Merger she wrote as indies create united front to wag dog

If you believe the hype, big, traditional agencies are on death’s door, the quest for integration is a futile one, TV is dead, and small, nimble, specialist agencies with new ways of thinking are the way of the marketing future. If you don’t, then it seems like the normal circle of business life continues apace as small agencies look for opportunities to expand and eventually become bigger agencies. And, in the case of digital creative and media company Wag The Dog, accredited media planning and buying agency MediaR and creative agency Advocate Advertising, it seems there is still some strength to be found in larger numbers. 

The new three-pronged entity that now goes by the name of Wag the Dog Agency calls itself a full service, cross-platform agency that is channel-neutral but has a core competency in digital (some might know this as a slight variation on the ‘traditional model’). The network has a number of big clients including Mercury Energy, Les Mills International, ASB, Westfield, Unicef, Vero, Lumino and Charlies, with combined billings of $20 million and 23 staff. But Wag The Dog Agency director and original WTD co-founder Andy Taylor, says it’s certainly not an example of giving up and joining the establishment.

Taylor, who helped launch 3 mobile into the Australian market and spent four years as sales and marketing director of First Rate, says he is still focused on being truly disruptive. He doesn’t think you can ask traditional agencies where digital is going, and you can’t ask digital players to integrate with ‘old media’ because the mindsets are just too far apart and often in competition for budget. And he hopes the combination of the traditional and media agencies, a deal which has been in the pipeline since January, will add strength to the digital offer, rather than diluting each specialist branch.

Of course, with the announcement of the new agency has come the usual chorus of claims about its new and interesting approach. He says the way the agency is structured is very different. And as conversations with consumers move away from mass media awareness and change to one to one and a more granular level, he says digital is at the heart of the consumer experience and clients are becoming more project-based.

Wag the Dog was brought on board last year as the specialist digital agency for 2degrees and was responsible for placing the digital media and also managing its successful social media strategy (this has now been taken over by the PR agency, Bullet, he says).

It worked closely with TBWA\ on 2degrees, which led the brand launch, and it is now working with soon-to-depart TBWA\ client ASB (watch out for what he calls a revolutionary, special and very hush hush Facebook strategy soon to be go live that hasn’t been tried by anyone in the banking sector before and aims to position ASB as an online innovator). It is also managing Mercury Energy’s brand voice on Facebook and while there’s an argument it shouldn’t be doing this, and it should instead be coming someone from within the organisation, it’s common and it’s another example of the increasing overlaps online between digital and PR.

He admits it’s difficult to separate the wank from the chaff when it comes to new agencies, new models and the ensuing claims. But he says “the only way we got these blue chip clients was because we had something to offer”. And this attractive offering, he says, is being able to launch brands into Facebook and then managing them.

So despite talk of pushing boundaries and carving niches, what is the real difference between Wag the Dog Agency and all the other ad agencies leading with digital? Firstly, Taylor says it’s an agency run by entrepreneurs, which is very different from a standard agency. And with the emergence of social media as a channel, he says “actual integration at the idea creation stage is required, rather than paying lip service to multimedia”.

“Most digital agencies end up operating at the fringe of client strategy and end up with a ‘bolt-on’ digital strategy,” says Helma Mitchell, founder of MediaR. “Our advantage is that we start with a fresh outlook from the beginning of the client’s marketing strategy process.”

Taylor says it wants to be seen as an innovative thought leader, and, taking a leaf out of the Geoff Ross book, he says innovation is often achieved when clients are uncomfortable with an agency’s slightly riskier, disruptive suggestions. That’s when they grow, he says, pointing to a Steve Jobs quote that says: innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. At present, he says there are not a lot of clients like that. Obviously Taylor wants to help create a few more of them.

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