How digital agencies lost their biggest opportunity, forever

Sometime around 2014, the opportunity was theirs to lose. The digital marketing agencies held the first tier customer relationships with all the major brands. Historically, they had been doing email campaigns, SMS spam, simple promotional websites and digital experiences for special events or for use in retail environments for these clients, and most recently had picked up mobile apps too as the fad for ‘mobile agencies’ somehow being a separate thing had passed. The clients had more and more digital work, and naturally assumed their digital agency partners would take it all on, not realising how much more complex it was becoming.

Agencies delighted at the enormous budgets coming their way presumed at first that they could continue to get by as they had. While the most challenging parts of the technical work involved would be outsourced down the supply chain, or freelanced to expensive contractors, these projects nevertheless kept producer-project managers and account managers gainfully employed not least because of agencies’ lack of capability to deliver complex technical projects consistently, leading to a state of constant firefighting and client whispering. They might not meet their profit targets, but who cared if they had triple digit year on year revenue growth!

The work was only becoming more and more complex though. Instead of technologically simple campaign webpages for product launches or colourful emails readily built out by those creatives who had learned just enough CSS to be able to tidy up autogenerated output from Dreamweaver, clients were now demanding eCommerce systems with product recommendations. CMS driven websites with rich templates that used responsive design and could be readily reconfigured to support continuous A-B testing of customer journeys and conversion goals. 3D graphics and augmented reality. Mobile apps evolved from Carling iPint to real artificial intelligence in the blink of an eye. And most challenging of all for the agencies, joined-up marketing, with write once publish anywhere across all digital channels, and meaningful big data engagement analytics feeding back into the creation of new content, new experiences and new propositions. They were doomed the moment the world required them to collaborate with their sister companies instead of cannibalising each other as they had been taught.

Some agencies saw that they held the prime relationships, that it was theirs to lose, but they panicked that the Accentures of the world were closing in on them (they were). Accenture, Deloitte and their kin had recognised that having used IT to optimise all other aspects of business process, the one territory still up for grabs was the process by which a brand communicates with its customers and identifies who they are and what they want. A territory where you could still charge well over $1,000 a day on multi-year retainers. Conscious they were known to be creatively weak, they started buying small boutique agencies, but failed for a long time to integrate and exploit them fully, buying time for the incumbents.

Specialists, too, smelled opportunities, seeing agencies marking up their daily rates by over 100% for the work they outsourced, they tried to go around them, dealing directly with clients but often frustrated by marketing directors religious adherence to using ad agencies for everything, further made difficult by a stubborn refusal of marketeers to employ disciplined procurement professionals. After all why do a lot of work, when you can just choose your supplier over an expensive lunch?

Empire building clients decided to bring more and more in-house too, tired of subsidising lavish award ceremonies in exotic locales and paying sky high day rates for ‘digital natives’ i.e. staff barely out of school.

A few agencies saw both the opportunity and the threat. Recognising almost all of their revenue was coming from big technology projects, by chance, not through a conscious effort to win the work, and understanding that these projects required big teams to deliver, they doubled down, hiring technology leaders who in turned hired real software engineers and test engineers and real project managers.

The big 3 went the extra mile, acqui-hiring the technical talent – WPP with AKQA, Publicis with SapientNitro, among many others. This kept them in the game a little longer, at great expense. But in true ad agency tradition, once their earn outs matured, the founders left, rich beyond their wildest dreams, along with their original teams, leaving only the freelancers behind, expensive, with no loyalty and no willingness to share knowhow.

At the same time, the traditional agency creative work became uneconomical to do onshore. Email campaign management. Content authoring. Copywriting. Photoshopping. Video production. All moved offshore, the price and profit margin collapsing.

Suddenly, the technologist was king. Only the technologists had vacancies to fill. Only the technologists had projects to deliver. Only the technologists were able to keep pace with the fast changing needs of the clients.

An identity crisis broke out almost simultaneously across the leading agencies. Creative and account management leadership suddenly had their noses put out of joint by the nerds in the backroom, unwilling to acknowledge what was now paying their bills. They couldn’t believe it was the nerds they assumed had no communications skills, the nerds who didn’t fit in because they cared more about meeting the clients’ needs instead of getting credit for winning awards. The nerds were now the people the client wanted to deal with directly.

They lashed out. “This is not how we do things” they cried when asked to consider customer feedback and big data analytics in their design work. “Customers don’t know what they want”. “Only people in the Creative department can be creative”. Unable to comprehend the lead times required with complex software, they insisted on continuous change until the last possible minute. Traditional copywriter+art director pairings became irrelevant while the notion of the ‘creative technologist’ who could be all things to all people allowed some to rebrand themselves and keep their jobs a little longer. For a time, social media became their salvation, a medium where goofy, lazy stunt marketing got a free pass, until brands realised that millennials have no money and are acutely cynical. A policy of sulky non-cooperation took hold. Most disastrously, this manifested itself as refusing to join in winning new business that didn’t fit their self image as advertising gurus.

