Oranges, not apples: Andrew Hawley on why digital agencies remain relevant

Recently I was asked about the relevance of digital agencies. Are they useful anymore? And why would an organisation use them instead of a brand agency? 

If you viewed digital as just another production channel then arguably I can see how you might question the need for a digital agency. With that worldview you’d want a digital production house or web design shop instead of a strategic digital partner. 

As companies require more than advertising campaigns to connect with customers, even those brand agencies that produce ingenious digital campaign work are still operating within the remit of marketing communications. And the reality is that ‘digital’ is far broader than the marketing communications industry, and therefore, much broader than what brand agencies offer in the digital space.
In some ways, the question of whether digital agencies are relevant is actually irrelevant. At least as far as digital agencies are concerned. Some will continue to encroach on part of what brand agencies do, as brand experiences continue to become more digitally driven. 

But more telling is the increased frequency with which the more established digital agencies are now competing against business consultancies like PwC and Deloitte for certain services. 
It’s because of this trend that any comparison between a digital agency and a digital production team within an advertising agency isn’t really comparing apples with apples. The advertising and communications work a ‘digital agency’ does is only part of what they do. And when they’re not creating digitally-led campaigns, they’re engaged in solving broader business issues, often collaborating on-site with client IT teams, engineers and product developers. They can do this because they’re staffed by people who have a deep understanding of IT systems, ecommerce platforms (and all their assorted integration layers), customer experience design, performance media, contemporary brand experience and also content and creativity. 

Ideally, an effective digital agency views these disciplines as equally important in developing business solutions for clients. And that perspective impacts the very fabric of their structure, hierarchy (or lack of) and working style. So much so that advertising agencies and many digital agencies often have fundamentally different operating models.

A creative director shouldn’t lead the work of a digital agency, nor should a technical lead, a strategist or an engineer. They lead it together, linked in a partnership that should include client teams, making the output a joint one.

Why this egalitarian transparency and collaboration? Because it enables flexible workflow, promotes agile thinking and enables creative solutions to manifest from anywhere by anyone at any time. 
So what does the future hold? Some people believe traditional agencies and digital agencies will be one and the same. I’m not so sure. Merging the two would be challenging, perhaps like trying to consolidate two polarising political parties. Their worldviews are very different. However, I do see the demise of ‘web design companies’ assured as accessible templated solutions continue to advance. 
Effective digital agencies will continue to evolve and define a new breed of consultancy that manages to fuse true business transformation, digital smarts and creativity that is far broader than marketing communications alone. 

For now, I’d say the growth seen in many digital agencies is a sure sign they’re needed. The range of work they’re doing from systems and product design, to customer experience, advertising campaigns and content creation demonstrates they are relevant to organisations who share a similar perspective on problem-solving and want to work in a nimble, collaborative way. This democratic approach to ideation and collaboration reflects the era we’re in. Well, at least many clients think so, which at the end of the day, is all that counts. 

  • Andrew Hawley is the managing director of Touchcast ([email protected]).
  • This story was originally published in NZ Marketing as part of a content partnership with Touchcast. 

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