For me, the most nerve-wracking and exciting part of dodge ball was always the start of the game. Each team is lined up on their own base line, with the balls balancing on the centre line. The whistle blows, everyone races to grab a projectile, and if you don’t get one, you’re in trouble. You are both close-in and completely exposed to your opponent. And unless you can back-peddle fast enough, you are probably going to get pegged and eliminated from the game.
Right now in the communications industry, there’s a four-sided game of dodge ball happening. And there are some big players heading for the middle. Advertising, PR, media and digital agencies are all fighting for control of the ball. Each agency discipline is aggressively repositioning to ensure relevance and liquidity in the future. The drive to own digital is at the centre, as a disproportionate share of reinvigorated marketing budgets is being redeployed to support online initiatives. The big question is who’s going to left standing once the game is over? I would argue that those who best understand of brands, and on what terms people want to engage with them online will win.
It’s remarkable to me that the idea of a convergent model is just now starting to take hold. The big multi-national agency that I worked at 10 years ago had an interactive department. Heck, it was almost as big as the “general” side of the agency before the dot-com world imploded. 360 degree thinking was our competitive advantage.
So why does it seem like now so many traditional advertising agencies are still scrambling to catch-up? It’s probably because traditional agencies can see the end game now that clients are finally, truly interested in digital. Social media is the catalyst for digital’s resurgence. Because anybody can now easily own and alter a brand’s image online, marketers are taking digital more seriously than ever before.
It could be argued that traditional agencies that arguably have the most to lose in this game. They have long been the coolest kids on the block, the owners of the big idea and the group best positioned to make their clients either rich or famous. Without a credible digital offer, these companies risk going the way of the dinosaur, frozen out of the picture as newspaper readership and television viewing rapidly dissipate.
On the other side of the fence we see digital agencies now looking for employee candidates with general agency credentials. That’s because digital agencies are increasingly getting the opportunity to sit at the grown-ups table instead of being forced to eat with the kids. As interactive specialists, they obviously have the most credibility when it comes to generating innovative and engaging online solutions. But can they do more than just think digitally? This is a business model that’s typically been concerned with deploying projects on budget and on time, rather than focusing on the bigger picture. This mentality must change for digital players to truly emerge from executioners into architects.
I sometimes find it surprising to sit in meetings with media agencies and hear them talk about digital. I think that this group has the farthest road to travel, largely because they still think in terms of mass media versus mass personalization. An example, at a recent event I attended had a media person on stage speaking about the millions of people who are flocking to social media. To the listener, it seemed as if the speaker was recommending taking out targeted ads on Facebook, which to me is no better than your average pop-up.
Of all the agency disciplines, PR firms hold a slight advantage, having moved off the line on social media earlier than anyone else, it being a natural extension of their traditional line of business. Media relations became blogger relations. But PR agencies cannot afford to rest on their laurels, as the rest of the industry is speedily catching up. PR agencies must make every effort to replicate the apparent success of firms like Edelman, who seemingly have broken through traditionally skimpy PR budgets to develop breakthrough ideas funded by marketing. They must move beyond becoming a 21st century clipping service and learn to think more strategically about how to leverage social media.
So who will come out on top of this battle for digital and communications supremacy? I would argue that no single discipline will win, but there will be victors from each quadrant. Those agencies who can demonstrate that they understand brands, and how people connect online will ultimately reign supreme. The rest will be left watching from the sidelines.