Why agencies don’t get taken seriously when it comes to Digital

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Adweek published an article recently, titled Traditional Shops’ Digital Skills Deemed Unimpressive. The bottom line:

Asked to rate their traditional agency’s digital skills on a scale of 1 to 10 — with 1 equating to “poor” and 10 meaning “excellent” — only 3% of the 277 client executives polled chose excellent, and almost half – 47% –ranked their shops between 1 and 5.

Not surprising, me thinks. Paradoxically, agencies have been investing in specialist Digital skills over the years. Yet, independent units are perceived to be better equipped to partner clients in this medium. Why so? Forget big thinking strategy, the everyday attitude towards this medium makes a huge difference:

1. Techno-savvy, tech friendly senior people are a rarity in most agencies.  Most would confess to using their laptops only for  email and some web surfing. They can configure their handset for receiving mails (with a little help from what’s-his-face from the IT Department) and that’s about it.  This ‘I-just-need-the-basics’ when it comes to technology attitude is worn as a label and people are actually proud of it. The attitude percolates – creating an agency culture. It subconsciously manifests in the lack of enthusiasm for the medium and a communication tool. Far fetched? Perhaps.  But there’s no denying that true integration happens at the top.

2. In traditional agencies, blokes who are techno-friendly and get wide-eyed about digital and social media campaigns are seen as losers, freaks, ‘also rans’. They are labelled as those who doesn’t have a life and find time only for tweeting what they had for breakfast. Their excitement towards a digital campaign would be met with a cold ‘what’s so great about it, son?’ look. The message that gets conveyed is: how we grew up- reading books, meeting people face to face, watching movies in theatres, going to plays, not having a mobile phone – is the superior life. The life that you lead – fake friends on Facebook, tweeting about irrelevant things, glued to the mobile for hours, watching movies on the Net – is an inferior form of life, suitable for cretins. I have no problem with ‘back in the old days things were better‘ attitidue – it happens with every genration. I would crow to my juniors how tough it was when I joined advertising and I am sure they will do so to their juniors 10 years from now. Living online 24×7 is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the world is shaping that way.

My problem is with complete apathy toward the certain digitally oriented aspect of today’s youth. I think it is important that agency folks, especially the senior ones have a first hand experience with it. How does it feel to post  a YouTube video, write a blog, comment on a post, tweet constantly, install a plugin…do the stuff that digital dwellers do? If we do it ourselves maybe it will help us understand the medium better. And then go on to craft brand campaigns for this medium. Shouldn’t we be practicing what we preach? It was different some 10-15 years ago. How the campaign creators consumed a medium was how the target audience consumed the medium. The difference may have been in the programme – so a Malabar Hill copywriter who watches BBC would create a TV spot for a Hindi heartland woman who  watched ‘Phool khile hain’ on DD. It’s different now. I could create a TV sport and go home to a book; my target audience hasn’t gotten off the phone and goes home to a video game.

I am not for a moment suggesting that if agencies let everyone surf the net, Facebook through the day, watch online videos – they will get to become great digital agencies. But an open attitude towards the digital life is a beginning. My daughter, just over 4, gets to draw out words on my iPhone – very different from my pencil & paper childhood. Her consumption of media 10-15 years from now (shudder, shudder) is going to be different from my Doordarshan-infested teenhood. Let’s accept the fact that today’s youth consumes media differently from us and move on with it. Since we are paid to craft brand campaigns that appeal to them, we should make an effort to understand it. Better still, live it.

Image Source: Flickr

3. ‘Stick to the old and don’t try anything new’ is the mantra when it comes to office computers – the most visible aspect of being digital. Most of them run Windows XP and IE 6 is the defalut browser. Gawd. YouTube videos take forever to load – and every damn viral video is nothing less than 10mb strangely. Attempt any multitasking (you know, tweet while you surf, do research, check some videos and mail all at the same time) by installing Firefox and you  promptly hit a firewall. The IT guy will berate you for even thinking beyond any Microsoft product. No, I have nothing against MSFT (yeah, right) but the attitude ‘oooh-let’s not tread anywhere close to unfamiliar territory! We are not allowed to!‘ sucks. The fear? ‘Things will go wrong. You may have virus attacks’. So saying they will go fix the Blue Screen of Death in the Creative Department.

4. The digital campaign is always an after-thought.  Back in the days when Direct Marketing just started out in India, the DM guys were always the last to present during a pitch presentation. Similarly, once the TV idea is cracked, the digital guys are briefed about adapting it on to the web. The agency mind space is where the big bucks are, naturally. The digital medium and the fee paid to digital units are pittance compared to what is at stake when it comes to mass media.

5. In India, TV is still the king; not playing the digital game well isn’t going to hurt the traditional agencies for a long time to come. But hey, you never know. There are signs of client expectations are changing fast. Many in the auto, finance and travel segments (even FMCG with the likes of HUL’s Be Beautiful campaign) have digital campaigns planned and created for that medium, using the medium’s unique characteristics. It is only likely to happen more and across many more sectors.

