New media, digital media, screen media, interactive digital media
and connected media - the digital landscape takes careful navigating.
And the main question for clients keen to make an informed agency
choice: what work do the different types of agencies do, and how are
Basically, whatever clients want from an agency can be found. Agencies
are either gearing themselves around what clients are now demanding, or
clients are choosing a specialist to deliver what they need (or think
they need). So large or small, specialist or generalist, integrated,
technical, creative or strategic, there's something for everyone.
The number and different types of agencies is still pretty vast -
despite redundancies and some closures. The dotcom shake up is forcing
agencies to rethink their positioning and proposition as evidenced by
recent mergers, acquisitions or consolidations. They are becoming more
focused and looking carefully at what clients are now needing. They're
growing up, and so too are clients. Let's not forget that this is still
a young industry going through all the growing pains any other
developing industry has been through - it's just all happening at a much
faster rate. It's the agencies with a strong proposition, customer-led
approach, results focus and managed growth that will survive. And at the
end of the day, it's a question of clients defining what they want and
finding the best partner with whom to do it.
In the past three months I have met with more than 70 agencies. And I
still have more to meet. They almost all claim to be 'unique', and with
different slants, combination of services, proprietary tools and ways of
conducting business, I guess they can claim that. However, they do fall
into general categories which typify the market and help clients
understand more about the choices out there. Below are the five types, a
snapshot of the kind of work each undertakes, what they tend to be good
at and their core strengths.
The planning and buying of online, interactive or digital advertising
Probably the easiest of the lot to define and identify. Given that
'location, location, location' is the key to any campaign's success,
knowing what is out there, how a site is performing, who they are
targeting, where to be on the site and the types of opportunities
available beyond the simple banner is crucial. Media specialists will
ask if a campaign's objective is to raise awareness, drive sales or
build customer dialogue and relationships, which they can deliver
through tenancy deals, sponsorship or partnerships with sites. Besides
placement, their forte is knowing if a client should be developing
banners, buttons, microsites, pop-ups, packages, e-mails, sponsorships,
hyperlinks or partnerships. Having strong relationships with the media
owners or sales houses is also imperative for solid negotiation on the
buying front and for creating new forms of communications across
Some agencies such as Beyond Interactive or Profero also have in-house
creative capabilities which can help in understanding the totality of
the campaign's success and the speed with which changes or new ideas can
be implemented. Others partner with agencies in their group - Outrider
with Incline, for instance - but the majority work with their preferred
or clients' creative agencies.
On the whole these agencies provide strategic consultancy (looking at
the market, the business and consumer research) and strategy development
(brand, communications and media). They plan campaigns using a variety
of sophisticated planning tools and place ads, and track, optimise and
No longer can campaigns simply run and clients merely look at the
click-through rates. Clear, measurable objectives and return on
investment are the order of the day.
With the online advertising market still increasing its value (Forrester
Research predicts the sector to be worth pounds 3.8 billion by 2005),
these agencies will continue to work hard with the media houses to
achieve that growth. They are focused on their area and pretty dedicated
to their cause.
Creators of digital or interactive advertising campaigns.
In reality this area covers two main types of agencies: traditional
advertising and online marketing. They're from different backgrounds.
The ad agencies are now developing interactive ads for both online and
digital interactive TV, while the creative digital agencies specialise
in developing online campaigns consisting of video/rich media banners,
interstitials, microsites, games, fly-bys and so on.
The first group understands about communication, consumers and brands.
They are realising their value in working with specialists to deliver
the brand promise. Online is still the predominant medium, but with
digital interactive TV never far away, they are also having to develop
their understanding of its impact on their own and their clients'
business. Some are bringing the expertise in-house, while others prefer
to partner with different specialists as clients look more and more to
their incumbent agencies to help deliver their online campaigns.
At the end of 1996, BMP DDB and Lowe-Howard Spink were the first of the
traditional advertising agencies to set up dedicated interactive units.
BMP now has Tribal DDB while Lowe has Leonardo. Like Saatchi Vision and
Grey Interactive, they offer full-service interactive marketing
Only a few agencies have fairly developed digital offerings, others have
small teams of technical experts - largely there to get digital
ingrained into the company's way of thinking to take above-the-line
campaigns further via the web or on TV. They still recognise their areas
of strength and therefore work closely with web specialists for
The second group, the online marketing agencies, are focused on
delivering just that - online or interactive advertising and marketing
campaigns. These agencies, such as Dare Digital, Incline or Magnetic
North, work directly with clients as well as with consultancies, media
and ad agencies, which opens up their client reach. They understand
about the technology and its capabilities and balance this with good
creative skills to inject power into messages and creative cutting-edge
campaigns. A year from now it will be interesting to see how many of
these typically independent agencies are still so.
Brand builders for the digital world.
