This is possibly the most pressing issue of any traditional agency today. It’s something i’ve been through with companies I’ve worked for as well as companies I’ve owned.
Let’s start with a summary of typical changes, and generalisations that you can probably relate to.
Traditional Agencies in particular are fearful of change; they know they need a digital offering but tend to skirt around the subject. They usually start by outsourcing – then as they realise more and more work needs to be outsourced they hire in dedicated people. Larger agencies then buy up digital companies and bring them on-site. To pay its way the digital team has its own specific clients – as those clients demand more and more, there is less time allocated to work from the traditional parts of the agency. Resource is at a premium, so the decision gets made to fully integrate the entire agency with digital capability. That’s when things go wrong, the agency bogs down, and work grinds to a halt.
Okay, take a step back – I’ll explain why.
Where are the common resource holes that need to be filled within digital?
Creative, Account management, Site Architecture, Programming, Project management.
What skills can the traditional agency provide?
Account management, Creative, Project Management.
– if you thought about it for 30 seconds, that’s what you would think, right? – WRONG! You’ve just massively overestimated the crossover skill-set that’s available.
A creative who has done nothing but print ads for the past 20 years is a world away from the creative you need. Designing in a digital world is as different from traditional design as being a tank driver is from being a chef.
Traditional agency creatives know nothing of pixel-based design, slicing, site maps, css, font limitations – they live in a DPI (Dots Per Inch) world. To take a creative out of that mindset takes months of training and hand-holding; it’s exactly like breaking a horse in all over again. Traditional creatives rest on their base skill set, tend not to re-skill, do not keep up to date with online developments – all things which are absolutely essential in a creative geared for online. Even worse, creatives in a digital agency also have to understand file size limits, the impact of their design on bandwidth, user experience, and navigation. File formats, anti-aliasing, compression – words and techniques which traditional creatives think of as technical, but a digital creative uses every day.
The closest that the majority of traditional creatives have come to digital is when emailing a PDF. A typical sign of integration that’s been too rapid is a big increase in static flash-based content.
Traditional agencies are fearful of programmers. It’s a concept so alien to them they ignore it and hope it goes away: just put them in a little room by themselves.
Programmers then tend to adopt a bunker mentality; they class themselves as misunderstood, and then egos and prima-donna tendencies start to arise. This is partly since in any other type of business a programmer is seen as being at the top rung of the ladder, thinking of themselves as the surgeons of the digital world. In a fully digital agency programming teams and creatives are inseparable. Working closely with the creative throughout the entire length of the project – creatives also work with the programmers to seek a compromise on design should the programmer require it in order for full site functionality. Traditional creatives aren’t used to having their work messed around with.
The link between programmer and creative is a bond that is one of the most important parts of any digital team. A creative cannot simply dump a design on a programmer, and run away – they’re involved throughout the whole project. There’s another important factor at play on the programming front – while standardisation occurs in many agencies, each programmer can also have their own style of working. It can be extremely difficult for a programmer to chop and change between projects (e.g. if they get asked to continue work on another large project, and then swap to another one a few hours later). If the site is large, uses a database, or runs on a different system, then the programmer has to do mental somersaults to get their mindset in place for what they’ve just been asked to do.
Hosting, Bandwidth, Email, Load Balancing, Database, Privacy Policies, Proofing Sites, Backups, Milestones, Testing – terms that traditional account management has never heard of. Traditional agencies aren’t used to this layer of information gathering at the start of a project, but it is crucial for what happens next.
A digital account manager must have a basic understanding of the impact that client changes make on the design, and development of a digital project – they will liaise closely with the programming and creative teams in order to relay the correct information back to their client. Testing and security – something totally unheard of in traditional agencies – is the most important part of a digital project. If you don’t believe me, wait for your client website to get hacked, defaced and taken over by Turkish hackers. Security and testing tend to be the most common things that get overlooked as deadlines creep up.
Digital projects are ongoing – they do not end – for as long as your client’s digital project is still looked after by your agency – whether it’s a hosted website, static installation, or mobile content. Unlike print, posters, or TV ads you cannot fire and forget. Every single project has a practically invisible maintenance footprint, whether it is ongoing stats analysis, user feedback, hosting costs, or forum maintenance. Project managers in traditional agencies rarely have to work closely with so many people.
