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Digital Agencies Have It All Wrong

I recently had a conversation with the CEO of a digital firm whose mission was to improve consumer engagement with its brand through the online experience. That's good and important because there are over 200 million people online in the U.S., and his work was comprehensive and outstanding.

But the conversation went south when he said, "I told my client, don't waste your money with online advertising. I can take that $5 million and build an incredible online experience." I thought to myself, "If you build it, will they come?"

There is clearly a "digital divide" within our industry. An incredible online experience is important but not if you don't get people to experience it. Does that happen organically? Can you do that through SEO, WOM or social media? Will that happen if your site appears on FWA? Maybe, but not likely.

Traditional Delivers ... Fast

Can you do it with traditional marketing tactics? Yes, and fast. For one client, we recently increased site visits and subscribers by 250% using a combination of on- and offline tactics, with a modest budget, in four months (and the site was no award-winner but we didn't build it).

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Another client was 'sold' a best-in-class Web site from a well-known digital agency for a super-sized fee, replete with wiz-bang widgets and whistles, "absolutely critical" to lead the industry and leapfrog the competition. If only it were that simple.

Advertising agencies have a wider view of their clients' needs. And they have a more comprehensive understanding of consumer behavior. It is true that time spent on the Internet searching, friending, and sharing is increasing, but even more time is spent in the analog world for almost every consumer segment. According to most studies, people go through a behavioral process of need recognition, discovery, and decision-making that occurs in the analog as well as the digital world.

Digital Alone Won't Fill the Sales Funnel

Remember the classic sales funnel: awareness, interest, comparison, and purchase, then referral and repeat purchase? A Web site alone won't bring the requisite quantity of qualified prospects into the funnel, but it certainly can help move them along the route. Cool widgets have great appeal to build interest with certain subsegments but don't do well to convert the playful into a customer. Don't get me wrong. These are all great tools, but alone don't make great marketing.

A cool Web site can be an important part of a marketing strategy, just as a great retail experience or exemplary customer service can. An engaging app or clever widget is helpful to keep the brand front and center, but can't stand on its own. The only thing missing is the customer. That's where the new generation of advertising agencies has it all right. They know how to find and deliver customers on- and offline to experience and engage with all these new tools and techniques. And they know how to pre-qualify, retarget, follow up, and strategically move the customer down the path to success.

Agencies Can Improve

Can advertising agencies improve? Absolutely. Many have lagged behind the development of new technologies and techniques. Some cling to the past for fear of what the future has in store. In this post-recession era, there is a new generation of agency that straddles the digital divide bringing best practices of the past together with the most promising of today's techniques.

The new-generation advertising agency provides greater value and more efficiency to marketers who may have brought on specialists from digital firms previously. Marketers are more likely to look for new agency partners with a comprehensive skill set to free up their time and resources for the other Ps.

We always hope that the customer experience -- once they arrive -- is top-notch, and we eagerly work with clients to ensure it is so. And we seek new ways of engaging customers through apps, widgets, social tactics, events, and viral, combined with traditional tactics built around a powerful creative idea and a sound consumer-centric strategy focused on business results. I'm sure there are digital agencies that do the same, right?

5 comments about "Digital Agencies Have It All Wrong ".
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  1. Steve Schildwachter from BrightStar Care, February 10, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    John, this is an excellent article. Unfortunately some ad agency and digital agency people will take sides over it, looking to their own interests instead of their clients' interests.

    In the recent past, ad agencies were derided for dealing in Ye Olde Marketing, especially TV commercials. A common criticism was "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Digital agencies were seen as offering new and presumably more effective solutions.

    Today, the situation is a little different. Most digital agencies -- not all, but most -- offer only digital solutions, where some ad agencies -- not all, not most, but some -- offer business solutions. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Thanks for the great article.

  2. Patrick Moorhead from Draftfcb, February 10, 2010 at 12:10 p.m.

    Agree with Steve. My experience is that on the digital side, traditional tactics are often considered and imagined in the context of solving a business problem, but there is no experience or ability to execute in the traditional channels, biasing the overall solution towards digital outputs.

    Can traditional / integrated agencies improve in digital? Yes, absolutely. The question that may matter more is will digital agencies have the resources and passion for developing robust traditional and off-line capacity?

  3. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing, February 10, 2010 at 12:34 p.m.

    I read what your friend said a little differently: "don't waste your money with online advertising. I can take that $5 million and build an incredible online experience."

    Maybe he was referring only and specifically to online banners. At 0.15% click-thru, he might be saying he can get better ROI by doing more engagement things on the site. $5 million will buy you a lot of programmer time...

  4. Mel Liebergall from YCD Multimedia, February 10, 2010 at 3:58 p.m.

    Surely the majority of experienced digital agency practitioners are rooted in more traditional media pursuits, given the relative infancy of the digital realm. Accordingly, they should be fairly well equipped to assimilate the best of their prior practices towards bridging the gap between the off and online disciplines. That is unless, of course, those traditional media methods are now but a distant memory... in which case you can always write a few key points worth remembering on the palm of your hand!

  5. Fraser Elliott from Opinions expressed herein are solely my own, February 10, 2010 at 6:47 p.m.

    @ Mel: You'd be surprised.

    @ Patrick: I totally agree, and I'm sensing a bit of an awakening as far as understanding and starting to address the need for developing those capacities. But it seems to be just beginning.

    @ Steve: The hammer/nail thing is actually more evident at the digital agencies I'm familiar with, and to my observation above, some of them (SOME of them) are starting to realize they're holding themselves back from a larger seat at the strategic table by not broadening the experience base of their hires.

    As somebody who grew up on traditional, got immersed in digital, understands you can't count on better conversions if you're not filling the funnel, who looks at holistic solutions rather than those that are purely digital or purely traditional, I'm getting the sense I'm on the cusp of a hiring trend. It can't come soon enough ;)

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