A harder type to define. As you can imagine, the majority of design-led
new-media agencies come from a design-for-print heritage. However, they
have developed in different ways. First, there are the traditional
corporate design companies that are extending their services into the
digital area. Realising that brands do not automatically translate from
print into the digital world, they look to enable brand identities and
guidelines to work across the different platforms.
Second, there are those which have transformed their businesses from
print to new-media services. Like the ad agencies, these gurus
understand about brands but have also developed equally strong technical
capabilities to match their design skills. They think on- and offline.
Clients therefore are increasingly asking their design agencies to help
them online by reviewing and redesigning their websites to ensure
integration and a true representation of the brand personality. These
guys understand about colour and form and how differently they work on
the various platforms.
For example, SAS is now 60 per cent multimedia-focused with the balance
remaining in its original offering of corporate/brand identity and
print. Attik, on the other hand, is planning to keep its new-media
percentage at about 30 per cent. At 25 per cent, Design House plans to
increase its percentage of new-media work. Importantly, achieving the
right balance of old and new world work will maintain the financial
stability of these companies.
Most design-based agencies will drive to achieve the balance of
creativity and technology, by bringing creatives and programmers
together. When choosing a design-led, new-media agency, ensure that they
either have strong technology teams who understand about brand
translation across other platforms or creative teams who understand the
While they may vary in terms of the breadth of their offerings, the
design gurus are certainly the ones to watch at the new-media awards
There is no single definition: full-service digital agency; full-service
online commerce; interactive marketing; end-to-end e-business solutions
provider; consultancy and implementors of digital solutions, etc.
Defining this area is difficult as there are several definitions
depending on what kind of agency you're talking about. The most common
definition centres on those web agencies which design and deliver
interactive solutions across all platforms and online marketing.
With strong technical understanding, they seek to keep ahead of the tech
game offering solutions for web, mobile, digital TV, animation, video
production, broadband, etc. More than just a web agency, they deliver
consultancy, strategy, creative and technical or e-commerce services.
Some (such as Zentropy) add marketing to the list, while others (such as
Tribal DDB) also offer online media planning and buying. Some provide it
all under one roof, others have formed joint ventures or alliances under
groups to offer all or singular services (such as Outrider).
However, there are different degrees to which agencies deliver the
above. The extremes are the more complex e-commerce builders and system
integrators and the smaller agencies delivering simpler e-commerce
solutions. Both have their place - it just depends on the clients' needs
A point to note: the agencies here are typically working with budgets
ranging from pounds 50,000 to pounds 500,000. Above that and clients
will tend to look at the bigger e-business consultants.
Smaller agencies tend to work with clients starting out on the web or
with more limited budgets. Such agencies are working with smaller
blue-chip companies or brands to produce information and transactional
sites. Meanwhile the bigger agencies will look at the business, brand,
digital or e-CRM strategies and opportunities, undertake research and
planning, develop creative, content and applications. On the e-commerce
front they will deliver site strategy, interface design and
architecture, system design and database integration.
Build or transform significant parts of enterprise businesses.
They do more than just build e-commerce sites. They build business, but
online. They are more consultants than agencies. They bridge the gap
between management consultancies and systems integrators. Clients are
investing big time with these guys in terms of money and relationship
building - consultancies handle IT expenditures of pounds 500,000 to
pounds 5 million.
Largely derived from the US, the scope of work includes basic strategy
and a deep understanding of the customer experience, business processes
and transactions. These players are going beyond the communications
experience to generate significant revenue and technology. They custom
develop package and legacy system integration and are used to dealing
with high numbers of users.
However, with a challenging economic environment, many of the bigger
agencies are being forced to reinvent their businesses. As many clients
continue to hold back their IT expenditure, so the e-business builders
have had to make redundancies, reduce their prices and seek smaller
The difference between the e-business consultants and the full-service
agencies mentioned is really about scale and having a deeper
understanding of technology. Full-service agencies may either take 'off
the shelf' package technologies which can be deployed relatively easily
(such as BroadVision or Cold Fusion) or develop their own, albeit
smaller scale, proprietary software. Consultants, on the other hand, are
the hard core guys. The Scients, Sapients, iXLs and Proxicoms of this
world devour big complex projects requiring the integration of multiple
packages and legacy systems. And when clients are spending millions of
pounds, then return on investment will always be on their mind.
Not the nicest of headings, but there's a need to mention some of the
other agency groups such as the integrated interactive agencies. With a
foundation in either direct or relationship marketing or sales
promotion, they take the communications requirement and provide
solutions across the appropriate communications channels, including
digital. Some have dedicated teams in-house, others are integrating
digital into the team's thinking. Evans Hunt Scott was the first
mainstream communications agency to recognise the importance of
combining offline and online skills to be able to offer fully integrated
communications and so merged with Real Time Studios to create
ehsrealtime. Finally, there are the specialists, focusing their efforts
on digital interactive TV or wireless platforms, whose services will no
doubt be called on far more often in the near future.