Chris Hirst
Chris Hirst is the managing director of Grey London, an advertising agency whose clients include Procter & Gamble, Toshiba and Channel 5.

We asked him about the extent to which so-called traditional advertisers are embracing digital.


There is a lot of talk about the polarity between traditional marketing and digital marketing. Are these still separate disciplines or are they becoming one and the same thing?

I think there is no doubt whatsoever that they are becoming one and the same, in the same way that TV and press are one and the same. Digital is another channel to the consumer and the principles of great marketing remain the same; get a relevant message, to the right people in the most cost effective way. Digital is a very powerful addition to the tool box – and one whose impact is yet to be fully realised. But ultimately the principles are the same.


In the world of advertising agencies and impressively large marketing budgets, is digital marketing still seen as the quirky, poor relation?

No, I don’t think it is any more. In some ways I think advertising agencies and digital agencies are now wrestling with the same problem: that is how to create a business which is comfortable in both spaces.

There are many things both do very well and for one business to excel at both will require significant vision, courage and effort on behalf of the company’s leaders. Though many are talking about it, I don’t think anybody has cracked this on any significant scale yet, certainly in the UK. The acid test will be when an agency considered to be a “traditional” ad agency wins a significant digitally-led client.

Ultimately, there will be a pool of great agencies as confident and accomplished in the “old” media and the “new”. The challenge for the existing ad agencies is obvious. The challenge for existing digital agencies is that they aren’t simply side-lined by this process – and end up as quirky boutiques.

At Grey I believe we are one of the few major agencies to have put our money where our mouth is in this regard. For example, we are the first major London ad agency to hire a creative director, Jon Williams, from a primarily digital background. It will require this level of commitment for us to get to where we need to be, but this puts us ahead of the majority of the pack.


Do mainstream ad agencies feel threatened at all by digital agencies
now becoming the lead agency on certain big brand accounts?

If they don’t, they should. There’s no magic formula, advertising is about getting a small number of smart people together around a problem and working out the solution which best fits that individual client’s needs. They need to be quick, open-minded, aim high and be bespoke in terms of how they work with each client: the days of a client fitting in with how an agency likes to work are long gone – and rightly so.

Any agency in theory can do this – but in practice to do it time and time again and in a scaleable way is hard. It’s the way we work at Grey and I believe is giving us an increasing competitive advantage in terms of our ability to meet the needs of clients in a way that is relevant to them in the 21st century. Others will work this out too, but many won’t – whether they are digital or not.


How closely does a big advertising agency such as Grey work with digital agencies when it comes to big, multinational clients?

We pride ourselves on our openness in terms of how we work. We love having the client at the centre of a team which includes the core members of our team and any other partner agencies they work with. Virtually all of our clients work with more than one agency and often that includes a digital agency. For a team to be a success we cannot be busy scheming behind each others’ backs, trying to steal their lunch. A good team demands that members respect and trust each other and we pride ourselves in how well we do this.

However, it is fair to say that digital is now a core part of our business. As well as our new creative director, our head of delivery also comes from a digital environment. We also have planners and account people from mixed disciplinary backgrounds. This allows us to work better with a client’s digital partners as we understand this world, but also allows us to develop our own digital relationships.


Are you seeing much evidence of huge, brand advertisers switching their budget to digital?

Yes, some evidence. I think what is going to be interesting is what happens over the next two years. There is no doubt that the global economy is heading for a very rough time. Marketing budgets are going to be squeezed and I think digital spend is likely to hold up better than the traditional media – although it too will feel the heat. This will only increase the pressure on all agencies to diversify their skills. Those that don’t and don’t do so very quickly are going to really struggle.

I think as we emerge we will find a group of agencies, some from a traditional background and some from digital, who are happily bi-lingual. Those that aren’t may not survive.


Is the importance of “engagement” something new and revolutionary to
digital marketing?

No. I think a load of rubbish has been spoken about this. Marketeers have always had an array of tools available to them to allow them to get their message across and they have used variations on “interruption” and “engagement’ as appropriate.

Great commercials have always used engagement – it is nonsense to suggest that consumers weren’t engaged by Nick Kamen taking his jeans off in a laundrette. In fact, you could argue that the hype and excitement that genuinely existed around each Levi’s ad far out-weighs anything we are likely to see again in our fragmented multi-channel world.

Engagement is not just driving action, it is about stimulating a consumer’s response to a brand. This can be advertising, promotional, experiential, PR, competitions, packaging or online. I think one of the best examples of engagement marketing is the Innocent packaging. For which other brand would you actually sit and read every word on the bottle – and it mean something to you?

What is true of digital is that it allows a degree of interaction and depth that was impossible previously. Used well, this is a very powerful tool, but used badly, like those pop-ups you cannot close, it is just as annoying as the worst TV jingle.


To what extent are you feeling the effects of the economic downturn and do you think that digital marketing is more insulated from this than traditional advertising?

I touched on this earlier. We are feeling the nervousness of our clients as they try to predict exactly how the recession (because I have no doubt that’s what it is) is going to affect their consumers. It is too early to say exactly how bad it will get, but there is no doubt it will effect us all.


How well do you think that television advertising translates to the internet (i.e. rich media)? Is a separate approach needed for online display advertising or can the same TV and radio content simply be re-purposed?

No I definitely don’t think it can be simply re-purposed. To just plonk a TV ad online is lazy and pointless. People use and interact with online media in different places, at different times and expect to use it in a different way to TV. It isn’t a passive medium, it’s an active medium and all content (whether editorial or marketing) should reflect this.

The unique opportunity online offers marketeers is the ability for consumers to interact. If this is done in a rewarding and relevant way the brand will benefit. If not, it won’t. The best example of this not working are the countless numbers of numbingly boring, passive and dry brand websites which exist around the world which I can see no earthly reason for consumers visiting. Yet those who do it well offer such a richer experience to those who visit.


What do you think of labels such as “viral marketing” and “word-of-mouth”? Are they something new or old concepts re-packaged?

I’m not totally convinced about viral marketing as a distinct discipline. Some ideas can work virally, but just from personal experience – not that many. I think this was more successful in the early days of online marketing where consumers were more prepared to play along. Today, I can’t help but feel that YouTube has kind of killed this for anything other than very specific examples.

I think word of mouth is different. We have a very successful word of mouth business, Wildfire, who offer clients a genuinely different way of generating consumer awareness and action – and in general in a very manageable and quantifiable way. I guess there is a degree of overlap between the two and I would expect to see word of mouth continue to develop, both in terms of size and sophistication.