The problem with digital agencies (part 3)

Welcome to the third installment in what is essentially a one-man brainstorming exercise. To cut a long story short, I’m kinda having a Jerry Maguire moment. Having recently had the opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at things career-wise, something about the way digital agencies engage with their clients really rubs me the wrong way. I’ve laid out the first two parts of what I hope will eventually form a coherent argument below, and will attempt to refine these over the next few days.

If any of you would like to put in your 5 cents’ worth please feel free – I just ask that you try and look at the point I’m trying to make, rather than nit-picking with specific exceptions to the supporting premises (e.g. ‘It’s not always just the Marketing or IT people who commission the digital agency’. Really? No shit?). The more I think about this the more I’m convinced there’s a valid point in here somewhere. So bear with me and hopefully we’ll get there soon…

If you managed to follow me through the posts below, let me try and pull it together for you as simply as I can. There are certain inherent constraints at play within any typical organisation. These include a general lack of understanding of digtal media (particularly in the higher echelons), and functional siloing. These are manifested in a lack of support (budgetary, creative, and logistical) for digital projects, that more often than not dooms them to failure.

At this point I’d like to elaborate on this ‘failure’ thing. It is my opinion that the majority of digital media projects fail, and they do so on one or all of the following:

There was no valid, pre-determined measure of success

Before you disagree, look at the two key words in that sentence: valid and pre-determined. Going back to the client with a list of page views, user registrations and enquiry form submissions doesn’t count – unless a rigorous consideration of the client’s business drivers and KPIs had indicated these as the most appropriate metrics to target. Did you go through that process? Or did you just try to convince the client that these metrics would suffice? Guess what – odds are they didn’t believe you.

The don’t achieve anywhere near their potential

If you proposed a solution within the existing problem situation / brief / system (whatever you want to call it) as it was presented to you, rather than trying to understand where the inherent limitations lay and how they could be overcome, you haven’t even scratched the surface. I won’t elaborate here, and there’s really no point in doing so – you know I’m right.

Regardless of outcome, no learning resulted from the project

At this point I could easily wade into a comprehensive account of organisational learning, but it would take too long to provide anything worthwhile. If interested (it’s bloody fascinating – trust me on this) see Peter Senge‘s bestselling The Fifth Discipline, or my Master’s thesis, which provides pretty solid coverage in chapter three. All I really want to say on this is that if the only thing the client learned was whether or not the project was a success (and like I said, they probably didn’t even find that out), they didn’t learn anything.

Why is this important? You’re the agency – if the client gets too smart they won’t need you at all, right? Calamity!

Pay attention now kids, ‘cos here’s the big point I’ve been building up to:

The behaviour exhibited by any system is determined by the (check out the Organisational Learning links above) ‘Mental Models‘ of those involved. If you want to change the behaviour of the system, you have to address the mental models. (i.e. to find the right answer, first you have to ask the right question!)

What does this have to do with digital media projects and the role of agencies? Simple: I put it to you that in the majority of client organisations, conditions are not conducive to the succesful design and execution of digital media projects. In most cases there is an inherent lack of understanding and support for digital media throughout the client organisation, which leads to failure on at least one of the criteria laid out above. The role of the digital agency should be to address these (systemic) limitations, fostering organisational learning and bringing about a set of conditions (mental models) that are conducive to success. In short, agencies should be building their clients’ capability to pursue the wealth of opportunities afforded by digital media. But they don’t.


Ok I got there, and while it’s a bit rough I’m confident that there’s something to it. At this point it looks like I’ll need two more posts to tie this up: One more to flesh out the ‘what the fuck am I really challenging agencies to do’, and another to summarise in a form that makes a little more sense. Stay tuned…

The problem with digital agencies (ctd)

If you’ve just dropped in, you might want to read part I first.

Ok so let’s recap: The client doesn’t know what they want or need, and has probably been filled with a bunch of bad ideas by their other agencies, who resent the shit out of having another player on their patch and are most likely pitching against you. The person who initiates contact with the digital agency doesn’t have the authority to commission anything that impacts anyone outside their own department, and will encounter resistance from all corners if they try (from above due to a lack of understanding of digital media, and from other business units for the usual reasons – functional siloing, feifdoms etc).