Without new new-business, without multidisciplinary collaboration in bidding, to offer clients the joined-up marketing they so badly needed, the agencies disintegrated. Some shed their agency past and became full blown development houses. Others saw their technologists tire of subsidising their colleagues, leaving to go it alone with those remaining only those who were no longer relevant, destined to fade away as revenues tumbled. Most are trying to find their way as ‘digital transformation specialists’ but floundering because they have no understanding of what that actually entails, and can’t even transform themselves let alone their clients and because transformation needs but one or two people to lead, not a whole team of bodies behind them where the real money is. The Accentures finally arrived. Bypassing CMO and even CIO, making their deals with the CEOs on golf courses around the world.

The moment has passed. Sadly squandered by petty office politics and the poor intelligence of their leaders, just as they were on the cusp of a new lease on life, the era of the digital agency is at an end.

Are we in a cryptocurrency bubble?

Below is a live chart from Google Trends showing the proportion of searches for ‘bitcoin bubble’ and ‘cryptocurrency bubble’ compared to search for bitcoin and related terms individually. Theoretically, as the proportion of searches about crypto bubbles increases, especially if it increases relative to generic searches, that might be taken as an indicator that a bubble is forming and traders need to be careful of it bursting. Equally, be mindful that a low ratio might give you false sense of security due to confirmation bias! At the time of writing, the ‘bubble’ terms are all so insignificant they appear flat in the chart. But this chart will update live so keep coming back to it regularly to see changes.

Again, at the time of writing, although the scale of the chart means it does not show, there is a small upwards trend in the bubble related searches but if you click on the Google Trends icon to go to google trends, you can then play with the chart and add or remove more keywords for your own research.

P.S. I have no idea what the scale is, seems that ‘100’ is just whatever the current largest number of searches is for a keyword i.e. 100%, which isn’t very useful, since the number of searches is in millions.

P.P.S Here’s another chart showing more recent history, and just the keywords regarding bubbles since the Bitcoin keyword on its own dwarfs the others.

Golden Rules of Technology in Digital Marketing

Just because it can be done in an app, doesn’t mean it can be done in a website
of course, apps have an additional barrier of persuading the user to download them
Apps have access to almost all features and resources of the device including camera, sensors, Wifi, Bluetooth, full internal storage capacity, and user’s data such as contacts or photos.
Websites are restricted both by the limited functions offered by HTML5 and JavaScript, and the limited speed with which programs written in JavaScript can be run, meaning that anything involving intensive mathematics or large amounts of RAM such as realtime analysis of video is simply not possible.
HTML5 offers some limited access to device features, such as location and user data, but this is always limited. For example, access to photo library is by one image at a time from user selection. Access to location requires user permission and can only be retrieved when the website is in the foreground of the UI, not when other apps are being used.
Not all Photoshop effects can be reproduced in CSS
Photoshop is designed to allow unlimited graphic design possibilities. As much as possible, we seek to implement designs using CSS rather than rasterised bitmaps, this helps with scaling, device independence, SEO, interactivity and more. Therefore when using Photoshop to design for websites it makes sense to limit what you use to a subset of effects achievable in CSS. Even the drop shadows and font smoothing algorithms are different. Similarly, be conscious of fonts, for example one of the world’s most popular fonts for graphic design, Gotham, is not a ‘websafe font’, i.e. it is not included as standard on most people’s computers. Therefore the user may not even see your design as intended, or we would need to include the font in our website code, incurring both a license fee, and dramatically increasing page weight.
There are plenty of things that computers find hard
and thus require millions of pounds of research
Computer vision – knowing what an image is of or about. Optical Character Recognition is about the only viable technology in this space, and that only works by comparing to existing known fonts.
Voice recognition – although some operating systems now do it for you so you don’t have to roll your own (notably, Android)
Learning and self improvement through analysis of historical performance – this can be done but is hugely complex
Augmented Reality does not mean scanning QR codes
Augmented Reality means adding augmentation to your view of reality – such as a heads up display that tells you which direction you’re facing, or a PlayStation EyePet who responds to being kicked or petted even though he doesn’t exist in the real world. Magic Leap and Google Glass are examples of augmented reality. As is Wikitude or LayAR. Scanning reality to figure out what’s in reality, such as scanning a QR code or other symbol, does not make it augmented reality, unless you then use the information gleaned from the scanning to add a layer over reality that complements what you just scanned. Mobile Medic is not really augmented reality, as the view on the phone does not include any element of reality.
All software development takes a long time
Of the following activities, software development ones have the longest lead time. The absolute minimum viable time for a software project of any substance to be done to sufficient quality is 6 weeks. Most campaign work can be expected to take 2 to 3 months. Most enterprise grade work will take 6 to 18 months.
In order of increasing complexity, cost and duration.
Print ads
Web banner ads
Email newsletters
Campaign websites
TV commercials
Enterprise website builds

Beginner’s guide search ranking tips – or – how to do better on Google for small businesses

If you only do a few things to ensure your website is set up properly for indexing by Google and other search engines, if you’re a small business that doesn’t have time or money to invest in trying to get top 10 rankings for all relevant keywords all around the world, but just want to make sure local customers can find you, then you should check that you’re even showing up on Google at all – at the very least you should appear on the first page of results when you include your exact website name and perhaps your location or brand name or other content that you know is on your website in your search keywords.

