Think the digital agency model is dead? Think again

Digital marketing image

Digital marketing image

A recent article by web law specialist Paul Jacobson, which argues that companies that are more equipped to deal with risk will disrupt the digital agency model, has opened up a very important debate about the space the industry currently finds itself in. While risk can be a factor when choosing a digital agency, choosing an agency on their risk management ability is a bit like choosing a girlfriend based on how organised she is.

I must state that I am not an agency person myself but am a consultant to clients and agencies in the digital realm. With that in mind, my main issue in the article is that it failed to appreciate the myriad digital agencies and consultants out there who are heavily focused on risk management, online reputation management and legal services. Most of these companies and consultants also work closely with brands and creative digital agencies to make sure that their risks are managed.

As far as strategy goes meanwhile, risk management strategy and creative communication strategy are very different disciplines and should not necessarily be expected from one company. It’s therefore unlikely that traditional agencies about to have their lunch eaten by the likes of Deloitte Digital but might do well to take a leaf out of its book.

A far bigger and more immediate challenge is for divisions like Deloitte Digital to be seen as true competitors to creative digital agencies (if this is there objective). The basic principles of brand positioning state that a brand first needs to compete on the key drivers of a category before setting out to differentiate itself on other features.

Deloitte and its kin first need to be seen as being on par or better than the incumbent digital agencies at executing creative campaigns before being seen as the best risk partner in the space. That’s why choosing Deloitte, or any digital agency for that matter, on the competency of risk management is a bit like choosing a girlfriend based on her how organised she is.

As far as risk management goes, the primary responsibility should sit with the client and they should consider using web PR specialists, legal advisors and ORM specialists. For sure, digital agencies should be sensitive to risk and should be able to work closely with their client and the specialists in the area of risk but risk management would not be a competency that should threaten their business model.

A negative online reputation event can end a client agency relationship but the basis for that kind of termination stems from poor leadership from the client side as well as a scapegoating mentality (i.e. it is easy to use the agency as the scapegoat). This is certainly not a sustainable way to run agency/client relationships as it breeds insecurity and stifles creativity.

To add to this, most online brand fiascos have little to do with a creative campaign and more to do with parts of the business that creative agencies have little control over.

I have not dealt with them personally, but from what I have witnessed I have great respect for Deloitte and Deloitte Digital. I am not however convinced that they are creatively equipped (as a digital communications agency) to pull the rug from under the current leading digital agencies.

Deloitte Digital can certainly make inroads into areas where agencies want to expand into, but not the core business of through the line digital campaign development. In the South African market, for instance, the likes of Quirk, Native, Gloo, Gorilla and Cerebra all have a strong sense of the inherent risks of representing brands in the digital and social space but they needn’t make risk management a core competency.

What they do need to do is to work with their client and their client’s legal consultants to formulate a policy around risk. It is not about flagrant disregard for consequences but it should also not be a key driver for agency assessment.

For certain clients, in certain sectors, Jacobson therefore has a point but for the most part clients should gear up for risk management both inside and outside of the scope of an agency relationship.



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