Note. I’ll use the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘strategy development’ quite a bit in this series of posts, and it might seem like I’m one of those wankers (I’ve met more of them than I care to remember) who throws the term around without really understanding what it means. I promise you that I have something quite definite in mind, and I’ll elaborate on this later. While you may not agree with the terminology (not that I give a shit), I hope at least that you’ll agree that whatever you want to call it, it’s what digital agencies should be doing instead of this ‘design and build’ bullshit. But I digress. Please read on…

Sometimes a cold call will make good, and once in a while the Yellow Pages ad pays off, but often as not some kind soul makes a referral that lands the digital agency in front of the client. This is it – the golden opportunity. And what happens?

They cave in and whore themselves out, just to get the sale.

Don’t believe me? Check out the website of any digital agency. Web development, text messaging systems, mobile applications – it doesn’t matter. Click on the ‘About Us’ or ‘Services’ link (they always have one) and you’re sure to find some guff about how they ‘partner with the client’ to develop a ‘best-of-breed’ ‘strategy’ based on the client’s ‘business requirements’, ‘user-centric design’ etc. Then you click on the portfolio link and it’s all the bloody same.

Let me tell you the dark and dirty secret of the digital agency. The purpose of that first meeting is to find out how much and what kind of budget is available. Then they come back and present some pretty pictures of what they want to do, and others showing swell work they’ve done for other people. There’ll be some evidence in there that they’ve done this kind of thing before without killing anybody, and a proposed budget that’s *surprise surprise* pretty much exactly what the client had budgeted for this project.

Sometimes a separate ‘strategy’ or ‘consultation’ budget is proposed, but often as not the budget will be design and build only. The agency will tell you it’s because they consider strategy development to be part of the pre-sales process that they can recover from the build, but we know better. There’s no figure shown, because there’s no strategy development. There’s no strategy development because the client only has budget for design and build. There’s only budget for design and build because the client organisation as a whole doesn’t understand or value digital media in the same way as it does TV, Radio and Print. And that lack of understanding and value is because nobody has really tried to take them through a good, robust strategy development exercise.

At this point it might read like I’m ripping on digital agencies, but I’m not. It’s not some insidious plot to squeeze budget out of the client, any more than the clients inability to do anything truely ground-breaking is due to them being lazy, stupid or criminally inept. It’s systemic – the client is encouraged to pursue short-term mediocre projects, and the agency is encouraged to deliver them. Everyone’s happy, right?


Blame whoever you like, but by far the majority of digital agencies (and don’t think I’m just breaking balls here at home kids – it’s the same all over the world, trust me on this) are selling design and build. That’s it. They talk about strategy development, thought leadership etc, but at the end of they day they’re just churning out project after project after project. And here’s the rub – that window is closing. Fast.

How’s that? Simple. Design and build services are becoming commoditised. Your work looks great? Good for you. Your shit doesn’t break, and does what you said it would? What do you want – a fucking cookie? The old joke was that developers are the bus drivers of the information superhighway. I’m not sure that analogy holds any longer though, ‘cos you can’t really outsource bus driving to India at a lower cost and with a better result for ths customer. A similar thing is happening to design – it has to be good just to be in the game, and certainly isn’t a solid means of differentiation.

So how do you stand apart from the crowd? When all your design and build jobs start heading offshore, what have you got left to offer? What you have is what you should have been doing all along.

Next up: what is this ‘strategy development’ thing I keep talking about?

The problem with digital agencies

As you know, I’m back in NZ right now and looking for *gulp* gainful employment. For the last 5 years I’d worked in a digital marketing agency in Auckland, before taking off to London in April for more of the same but on a much larger scale. Now that I’ve had some time to step back and take a fresh look at things, I’m finding myself really turned off by the thought of going back to an agency environment. Sure the work’s fun and interesting, and the clients are cool for the most part – I just have this mounting feeling of dread that the whole system (the way digital agencies generally engage with their clients) is inherently flawed. I’ll try to refine my thoughts over time, but for what it’s worth here’s my first shot…

Let’s start with the client. In a typical situation, the agency is engaged by the Marketing and/or IT departments. Neither of these generally has much sway outside of their own business units, and it’s often the case that anything requiring more than a rubber stamp is too damn hard to even contemplate. This is a major problem from the get-go, as NOTHING a good agency would / should want to do resides solely within one functional group. Customer acquisition and retention, operational efficiency, communications – these are ORGANISATIONAL objectives, with implications at every touchpoint! Anyhoo …

If you’re lucky enough to be dealing with the department head and not fobbed off to some grad flunky because ‘we’re up to our necks in it right now’ you’re still facing a world of hurt, because unless you’re face to face with the man / woman at the top you’re in for a hell of a struggle if you want to enact any meaningful change in the business.

