Direct Line: 'If brands want their creative agencies to get digital they have to lead the shift'

Direct Line accepts that if it wants its creative agencies to properly execute digital strategies then it needs to be the one pushing them to change, a candid view on an ongoing debate between client and agency that has been heightened by the advent of automated advertising.

Programmatic is (arguably) democratising media trading and creative development but the breadth and depth of that shifting dynamic has made marketers reluctant to sign off on bigger digital plays despite being pushed by their agency.

And while poor guidance from clients isn’t solely to blame for how far behind creative agencies are with consumers’ consumption habits, Direct Line's head of digital and social activation Raluca Efford believes marketers have to take a more proactive stance if they are to get the progressive digital activations needed to develop their brands. To pratice what she preaches, Efford has been making changes at the insurance firm.

Currently, the bulk of its media spend goes on TV while a third is filtered through digital channels. Direct Line is now looking to make that primary investment work harder, eyeing the opportunities that automated TV buying promises. While it is already looking at the internal structure necessary to put it in the best place to make the shift, its biggest challenge is the increasingly complicated conversations with its agency partners who are not yet set up to fully embrace what programmatic offers.

Illustrating the point, Efford pointed The Drum to the Harvey Keitel fronted ATL campaign it ran earlier this year to cement a new brand positioning. Getting work fit for purpose online, though, was far from easy

"We did end up with bespoke video content to be used across programmatic channels. However to get there was difficult because that wasn't the first response to the brief. It wasn't even the second. We had to push for it. And then it took time in production. And it wasn't cheap," said Efford. "Creative agencies when prodded will fall in line; but it's not fast or cheap."

Her comments echoed those made last month by a media manager at Heineken, who claimed creative agencies are falling behind when it comes to keeping up with consumption habits, and are continuing to push for the 30 or 60-second spot - to the detriment of the brand. For Heineken, the most "fit for purpose" work the executive claimed to receive was from DSP (Demand Side Platform) partner, TubeMogul.

Direct Line’s Efford did not seem surprised by this, saying traditional creative agencies are no longer the gate-keepers of the best thinkers and the likes of TubeMogul are able to lean on burgeoning communities of creatives if and when they want.

"It's hugely disruptive. [Traditional agencies] need a fightback plan," she warned. "Especially if they still aren't getting that clients want personalised, contextualised, platform specific content that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and take months to get there."

Indeed, it’s not good for either party if the marketing director has programmatic on their mind and the creative director is planning for a 60-second masterpiece. It's a bugbear held by many an agency, but more than ever investing time in clearer briefs is paramount.

Richard Robinson, managing partner at Oystercatchers, has been observing the shifting relationship between client and agency and opined that the latter can only deliver digital transformation with the permission of the former.

While the Heineken marketer may have bemoaned that her agency was so determined to produce a 60-second TV spot that it offered it to do it Foster’s for free, Robinson questioned why it is viewed as a negative. The Aussie beer brand has been awarded numerous accolades for proving the effectiveness of broadcast media thanks to its comedic campaigns. Armed with this knowledge, is it any wonder why a creative director would push for TV?

"I interpret that as a passionate team, excited about the brand, and so in the context of Foster’s it was a courageous move," Robinson said. As for clients that are demanding greater breadth and depth of digital work, "agencies are fully committed to client campaigns," he urged.

"But the client has to shape their own model to enable the agency to liberate themselves. There is an equal responsibility to look internally so I would like for client organisation to consider what they have to do to give permission to the agencies. That will flush out the agencies that are slow and lazy."

Better late than never, agencies too are trying to shake things up internally to future-proof themselves.

Despite being the brains behind legendary TV campaigns for brands such as Guinness, Sainsbury's, Heinz, and BT, adland stalwart AMV BBDO has not been immune to the call from clients for more personalised, contextualised, platform-specific content that is both fast and cheap to make.

While it will never stop being the "traditional" agency that makes the cinematic TV epics on which it built it's name, AMV BBDO is nonetheless responding to the changing dynamic and increasing competition TubeMogul et al are provoking.

It wants to be the place brands can go to both for the massive award-winning platform ideas - like Made of More for Guinness - as well as the place for it to be brought to life across any specialism, including programmatic.

Scale is it's biggest weapon in this push for more ad budgets and it's unsurprisingly bringing in new talent across all sectors everyday, as well as leaning on the Google's of the world and parent company Omnicom's roster of agencies in order to educate itself on the trials and tribulations of creating digital-first work.

"This is a business model challenge for any agency - you have to either be small and niche or be able to accommodate all things," said AMV BBDO's managing partner Justin Pahl. “There’s no question that the competition is diversifying. We’re seeing in-house creative units, media agencies and media owners all have ambitions and in some cases that might be the right answer. “

An answer that will see even greater diversification, with the likes of Direct Line faced with a raft of agencies, both familiar and new, all promising to help navigate the tricky task of putting out engaging creative work across multiple platforms. Despite criticism, traditional creative shops are not resting on their laurels and will not give up their clients to their digital rivals without a fight.