R/GA, AKQA and Avenue A | Razorfish on the Future of Digital Agencies

May 21st, 2008 by Garrick Schmitt
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I spent last week in New York at our agency’s annual event, the Avenue A | Razorfish Client Summit. Part soirée, part agency showcase and part marketing conference, the event gathers some of the industries top thinkers and marketers for an intensive two-day session on the future of the Internet and advertising.

This year’s guest list was stellar: Guy Kawasaki, Jeff Zucker (NBC Universal), Charlene Li (Forrester), Sir George Martin (Beatles), Duncan Watts (Yahoo!/Columbia University), Andy England (Coors) plus more from Facebook, Joost, Slingbox, Tivo and Microsoft.

But one of the big highlights, in my opinion, was the Agency of the Future Panel with Bob Greenberg (CEO/Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA), Tom Bedecarre (CEO, AKQA) and Clark Kokich (CEO, Avenue A | Razorfish). In a wide-ranging 45 minute conversation, the group talked about the changing digital landscape, the challenges that all digital and traditional agencies will be facing in the coming years and how each of their respective agencies are broadening well beyond digital. In my mind, there were three major themes that really stood out:

Storytelling vs. Interactive Marketing — As digital agencies continue to broaden their services and reach beyond digital, each agency faces the challenge of learning how to bridge traditional agency services with new media tactics. More succinctly, digital has traditionally had a direct-marketing bent and focused on reach, segmentation, analytics, etc. Traditional agencies have mastered the art of storytelling (e.g. how do convey and engage consumers around the emotional components of a brand) via the 30-second spot. The challenge for the new breed of digital agencies is to meld the two and create rich, memorable and engaging experiences in an increasingly digital world. No small task, mind you. Each of the CEOs agreed that they had some success here already, but were still struggling to find the right mix — one that required a new breed of talent as well.

Scaling Globally & Finding The Right Talent — The major challenge that kept each CEO up at night was figuring out how to scale to support their global clients and finding the right talent both domestically and abroad. Each panelist talked about a number of new offices they were opening across the world, the ability to better collaborate virtually via new technologies such as telepresence and how to deal with the notion of “off-shoring.” Finding the right talent was the other intertwined issue here, as each CEO lamented that it becoming increasingly difficult to find the right talent for the work. Bob Greenberg was quick to point out that talent was the limiting factor in the growth of each agency as there was more work coming to digital agencies than there were people qualified to do it.

Organizing Around the Customer — The highlight of the discussion was the consensus that both agencies and clients needed to reorganize around the customer to be successful in the newly digital world. In this changing landscape customers don’t distinguish between traditional corporate silos such as support, in-store retail, ecommerce, advertising and product development. For customers it’s one experience — or more accurately, ten or twenty micro-experiences — that shape the perception of a brand. As Clark Kokich pointed out, the current structure of Fortune 500 companies fails to account for this seismic shift, with no group or decision-maker able to span silos or categories. The best example of a forward thinking client is Nike which has had great success in restructuring around customer segments and interest. Similarly, each of the digital agencies has been tinkering with how to restructure their own organizations around both clients (Fortune 500) *and* consumers. While no CEO offered a silver-bullet, each acknowledged the desire to move away from a discipline-based approach (departments) to think more holistically around the concept of “teams” or “experiences” and a focus on “consumer constituencies”.

It was one of the better panels I’ve seen recently, even compared to some of the heavyweight discussions at this year’s SXSW and Web 2.0 conferences. And, of course, it was a treat to see the CEOs of three fiercely competitive agencies sharing the stage and debating the future of their own firms and the industry with such candor. While no agency claimed to have all of the answers today, sitting in the audience you got the sense that collectively the group was moving, albeit at slightly different angles, to quickly to define the digital future and their role in it.

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