Marketing managers are typically sales reps made good, with an average tenure of about 2 years. They know very little about the web and related technologies, and so are heavily realiant on the advice they receive from agencies. Traditional (ATL & BTL) ad agencies are well-placed for dealing with these people because the nature of that relationship was established decades ago and they’re all used to it (let’s face it – little has changed in Print, TV or Radio in the last 50 years). This can be a big problem for the digital agency, because the ad guys want your budget. All of it.

Now, your Marketing manager really doesn’t care about anything besides not getting hassled, and looking good when they move on in 2 years. Impact on the company’s bottom line is harder to demonstrate than having a nice pretty website to point to (and ROI is NEVER discussed with ad agencies). As such they’re more likely to be swayed by pretty pictures and a strong portfolio of past projects than a meaningful attempt to uncover sources of opportunity for the business. Enter the man with the pretty pictures and it’s all over, Rover.

The IT manager is a different beast altogether. They don’t care about ANYTHING except keeping their (emphasis on the word ‘their’) systems running smoothly. They don’t give a shit about the Marketing department, customers, or, profitibility, and will hobble you at every turn. The IT Manager is a necessary ally, but for God’s sake don’t let them assume the role of decision maker – else you’ll be arguing the relative merits of MOSS vs Tridion, PHP vs JSP etc till the cows come home (or more importantly, till one of your competitors screws you by talking to someone with real vision and authority while you’re getting nowhere with the IT guy).

The man / woman at the top is your best bet then, right? That would be nice, but these people are even less web savvy than their Marketing team and give less of a shit about stuff they don’t understand. What you really need is support from throughout the client organisation – multiple functions (Marketing, IT, Operations etc) and levels (from the shop floor right up to the board). Anything short of that and you’ll be continually knocked back by blocker after blocker after blocker.

This may read like I’m ripping on the client, but I can assure you that I’m not. Organisations (the kind of organisations that have budgets worth going after) are inherently political, with trade-offs between functional groups and knowledge disparities throughout. There are more issues at play than those I’ve mentioned above, but an exhaustive list wouldn’t serve to support the point I’m building up to – that agencies tend to take the easy out instead of striving to make a real difference for the client.

Next up: the agency

Speaking of cautionary tales…

I’ve had this theory for quite a while, but most of the people I’ve discussed it with vehemently deny that there could be anything to it. So here it is:

The Cat in the Hat is a cautionary tale about a child molester.

Think about it. Mum and Dad go out for the evening, leaving the two kids alone in the house. As soon as the car is out of the driveway there’s a knock at the door and *surprise surprise* it’s the Cat in the Hat. From here on in we’ll call him the Pervert in the Raincoat (PitR) to help drive my point home.

Wasn’t it a hell of a coincidence that the PitR turned up just an Mum and Dad left? Was it arse! He was casing out the house – probably the whole street – waiting for the opportunity to make his move.

So he turns up at the door and blags his way in despite the kids’ protesting that he stay the hell out. And what does he do when he gets inside? Among other things he’s got a bunch of other kids (‘Things’ One, Two and Three) stuffed in his hat to toy with at will. How creepy is that? Would you let your kids hang out with some wierdo whose sole preoccupation seems to be meeting children? Unless you’re Michael Jackson I’d anticipate a resounding FUCK NO, so I’ll assume we can at least agree that PitR ain’t right.

What else does he have in store? A bunch of *messy* games throughout the house, including one played in the bath. The bath? Reminds me of the episode of Diff’rent Strokes where Arnold’s friend got molested by that guy from WKRP in Cincinatti. (Best Family Guy parody ever).

