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December 12, 2009
Advertising’s West Side Story (Sans The Bernstein Score)

Over the past month or so, I’ve come across numerous articles and blogs in which pundits are heralding “The death of the traditional agency.” Conversely, I’ve read rebuttals, both direct and indirect, from industry experts proclaiming that the “digital” agency has hit its apex and will soon fall prey to the pitfalls that all agencies face. As if something out of West Side Story, the advertising industry seems to have broken into two factions. I myself, being an employee of a strictly digital firm, find it hard to agree with either camp.

First let me say that I am not a believer in the demarcation line that has been drawn between “traditional” and “digital” communications. Yes, there are agencies that offer solely digital practices and then there are those that appear entrenched in the status quo. Yet I challenge you to find a major ad agency that doesn’t offer digital services to its clientele. It is my belief that the actual craft of communicating and the principles employed by these two camps are, at their base, the same (or nearly so).

As I previously stated, I work at a digital agency. One of our largest initiatives in 2009 was the enhancement of our social media practice area, so in turn I set about expanding my own acumen. In order to accomplish this feat, you might be surprised to discover that I did not have to unlearn the tenets and axioms that were embedded in my mind through a degree in advertising and years of experience at “traditional” firms. It might even shock you to learn that these things actually helped me! To be clear and to avoid any detraction from the challenge of this task, there was certainly a learning curve and I would be negligent to claim that I’ve mastered social media in all its forms. I continue to learn more about social media everyday, though more often I’m broadening my technical understanding and not the communications principles that guide actual strategy.

I admit that the scope of digital communications is larger than merely social media, but this example is indicative of my larger point. Qualified research, solid strategy, exceptional content and measurable results will continue to be the pillars of advertising, no matter the form or medium in which it exists. These are principles that oldest-of-the-old-school embraced and ones that the new-kids-on-the-block continue to rely on as canon.

Many assume that the move away from traditional, top-down communication is a by-product of the digital revolution. If we were to take a look back in time to the turn of the century, prior to the advent of Twitter and when Facebook was strictly for college kids, we would notice that vertical communication (i.e. traditional advertising) was already beginning to give way to dialogue and direct consumer engagement. Back then, guerilla/experiential marketing emerged as a way of carrying out campaigns that directly engaged the consumer and “Word-of-Mouth” became a staple in every good adman’s vocabulary. I make note of this because it is important for us as advertisers to remember the time before social media, breakthroughs in mobile technology and the advancements made on Web. The communications model was changing ahead of the medium, and well before digital agencies became as prevalent as they are today.

It is a sobering fact that the largest of the agencies, the ones that once held court in this industry, face difficult times ahead. Smaller firms are more nimble and thus hold a decided advantage moving forward. Yet large or small, the truly great minds in this industry realize that the future of advertising needn’t be thought of as one path or the other, but of creating campaigns that encompass all mediums: old, new and emerging.

I portend that in 2010 and beyond the defining line between digital and traditional will become more opaque. Although late to the party, traditional agencies will attract the necessary talent to compete with the digital agencies that have thus far demonstrated a superior adroitness. Many of the most talented Digerati want to work for the edgy boutique agency, but let’s not forget that even in these dire economic times, the big agencies have deep pockets. Those that are unable to attract the talent and adopt models more in line with the digital age will fall by the wayside (as we’ve seen in 2009). Consequently, digital agencies will most likely expand their own practice areas into production and other “traditional” services. The big winners will be the Wieden’s and Crispin’s, those that have been prescient enough to build diverse talent pools and practice areas, and are capable of crafting multimedia campaigns that defy traditional definition.

There is, however, a way of settling this debate once and for all. Traditional and digital agencies must take to the streets and dance-fight. Just like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. Should this happen, I will make myself available to sing “I Feel Pretty.”

Author’s Note: I actually loathe musicals and have no idea where my knowledge of West Side Story comes from.

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Justin Celko is a digital communications professional based in Chicago, IL. Follow him on Twitter.

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