As a start, what if agencies borrowed from this practice being adopted in Nokia India? I read in an article in Business Today (can’t find the link) that at Nokia, every senior executive is attached to a ‘mentor’. Except that the mentor is in the 25-30 age group while the senior could be in the 45-50 age group. The job of the mentor is to spend time with the senior executive on a one-on-one basis taking him through the latest trends in the various aspects of the mobile handset/business market. It could be about the latest mobile apps, handset trends…whatever. It acknowledges the fact that the business is changing fast and needs all the help in understanding it. What better than the help coming directly from those who experience it every day. Maybe agencies could have a similar structure – a mentor puts a senior through the paces on how brands can use Twitter, how people search for information in this digital age…and so much more.

The big bold steps in the digital space have already been taken by the traditional agencies. Maybe it’s time for small changes like these that will change perceptions.

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  1. Totally agree. And it is not just about 'age' per se. I'm not convinced that Ad Agencies understand content well. They understand Copy as in messaging well, the 'telling' well. But I'm not sure they understand how to generate content that folks want to read as opposed to generating Advertising Copy that tells what the advertising / client wants to.

    This is one reason that even if the 'older' folks in traditional Ad Agencies get a clue about Digital and hence to an extent about Social Media, they may stll not be able to deliver.

    Everyone in Ad Agencies will know 'Content is King,' but they have little clue that Advertising Copy does not automatically translate to Content.

    To understand Digital they will need to move beyond the compulsive need to 'Catch Attention' and onto, 'Engage Attention'.

    It's a big jump, and merely knowing Digital will help little.

    • Anil, that was a good point on attitude towards Creative. What works in one way medium does not work in an interactive medium. But as you said creating engaging content comes from an understanding the medium and unlike 'old world' media like TV and radio this one is a bit different.

      • Absolutely. Ad Agencies need to look beyond relating Digital to mere interactivity as in SM and/or website components [buttons, flash elements, etc.] and instead come around to recognising that the best interactive element is text as in useful content and not the "catch eyeballs" Ad Copy. The hook comes from utility of interactivity and not from mere interactivity for the sake of it.

        Mass Media is about 'Awareness', and it is this awareness generated that the Digital component of an Ad Effort should leverage, extend, and consolidate. Digital needs to be the second step after a Mass Media campaign, and planned accordingly. Instead we have Indian Ad Agencies attempting to use Digital as an awareness platform which is okay if there's no Mass Media campaign running else it is a duplication of effort. So we have the Agencies getting Mass Media to say one thing, and then Digital component saying the exact same thing.

        Interactivity is of little use if it means merely leveraging technology and not as a way to extend communication beyond what a Mass Media campaign can achieve during the first burst.

  2. The problem is looking at Social media as an alternative to the mass media.
    Social media does a great job in Consideration phase of a product purchase life cycle while mass media wins in Awareness generation phase.We have to understand the merits and de-merits and integrate social media in the bigger marketing plan rather than stopping at allocating a marketing budget to the online campaign.
    Amazing depth of analysis by you Mr.Bharath.I just got hooked your blog and have been reading it for the last 2 hours.
    Great work.

  3. I agree with most of what you've said and mostly about its being an after-thought. And what makes it worse is that it's thought of when there are no budgets. So social media is suddenly the non-paid for media, but it just doesn't work that way.

    And as much as the agencies are to blame, it's also hard to come across clients who want to be/can be equally involved in the creation of a real digital campaign. Which is not just having a Facebook page or Twitter page or YouTube channel but having a real digital strategy with as much effort, time and thought put into it as with is the case with a TVC or print campaign.

  4. Hello Sir,

    I agree with @Caleyn. The problem today is that social media is seen very much a different form of media than the conventional ones. But the brands that are or want to go online should not think SM as a different form but as a complimentary form to the offline marketing activities. Something to sync with their other promotional activities. SM may create some awareness but it’s not a standalone media.

    Kunal Lodha
    Student – Marketing
    Alliance Business School

  5. However, traditional agencies do something known as a 'viral'.

    It's the TVC that the client didn't approve and you somehow get them to buy a watered down version that will be uploaded on Youtube so that it can be shown to your friends.

  6. Hey, thanks for posting that Nokia example. Quite an interesting idea to influence culture.

    One way of looking at this "problem" as it were, is to think that what we really do best is ideas. And so if the audience shifts mediums, we simply execute an idea on a different medium. Of course, easier said than done. But look at some of the stuff that's online at the mo'.

    Wrangler Blue Bell, for instance versus say, Diesel (you blogged this earlier) or Jaago Re (when it went online to complete the pledge bit)

    You've blogged some interesting ideas in the past on where/when/at what point can digital best engage audiences. Think that merits another post, coupled with what you've said here?

    Thanks for bringing this up again. Cheers'

  7. One of my common complaints while creating communication has been that very rarely does the creative team know much about the lifestyle or the media consumption patterns of the consumer. A hard-rock music listener will try and pen a Gulzar style melody…. sometimes it works but most often it just doesn't work.

    It's very essential that when we get back home we read & view media channels which probably are audience is consuming, only then can we design and fit our ideas into them.

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