Traditional advertising vs digital

The war between traditional and digital agencies is about to get bloodier. Whose side are you on?

Gentlemen (and ladies), we must expect heavy casualties. A tragically large number of creatives lost their livelihoods last year because of the recession, but I believe there will be even more job losses in the next 12 months, for an entirely different cause – the long-looming battle between digital and ‘traditional’ agencies is about to get bloody. And I’m afraid that many innocent creatives will become victims of the fall-out.

The recession has accelerated the conflict. Think about it. The advert­ising pie has shrunk, as it always does in recessions, except that now this pie has to be shared between two different agencies. Clients are paying for two sets of creatives, two sets of planners, and two sets of account handlers … not to mention two receptions, two post­rooms, and two sets of security guards. They won’t want to do that for ever, not with their own margins under massive pressure.

Probably the only thing stopping every client in the land from putting all their business under one roof is that few of them believe one single agency can handle both their digital and their above-the-line.

But that is now changing. Above-the-line agencies such as bbh and Grey are showing increasing expertise in digital. And some digital agencies such as Glue are winning business above-the-line. And this year, each side is going to launch a major assault on the other side’s territory.

I don’t know exactly which agencies will win and which will lose, but it seems pretty clear that when the dust settles we will be left with only integrated agencies. As in so many things, the US is several years ahead. And the agencies that are winning over there are largely the integrated ones, agencies like Crispin Porter, Goodby Silverstein, and Droga5.

Agency groups which have separate above-the-line and digital operations are already starting to merge them. For example, ddb is moving Tribal DDB’s creatives down­stairs to sit with the regular ddb creatives. This all sounds very friendly, everyone coming together like one big happy family, but not all of the family members will survive. How can they, when there are such obvious cost savings to be made?

So how does the average creative, down in the trenches, avoid becoming a casualty of this war? Your tactics depend on exactly which trench you find yourself in.

If you are in a pure digital agency, I believe you are facing severe danger. There’s no-one obvious for your agency to merge with and it faces a vicious fight for every piece of busi­ness with an encroach­ing above-the-line agency, which normally has longer and deeper relationships with their clients. Your best option is to move to a pure above-the-line agency that is looking to hire digital experts. Do it as soon as you can, would be my advice.

If you are in a traditional agency which doesn’t do interactive work, you are also in grave danger. In three years’ time your book will be obsolete. Creative directors will regard it in the same way as a rusted Tiger tank or a Sopwith Camel, and you will find it very hard to get another job. Your best strategy is to get another job now, or as soon as you can, in an agency that ‘gets’ digital.

If you are an above-the-line creative in an agency that does do digital, or is merging with a digital affiliate, then you are in a good position, but you’re still not completely safe. To avoid obsoles­cence, you must actually be doing interactive work yourself – don’t just merely observe it going on around you.

The danger is that the digital briefs will all go to the ‘digital people’ who have been hired in (or merged in) to the department, and not you. You must get these briefs, and that means you need to either steal them, or convince your ecd you are digital-savvy. You could try joining Twitter if you haven’t already, or sending some ‘interesting interactive stuff’ around the department.

If you’re a digital creative in an agency that’s now doing both online and traditional work, you are in a position of some strength, but you’ll need to convince the bosses that your expertise lies not just in interactive ideas, but in ‘ideas’. You’ll need to start coming up with ‘brand platforms’ – horrible phrase – which simply means big ideas that can be executed in any medium, both digital and traditional.

That’s what we’ll all be doing, when the war is over.

‘James McNulty’ is a creative at a London-based advertising agency

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