Transforming A Traditional Agency Into A Digital One – Part 2


When there’s been such a positive response from one of my previous blog posts it’s hard following it up, especially when I know I’m now going into far more uncharted waters for the traditional agencies. I apologise in advance for the length of this article, it seems too long for a blog post, and too short to cover everything, maybe i’ll have to get that book done. I’m going to talk about things that a traditional agency doesn’t do –  R & D (I could almost sense an intake of breath there). But before that, let’s ease things in a bit, by looking at the roles that are utterly essential in larger integrated agencies but get overlooked as they’re a little bit ‘out there’.

First off, let’s talk “Information Architect”.  Yes, it’s a fancy title for what is potentially one of the most stressful roles in a modern agency. In smaller agencies this job is normally taken on by the project manager, but if that project manager has come from the traditional side problems are inevitable – let’s review this. The IA role is to translate what the client wants from a web site into a design structure that can be understood and used by both the creative and programming teams. They have to draw up site diagrams and relay changes to the the respective teams so the creatives know which sections they’re designing for, and so the programmers know what they’re building at the earliest opportunity. They also have to ensure that the client (or other agency member) knows the full implications of re-designing a site structure and the knock-on effects to deadlines and budgets to reflect those structural changes. The IA is a real ‘meat in the sandwich’ role. They’ll get pressure from clients or internal staff from the management side to meet deadlines and get work delivered, but they’ll also bear the full brunt of the backlash from programming or creative teams should large structural changes be needed without proper consideration. But aside from the politics, they’re a special breed of individual – they’ll understand design, good navigation and structure. They’ll also understand the target market of the site, the client’s goals and how to get the most out of navigation. They’ll be working closely with the creative team, but understanding how the actual site mechanics will affect the experience. This role relieves massive amounts of pressure from the programming and creative teams.

You’ve probably already guessed where the sticky point is for the traditional agency – the fact is that often a normal agency project manager gets moved into that role, or the role gets completely missed out and the project manager is simply trying to do everything. The pressure of site structure either stays with the project manager (which then causes them insane amounts of stress) or gets moved towards the creative or programming teams who aren’t really suited to it. To put it bluntly a good IA is a very rare thing, especially one with an agency background. They can be home-grown, it’s perfectly do-able, but if you’re going to evolve a normal agency project manager without burning them out then they need a hell of a lot of support, as well as a willingness of the agency to respect the added skill-set needed for proper IA. Of course there are also other roles that can adapt to IA; the main thing is a good eye for design with a willingness to get stuck in technically, as well as being comfortable with talking to clients, and being able to provide the correct information when presented with a change that could have a catastrophic effect on budgets and deadlines.

Now grab a cup of coffee – it helps you get into the mood  – the minute a digital agency gets big enough to start building websites (and I don’t mean simple three-page sites; I’m speaking A1 clients here) – you’re going to need a Sys Admin. Smaller agencies don’t have one – they’ll typically use a programmer to advise them on where the website goes. However, any agency big enough to be thinking about integration is going to be larger than 30 people if they’ve gone past the outsource phase. You could think of the Sys Admin as the janitor of the digital world: they keep the systems tidy, they’ll make sure the locks are working, and if everything’s working well the majority of agency staff wouldn’t even notice they’re there. A Sys Admin for an agency is different from your average IT dept Sys Admin. They’ll speak to the project managers, creative and programming teams. They’ll understand the target audience of a website, and ensure that traffic is managed in the correct way. When you’re dealing with campaign websites, traffic will often come in bursts, and if there’s an integrated media or press campaign the Sys Admin will understand how the timings of those campaigns will affect performance and prepare accordingly. A Sys Admin for a tech company is typically seen as the person in the dark room with the closed blinds only coming out at night, and working some kind of voodoo magic. It’s a role that needs to be far more accommodating within an agency environment.