So PitR barged in with his catamite crew, initiated all kinds of unnatural hijinx, made a complete mess of the house and then buggered off. Let me ask you this then – why were the kids so terrified Mum and Dad would find out the PitR had been there? I’ll tell you why. Because the PitR convinced them it was ‘their special secret’. Either that or he’d kill the kids and/or their parents if anyone squealed. Same old story – starts with ‘Give yer Uncle Bully a kiss hey?‘, moves on to ‘Uncle Bully is going to be gentle with you… as gentle as a lamb‘, and ends with ‘It’s our secret, hey Gracie? You hear me, girl? Keep your mouth shut‘.

Don’t get me wrong – I love this book. Ted Geisel died when I was 17, and I wore a black armband to school that day. I just think it would be a hell of a lot better if people took on the real moral of the story. Parents should keep a close eye on their kids at all times, and certainly never leave them at home alone to go out on the piss. Kids shouldn’t open the door to strangers. If a stranger – or anyone for that matter – makes you feel uncomfortable you should get the fuck out, find an adult you trust and tell them. Unfortunately, the book ends with the tragic misconception that it’s all for the best if nobody finds out. Shame, that.

Do NOT trust this man!

Lazy Bastard

Yesterday being your typical rainy sunday (we get about 52 of ’em a year hereabouts), I decided to make the most of it and slouch in front of the telly with a couple of old friends – in this case a DVD of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 original) and a bottle of brandy.

As with most of Roald Dahl’s stories, this is a tale with clear messages on morality, parenting etc – if your kid is a glutton, spoiled little shit, tv addict or just plain nasty (chewing gum was the least of Violet’s problems, IMHO), they’ll get their just desserts. If they’re a good honest kid like Charlie, however, they’ll be sweet as a nut. Simple, right?


Watch the movie again. The biggest villain in the whole flick is Grampa Joe, and he just cruises on without a care in the world!

Consider this… By his own admission Grampa Joe has been in bed for the past 20 years, whining about the cold floor and presumably baking some inspirational cabbage farts. Presumably Charlie’s Dad was on the scene for some of that time (he’s still around in the book and in Tim Burton’s movie, but no mention in the Mel Stuart flick), but from the haggard look of her I’d say pool old Mrs Bucket has been making his dinner, slopping his bedpan etc all by herself for quite some time. A man in that position would seem to be at death’s door, right? Nope – all it took to get him out of bed was a ticket to the bloody chocolate factory! One look at that golden ticket and he was not only vertical, but singing and dancing like a lunatic. I didn’t buy the initial swaying and staggering for a second, by the way, and I doubt Mrs Bucket did either. If I was her I would’ve waited till he went to sleep, smothered him with a pillow and gone to the chocolate factory with Charlie myself. Then again, my parents had better hope to hell they never end up being bed-ridden old codgers ‘cos I wouldn’t let them move in with me in the first place. But I digress…

So somehow the whole family buys Grampa Joe’s ‘miraculous recovery’, and off he goes to Wonka’s with Charlie. Actually you never see the family after that scene, so it’s entirely possible Grampa Joe bumped them all off in their sleep to stop word getting out (20 years in the sack would get you a pretty tidy invalid’s pension. Assuming he could keep collecting his and Josephine’s, plus George and Georgina’s, he’d be back to well over a single pipe a day I reckon). Then again, the whole plan would rely on his knocking off Mrs Bucket first, and if I was her I’d be sleeping with one eye open, know what I mean? Look at his face, folks – the man is creepy!

Anyhoo, off they go to Wonka’s. Charlie has signed what is obviously a pretty rigid contract, and all he has to do to get a lifetime supply of chocolate is not fuck anything up. It’s not like he has to win a chololate eating race (that would have gone to Augustus) or toss an Oompaloompa the farthest (Veruca, thanks to the ‘powerful build’ she inherited from her dad) – all he has to do is keep his hands in his pockets and his mouth shut. After the examples set by Augustus and Violet he’s actually doing pretty well, till what happens? Grampa Joe says ‘Let’s try some of this fizzy lifting drink Charlie. There’s no one around. We won’t get caught.’ But they do get caught, and if Charlie hadn’t had the nouse to give his Everlasting Gobstopper back to Wonka he would have been back in the shed eating cabbage water for the rest of his life. Friends like Grampa Joe are the reason the burns wards are always so chocka at Guy Fawkes time… ‘If you light 20 at once it’ll look really sweet etc…’

So what I’m wondering is this – assuming Dahl’s failure to punish the über villain Grampa Joe was intentional, what precisely is the moral of the story? Reponses via the usual channels please.

