Would a new agency bother with the word 'digital'?
A view from Nicolas Roope

Would a new agency bother with the word 'digital'?

We need one brand idea that glues everything together, not a bunch of different ideas for every channel, service and situation.

We started Poke more than 17 years ago, but the scrabble to set it up feels like it was yesterday. 

Many digital agencies have come and gone since, but Poke has stayed the course. One question always comes up in conversation: if I was starting a new agency today, would it be a Poke again? Would 'digital’ even be in the description? What would be the focus?

So, I thought I’d have a go at the theoretics and work through what that answer would be.

The first thing I’d do is look at the environment we’re in. With Poke, we looked around at the war-wounded, lying lifeless around us in the aftermath of the bursting dotcom bubble. And we asked ourselves: "Is it really over or is it really just beginning?" We concluded that it was the latter and our role in the world was to help build better things in digital to shore up its reputation and ensure another apocalypse wasn’t a guaranteed spectre for the future.

The environment is entirely different today. There’s no bursting bubble and digital isn’t even a thing in itself any more; it’s woven into everything. So, what are the problems and challenges even worth solving? And how would I engineer something to meet those challenges and establish a direction fit for the future? 

The thing that probably annoys me the most and thus excites me the most as a problem to solve, is the failed project of advertising’s "Integration 1.0".

"Integration" was the silver bullet to cure all discontinuity in the communications complex, ensuring ideas rendered at the top would flow down to the tiny streams and tributaries at the bottom. 

The promise of "sorting out the top and the rest would follow" is clearly appealing to chief marketing officers and seasoned creative directors. Because what that really means in practice is "spend most of your time, energy and money sorting out the hero film" with the assumption that the rest of the collateral and experiences would just follow suit and find ways to "integrate" so it all hangs together. 

But "integration 1.0" fails dramatically in the modern world for one simple reason. The problem to solve at the top is a lot easier than the one at the bottom. If you don’t spend any time, money or energy solving the harder challenge, it doesn’t get done. And the huge potential is left for competitors and disruptors to exploit. 

What is at the bottom these days? Mail-outs, point of sale and e-spam?

Hardly. 

Because of the blend of spectacularly rich consumer data on one side and the structure, platforms and networks to deploy targeted communications on the other, the bottom has become the biggest show in town. Not just because the potential efficacy is there, due to the availability of infinite, intimate, personalisable connections, but because this new system of human connections is a heroic-scale creative challenge, one that is worth a tonne more focus and investment. 

If I’m a chief marketing officer right now I’m asking what agency can take my brand to this new fertile land. And I’m worried. Because the old guard don’t see any glory down there in the weeds and the engineers of the new guard seem to lack the grace to know how to turn clever mechanics into moving poetics.  

So, if I was starting something today, I’d be thinking about what it would take to create a better balance of response to today’s communications reality. One that was as fluent in systems as it was stories.  

At the heart of this new shop would be a new kind of idea. I remember reading Russell Davies talking about rich ideas a long time ago (was it 15 years, Russell?!) and the planning fraternity have been toying with these notions ever since. But the lack of evidence of these concepts permeating the campaign norms suggests a powerful inertia stands in the way of progress.  

Building on the fine work of all you clever planners out there, I would take these notions of what becomes of the big idea and manifest them in a clear, pragmatic manual for the new role ideas need to perform in today’s connected world. 

Today a brand idea needs to be a springboard for stories and experiences. If we want to create connections with consumers in the ever-more fragmented world, then we need one brand idea that glues everything together, not a bunch of different ideas for every channel, service and situation. 

I’ve always admired Red Bull’s "gives you wings" line because it works as a platform equally for dramatisation as it does demonstration through content and activation. The really elegant thread runs neatly to the product itself, which delivers the same kind of frenetic energy present in every instance where the brand surfaces in consumer consciousness. 

Brand ideas today need to be agents of alignment like the Red Bull example. They need to connect brand purpose with end consumers and internal organisation alike, spawn campaigns and give the innovation department common direction of travel for service development.  

To make ideas like these I’d need a blend of old and new skills, old and new perspectives. And I’d need to structure the teams and methodologies differently.  

I’d start at the beginning. With the customer and the abundance of richly textured insights that now surround every one of them. I’d build upon this, finding powerful ways to align the potency of the brand's offer with the nature of new possible connections, finding language and architecture that could provide a framework for the brand to live and breathe. Then, only then, when all disciplines were satisfied that this brand platform was fit for the genesis of the full spectrum of activity, would the disciplines be briefed and could run off and create. 

We used to spend our time in the gym pumping iron to build our biceps. The hero muscles. The most visible ones. Now it’s all about core strength and the nation is on the floor doing pilates, not swinging a dumbbell around. And we’re not overdeveloping one muscle we can show off at the beach. No, we’re conscious to build strength in the whole core muscle group because we know it conditions the whole system. Just ask Darcy Bussell (I’d actually be tempted to call the agency Darcy in honour of this). It’s the same for brands.  

And that’s why, if tomorrow I was setting up something new, I’d make sure we were all about bringing things together to create a really strong core, not just working on pumping up the guns.

Nicolas Roope is co-founder and creative director at Poke