For years now the debate has rumbled on – should brands be choosing the ‘traditional’ ad networks to handle all their media planning and buying, with digital integrated in that, or do they need to go the digital specialists for their digital needs?

Again the debate has raged in the trade press recently. What are my thoughts…?

Conceptually, and strategically, I imagine that no-one would argue with the notion that integrated marketing and advertising (‘holistic’, ‘multi-channel’ etc.) is the right way to go.

But then conceptually, and strategically, I imagine that no-one would argue that CRM (‘single customer view’, ‘seamless experience across touch points’ etc.) is the right way to go.

Or, indeed, that simply co-ordinating your above the line and below the line activities better might be a good idea. Or that sister agencies within an ad network really do work together for the greater good of the client.

But it doesn’t work that way does it? There are lots of sensible ideas that fall down at the point of executional reality or just don’t suit the business, cultural or operational realities of the brand.

I suspect this may apply to the ‘traditional’ vs. ‘digital’ debate – there is no ‘right’ answer, nor will there ever be.

However, a few observations I would make:

Clients who have moved from digital to “traditional”

Of all the clients / brands that I have talked to who have made the move from a digital specialist to a network I haven’t met a single one yet who isn’t tearing their hair out and wishing their digital agency back.

I would caveat that by saying that the people I talk to are mostly ‘digital’ people at the client / brand. Most of them are frustrated by the move which almost certainly brings them up against tedious new processes, cultural clashes internally etc.

Most of those I talk to are looking to leave their jobs at the moment, or at least seriously considering it. I’m not sure the more senior people at these brands realise how serious a problem this is. Their interactive intellectual capital is walking out of the door.

The depth of digital skills at the ‘traditional’ ad networks

To put it politely I’m consistently under whelmed by the level and depth of digital talent at the so-called ‘traditional’ ad networks. We train a lot of them so I shouldn’t be too derogatory, but the fact that we train them means we know where they’re mostly at.

They have a number of exceptional individuals (particularly some excellent planners), and they recognise the need to evolve (usually), but at the moment they are struggling with the breadth and depth of talent. Hence the acquisition of the digital ‘shops’.

Even when you hear the big cheeses at the networks talk about digital (e.g. not so long ago I heard John Hegarty of BBH talk at IAB’s Engage conference) I never quite feel that they truly ‘get it’. And when they go on to show examples of great interactive work… they’re almost always repurposed TV ads.

I was a little confused too that P&G last year consolidated its online media planning/buying account into Starcom (to get the multi-channel synergies etc.) at the same time as Twentieth Century Fox moved their account from Starcom to Vizeum – to get a more integrated approach… You just have to think that there are ‘other reasons’ at play here (personalities, individuals, agendas, pricing, corporate culture etc.) that have little to do with digital vs. ‘network’ agencies.

Are digital agencies fighting the wrong battle?

If you’re a digital agency then I’m not sure it’s realistic in the long term to think that you will be entrusted with the digital media and planning budget, let alone the multi-channel strategy etc. Why fight this?

A lot of the big clients are moving to networks for buying cost efficiencies. As a digital agency you can’t compete with this in the long term. Let them slug it out to squeeze down the costs on buying pre-roll video slots to air their TV ads online.

What the networks will really struggle with is ‘design and build’ part of interactive. Or let’s call that interactive experience design (and build). Online ads are becoming more and more interactive. If you look at the likes of widgets it’s debatable whether online ads are even ‘ads’. Look at paid search and quality score based on the end user experience. Is that the ad networks expertise domain? I don’t think so. But is it fundamentally important to successful online ‘advertising’? Undoubtedly.

I feel that in the long term the most interesting, and important, and valuable (commercially and brand-wise) part of online is the interactive experience design. Why can’t digital agencies stick to that? ‘Production’ might not sound sexy but I’d say it has more of a future for digital agencies than trying to become big media buyers competing on price.

There are plenty of growing areas where digital agencies can compete, and even make better margins than they currently do – B2B, for example, is a massively under-explored area. Not sexy, but there’s a ton of money being spent there. Name me 3 digital agencies known for their B2B expertise…

Are digital agencies not being brave enough?

There’s a lot of talk about ad networks buying up digital specialists and accounts moving to them. However, why shouldn’t it be happening more (or being talked about more) the other way round?

Why aren’t there more digital agencies buying up offline talent? Plenty of them are big enough to do so now. And there’s plenty of investment money around.

Currently you would think that the hardest part of marcoms, and where there was the greatest scarcity of talent and knowledge, was digital? So maybe it’s easier for a digital agency to bolt on ‘traditional’ than it is to do the other way round?

I know they don’t do the same thing but who would you bet on long term between Google and WPP? Sorrell’s certainly shaken by the digital upstart and sees his market cap way down against Google’s. If he can take Wire and Plastic Products Plc, a UK manufacturer of wire baskets, and turn it into the WPP we now know, then I don’t see why a “digital agency” shouldn’t grow to tower over the ‘traditional’ networks we know today?

Ashley Friedlein