets and the specialist agencies themselves grow, there's an increasing demand for people with transferable above-the-line skills and a genuine interest in digital advertising. All the creative teams at glue London have backgrounds in above-the-line, and its senior account managers are also more likely to come from traditional agencies, Mark Cridge, the agency's chief executive, says. "You really only find people who are used to dealing with senior-level clients at traditional agencies, there hasn't been that kind of job in digital agencies until now," he adds. "Planners and account people migrate easily, but creative teams sometimes find themselves a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities."
But is it even necessary to move at all? Ben Fennell, the managing director of BBH, says that because clients are now using traditional agencies to produce digital work, it's possible for traditional advertising people to get the right digital experience with their existing employers. "We are hiring people with digital skills across all disciplines, but we're also investing a lot in training our existing staff," he says. "We've created a bespoke digital course and shipped in specialists to train our people in things such as mobile, gaming or web design. Two-thirds of the agency has already gone through it and the rest will follow."
BBH has no specialist digital department, but instead is working on getting digital skills established throughout the agency. As part of this, it has introduced a reverse mentoring scheme, where some of its young digital specialist staff spend time with senior people, showing them interesting websites or pieces of new technology. "There was time when there was creative resistance to all this, when pay packets, awards and profile were so much higher in traditional media," Fennell adds. "That's finally changed and I think people realise that being able to work with digital is non-negotiable."
Ask the digital specialists, though, and they'll tell you that the majority of ad agencies still pay lip-service, at best, to digital media. It's certainly true that in the UK (the opposite is true in the US), the majority of awards and the biggest account wins are still going to the digital specialists.
There are other advantages, Collier says: "Digital agencies are attractive, not only because of the potential of the medium, something that I think everyone has now accepted, but also because of the atmosphere. We're seven years old, we've got a flat structure, no-one has an office and, as a result, there's a genuine culture where you're encouraged to try new things."
Rutherford agrees. "It reminds me of the media independents in the 80s - people had the same questions then about client contact and hierarchy. The fact is, this is a brave new world, and you can either roll with it or stay where you are and miss out on the opportunity," he says.
THREE WHO HAVE MADE THE LEAP FROM TRADITIONAL TO DIGITAL
- Giles Montgomery, Creative director, Grand Union
Montgomery joined one of the UK's last major digital independents from Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam last month, despite having no real online experience. It was the creative opportunities to be found in digital, he says, that prompted the move.
- Alan Rutherford, President, Digitas Global
Formerly Unilever's global media chief, Rutherford used to be in charge of one of the biggest budgets in UK advertising before he left to join the international arm of the US-based Publicis Groupe-owned digital network.
- Indy Saha, Planning director, Agency Republic
Saha, who was until recently the head of advertising and brand for Microsoft Xbox EMEA, will be responsible for the planning strategy across the digital agency's clients, including Mercedes-Benz, Unilever and Sony PlayStation.
THE CASE FOR DIGITAL
- David Pattison, chief executive, ILG Digital
Why did I move into the world of digital? Genuinely, I felt that the big opportunity for future market success lay in the digitally focused world. Like everybody who thinks of moving to digital, my only concerns were: how little technical knowledge could I get away with, and did I need to dust my skateboard off?
Six months at ILG and my observation would be that lots of things are the same as the world I left: the ups and downs of client account management, where you get good people, how you grow/evolve your business, and, most importantly, is it crunchy or smooth peanut butter in the kitchen?
Lots of things are different: the speed that things happen, it just keeps coming at you, and it is almost all new. There is a genuinely collaborative atmosphere around all of the working relationships. The people are different: they are younger and have less business experience. But there is a thirst for knowledge and a confidence born out of that knowledge and opportunity. It may come as a surprise to you, but they are all human beings and don't have pointy ears.
The clients are learning something new and want you to lead them, and because of its accountability and real business results, there is considerable interest higher up in client organisations. The shortcomings are almost all based on the immaturity of the industry. It's eight years old, has had its ups, downs and ups again. Five years and you are a veteran and probably aged 27. That's - fortunately for me - where a bit of grey thinning hair and experience comes in. It's what the industry needs to move forward, and a lack of technical knowledge will not hinder a move into the digital world. An open mind and coping with learning a new thing every day is all that's required.