Tomorrow’s class: why ‘The Cat in the Hat’ is actually a cautionary tale about a child molester.

Four more years, boys!

So after their best, most intensive and probably most expensive World Cup preparation to date, the AB’s bowed out to France in the quarter-finals yesterday, just hours after England eliminated Australia. I’m going to break with the pack for a second and raise two immediate observations:

First up, I think this is GREAT for rugby. Sure it sucks if you’re a Kiwi or Australian fan, but seriously – who would have predicted that two of the top teams would exit in the quarter-finals? England v France and Argentina v South Africa in the semi-finals? With Wilkinson back in form it’s entirely possible that England will make the final or even win, this despite a 36-0 drubbing from South Africa in early pool play, and pre-tournament form (or lack thereof) that had even the most one-eyed English supporters conceding that they didn’t have a snowball’s chance. Argentina? Loving it! One of the things that pisses me off most in big sports tournaments is the constant belittling of the ‘minnow’ nations. You get a lot of this in cricket also – the small countries are crap and have no chance of winning, so why even let them compete? I’d like to think that between this World Cup and the cricket World Cup earlier this year, the minnow argument is now well and truely closed. You never know when a less-favoured side is going to find form, and when they do it’s bloody fantastic!

Second, it might be just me but I think the NZ public’s reaction to the loss has actually been rather good. The NZ public are pretty gracious winners, but losing is a different matter. The sackcloth and ashes routine after the last World Cup was a national disgrace. When we lost the Americas Cup to Alinghi the public reaction was so damn embarrassing I couldn’t bear to watch TV or read the papers. Today it’s not so bad: We lost the rugby, the boys are coming home, there will be some changes to the team and administration, and we hope to learn from this one so we can be sure of winning a home final in 2011. Could it be that we are finally growing up as a nation and learning to accept defeat as a natural (albeit undesirable) consequence of competing? Here’s hoping!

I for one am really looking forward to the remaining three matches of the tournament.

Four years really isn’t that long, you know. See you then, George!


I’m baaaaaaaaaaaack!

In more ways than one. For those of you who hadn’t managed to pry it out of me via email, SMS, Skype, water torture etc (damned if you aren’t a persistent bunch), it ‘s true – I’m back in NZ after just six months in London. The reasons for the shift are deeply personal, but the end result is the same and I’m happy to be here. I’ve got a lot on my mind and a lot to do, but I know it was the right call to come back. Will look forward to catching up with all my NZ friends, fans and admirers over the coming weeks.

After such a long hiatus I’d like to offer more than a thanks and stay tuned, but truth be told I’m not spending a lot of time online right now. Will surely be back in the swing soon, once I’ve sorted out a few things. In the meantime, thanks to Vaughan for bringing this to my attention…

You might remember a while back I was decrying the pathetic state of flaming these days. Sure you do. Anyhoo, turns out some asshole momma’s boys (who, by the way, could only have found my pics by searching Flickr using hunting and firearms-related tags) took exception to some pics I posted earlier this year showing the miraculous transformation of deer into dinner.

We’re all entitled to our opinions on eating meat etc, and these jerks are welcome to their idiotic position that it’s evil to humanely kill and butcher a healthy animal in the wild, but perfectly fine to buy parts of one that was raised in a box and then slaughtered in sight of its family, whilst terrified and filled with the stench of blood, shit and death. Yeah. That’s much more humane, but I digress…

For God’s sake, people – if you’re going to flame someone will you please put some effort into it? I’m not offended by the flaming per se, more the lack of thought and creativity that went into it. If I’m going to break my back creating content that truely offends you, won’t you at least do me the same courtesy and come at me with a decent slew of insults? It’s depressing!

I’m seriously thinking about runnning a workshop on this – registrations and expressions of interest welcomed, via the usual channels. Now get back to work.