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July 3, 2008
Interactive Agencies and Passive Mentalities

To get the credit and the power, it’s time for interactive agencies to step up

Last week, there was a kerfuffle over the credits attached to the Cannes Lion-winning HBO “Voyeur” concept. Seems the interactive agency Big Spaceship thought it deserved more credit than the lead agency, BBDO, gave it.

Aside from a inside-the-industry squabble over trinkets and credits, the story exposes what is rapidly becoming the next battle in the advertising: Where do the interactive people belong?

We all know the MO of lead agencies—and by “lead agencies” I mean the brand agencies, traditional agencies, “big dumb agencies,” whatever you want to call them. They want control. Over ideas, money, credit, over everything. They’ll control it all until they die.

So it’s time for interactive agencies to step up. And open up. Or step back.

How? Start hiring idea people. Hire strategic thinkers. Look at brands from a more complete perspective. And offer more services to clients.

It’s gotten to the point where interactive shops hire people who’ve spent much of their careers doing online work. Which is doable given that marketing on the Internet has been around for 14 years or so. Those people are in demand.

But there’s a host of people who aren’t given a second glance, and they could potentially be the most valuable people to an interactive agency with dreams of growth and glory. The idea people aren’t always still thinking in strictly old media—TV, print, etc. They’re more open to new media than you might think, and they're out there experimenting with everything from blogs to web videos to social media apps in their spare time.

What interactive agencies and the hiring managers within them don’t realize is that most creative people in advertising don’t often control the media in which their ads appear. For most creatives, particularly in bigger agencies, it’s the client, or a locked-away-on-another-floor media department, who often determines that a direct mail piece is needed, or a TV spot, or a print campaign. Nothing precludes true creative professionals from thinking of ideas across all types of media if the desire and the budget is there.

In the grand scheme of the business and marketing worlds, new media is but one niche tactic. Which makes interactive agencies niche businesses. Marketers need it all—in all media. If interactive shops don’t expand their horizons, they’ll always be at the kids’ table in the corporate boardroom. In 3 or 4 years, an agency that only does interactive work will be as relevant as an agency that only does radio.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a niche business. But niche agencies will always be dependent on others to set the agenda or share the wealth. And in advertising, the largesse of a lead agency to other shops working on an account is sorely lacking. Plus, if they want to, big agencies can gobble up the little interactive businesses or throw money at their people and suck them into the big integrated marketing vortex.

But interactive firms, like small ad agencies, can be nimble, fast and survive with the right people and services in place. And in revenue terms, it’s a singular advantage of interactive that a client’s sales are only a few clicks away from any banner ad, microsite or Twitter post. Which means for most companies, interactive will always be an integral part of the marketing plan going forward.

All of which makes interactive shops different from what have been long known as production companies that do film or video. It goes beyond, “here’s a storyboard, now film it.” Interactive agencies take ideas and make them work—really work. And the ideas have to work in multiple ways, with a number of methods of getting into them. Making a microsite or game does you no good if there’s no method—emails, blogs, press, ads, anything else—for consumers to find it, experience it, or link to it.

In the end, marketers will go to whoever shows them results. You can either think it begins with tactics, or it begins with ideas. The most sophisticated tactics won’t be effective if the idea isn’t compelling. And the best ideas won’t be effective if they’re not executed with new media in mind. Clients don’t have time, or money, to waste on people who can’t do both.

The rap on big agencies has always been that if something wasn’t TV, radio or print, it didn’t matter to them. Now, the same attitude exists in interactive agencies: If it isn’t digital, it doesn’t matter. Neither position is right.

We’re all still learning. That goes for interactive people, too. As long as traditional agencies want to claim the “idea is king,” interactive agencies will always be the king’s servants. So bring the ideas. Beef up your long-term thinking. Recognize how online is affected by offline, and vice versa. You can’t go wrong.

Because for a brand, the big picture can’t be measured in pixels.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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