Antony Mayfield is right – for now

Across on my link blog recently I drew attention to an excellent e-book that has recently been published by Antony Mayfield and iCrossing. One of the predictions that Antony makes is that digital agencies will become clients’ agency of record in the near future – a prediction I took issue with in a comment on Antony’s blog. I felt that PR agencies were better placed to assume this role because they are more accustomed to operating across media channels or through channels which you can’t own or control – but since I am essentially still a PR and Anthony works for a digital agency, you could understand the difference of opinion.

Today Antony backed-up his prediction with this proof from Ad Age that digital agencies are already becoming agency of record. I therefore have to concede the point. However, I believe this is but a temporary victory! Clients’ shift to digital agencies reflects the wider shift in advertising from traditional media into on-line. This has been driven by the fact that traditional media is having less reach and impact as consumers spend more (media consumption) time in on-line spaces. However, this client shift on-line is rarely a result of of a shift in marketing and communications behaviour that recognises the fundamental nature of the change from traditional media to social media – or Gutenberg media to the post-Gutenberg world as I prefer to see it. Instead the shift is driven by conventional media planning – moving your mass message out of a place where there are declining consumer eyeballs into a place where the eyeballs now hang-out. The basic thinking behind this is still Gutenberg, channel dependant, thinking.

When a client “gets” the change that is taking place, they realise that they need to abandon channel driven approaches (digital is after all is just another channel) and focus on developing assets in content, conversation and community which can exist totally independent of any particular channel – digital or otherwise. Once this happens, they will realise that they need a lead agency which is not channel dependant but is what I call an ideas aggregator, an agency which can develop and idea and be its steward in terms of managing its delivery across many channels and via many specialists. This is an idea I first punted around in this post some time back. My contention is that good PR agencies are closer to an ideas aggregator that any other type of agency around at the moment.

So – in the short-term I am prepared to cede leadership to digital agencies – but in the long-term my money is on ideas aggregators (albeit these agencies don’t actually exist yet).

It is a bit like social media monitoring. At the moment there is lots of money being made by agencies offering products and black-boxes that allows clients to monitor and analyse the conversation going on in social media. However, in the long-term an organisation’s dependancy on an intermediary to tell them about the conversation is a function of their lack of actual participation in the conversation. And participation is the place they need to get to if they are going to be able to operate in the post-Gutenberg world.

Antony also said that digital agencies are more likely to be able to assume lead agency status because they are structured like ad agencies – with planners, creatives, account people etc. Personnaly I am not sure about this. Ad agencies’ structure is a function of their channel dependency and their need to sell solutions which feed the channel based specialisms and competencies of their creative resource. This structure is currently their biggest impediment to moving forwards and, in my opinion, it is the thing which ad agencies will need to de-construct if they are to still be around in a few years time.

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