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Euro'vision blog

A look at the key issues for pharma across Europe

The (r)evolution of the digital agency

It seems every ‘traditional’ agency has had to have one – if only by association or acquisition. But rather than the ‘interactive agency’ ruling the world, Max Jackson sees something of a sea change…

“The (r)evolution will not be televised” (Gill Scott Heron)

If you can cast your mind back five or so years (and I admit that given all that has happened in the world and in the industry that is no mean feat!) you will probably remember that at that time one of the most hotly debated topics was the digital revolution. Not specifically about the technology (that is a topic that changes day-to-day) but specifically about how the revolution would happen at agency level, both in healthcare and consumer agencies.

The big debate was who would emerge as the big winners and who would be the big losers. In the red corner were the 'traditional' agencies. Slow to adapt to the new world, and looking decidedly shaky.

In the blue corner the (generally) smaller, more nimble and decidedly cooler, specialist digital agencies. Tom Bedecarré (CEO, AKQA in 2005) stated: "The Internet is at the hub of the equation… The interactive agency is going to be the agency of the future."

And at that time, many people agreed with Tom and the bets would have been on digital agencies (the mammals of the time) winning on all fronts. They would relegate the traditional agencies (dinosaurs not suited to the new world) to the backwaters of history, and rule the communications world.

In fact many predicted that the traditional agencies would end up being swallowed up by the better-adapted specialist agencies. The large holding companies investment strategies at this time certainly reflected this. Anything with digital in its description commanded fabulous multiples and you almost couldn't give away a traditional business. Personally, as someone who was involved in some of these decisions, while we hedged our bets, we certainly favoured the digital angle.

So five years on – what has happened? Well, with few exceptions, the big name, traditional agencies are all still there, and the specialist digital agencies, far from becoming world rulers, are starting themselves to be eaten by what previously might have been considered their prey.

Those large digital agencies that have survived are starting to look more and more like the traditional agencies with whom they compete. Indeed, the traditional agencies (while the names and key names remain the same) have themselves transformed to look far more digital and in-tune. At this level the landscape is becoming much more homologous, much less polarised.

So what happened? Well – simplifying such a complex subject is hard but could be summed up by the challenges each corner faced. One side had to learn to be digital, and the other had to learn to be communication specialists, not channel or technology experts. And the results of these challenges are revealing.

In my opinion traditional agencies on the whole found it easier to adopt and incorporate another channel (albeit a diverse and technology-driven one) into their already broad channel thinking as long as they held onto their core values, while the digital agencies found it harder to grow out of their technology channel-driven approach.

And in a way this is quite reassuring to those of us who, on either the client or agency side, have been watching this develop. Because what it shows quite clearly (at least to me), is that fundamentally great communication ideas are what sell. Developing great ideas using sound marketing principles; knowing your product's landscape, understanding the target audience fully, engaging them at all levels in all ways, in a channel agnostic fashion, is what builds great brands.

Agencies best able to do this well should, by and large, always win out in the long run if they are also willing to adapt. So maybe, as far as traditional agencies go, we should think crocodile rather than dinosaur.

For me, I think that the situation is now clear; there will always be room for specialist agencies providing unique services, but the battle for the middle ground has been decided. As Alice said in her Adventures in Wonderland: “What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?”

In the next Euro'vision I'll be looking specifically at the European landscape and what does and does not seem to be working in the digital arena, and what clients are saying about this change…

Article by
Max Jackson

Max Jackson is CEO, EMEA & APAC, Sudler & Hennessey and former chair EACA Healthcare Communications Council

1st May 2012

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