Can ‘Traditional’ Agencies Modernize?

As marketers continue to direct more of their ad budgets to digital, traditional agencies are rushing to adapt their businesses to make sure they’re in on the action. When Winston Binch joined Deutsch LA last year to help build outs digital capabilities, CEO Mike Sheldon said his goal was for the company to become “the best digital agency in the country.” Digiday spoke with Binch to get a sense of how exactly how he’s going about reorienting the agency for digital, and the challenges he’s faced so far.

What do “traditional” agencies need to do to reorient themselves for digital?
It’s not easy, there’s a lot about digital that’s very different, and there are some barriers you have to work through culturally. I think there are some really important things to work towards, though. The first is you can’t have a digital cultural change without it coming from the top. Digital has to be at the boardroom table, so for us I think it helps to have me at the partner level. It also has to come from the CEO’s mouth, it has to be a part of the business. A lot of agencies talk about getting digital and it really means ‘let’s get a room with a bunch of programmers.’ That’s not digital; technology has to be part of everything and working across the organization, it can’t just be a function. The second thing that we’ve done is really rethink the nature of creativity. Art directors and copywriters still have a place, but we think it’s important to tap into the younger, more entrepreneurial mindset of this new wave of hybrid coders and thinkers. They’re like digital Swiss Army Knives. We’ve hired six of these people in the past year — “inventionists,” we call them — and these part creative, part technologists play a crucial role for us. They sit in the creative department, because technology is creative now, and really help bridge the gap between digital and creative. The third thing is you have to build it yourself. It’s great to have partners, and we still work with some, but you’ve got to be making stuff. Having that capability in the building does more to foster that digital culture than anything. Creatives can just reach across the desk to someone more technical and say ‘hey, is this possible?” That’s important.

How different is it selling digital to clients versus traditional?
It’s much different, and the way agencies sell things to clients has to change. In digital there’s real importance in prototyping. It’s much easier to sell a script for a TV spot on paper than a complex interactive application, for example. The other thing that’s changing is the mindset of how the agency acts. Our approach is always to think about how we solve a business problem. Clients will always ask for deliverables, which of course we’ll hit, but we’ll bring with us bigger ideas. We work really hard to do our day job, but also to bring the inventions with us. It’s also important to make it easy for them to say yes. You have to have a sound strategy and map it back to a client’s business objectives. To do that agencies need to have a deep understanding of how their client’s entire businesses work, not just their marketing.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced trying to equip the agency for digital?
Digital and traditional are very different, and they have very different cultures. Merging those cultures is always going to be challenging no matter what you do, and it’s important to get to grips with that reality. I used to think digital should be everybody’s job, and that an agency like ours needed a generalist culture. Now I think it’s more about collaborating across platforms, and retaining those specialists and experts. The problem is that means what used to be a four-person meeting can now turn into a ten-person one, but perhaps all of those people don’t have to be involved in everything now. They can come and go as necessary. This culture stuff takes time, but we’ve done a lot in the past year. We’ve hired 45 digital people, and we’re making real progress. We’re focussing on doing really original and shareable work. That’s what gets people excited about doing interactive.

A lot of agencies talk about a battle for digital talent, has that been an issue for you?
It is a challenge, agencies have been warring with the Googles and the Facebooks of the world for a while. You have to make sure you’re doing the type of things that will attract talent, and then talk about them. . We did some interesting research into what people want from their employment, and money isn’t the number one thing. They want respect, and opportunities for career growth. We think it’s also important to give people creative outlets besides what they’re doing for clients. One thing we do is ask staff to pitch their ideas to us and then dedicate some resources to some of them to help them bring it to life. It’s about trying to make advertising a little bit more entrepreneurial. Staffers can work on great brands, but also exercise some of their personal interests. I think talking about things like that makes us more appealing.

What’s your take on the “agencies as startups” concept?
I think startup culture is somewhat overrated. Ultimately you’re going to have to serve somebody, and you’re going to be working on one product for a long time. In advertising you could be working on dozens of products a year. For the people that have creative attention defect disorder like me, this can be a great environment. I think as an industry we should talk a lot more about that, and not worry too much about acting like startups or the startup culture.