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Ad Agency New Business, Dinosaurs & The Holy Grail

Posted on February 17, 2011


It’s been an interesting couple of weeks on the digital/traditional front. For example: two articles, both from agency principals, with their takes on traditional versus digital shops and the work they do, and to some extent, taking to task the digital agencies for viewing traditional firms as anachronisms.

And as I read the above mentioned posts, I started thinking about several conversations I’ve had with principals at digital agencies lately, asking me how this changing landscape has altered our new business services.  So I’ll combine both topics into one post and say:

1) I really didn’t grasp the depth of animosity in some cases between digital and traditional shops, and it seems the big picture is getting lost (sometimes) amidst what’s essentially become a case of “olds vs. the kids.”

2) Our business, at its core, hasn’t changed (although the channels we use have evolved), in the sense that it’s still about the conversation, building a relationship and presenting value, rather than mindless fishing (prospecting.)

Let’s kick off with Derek Walker’s post on Small Agency Diary last week, Ad Industry Dinosaurs’ Aren’t Extinct; We’re Adapting. Now, I like this post for its tenacity and honesty (although I think the dinosaur analogy gets a bit over the top by the end) but it also shows the depth of animosity, if that’s the right word, that some traditional shops feel toward digital shops. Per the article:

You misjudge how deep our talents and abilities run. You’re too busy laughing and ridiculing us. But understand — please take a moment to grasp — that for my fellow dinosaurs and myself this digital age is no killer asteroid. It is like a new hunting ground has opened up. And the prey is so unaware of how dangerous we are. They don’t even run away anymore.

Wow, okay.  And Derek mentions “laughing” twice more at the end of the piece as well.  Maybe we’re not supposed to take that literally, that shops like Derek’s are actually being laughed at by digital shops, or maybe so?  Either way, the whole article is a strong statement, and I would be interested to hear in comments if this is really how it is in the trenches.  We know from working with and talking to agencies every day that there’s some of this, no doubt, but this deep?  I’m interested to hear.

The second is Bob Hoffman’s Gravity and the Web article in Adweek last week. This excerpt will give you the flavor:

Can anyone name even five serious non-native, consumer-facing brands that have been built primarily by Web advertising? Is there a major brand of coffee, butter, beer, bread, chicken, gasoline, soda, peanut butter, dog food, milk, tires, potato chips, life insurance, lawn mowers, toothbrushes—you get the point—that has been built primarily by Web advertising? I’m a little slow, but frankly, I can’t even think of one.

It’s worth a read and does give the Web its due, but as you can see above, Bob gives his take on the flaws in placing too much emphasis on the efficacy of the Web in advertising at this early stage.

One of the comments after Derek’s article summed it all up nicely for me:

1. Traditional is not going away.

2. Digital is here to stay.

3. How traditional and digital both work is forever evolving. They now feed off and lean on one another and it’s THAT kind of work and relationship the best creatives want to sink their teeth into.

What’s muddying up the picture, in my opinion, is an implied, sometimes blunt, assertion of ageism in some of these arguments.  Not necessarily the two posts I mentioned, (although certainly in many of the comments afterwards) but big-picture, and that’s unhelpful.
Perhaps it’s implicit in some of these arguments, as inevitably age will play into both sides from an experience perspective, but ultimately it’s not going to get anyone anywhere.  Both sides will continue to evolve and as another comment points out, anyone over 30 in this “argument” is really a dinosaur anyway .  (Ouch, I’ll be 40 this year.)

And finally, as to how RSW/US’s business has changed in relation to all this, again, at its core it hasn’t. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the channels continue to evolve, but we would be foolish to abandon, say, direct mail as a tool, for example and an actual conversation, a quality conversation, is still the Holy Grail.  Social and digital play a part as well-they’re just further tools in the toolbox.

Post by 

As Director of Business Development at RSW/US, Lee brings new agency clients on board and handles marketing and social media for RSW/US. You can find him on Google+ ( or Twitter (@leemcknightjr).

3 responses to "Ad Agency New Business, Dinosaurs & The Holy Grail"

  1. Michael Weaver 18/02/2011 15:44 pm Reply

    Been working at the junction of these two camps for the past three years. It's helpful not to see two "worlds" but rather the same consumer with digital dominating the industry's attention. The consumer's attention is still diversified.

    The opportunity is here: Digital devours content. There's never been a bigger market for concepts, images and copy. Yet the Digital camp thinks content is free, or at least easy.

    I shepherded an agency selection a couple months ago, and in a field of eight top digital shops only two made proposals that contained any realistic method or budget for generating and managing content. Yet several chanted, "Content is king."

    Notice in Aaron Sorkin's brilliant script for The Social Network that the original content was just hacked from dorm directories. And when Mark Zuckerberg was giving depositions in the suit for originating the network, he kept saying, "But they didn't write a line of code." Tells us where concepts stand now.

    There's still a big role for strategy, content and other media. To sell it, though, we have to know this current fashion sense. Classic agencies let the media steal the spotlight in the 1980's, especially as cable TV hit its stride. In the 1990's we held our breath while "the new media" took shape. (Rather than leading it.) Now Digital occupies darn near the whole stage.

    But there are no small parts. Let's stay away from becoming small actors.

  2. Dan Gershenson 18/02/2011 15:51 pm Reply

    Bravo, Lee. I'm not exactly sure where the Old Vs. Young argument comes from, but it doesn't serve either side well. Both rail at each other without understanding that we don't live in a world of absolutes where traditional media is dead and digital is king OR where digital is weak compared to traditional. In a given day, I watch TV, listen to radio on the way to and from work, read a print publication, visit websites, interact via social media and receive direct mail pieces. Which one do I favor? Depends on the one that speaks to my needs. Doubt my case is unique.

  3. Lee McKnight Jr. 18/02/2011 16:02 pm Reply

    Michael & Dan, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I really am fascinated by how all this will continue to evolve. I think growing pains is certainly one apt description of where we are now.

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