Agencies and echos

Here I am in New Media Age. Always a pleasure. And this article makes a good exposition of the vast range of agencies competing in this area.

It would have been nice if they could have included the ‘However….’ after the bit where I talk about how good non-digital agencies sometimes aren’t at digital design.

Also a bit of a shame that the article somewhat uncritically peddles the Doc Marten’s work, which was exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote the ‘however’ bit. 

In any case, for any of you interested to know, here’s what I originally said.

– Traditional design agencies have been busy upping their digital games over the last couple of years, and many believe their involvement in brand identity gives them an edge over their pure digital counterparts. What is your response to this? 

It’s certainly true that a lot of traditional agencies are working hard to break from marketing-led and brand-led design areas into digital design. Equally, it’s obvious that they have some of the most important building blocks: passion, imagination and an understanding of their clients’ brands. However, whilst many have produced interesting work, there is still a great deal of opportunity to for  most of these agencies to build out their digital capabilities and to continue to move towards more digitally-oriented thinking.

In disappointingly many cases, agencies appear to lapse into re-deploying their staff without considering the different skill sets and experience that are needed for the best digital design and strategy. And, without a fundamental shift in skills, we will too often see offline thinking brashly applied online. When all you have is hammer –as the saying goes – everything starts to look like a nail.

The most obvious change required is the understanding of digital as more than a transmission of communication messages, in which the recipient is an essentially passive observer. Instead, we must be in the business of creating and managing entire consumer experiences.

Putting the user truly at the heart of the design process, the business strategy, and innovation cycles requires a structured approach to research, evaluation and insight, sometimes overlooked in the desire to sell an image-led or communications-idea dominated campaign. 

Agencies must also avoid shying away from looking hard at clients’ business realities. When the project you’re working on has a life outside of Photoshop, you need to think not just of how you will create it, but what it’s true lifespan will be: how will it be maintained, how will it impact on the business; what will the business do to make it a valuable asset?

Finally – and perhaps most surprisingly for agencies committing to the digital area – is lack of understanding of the technology itself. To be truly digital, design agencies must eat, sleep and breathe technology. They must be fascinated about what it can do and how it works, they must push the boundaries of what is possible and the experiences it can create for consumers.

– What advantages do you believe pure digital agencies like Conchango have over traditional design agencies moving into this space?

Strategic design agencies like Conchango have structured our business precisely around creating and enabling incredible customer experiences. We are not here to win petty awards but to make a real difference to how our client’s customers feel about their digital interactions. Our team comes from a very varied background. Yes, many of the team have worked in brand- or advertising-led businesses. Others may be user-experience specialists, experts at experience planning and management, experts in business change, or technology specialists. Our ambition for bringing this eclectic team together is to transform our clients’ digital customer experiences. And so we are aligned behind that single goal, in a way in which we believe some traditional design agencies will find it difficult to do.

 – What do you think the biggest challenge is for traditional design agencies trying to grab a slice of the digital pie?

Design agencies are a varied bunch and the challenges will vary widely. Many will need to seriously rethink how they use research. Some will need to look at their skills in interaction design or technology. Others will need to think about how they plan for experiences which have extended life spans. Whilst adding new disciplines, agencies must work hard to make the most of the skills that already exist: quality visual design, quality copy production, client management and so on, without trying to merely roll them across to the digital space.

– What do you believe we will see in 2009, in terms of how this landscape will evolve?

There will be a polarization, as there was in 2000/2001. Design agencies must either get serious about digital or get out of it all together. Getting serious will require investment and a willingness to undergo a change in culture. But, in a market  where supply outstrips demand (especially at the bottom end), agencies still dipping their toes in the digital pond will find it is time to refocus on their areas of strength.

The complexity of digital thinking and digital design will  continue to increase over the next 12 months, accelerating  in line with dramatically shifting patterns of consumer behavior and significant increases in sophistication across many technology areas. It’s an incredible space to be working in, but agencies must be driven by more than a motivation to get where the budgets are going.