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Do you want to change the world or just build another website?

March 18, 2013 | 9 min read

Co-founder of Birmingham digital agency One Black Bear, Richard Elwell, feels that digital agencies are still not being invited to sit at marketing's top table and continue to be prepared to scrabble around for some crumbs. Here he asks why that is and who's to blame?

Richard Elwell of One Black Bear

Compiling this piece has proved quite a cathartic exercise for me - no bad thing either as agency owners don't do enough introspection of their own shortcomings in my view.

You see, something that's concerned me for some time now (and I'm guessing I'm not alone) is the mental tussle over who owns the 'big idea' these days. I'm talking about the one central thought born long before a sign pen scars a layout pad or a nav' button receives a bevel.

If I was being really honest, it's particularly interesting to me as someone reared under a totalitarian regime of advertising supremacy and that almost divine right of the 'main agency' to the intellectual rights of everything remotely related to marketing.

Increasingly, my own clients regularly tell me that their digital spend is now the most significant...AND the most important....AND the most eagerly anticipated in terms of creative output. “We're looking to you for a modal shift in our approach - every other agency will follow you” they proclaim as though we're some kind of digital personification of Dick Whittington.

Great, so we're well on the way then. Until, that is, their little prelude is followed up by the customary whipping out of a generic press ad' or strategical concept board developed by their offline agency with the question 'can you make it look like this?'.

In fact, digital agencies can often remind me of the direct mail agencies of the 80's and 90's. “Here you are guys, can you take this concept from our Big Bastard Network Agency and turn it into something to shove through letterboxes?” as all too often the ham fisted, thoughtless briefing session would play out.

This both frustrates and fascinates me in equal measure and for months I've been racking (or rather hacking) my brains in an effort to understand our role in an effort to evolve our influence ever further. I guess it pivots largely on how your digital agency is perceived by your particular client. Do they want a digital agency which equates to 'coding and other tech’ stuff my proper agency doesn't do very well' (hence your appointment) or as a lead, game changing, disruptive tour de force that others on the roster bow in awe to?

Often, this can simply be the client assuming a lack of knowledge/interest on the digital agency's part to get their head away from a mac screen and actually think about their brand in anything other than I's and 0's. Alternatively, it can be fear on the digital agency's part of overstepping their remit and daring to change the game rather than 'knowing their place' and sticking to their mandate of making their offline material work on computers.

Put simply, there appears to be 2 stark relationships out there:

1) A two way, all empowering, game changing remit where the agency calls the ball on every bit of marketing/brand activity undertaken and is at the core of any overarching strategy.

2) OR...the scenario where the client sees the agency as the digital equivalent of someone who comes out to mend the boiler and keep the hot water chugging because they, quite simply, wouldn't know where to start - entirely reactive and functional in other words.

It goes without saying that most digital outfits with a microgram of ambition would err towards option 1 and that spiritually, look to seize the same consultative kudos enjoyed by the very best strategic and creative agencies. I also realise this simplistic classification may sound glib, cynical and ultimately self-defeating considering I'm a partner in a digital agency, but I feel it is well worthy of discussion because I believe it's an all too common set-piece conversation in meeting rooms up and down the UK. Truth is, lots of clients are still catching up - particularly in the regions and this impacts the level of remit digital agencies currently foster.

Burn your (mac)book and stuff convention.

Agency owners my age and above are often coy about their traditional agency pasts and strive to hide their 'paper and pens' upbringing for fear of derision from their army of twenty something employees because we dare to mention life pre-internet. Allow me to explain a little more.

Recently, I had the sadistic pleasure of experiencing a real 'caber around the head' moment when I was lucky enough to land a digital credentials with a leading mobile phone network. We duly ploughed through our greatest hits only for the client to leave her most vociferous surgical strike to the very end, namely: “Well it all seems fine, but it's just digital stuff isn't it?” Ouch.

Alas, I know what she meant (despite, at the time, my pig-headed reluctance to stare facts in the face). We were all websites, websites and more websites. Admittedly, all laudable, well designed and well coded websites, but ultimately, websites.

It reminded me of touring London agencies looking for work with my long-time friend and biz partner when some lofty, slick, highly decorated Creative Director would nonchalantly suggest that we 'burn our book and start again'. Yes, of course we lay crushed and dejected but we also compulsively felt the urge to pick up the pens again and prove we could create work above and beyond what he was used to seeing.

You see, being disruptive was alive and well back in the year 1996 BC (Before Computers) and not just now in 2013 AD (After Digital). The result is the same - you take a long hard look at your output, pick yourself up and seek to create a piece that meets with “That's f*cking brilliant, you could never run with that...could you?”

And that, my friend, is a feeling like no other (Well, to such a sad, big idea junkie as me anyway.)

So, now, a good few years later, here I was again and guess what, only the delivery conduit had changed, but the moral was the same and as I headed back up the M40 - still picking out bits of pride piercing shrapnel from Ms. Mobile Network's verbal salvo - I felt strangely energised to take up her bold, albeit daunting challenge.

As I said, you may, like me, have long traded your layout pad for an iPad, but the aim remains the same - one of using digital as a weapon to be different and not just the must have, passive tool of the 21st century.

If we do this, we may all start to get somewhere and suddenly things start to get interesting. This is why it's imperative that digital agencies harness powerful thinkers as well as formidable coders – for these two strands of cerebral prowess couldn't be more different - and it's something at OBB we've always tried to fuse because often, the best ideas to fulfill consumer wants don't always come from the people who Code, but by the people who people watch and observe consumer behaviour and trends - arguably anyone with half a brain walking around an agency who just happens to spot something.

I also think we're at the end of the first act where digital agencies play the role of annexe to the more traditional marketing agency. I say this because a lot of 'digital only' agencies are now mutating yet again to emulate the very agencies they supposedly broke away from because actually, what began life as a 'new kind of marketing agency' is in fact just another strand that could sit alongside and influence everything we do anyway.

Indeed, and to fortify the point, the same agencies we were touring all those years ago are still generating great, game changing ideas in digital so proving that brilliant thinking isn't just the preserve of young agencies with daft names. I think it's fantastic that AMVBBDO is currently the most awarded digital agency in the land and this from an outfit founded over 35 years ago on a diet of elegant, gentlemanly long copy ad's. Or that the current #danceponydance concept for Three hails from Wieden & Kennedy - again, yet another traditional advertising network more famous for creating TV and print ideas.

And there's that word again - ideas.

I really think we can do more, much more - and that goes for my own organisation and more broadly as an industry. Regardless of remit, with every meeting we must promote ideas that shape digital and see our role as wanting to turn things upside down - not just follow convention or yet another predetermined template.

Can smallish digital agencies storm the gates of The Bastille and seize the big idea from the imperial like grip of larger agencies? Probably not, but we can enjoy giving it a good go and who knows.

Oh, and if you need some inspiration (and we all do, let's face it) visit people like www.possible.com, www.agencyrepublic.com, www.akqa.com and www.bigspaceship.com.

When all is said, it turns out you don't have to burn your macbook (gets a bit expensive, trust me) – just take a long hard look at the screen and decide if it's good enough and never be afraid to say 'stuff it, let's start again'.

Go on, do ideas. Don't just do stuff.

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