The problem with digital agencies (ctd)

If you’ve just dropped in, you might want to read part I first.

Ok so let’s recap: The client doesn’t know what they want or need, and has probably been filled with a bunch of bad ideas by their other agencies, who resent the shit out of having another player on their patch and are most likely pitching against you. The person who initiates contact with the digital agency doesn’t have the authority to commission anything that impacts anyone outside their own department, and will encounter resistance from all corners if they try (from above due to a lack of understanding of digital media, and from other business units for the usual reasons – functional siloing, feifdoms etc).

Note. I’ll use the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘strategy development’ quite a bit in this series of posts, and it might seem like I’m one of those wankers (I’ve met more of them than I care to remember) who throws the term around without really understanding what it means. I promise you that I have something quite definite in mind, and I’ll elaborate on this later. While you may not agree with the terminology (not that I give a shit), I hope at least that you’ll agree that whatever you want to call it, it’s what digital agencies should be doing instead of this ‘design and build’ bullshit. But I digress. Please read on…

Sometimes a cold call will make good, and once in a while the Yellow Pages ad pays off, but often as not some kind soul makes a referral that lands the digital agency in front of the client. This is it – the golden opportunity. And what happens?

They cave in and whore themselves out, just to get the sale.

Don’t believe me? Check out the website of any digital agency. Web development, text messaging systems, mobile applications – it doesn’t matter. Click on the ‘About Us’ or ‘Services’ link (they always have one) and you’re sure to find some guff about how they ‘partner with the client’ to develop a ‘best-of-breed’ ‘strategy’ based on the client’s ‘business requirements’, ‘user-centric design’ etc. Then you click on the portfolio link and it’s all the bloody same.

Let me tell you the dark and dirty secret of the digital agency. The purpose of that first meeting is to find out how much and what kind of budget is available. Then they come back and present some pretty pictures of what they want to do, and others showing swell work they’ve done for other people. There’ll be some evidence in there that they’ve done this kind of thing before without killing anybody, and a proposed budget that’s *surprise surprise* pretty much exactly what the client had budgeted for this project.

Sometimes a separate ‘strategy’ or ‘consultation’ budget is proposed, but often as not the budget will be design and build only. The agency will tell you it’s because they consider strategy development to be part of the pre-sales process that they can recover from the build, but we know better. There’s no figure shown, because there’s no strategy development. There’s no strategy development because the client only has budget for design and build. There’s only budget for design and build because the client organisation as a whole doesn’t understand or value digital media in the same way as it does TV, Radio and Print. And that lack of understanding and value is because nobody has really tried to take them through a good, robust strategy development exercise.

At this point it might read like I’m ripping on digital agencies, but I’m not. It’s not some insidious plot to squeeze budget out of the client, any more than the clients inability to do anything truely ground-breaking is due to them being lazy, stupid or criminally inept. It’s systemic – the client is encouraged to pursue short-term mediocre projects, and the agency is encouraged to deliver them. Everyone’s happy, right?


Blame whoever you like, but by far the majority of digital agencies (and don’t think I’m just breaking balls here at home kids – it’s the same all over the world, trust me on this) are selling design and build. That’s it. They talk about strategy development, thought leadership etc, but at the end of they day they’re just churning out project after project after project. And here’s the rub – that window is closing. Fast.

How’s that? Simple. Design and build services are becoming commoditised. Your work looks great? Good for you. Your shit doesn’t break, and does what you said it would? What do you want – a fucking cookie? The old joke was that developers are the bus drivers of the information superhighway. I’m not sure that analogy holds any longer though, ‘cos you can’t really outsource bus driving to India at a lower cost and with a better result for ths customer. A similar thing is happening to design – it has to be good just to be in the game, and certainly isn’t a solid means of differentiation.

So how do you stand apart from the crowd? When all your design and build jobs start heading offshore, what have you got left to offer? What you have is what you should have been doing all along.

Next up: what is this ‘strategy development’ thing I keep talking about?


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