The Digital Agency is Dead. Long Live the Digital Agency.
As I was listening to Drew McLellan’s podcast, Build a Better Agency, on the top agency trends of 2018, I was struck by one of his predictions.
“As I look at the trends facing agencies today one that stands out is digital is not a department. Digital is a blanket that lays over the entire agency and everything we do.” - @DrewMcLellanhttps://t.co/RcPxK5lPpE
As someone who has spent the last decade working for different flavors of digital departments and digital first organizations, I was initially taken aback by the statement. After all, digital is where all the action is, how could digital not be prioritized like it has for so long?
However, it dawned on me that Drew is absolutely correct. Ten to fifteen years ago, digital expertise could be leveraged as a differentiator at both the business level and the individual level. Digital fluency in the form of soft skills like participation and interest in the space or harder skills like technical and coding expertise was harder to come by. It was a weakness that needed to be addressed.
That said, the need for the digital specialist either as an employee or a specialty consultancy has eroded. As digital life becomes normal life and as audiences continue to fragment, businesses of all kinds are no longer searching for the digital specialist, they are searching for the marketing specialist who knows how to run and execute a fully integrated campaign that moves audiences to action, regardless of one's own channel preferences (look no further than the resurgence of direct mail as proof point).
Interestingly, we see this trend reflected elsewhere. Take a look at search demand for the term “digital agencies” from 2004-present. We see that search volume rose steadily through the early aughts and the 2010s before spiking in 2016 (likely due to a slew of acquisitions during that period).
Since then, it’s dropped considerably. In the last year alone search demand has dropped off from its peak levels to roughly a quarter of what it once was which would represent a volume not seen since 2015.
However, if you compare search demand for “digital agencies” with broader terms like “marketing agencies”, we don’t see quite the same drop off. In fact, it could be argued that we see a slight uptick as searches for “digital agencies” decline.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the need for digital marketing services is going away. It isn’t. That part of the business is as strong as ever. Where I agree with Drew is in the idea that clients are no longer searching for help with isolated digital projects; they are searching for help with marketing projects or solutions to business problems that may or may not require digital solutions. Those firms who can position themselves as solving problems in a channel agnostic manner will be in a much stronger place long term.