The evolution of the digital agency

The evolution of the digital agency

In a recent post, I highlighted an interview with Susan Helstab, the executive vice president of marketing for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, in which she described Four Seasons’ new US$18 million website and digital marketing effort. At around the 6:10 mark of the interview, Ms. Helstab begins to answer how she manages her agency portfolio in the digital age. Several sentences jumped out at me:

“At about the time that traditional advertising agencies decided that they needed to integrate themselves, and they needed to be able to offer the full basket of services to their customers, we became quite intrigued by that notion because its efficient, and you’ve got a single point of view as it relates to the brand vision imbedded in your agency. What we experienced was that if you really want core expertise in the different media or channels that you needed to go to specialist agencies. So the pendulum swung. We had specialist agencies, then we tried to go to an integrated agency, then we moved back to the specialist agencies.

Who really takes the lead on the brand vision? It used to always be our advertising agency. Well guess what? Today it’s our interactive agency who is defining what the brand expression is, and that gets adapted for offline.”

I find the final statement to be jaw-dropping. The sea change in the branding landscape that occurred has compelled an aspirational, worldwide brand to allow its interactive agency to define its brand expression. A few short years ago, interactive agencies would have never been given that chance.

For the average hotel or brand, is this the right approach? While I am biased towards interactive agencies, I don’t think the question has a black-and-white answer. Branding is a serious thing. Done right, it can define and communicate the unique, compelling advantages of a property or brand. Proper branding uncovers the true DNA of a property and conveys it in a way that excites and motivates target customers. The fact that more and more of those customers are found online should not be overlooked. The Internet has changed both the way people shop AND the points of differentiation they seek in a product. Therefore, it is logical that an interactive agency could take the lead in defining brand expression.  

However, branding skills and experience are not easy to come by. While interactive agencies may be comfortable working in the digital space, that doesn’t make them branding and advertising experts. To take the lead, an interactive agency must make the deliberate decision to hire and integrate branding experts into their agency, a step often overlooked. If you are considering allowing your interactive agency to take the lead in defining your brand expression, as Four Seasons has successfully done, make sure to ask hard questions about the backgrounds and expertise of the people that will be responsible for the effort. The last thing you want is someone trained only to understand the digital customer overstepping his or her expertise at the expense of your company.

What experiences have you had with your integrated agencies versus specialist agencies? Do you feel it is time for interactive agencies to receive consideration for defining a brand?