Brands Consider Digital Shops to Lead Creative

Are digital shops starting to leapfrog traditional agencies?

In the past two weeks, AKQA and R/GA, two of the industry’s top digital shops, have won lead agency assignments from brands. Design software company Autodesk tabbed AKQA for digital and traditional work, and Ameri-prise Financial hired R/GA as its lead agency.

Such assignments are still the exception to the rule. Most clients aren’t ready yet to trust digital shops with their brand strategy, according to many agency executives. Yet the general expectation is that this will slowly change, particularly as digital initiatives become core not only as marketing channels, but also as internal drivers of innovation.

“We’re all waiting for this big moment when a bunch of interactive agencies take over from the traditional guys,” said Sean Corcoran, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It’s not happening that way; it’s a slow evolution.”

Ameriprise, for instance, was won over in a review that included traditional shops like Hal Riney by R/GA’s plan to create a brand platform that moved beyond only communications. While its digital approach helped it stand out, said Kim Sharan, Ameriprise’s CMO, the shop will also handle TV, print and other traditional duties. “We didn’t see any skill gap,” she said. “They really brought a fresh perspective.” Autodesk rep Pam Pollace said AKQA’s roots in digital gave it a “different perspective. A large part of what we do is digital. That’s really where we’d like to have that expertise and perspective.”

Some digital agencies are retooling to get in position to lead assignments. That means playing up their integrated marketing capabilities and sometimes soft-pedaling their history as interactive specialists. Omnicom Group shop Organic, for instance, is crafting a new agency positioning that emphasizes its ability to build relationships, rather than its Web site building heritage.

“It’s important for us to get upstream, or we’ll be back where we were three years ago, matching luggage,” said Conor Brady, CCO at Organic, referring to the typical Web agency task of making Web sites that mimic the offline campaign.

Moving up the chain is on the minds of execs at most digital shops. Razorfish fights the perception its “just interactive,” said Bob Lord, Razorfish CEO. The shop is currently in a pitch at a hotel chain for a through-the-line account and has added direct-mail work to its Mercedes interactive account. “This digital-traditional line has to go away because it’s so blurred now,” he said., meanwhile, has seen some success as an integrated agency. Ask recently gave it lead agency duties for a campaign to launch its Ask Deals product, with doing TV spots that drives viewers to a Web experience. Jordan Warren, president of San Francisco, said the shop’s digital heritage is a plus in how it approaches traditional channels. For instance, in an earlier Ask campaign, it ran TV spots from Web videos that got the most traction, making the Web the shop’s own gigantic focus group. “Our programs begin online and extend to the offline world,” he said.

Despite encouraging developments for digital shops, they still have a perception problem. In a recent Forrester Research survey of interactive marketers, more than 75 percent said their digital shop is “not ready to lead my brand.” The reason, said Forrester analyst Sean Corcoran, is traditional agencies “are embedded at the senior levels, and the interactive agencies are just starting to make progress.”