Media: All about ... Digital specialist media agencies

AKQA is reviving the full-service digital agency concept.

In the best of all possible worlds, advertising would be lovingly overseen, in all instances, by full-service agencies. Your classic purveyors of all imaginable communications courses from soup (as the renowned old piece of patter had it) to nuts.

From the point of view of aesthetic consistency and strategic integrity, nothing works better - and many in the offline advertising world have never stopped mourning the decline and fall of this perfect model.

So, when the digital advertising business began to coalesce out of the white noise of the dotcom world ten years (or so) ago, and sat down with a blank sheet of graph paper, it was perhaps inevitable we'd see a determined effort to turn back the clock. And, indeed, many of the sector's pioneers attempted to reinvent the full-service agency for the digital age.

But some observers argued right from the start that this philosophy contained inherent contradictions that would soon undermine it. Because here were people who were touting themselves as full-service agencies when it suited them - but more often (and more prominently) as specialists. Digital specialists.

Specialism is an unforgiving creed. After all, it was the inexorable logic of specialism that, beginning in the late 70s and accelerating across the 80s, had pulled apart the cosy world of the classic Mad Men-style advertising agency and left us with a world broken into creative agencies and media specialists.

The cleverest people in the digital space were surely those who recognised their core strengths and stuck to them. Like, say, the award-winning digital creative agency, AKQA. This was seen as especially wise in a market where the big holding companies were beginning to get their digital acts together and competing on a credible basis.

So much for theory. Last week, AKQA blind-sided the adver- tising world. It launched a media operation.

1. AKQA has launched AKQA Media, Search and Analytics in both the UK and the US. Led by Scott Symonds, who becomes the executive media director and general manager, the service will evolve out of the agency's existing but less-than-comprehensive media offerings - it currently has an Analytics team in the UK and a Media and Search operation in the US. In the UK, Neil Eatson, the media director of Zed Media, has been hired to lead the operation as the head of media.

2. AKQA says that the move is of a piece with a long-held strategy of launching dedicated business units: AKQA Mobile was unveiled in 2006; AKQA Search emerged in 2007; and, last year, it established AKQA Film to produce online video and creative content. Tom Bedecarre, the chief executive of AKQA, comments: "AKQA is uniquely positioned with our strategic skills and proprietary technology to manage end-to-end return on investment for our clients. Delivering results is critical for the success of digital marketing and we want to lead the industry in combining these media, search and analytics services."

3. The timing is, to say the least, interesting. The full-service digital agency concept was already looking shaky by the time that Media Republic, the media planning and buying arm of the digital creative agency Agency Republic, shut its doors in April 2008. Closure was inevitable when it lost O2's £20 million planning and buying account to ZenithOptimedia.

4. And that was followed in September 2008 by the news that the full-service digital agency Profero was to make redundancies from its media planning and buying arm following the loss of its Channel 4 business - the broadcaster consolidated its media business into OMD UK after a review. Profero continues to position itself as a fully integrated digital agency and is wedded to a long-term international expansion strategy, but the job losses inevitably dented its full-service credentials.

5. But it's also true that the more astute digital agencies are always looking for ways to reinvent themselves and extend their offering - occupying a specialist role within a specialism has all- too-apparent dangers. The digital media operator i-level, for in-stance, has long had a sister consultancy company, Generator - and, last April, it also launched Premier Affiliate Network to work on special projects for clients including Orange, The Sun Bingo and Homeserve Insurance.



- AKQA's media launch is an encouraging sign of confidence from one of the digital sector's most celebrated agencies. It will continue to argue that it can offer more digital insight and expertise than any of its rivals - and that this insight is as valid a proposition in the media world as it is in the creative domain.


- But rivals, not least the mainstream media agencies that offer integrated on- and offline services, will be watching with interest. They argue that they'll always be able to outgun digital-only agencies - especially those with a predominantly creative heritage. Their line is that, when a digital agency is built on creativity, creativity is absolutely always seen as the sexy bit.

- Will Phipps, the head of planning at the7stars and formerly the media planning and strategy director at Profero, says: "AKQA is taking a gamble, but one clearly based on the demands of its existing client base, and who's to say it can't get this to work?

"Clients want integration of message and placement and the blurring between the two has never been closer, so to bring the disciplines together is the right thing to do. But the two sides of the business have to be on an equal footing.

"An agency that has a culture based on creativity needs to allow media an equal seat at the table and there's the odd agency in London that offers full service but has struggled to define how its media teams have a competitive advantage."