It’s a concept so alien to a traditional agency: thinking in multiple layers about interactive content and liaising with account management, programming, and creative teams. Some agencies let the Account manager do the site architecture; larger ones tend to have dedicated personnel if they’re lucky. These people tend to be the meat in the sandwich, with client-facing skills and basic knowledge of database connectivity and layout. They’re pulled from different directions all at the same time but setting the structure of a digital project is essential to the creative and programmer – it’s ideally set before any work begins. Radically changing a site structure halfway through a project has massive implications to deadlines due to the knock-on effects on programming time needed. A dedicated information architect helps take pressure off account management, creative, and programming.
So what’s the effect of suddenly splitting up a digital team, and integrating the lot into an agency? – Frustration, misunderstanding, chaos, and an overall downturn of production. Why? The programmers have a complete fit that they’re now working with creatives who totally don’t understand the medium they’re designing for; the traditional creatives cannot adjust fast enough – they don’t understand font and design limitations and cannot understand how layouts affect site architecture or programming. Account managers miss out all the requirements involved in a digital project. Architecture goes out the window, as having too many consecutive projects all of a sudden leads to a lack of control. Programmers go into meltdown, as content starts arriving from inexperienced creatives – the programmers have to get more involved in graphical layouts – efficiency slows down as skills are chopped and changed.
The brutal truth is that there are traditional creatives and managers who simply cannot up-skill, who do not keep up to date with current technology as they’ve never needed to – and refuse to start now. There is no place for them in an agency that needs to adapt and change with the environment – they’re ultimately dead weight if they keep their heads in the sand. Once that simple fact is accepted, it’s time to talk integration.
Successful integration is based around one very simple concept: don’t think of integrating digital into traditional. Think about it as integrating traditional into digital.
Start with the creatives; they’re the backbone of your agency.
1. Cherry-pick traditional creatives who want to learn. Creatives from an image-retouching background with good typographic skills tend to cross to digital best, as they should better understand typographic limitations and image compression.
Move a traditional creative next to your best digital creative – let them ease into their new role. Do not underestimate the different skill sets required; it WILL have an impact on your production schedules. Give them at least a month to make sure they understand the production stages involved in creation of digital content. Remember traditional creatives don’t need to understand how a printer works, but a digital one must understand how their layout will work from a programming and usability point of view. Keep doing this, remembering not to bog down the existing digital team. I’ll repeat for emphasis – do not underestimate the different skill-set required.
2. Start getting more account managers involved in digital projects – sit them with the existing digital team, make sure they’re enthusiastic and WANT to learn. Once they understand the stages of development of a digital project they’ll understand why, and what information is needed from the client at the start of a project, and how delays in that process can affect the entire production. They’ll also be regularly performing traffic analysis and feeding that information back to the client which in turn facilitates more work. It’s a slow process, but it needn’t be difficult.
Keep repeating the mantra… it’s NOT print, it’s NOT fire and forget. Account managers can easily get bogged down with site structure, and design and programming liaison – here is where an information architect can help ease the load.
3. Programming Teams – at the traditional end a creative sees programming as some sort of Voodoo magic, but it needn’t be like that at all – here’s how to stop it.
It’s difficult to split a programming team, and it should really be avoided at all costs – programmers, just like creatives, learn off each other, but more so: they develop and share code together; work that one does often has a direct impact on work that another does within a separate project. How do you deal with this, and increase output? Easy: increase the dialogue between the holy trinity of Account Manager, Creative, Programmer – generally programmers love ordered information, and hate surprises; they suddenly become a whole lot more flexible if they have information on what they’re doing upfront – once they feel they’re included more, the benefits feed back the other way, and they’ll take ownership of the project.
4. Research and Development – Digital never sits still and it never will – everything changes. Time and money needs to be invested to adapt, prepare and accommodate changes in technology and in customer needs. Most of all, investment in staff is crucial. The pace of change is increasing; it will continue to increase as we see subsequent advances in internet, computer, digital paper and broadcast technology.
5. Account manager, creative, programmer (never forget the trinity)
This is just the tip of the iceberg: I haven’t gone into specialist areas, but crucial roles such as Information Architecture, Networking Specialists and System Admin could all easily have their own articles. If individuals are enthusiastic about learning new skills, and can learn on their own, you’re already halfway there.