Can Interactive Shops Step Up?

It’s been my experience when talking to interactive shops and looking at their work that they’re more focused on executing ideas rather than brand-building strategies and initiatives that can be used across all media. They’re good at what they do, but it’s a niche, and they’re not scrambling to hire the right people to change that.
A new survey reported in Adweek seems to support that:

Digital agencies are improving their skills to help clients strategically, but still fall short in their ability to lead broader marketing and brand strategy, according to a new report by Forrester Research.
That inability means Web agencies in the near term will continue to be relegated to the role of implementer, while a client’s traditional shop takes the lead, said Brian Haven, a Forrester analyst.
“The interactive agencies are in a position where all their staff is focused on executing on digital,” he said. “They need people who understand that broader relationship between online and offline media.”

What that says to me is that interactive shops need to get out and start hiring the right people–people who can crossover to new media, whether their experience reflects it or not. Because it seems to me that if interactive shops did that, they could dominate. After all, most of us are digital immigrants, not digital natives. What do you think? Is this report right or wrong–or both? How can interactive shops start taking the lead?

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for Dan published the best of his columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. I think it’s a complicated problem because when a shop first starts it’s sink or swim. Implementation pays the bills where as general agencies exhaust money and productivity to go after the brand building work. They can afford to but very few digitals shops can. But if the “general” shops are so smart at branding and big ideas how come they didn’t see digital coming?

  2. generic account guy says:

    this is a big-time pet peeve of mine. as an “account guy” in his mid-thirties with great fortune500 brand experience, I have applied for several jobs at different interactive agencies in the past couple of years. with each I was turned down because I “lacked interactive experience”. never minding that I have an intense interest in the interactive discipline and can talk intelligently about it. so, here’s my argument – no client or potential employer has ever asked me to personally build a TV commercial in an edit studio…for that the agency obviously has specialists. yet, I have had no shortage of success in selling million dollar TV productions to clients. because, as everyone knows and understands, the ability to edit a spot is not a requirement for selling to the client the merits of doing that spot. but, the interactive agencies think that to sell rich media or SEM or something ajax-y, a person must have computer science degree.
    so, yes, I think the report is right.

  3. Pattern Recognition says:

    There may be a little bit of a pissing contest going on. For years, the general market people have looked down on the “tech guys.” So in response, interactive folk built up a “we don’t need you people either” attitude.
    Now that the barriers need to come down, the cultures haven’t adapted to play nice or be more open-minded.
    Further evidence we’d be alot better off in this business if people zipped up their pants and kept the egos in check.

  4. I’ve a got a diatribe about this over at my blog,
    The bottom line is yes, they can. But only under certain conditions…

  5. I think the important question that I don’t have the answer to is should interactive agencies worry about such things. This question is from a sheer business stand point. As comment one mentioned interactive agencies are making pretty good money right now using a different business model than a traditional ad agency. Is the current interactive business model (basically more broad and less deep client work) a sustainable model?
    I agree that in theory a great interactive agency could and should handle leading the entire brand. However, is that the most profitable thing to do both near and far term?
    Once again, I don’t know the answer to that and it is something we ask ourselves often.
    I imagine part of the answer is as the more webby the world becomes the more every agency will be interactive and the better business model will rise to the top.

  6. No agency should be without interactive staff and skills today. Likewise no account person and no creative person should be without these sklls and experience. And we all need to be working on building bridges between interactive media and the rest. How these things fit together is a crucial piece of any campaign. But getting them to work together is almost impossible when there are two or more parties operating separately. Problems arise when the TV and print people want to do it their way and the interactive people want to do it their way. The trick is doing it the consumers’ way. Which means understanding consumers’ needs first and foremost. In other words, the execution flows from the consumer insight and that’s what we need to specialize in. The fact that we can then go make the stuff is icing on the marcom cake.

  7. As you know, this is an argument near and dear to my heart.
    For many years, interactive shops were staffed by general agency designers (e.g. studio staffers) who knew Flash and journalists looking for a better paying gig.
    In other words, the creatives had no training in branding.
    That’s changing these, and as it does digital shops may indeed take the lead creatively on accounts. I did a post called “Toad Predicts” a while back (and I’m too busy now to grab the link) about this very eventuality.
    What still surprises me is that a Razorfish or hasn’t grabbed a famous general creative by the bank account and brought them in to run the place as a way of establishing creative creds.

  8. While I’m not famous, I’m up for being “grabbed by the bank account.”

  9. Sorry for the novel. To the original point, interactive shops were only focused on executing because the big shops, (the George Parker BDAs), ran the general show.
    Little by little though, it became easier for interactives and the others to grab niche projects that the big boys couldn’t or wouldn’t handle. Coupled with increased growth in the internet and the brands born there, now as a shop you could cut your teeth and have success for a brand instead of having to use TV.
    Then search and media firms started popping up, complicating the issue. Now it seems no shop is strictly one thing or another as far as interactive goes. Some do backend and SEO/SEM. Others do website design and backend. Others do viral and web.
    From there, you have an emergence of a who can do it all for a brand. No longer is the Holy Trinity of TV/Print/Radio what drives a brand, especially with so many new brands emerging, nor is it the province of the BDAs.
    Now they’re trying to shore up their capabilities in this area by gobbling up hot interactive shops. But while they’re in this feeding frenzy though, those other smaller to mid shops have been improving their brandbuilding skillsets.
    Having done a stint at a search firm trying to become ‘creative,’ I can safely say those shops that were always ‘geeks’ to begin with are going to have a helluva time adapting. Creative’s either in your agency’s DNA or it isn’t, because a shop full of programmers does not get brand strategy.
    Nor does media. I was in a recent pitch with a well-known media shop and they plan to basically follow the old reach and frequency model: blitz the online space with the brand’s ads. Didn’t matter what the ads were, they simply planned to outspend everyone and be everywhere. And the brand buys off on it because they want to be where consumers are. Yikes.
    The idea they should grab a real creative at the upper ranks is a good one, but again, if the shop isn’t committed to change, well, I lived the nightmare of butting heads every step of the way. SEO, backend, project managers, etc. who know nothing about building brands simply do not want too change their ways.
    Right now, the small design shops who have interactive chops are the ones who are positioned the best. Still, once the supertanker BDAs turn the ship around, they may just control things once again.
    Thing is, can the small design/interactive shops make enough inroads into brand perceptions that only the BDAs know how to run things before this happens.

  10. What I think no one has mentioned here is that there’s also a disconnect at the client end. A shop, digital or otherwise will always try to sell big lofty brand campaigns but apparently clients with the exceptions of a few like Nike and VW don’t see digital as a place for branding. I’ve been to almost every digital shop in NYC and they don’t all need Rockstar Creative Directors from has been general agencies that are more talk than work. They need clients to wake up. In support of where clients spend money remember Google is rich from keyword search advertising. That sector represents the overwhelming amount of digital ad dollars.
    And at the comment from Generic Account Guy, I think whether on the account side or Creative side how do you expect to get into a digital shop if you don’t have digital work to show them?