The problem with digital agencies

As you know, I’m back in NZ right now and looking for *gulp* gainful employment. For the last 5 years I’d worked in a digital marketing agency in Auckland, before taking off to London in April for more of the same but on a much larger scale. Now that I’ve had some time to step back and take a fresh look at things, I’m finding myself really turned off by the thought of going back to an agency environment. Sure the work’s fun and interesting, and the clients are cool for the most part – I just have this mounting feeling of dread that the whole system (the way digital agencies generally engage with their clients) is inherently flawed. I’ll try to refine my thoughts over time, but for what it’s worth here’s my first shot…

Let’s start with the client. In a typical situation, the agency is engaged by the Marketing and/or IT departments. Neither of these generally has much sway outside of their own business units, and it’s often the case that anything requiring more than a rubber stamp is too damn hard to even contemplate. This is a major problem from the get-go, as NOTHING a good agency would / should want to do resides solely within one functional group. Customer acquisition and retention, operational efficiency, communications – these are ORGANISATIONAL objectives, with implications at every touchpoint! Anyhoo …

If you’re lucky enough to be dealing with the department head and not fobbed off to some grad flunky because ‘we’re up to our necks in it right now’ you’re still facing a world of hurt, because unless you’re face to face with the man / woman at the top you’re in for a hell of a struggle if you want to enact any meaningful change in the business.

Marketing managers are typically sales reps made good, with an average tenure of about 2 years. They know very little about the web and related technologies, and so are heavily realiant on the advice they receive from agencies. Traditional (ATL & BTL) ad agencies are well-placed for dealing with these people because the nature of that relationship was established decades ago and they’re all used to it (let’s face it – little has changed in Print, TV or Radio in the last 50 years). This can be a big problem for the digital agency, because the ad guys want your budget. All of it.

Now, your Marketing manager really doesn’t care about anything besides not getting hassled, and looking good when they move on in 2 years. Impact on the company’s bottom line is harder to demonstrate than having a nice pretty website to point to (and ROI is NEVER discussed with ad agencies). As such they’re more likely to be swayed by pretty pictures and a strong portfolio of past projects than a meaningful attempt to uncover sources of opportunity for the business. Enter the man with the pretty pictures and it’s all over, Rover.

The IT manager is a different beast altogether. They don’t care about ANYTHING except keeping their (emphasis on the word ‘their’) systems running smoothly. They don’t give a shit about the Marketing department, customers, or, profitibility, and will hobble you at every turn. The IT Manager is a necessary ally, but for God’s sake don’t let them assume the role of decision maker – else you’ll be arguing the relative merits of MOSS vs Tridion, PHP vs JSP etc till the cows come home (or more importantly, till one of your competitors screws you by talking to someone with real vision and authority while you’re getting nowhere with the IT guy).

The man / woman at the top is your best bet then, right? That would be nice, but these people are even less web savvy than their Marketing team and give less of a shit about stuff they don’t understand. What you really need is support from throughout the client organisation – multiple functions (Marketing, IT, Operations etc) and levels (from the shop floor right up to the board). Anything short of that and you’ll be continually knocked back by blocker after blocker after blocker.

This may read like I’m ripping on the client, but I can assure you that I’m not. Organisations (the kind of organisations that have budgets worth going after) are inherently political, with trade-offs between functional groups and knowledge disparities throughout. There are more issues at play than those I’ve mentioned above, but an exhaustive list wouldn’t serve to support the point I’m building up to – that agencies tend to take the easy out instead of striving to make a real difference for the client.

Next up: the agency


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