If you don’t appear at all, or don’t appear for searches about what you offer, in the location that you offer them, then you should at least do these simple things as a bare minimum:

1 – Use the Page Title to describe what the page is about

One of the most effective ways you can get a good search ranking on Google is using the page title. A website is made up of web pages. And a web page is like a Word document. It has text that makes up the body of the page, which might be styled in different ways like Bold and Italic, and may have some pictures or diagrams in. But it also has a name – like how a Word document has a filename on your disk – and it has some other properties that you don’t see on the page but are hidden away and only the computer (and other computers on the internet) can see them. These properties are written into the document’s HTML, but if you use a website editing tool to make your web page you might not be able to see them directly.

The name of the web page is the part of the web address that comes after the second / symbol – such as

If the web page doesn’t have a name there at all, it’s because it is the index page, or home page, which is shown if the visitor goes to your web address without adding a web page name into the address.

When Google’s automatic indexing computers are looking at your website, they will use the website name, the page name, and the page title as the main hints as to what the page is about.

So make sure when you choose your website name, when you pick names for the individual web pages, and when you give a page its title, that you make this very clear and explanatory.

For example with a page title set to “My first web page” doesn’t tell Google anything useful about what you do and what your website is about.

A much better example would be with a page title of “Best tree surgeon in Ealing, west London, England. Call now on 02071112222

2 – Use Headings intelligently

When Google is looking through the text on your pages, it also uses headings to help understand the page in the way a human would. Headings are when you write HTML and put <h1>or <h2> in front of a line, or select the equivalent style if you are using an editing tool to make your HTML for you. Google expects to see only one <h1%gt; tag on any given page, with that tag being the main heading explaining what that page is about. Use more than one of those, and it will both get confused, and penalise your searchability. It then looks at h2 and h3 tags to further understand how your text is broken down. So for example, if your page answers a question like “What is the best way to do X” then put that into a h2 heading, and then have the answer immediately follow it.

3 – Markup your location

If your business has a physical address like a shopfront, or if you operate in a particular area, make sure you include an address or the area you operate in on every page on your website, in the page contents (a header or footer) and in the page title. Google will do their best to look for addresses in your page, but you can make it absolutely clear for Google by adding some extra hidden commands to your web page HTML to tell Google exactly where in the world you operate. Then, when they know people are searching in your location, either from the search words they have typed including a location, or because they are searching from a mobile phone that Google knows the location of, then you are more likely to go to the top of the list.

Those hidden commands look like this:

<div class="vcard">
<div class="fn org">Your Business Name</div> 
<div class="adr"> 
<div class="street-address">Your Street Address</div> 
<div> <span class="locality">Your City</span>, <abbr class="region">Your Region</abbr> 
<span class="postal-code">Your postal code</span></div> 
<div class="country-name">Your Country</div> </div> 
<div>Phone: <span class="tel">Your phone number</span></div> 
<div>Email: <span class="email">Your email</span></div> 

4 – Associate your websites with your social network accounts

If you have social network accounts in your name or the name of your business, and you share links to your website on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere, then you want to make sure that it looks professional when you do that and correctly shows a preview of your website. You want to make sure a nice icon or photograph appears and a correct summary of what your website is about when a link is shared around.

To do that, you want to add more hidden information into your HTML web page, just like in the previous tip, that tells Facebook, Twitter and others what account is associated with the website, and gives them a description of the web page topic and a suggestion what image to use to show beside the link when it is shared.

That information will look like this:

For Facebook (what they call Open Graph, hence the ‘og’)

<meta property="og:title" content="Your web page title" />
<meta property="og:type" content="article" />
<meta property="og:url" content="the web page address starting with http" />
<meta property="og:image" content="the web address of a picture to go with the article" />
<meta property="og:site_name" content="the name of your web site (not web page)" />
<meta property="og:description" content="An excerpt, summary or description of the web page contents" />

and for Twitter:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary" /> Note it should always be summary
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Your web page title" />
<meta name="twitter:description" content="An excerpt, summary or description of the web page contents" />
<meta name="twitter:image" content="the web address of a picture to go with the article" />

5 – Register for Google Search Console

Google has a system called Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) that give you a definitive way to tell Google about your website, instead of leaving it to chance that they will find it by accident. Using a Google account such as Gmail address, simply login to and follow the easy to use guide to tell Google that your website exists and what it’s about. If you don’t do this last part, you might never get found at all!

When you’re ready, find more SEO tips and tricks in our 2017 SEO guide.

Last updated January 2017