Jockeying for position

Big profits in the digital sector have reignited the generalist vs specialist debate, sparked by the ambitions of branding groups, says Gina Lovett

Building a digital capability remains high on the agenda of traditional advertising agencies. Ad giants Omnicom, Rapp Collins and Ogilvy & Mather have all hit the headlines in the past year because of their shift in a digital direction.

Ad agencies, however, are not the only groups to succumb to the lure of profit margins in the increasingly lucrative digital sector. Branding groups are joining the digital power struggle, too.

Roundel made its first foray into digital with the acquisition of Natural Associates earlier this month, while consultancies once typically known for their identity work, such as Corporate Edge, Start Creative and Turquoise, are now as likely to pitch for a Web design-and-build project as the digital specialists.

Consequently, as the traditional boundaries between advertising, marketing, branding and digital groups are blurring, it is getting more difficult to categorise consultancies by specialisms. The merging of services and disciplines presents a number of issues, focusing the digital debate around the value of the generalist versus the specialist offer, as well as questions about brand control, coherency of brand message and whether or not digital should inform brand strategy, or vice versa.

Nick Ramshaw, managing director of Elmwood Leeds and director of Leeds Media, feels that branding generalists are in a stronger long-term position than their digital specialist counterparts.

Brand-side consultancies like Elmwood are now offering clients services ranging from ‘temporary’ projects such as microsites or viral campaigns to ‘permanent’ projects such as on-line brand consultancy, intranets, extranets, digital graphic design, interface design, Flash development and on-line brochures.

Ramshaw feels that consultancies like Elmwood are appealing to clients because of their ability to consider all media and how they connect with each other.

‘As storytellers behind the brand, we understand the bigger picture, as well as the ways in which the brand manifests itself, internally and externally. Digital is just one of the touchpoints,’ he says.

For Wayne Holder, digital creative director at Turquoise, being able to offer Web design and build, on-line advertising, overlay, interface, interactive and microsite design, as well as branding and identity work across other media, gives the generalist consultancy an edge over the specialist.

‘Digital specialists are great for clients looking solely for a digital solution, but good branding is about being successful in all areas, and that’s what we’re offering clients,’ says Holder. ‘There is no point in companies having one group handling their print and television branding, and a separate consultancy that specialises in digital handling their on-line work for them.’

Conversely, digital specialists do not see digital as ‘just another touchpoint,’ he says.

Poke London creative director Nicolas Roope strongly defends the role of the specialist. ‘Branding groups are selling themselves on seeing the bigger picture [which] is exactly the sort of weakness that shows a lack of understanding of digital,’ he argues.

‘Digital is not just a medium. It affects what brands and products are. Take, for example, the on-line consumer group with the power to recommend and critique products and services. It’s not just about forcing something that’s beautifully created into a digital space. It’s about looking at the use of the medium.’

The use of digital media and the level of complexity that goes with it is something that Tim Fendley, director of digital design and information group Applied Information Group, feels can lead non-specialists to underestimate the scope of a digital project.

‘The best design is always simple for the user, but incredibly sophisticated underneath,’ he says. ‘Take Google, for example. How easy is it “to Google”? And how complicated is the set-up behind it? Really, the tipping point for me is whether digital is actually useful to the brand or product.’

Whether or not digital should inform brand strategy or strategy should inform the digital application is another area where integrated and specialist groups differ, with arguments for and against the implications for brands in terms of consistency of message and control.

Holder says ‘consistency of the brand message is important’, but Roope suggests this is ‘counter’ to digital and interactive culture. He argues that the service branding is selling is one of control, and contradicts the values of digital culture.

‘Language, functionality, distribution and visual elements are far less easy to control with digital. [Brands] effectively give up control [when undertaking digital projects] to enable distribution, but what you gain is a more pervasive and ongoing communication,’ Roope explains.

With convincing arguments on both sides of the debate, a swift conclusion to the power struggle does not look certain.

Top ten digital groups in Design Week Top 100 2007
Reading Room
Cimex Media
Red Bee Media
Rufus Leonard
Start Creative

Top ten corporate identity groups in Design Week Top 100 2007
Red Bee Media
Turquoise Branding
Start Creative
Corporate Edge
The Team
Rufus Leonard
Moving Brands

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