The digital agency has been through a lot lately. In less than a decade of rapid changes in technology and human behavior, the digital agency has gone from “new kid” to “shiny object” to “acquisition target” to something that is now looked at as an also-ran to the thriving world of social media, emerging technologies, and the increasingly competitive world of the app.
It’s gotten to the point where, on an alarmingly frequent basis, we find ourselves fielding questions from clients like, “Do we really need a website?” or “Why pay for an online ad buy if we have a Facebook and Twitter account?”
As media fragmentation gets further amplified by the aggregate pull of Facebook, the value of the traditional online campaign is constantly being challenged. Sure, people are spending more time than ever online; but in that time, they are visiting fewer places, and their conversations increasingly revolve solely around one topic of their choice.
In addition, how these types of conversations start is increasingly becoming intertwined with the role brands, agencies, and audiences play in creating that spark of conversation. To say that the audience is no longer passive is an obvious understatement. But it is how the narrative of that conversation is seeded, moderated, and fed that represents the biggest opportunity (and challenge) for agency marketers. And it is this vital life blood of social media that rescues the digital agency from irrelevance and obscurity in the branding process, even as it would seem to be making it obsolete.
The agency was, is, and always will be tasked with telling a story that captures the essence of a brand and places it into the public consciousness as if it had always been there. The tools with which agencies tell that story have changed over the years — from handbills promising cure-alls to contests, sweepstakes, print ads, radio and TV spots, online campaigns, and social media conversations. And at the Tootsie Roll-like center of every one of these campaigns is a story.
It has been said that America’s greatest export is the story, which makes Hollywood and Madison Avenue, arguably, our greatest natural resources. As we cede steel, dry goods, agriculture, and technology to globalization, we remain the world’s largest exporter of story… both in the traditional sense, and in the marketing definition.
From movies to games
Here’s an example: A movie is a passive experience. But video games have brought the Hollywood-esque full-length narrative story into the hands of the audience, letting them direct and guide it at will. The brand story has changed in a similar fashion. Talking at your customers rather than with them is so last-century. And it’s no longer a given that the audience will passively absorb a brand’s message. Audiences now fully expect the brand to participate and invite them into the conversation; to be acknowledged as an integral part of that story and critical to its success, because the reality is… that’s what they’ve always been.
We’ve been saying this since the internet was in diapers. We have created, controlled, and directed — to great success — the stories of some of the world’s biggest brands. Over the last decade, we’ve seen trends come and go, companies rise and fall, and we’re still here to tell the tale. Now, with the advent of the social web, we have new tools, new audiences, and new methods and best practices with which to tell our brand stories.
The truth is, more than ever, brands need the digital agency to craft their stories by harnessing an ever-increasing array of social media tools to optimize the conversation and direct it to meet their goals. By building a symbiotic relationship between the brand and customers through the careful seeding of the conversation, the digital agency stewards awareness of the brand’s personality and, by doing so, helps shape its legacy.
Beyond creating and refining the natural tone of a brand’s story and conversation, the digital agency’s role is to coordinate that message from a 360-degree / transmedia perspective through ongoing engagement on a variety of platforms. Print, online, mobile, TV, social… it’s all equally important. And in today’s hyper-connected environment, each channel can tell a different, inter-related part of the story. The digital agency’s responsibility to the brand is to select the best tools to tell the story. For that to work, of course, the brand must trust the digital agency to recognize that communication trends shift, evolve, and adjust.
As the lines continue to blur between entertainment and marketing, some agencies will organically evolve into hybrid studios that produce “branded content” to further service their brand(s). Programming with the brand message baked in, marketed by the content creators who have limitless tools at their disposal is something that forward-leaning agencies are working toward. For example, our agency has been actively creating original branded content for theatrical, home video, and brand clients. And, more recently, we began producing our own original projects to pitch to brands in a reverse-engineered take on the traditional model.
In this future that we are all writing together, we are the story. You, me, the brand, and the audience are all creating it. Where it goes is anyone’s guess. But, to borrow a metaphor from the Titanic, it is the agency’s responsibility to create an “iceberg,” then point frantically and shout ICEBERG, and help the audience “change course,” thus creating a dramatic hero moment for the brand, and a memorable chapter in an ongoing saga.
And no, the ship doesn’t sink in this version.