The problem with digital agencies (part 3)

Welcome to the third installment in what is essentially a one-man brainstorming exercise. To cut a long story short, I’m kinda having a Jerry Maguire moment. Having recently had the opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at things career-wise, something about the way digital agencies engage with their clients really rubs me the wrong way. I’ve laid out the first two parts of what I hope will eventually form a coherent argument below, and will attempt to refine these over the next few days.

If any of you would like to put in your 5 cents’ worth please feel free – I just ask that you try and look at the point I’m trying to make, rather than nit-picking with specific exceptions to the supporting premises (e.g. ‘It’s not always just the Marketing or IT people who commission the digital agency’. Really? No shit?). The more I think about this the more I’m convinced there’s a valid point in here somewhere. So bear with me and hopefully we’ll get there soon…

If you managed to follow me through the posts below, let me try and pull it together for you as simply as I can. There are certain inherent constraints at play within any typical organisation. These include a general lack of understanding of digtal media (particularly in the higher echelons), and functional siloing. These are manifested in a lack of support (budgetary, creative, and logistical) for digital projects, that more often than not dooms them to failure.

At this point I’d like to elaborate on this ‘failure’ thing. It is my opinion that the majority of digital media projects fail, and they do so on one or all of the following:

There was no valid, pre-determined measure of success

Before you disagree, look at the two key words in that sentence: valid and pre-determined. Going back to the client with a list of page views, user registrations and enquiry form submissions doesn’t count – unless a rigorous consideration of the client’s business drivers and KPIs had indicated these as the most appropriate metrics to target. Did you go through that process? Or did you just try to convince the client that these metrics would suffice? Guess what – odds are they didn’t believe you.

The don’t achieve anywhere near their potential

If you proposed a solution within the existing problem situation / brief / system (whatever you want to call it) as it was presented to you, rather than trying to understand where the inherent limitations lay and how they could be overcome, you haven’t even scratched the surface. I won’t elaborate here, and there’s really no point in doing so – you know I’m right.

Regardless of outcome, no learning resulted from the project

At this point I could easily wade into a comprehensive account of organisational learning, but it would take too long to provide anything worthwhile. If interested (it’s bloody fascinating – trust me on this) see Peter Senge‘s bestselling The Fifth Discipline, or my Master’s thesis, which provides pretty solid coverage in chapter three. All I really want to say on this is that if the only thing the client learned was whether or not the project was a success (and like I said, they probably didn’t even find that out), they didn’t learn anything.

Why is this important? You’re the agency – if the client gets too smart they won’t need you at all, right? Calamity!

Pay attention now kids, ‘cos here’s the big point I’ve been building up to:

The behaviour exhibited by any system is determined by the (check out the Organisational Learning links above) ‘Mental Models‘ of those involved. If you want to change the behaviour of the system, you have to address the mental models. (i.e. to find the right answer, first you have to ask the right question!)

What does this have to do with digital media projects and the role of agencies? Simple: I put it to you that in the majority of client organisations, conditions are not conducive to the succesful design and execution of digital media projects. In most cases there is an inherent lack of understanding and support for digital media throughout the client organisation, which leads to failure on at least one of the criteria laid out above. The role of the digital agency should be to address these (systemic) limitations, fostering organisational learning and bringing about a set of conditions (mental models) that are conducive to success. In short, agencies should be building their clients’ capability to pursue the wealth of opportunities afforded by digital media. But they don’t.

*phew!*

Ok I got there, and while it’s a bit rough I’m confident that there’s something to it. At this point it looks like I’ll need two more posts to tie this up: One more to flesh out the ‘what the fuck am I really challenging agencies to do’, and another to summarise in a form that makes a little more sense. Stay tuned…

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