Responding to an Adage article about the limits of interactive agencies to "manage brand strategy," David Armano posted a manifesto in early December on what he thinks digital agencies need to do to lead brands into the glorious future.
He makes a lot of reasonable points, but much of it covers familiar territory: collaborate, pursue great talent, pay attention to detail, think holistically or, as he puts it, "outside the browser." More interesting to me are the implicit challenges he's responding to: the fact that most digital agencies continue to be positioned as executional vendors rather than strategic partners. Part of the problem seems to be industry wide. I've written previously about the tendency of clients--or anyone--to pigeon-hole talent within narrow frameworks: from creative agencies, to digital agencies, to design firms; identities which are hard to transcend once they've taken root.
But part of the problem might also be an unclear definition of what being "strategic" means in the first place in a digital context. (To be fair, it's a confusing, overdetermined term in even general shops, having at least three different levels: business, marketing and creative/advertising). But judging by the supportive and robust comments on his post, it's pretty clear what his colleagues think it isn't. People who "don't get it" are people who think the internet is just another media channel. No argument there. From my perspective--a convert to the power of user experience--the internet is redefining our expectations for all consumer experience. But I'd be eager to see someone articulate the key strategic challenges facing digital brands in the coming year.
Here's one for me. On most web-based brands I'm working on now, one of the key questions is whether the site should create a rich multi-dimensional experience or whether it should optimize a functional utility. In other words, should they do one thing really (search or sell or aggregate or deliver content) or should they try to create a experience surrounded by context and detail. Here's yet another way to put it: every brand is now fighting for every consumer's most precious resource: time. What's the best way to own that precious unit of time? By helping them get something done really well and fast and hope they will do it over and over again, or engaging them in something more immersive and engaging? Most digital visionary types seem to favor the experience route, if only because it leads to more interesting work. Engineers tend to like to make elegant utilities. But lots of consumers seem to like segmenting a range of behavior across a variety of sites, rather than wanting to get all immersive in one.
One of the things that those of us who study consumer behavior (whatever you call us) need to start understanding is how different consumers are behaving on the internet in relation to this utility <-->experience continuum, even though that language still isn't precise enough to clarify the nature of this particular strategic challenge.