Web Shops Go From Underdogs to Top Dogs

While digital shops have fared better than their traditional counterparts in recent years, a hot-button question points to their still-debated status: Can these agencies move beyond their primary role of tech jockeys to become leaders of brand strategy?

In the past two weeks, AKQA and R/GA, two of the industry’s top digital shops, have attacked this question head on by winning lead agency assignments from brands. Design software company Autodesk tapped AKQA for digital and traditional work; and Ameriprise Financial hired R/GA as its lead shop.

Such assignments are still the exception to the rule. Yet the general expectation is that the number of these jobs will increase, particularly as digital initiatives become core not only as marketing channels, but 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 a slow evolution.”

Ameriprise, for instance, was won over in a review that included shops like Publicis & Hal Riney by R/GA’s plan to create a brand platform that moved beyond 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.”

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, now 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 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 it’s “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 business.

Agency.com, San Francisco, has seen some success as an integrated agency. Ask.com recently gave it lead agency duties to launch its Ask Deals product, with Agency.com doing TV spots that drives viewers to the Web. Jordan Warren, president of Agency.com San Francisco, said the shop’s digital heritage is a plus in how it approaches traditional channels. “Our programs begin online and extend to the offline world,” he said.

For all the progress they’ve made, digital agencies face numerous obstacles in becoming brand stewards. For one, they must gain client trust. Too often, digital agencies get lost in the tech details and the latest-and-greatest platforms, according to Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer at TBWA. “Long-term success is based on being able to protect and guide a CMO through the marketplace and through their own organization,” she said. “Understanding a medium will quickly lose ground to understanding marketing.”

Clients are now more open to including digital shops in pitches for lead assignments, said Ken Robinson of Ark Advisors. He advises agencies to not underestimate the importance of account service and planning. “A lot of digital shops … are caught up in programs and platforms,” he said. “Digital shops should be looking more macro at clients’ businesses.”

According to a recent Forrester Research survey of interactive marketers, over 75 percent said their digital shop is “not ready to lead my brand.” The reticence, according to Forrester’s Corcoran, is due to traditional agencies being “embedded at the senior levels.”