The other upside-down thing about the Sys Admin role is that in a tech company the sys admin is the role equivalent of GOD – the ultimate embodiment of knowledge is power. Nothing happens without their involvement – if you think a programmer can get a bit uppity, just wait till you experience an upset Sys Admin who thinks you don’t understand them. In an agency they’ll be working side-by side with both the programming and creative teams to ensure that sites are delivered working, and on time. They’ll make sure that content doesn’t go live without proper testing, and be responsible for hitting the ‘go’ button to make sites live.  If they spot a security fault before the site goes live then it WON’T go live.  What’s worse? – missing a deadline, or long-term brand damage due to major defacement of a client’s website? Of course the answer is obvious, but often security isn’t thought of until something like that occurs.  A Sys Admin’s day job is part compliancy and part system security; they’ll be keeping themselves and your external-facing systems up to date with the latest security patches, continuously keeping abreast of industry changes and technical requirements. They’ll be making sure that the project managers have full statistics to site traffic reports, and they’ll be making sure those domain names and email addresses are behaving as they should.  It’s an incredibly wide and varied role that tends to change depending on the size of the company, but a good hosting provider can take pressure off the Sys Admin by providing security updates and system patches. I know I’m only scratching the surface for that role – but I have covered the main touch points.


OK, back to R&D. Think of this as a bit of creative think-time, that comes at a higher price. Why on earth would a traditional agency do R&D? You’re selling ideas not cars! But what if those ideas and all that creative energy could be empowered and turned into money-making loveliness that helped drive new client offerings? There are literally thousands of innovations that are having an effect on our industry – you can’t stick to print ads forever. Print ad revenue for papers was down 15% in 2008, and that’s just the beginning. Regional daily newspapers are on their way out, as well as eventually a decline in regionals – how are you as a company going to be leveraging the digital switchover of television? How are you adapting to changing consumer habits, or increasing mobile internet connectivity? How does this affect your clients; how are their brands going to evolve and adapt? Do you get it yet? The R&D that you do can directly benefit your client brands, your offerings to the client, and the future capability of your agency as a whole. Within a digital agency, innovation is an adrenaline that can inspire new ideas and creativity.

It’s seeing something and thinking, “WOW! We can bring that to our client’s brand”.  It’s being brave, able to stand up and say, “People are doing this now.. but imagine if we added THIS!”.  But how do you get that idea across to the account managers, people at the cusp of client relationships?  Easy: you get stuff in and you educate staff.  They don’t have to be into it; they just have to understand how it could be relevant to their client.  Whether it’s multi-touch, mobile, a new way of branding, or the world’s most amazing audience engagement tool, the most important thing is for the account manager to feel confident and understand how it could be used. It sounds obvious, but all too often it gets skipped because people just don’t talk or because there isn’t an internal forum to talk about this and make time. Even harder is gaining funding for an internal thing that may or may not benefit a client – where does that budget come from? Your IT dept doesn’t want it – they don’t understand client-facing roles, or brand innovation.  R&D is not buying an upgraded server, or keeping software up to date. Does the cost sit with what used to be your digital dept? No – that department’s integrated now, besides aren’t you just sticking it there because it sounds a bit digital? Be brave and accept it as an internal cost that benefits everyone.

Who gets to choose the technology? Well, I’d like to think you had a person in charge of innovation, who really understood marketing, pr, and digital (both technical and creative) – they could tell you what was coming next and how best to leverage it.  Such a person should have varied industry connections, be empowered to disseminate the knowledge, and have contacts within the organisation. Ok – so there’s actually only a few people who can do that properly, and have that much experience, but it IS the responsibility of any creative individual working within your agency to know what’s out there.

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One comment on “Transforming A Traditional Agency Into A Digital One – Part 2
  1. Ed says:


    Aha, I’ve found you at last. In between writing about hi viz kids clothing for a client, I thought I’d try and track you down. Nice post by the way, oh those were the days when I was the Unix Sys Admin at our local water company, making other people beg for work and generally correcting my bosses (sometimes catastrophic) mistakes. anyway, moving back into the village next week and then I want to meet up with you for a beer to tap your knowledge and maybe get a project or two up and running!

    Regards to All!

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