A dash for freedom

A spate of recent departures from digital consultancies signals a growing dissatisfaction with life under the corporate umbrella of advertising agencies. Tom Banks investigates what this means for the future of a still thriving sector

The exit of Digit chief executive Andy Chambers and executive creative director Daljit Singh – allegedly the fallout from the radically different working philosophy of sister group JWT – was the latest in a recent spate of high-profile departures from digital groups.

Relationships between digital groups and advertising agencies continue to be challenging, leading digital bosses to reflect on the long-term creative impact of ad agencies subsuming growing digital consultancies, and to consider how digital can bring out the best in advertising.

Chambers and Singh’s departures two weeks ago come three years after Digit merged with WPP-owned ad agency JWT. Guy Hayward, JWT chief executive, described the event as ’a tough decision’, saying, ’We are committed to unlocking the great potential that exists in Digit so that it can capitalise on growth in this sector.’

Both currently on gardening leave, Chambers and Singh are reluctant to comment on the circumstances surrounding their departure, but Design Week understands that the pair had been trying to negotiate an exit since last July, when WPP merged digital consultancy RMG into JWT as its main digital arm, which, commentators have speculated, effectively sidelined Digit.

Former Poke director and co-founder Simon Waterfall – who left the consultancy in 2009 – is, meanwhile, working on an unspecified new venture. He believes that ad agencies and digital groups should remain separate and ’fight for their own food – otherwise the client will suffer’.
Ad agencies traditionally create digital work that is more production-based, says Waterfall, while digital groups tend to create innovative projects driven by research and development.

’Digital groups no longer make signposts, they make end-points,’ he claims. ’They’re making content that stands up in its own right and are happy to let ad agencies do their own digital ad work. The gap between them is getting bigger.’

Poke was set up with the assistance of ad agency Mother, but works autonomously from its parent group. Nicolas Roope, creative director and co-founder of Poke, says, ’Mother gave us a clear mandate to work with who we liked at the beginning. We would never have signed up to the agreement otherwise.’

Roope is acutely aware that ad agencies have damaged other digital groups by subsuming them. ’Ad groups still can’t make sense of digital groups. They buy into them and strip them of their vital essence – which leads to average and uninspired work,’ he says.

In the case of Digit, Roope says, ’JWT couldn’t afford to have them as a detached entity. It looks better to fold them in – symbolically, at least – which says a lot about the culture there, just dropping Digit on top of this monster and expecting it all to work.’

Structurally, ad agencies can invest in digital output through the acquisition of an existing digital consultancy by creating their own digital arm, or by outsourcing when necessary.

Roope reasons that ad agencies needed to keep up with digital development and initially did so through acquisition, but some groups – like Saint, an offshoot of WPP’s RKCR- have been set up by ad agencies with a digital capability. Others, like Work Club, were set up independently and offer advertising services with a strong digital approach.

’Ad agencies’ digital projects are usually with bigger brands and bigger accounts,’ Roope says. He argues that, crucially, ’strategy and creative concepts are already sold in’ by the time a digital team gets their hands on a project.

Sometimes the threat of takeover has caused digital groups to fragment. Mickey Stretton left Digit to co-found All of Us in 2003 just as the WPP takeover loomed, but he says this was ’largely coincidental and not a reaction’.

’We could see that it might be going in a different direction, and it felt like the right time to set up [on our own],’ says Stretton.

Having left All of Us in February this year to pursue ’other creative ambitions’ in the digital and communications field, Stretton suggests that consultancies like All of Us offer something which is alien to large ad groups.

’All of Us works with interactive installations, and there’s never one route to work. It’s difficult for ad agencies to offer that in-house,’ says Stretton.

The growth of any specialist design area will panic ad groups into hasty investment, he believes – even social media, Stretton suggests. ’If they can’t provide that service,’ he says, ’I can see ad agencies assembling in-house teams.’

Digital fallout

  • Digit founders Daljit Singh and Andy Chambers left earlier this month
  • Poke co-founder and director Iain Tait left in February this year to join Wieden & Kennedy as global interactive executive creative director
  • All of Us co-founder and director Mickey Stretton left in February this year
  • Deconstruct founder Fred Flade left last October to ’find a new challenge’
  • Poke co-founder and director Simon Waterfall left last September and is working on a new, unnamed venture

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.