Evolution of Creative Agencies: The Digital Revolution

The advertising industry was probably at its glorifying best during the 1950s and well through the ’60s, till the ’80s. This was the time when some of the most recognizable advertising campaigns were designed and executed, some of the biggest mergers took place to create monstrous holding groups with multi-pronged branding and communication services and it also saw the rise of neo-classical creative legends like John Webster, Lee Chow, David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, Dan Wieden, among others.

By mid-90s and early 2000, although advertising in the traditional form (read: print, tv and radio) was still the largest revenue generator, but a new breed of creative minds have evolved, for whom the focus had shifted to a new medium of communication – the world wide web. This was also the time when technology moguls were ‘Think(ing) Different’ and were on a mission to believe ‘Everything Is Possible.’ Hence, along with the advent of internet, there also evolved advanced computing devices and smarter phones, robust operating systems and data analytics tools, which were all set to change the way we work, entertain, communicate, shop and socialise.

The new creative realisation

Over the past five decades in the run-up to the new millenium, agencies have created and executed campaigns in an almost identical manner – operating under the same model, being rigid and somewhat reluctant to adapt to changing paradigms. When the world wide web evolved and so did branding opportunities on the web, most larger agencies’ (the Goliaths) initial attempt to advertise on the internet was to treat the web as yet another broadcast platform. The end result - some ugly looking flashing billboards and interruptive pop-ups that were almost identical digital copies of print campaigns.

But as the internet exploded into a network of interconnecting sites, platforms and apps, easily accessible on a growing number of devices, it became clear that it was a fundamentally new way of disseminating information – through the sharing of individuals and groups.

The new creative realisation was – content marketing – create content for brands with a message, engage with the audience across integrated platforms and initiate a series of conversations and interactions. Back it up with advanced data and analytics and offer strategic insights to the client to help them improve their ROI. The recipe for success is almost ready.

For the first time, the Goliaths experienced a serious competition from midget-sized creative Davids, operating out of one-room apartments and shared hostel rooms. These Davids have all been surfing on the waves of change (read: digital technology and online media platforms), which clients were eager to adopt, as they saw higher business value and a much faster, efficient and precise way of reaching out to their customers. More importantly, clients now wanted to build a unique, one-to-one relationship with every individual customer – possible only through the complex, analytics-driven metrics that these Davids were capable of sharing.

In an article published in Harvard Business Review (Schaefer, Mark W., “6 Reasons Marketing is Moving Inhouse,” July 30, 2015), the author antagonises how agencies are still ‘stuck’ with advertising and quotes a brand manager at a Fortune 100 company, “We want to connect to our customers in a new way. We want to leverage social media, content marketing, and integrated models but every time we ask our agency for a proposal, it comes back as advertising. I’m sick of it. I am ready to break our contract at any cost because they just don’t get it.”

So who are these Davids? Most of them are niche digital agencies with core competencies in areas like social media marketing, search engine optimisation, films and branded content, influencer marketing, web, app & UI/UX development, and a host of other inter-connected tech-services. Many of these Davids have even grown into Goliaths in their own right by offering multiple services under one roof and even extending their offerings to cover data analytics and strategy consulting.

How the WWW has changed the way we communicate

Since the mid-90s, the internet has had a revolutionary impact on culture, commerce, tourism, and technology. This has been possible due to the rise and growth of electronic mail, instant messaging, VoIP, two-way interactive video calls, and the World Wide Web with its discussion forums, blogs, social networking and e-commerce.

Did you know, that the earliest recorded email marketing campaign was run not in the’90s, but way back in 1978?  It was Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) who sent out the first mass email to approximately 400 potential clients. The result was a whopping $13 million worth of sales in DEC products – highlighting the potential of marketing through emails.

Early into the new millenium, mobile phones were quite popular in the western hemisphere. This trigerred a new wave of marketing using SMS (Short Messaging Services). Businesses would collect mobile phone numbers and send off various promotional offers (database marketing). Although its popularity has waned in the west due to rising cases of spams, it still has a great impact in most of the developing world. Mobile devices of late have become smarter – opening up opportunities for digital marketers to connect more effectively, anytime and anywhere with the consumer.

Another popular area which has seen a tremendous growth over the years is e-commerce. Global giants like Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, eBay and others, have been vying for a chunk of the ever expanding e-commerce pie. Statista.com projects that by 2021, the e-retail revenues will touch $4.88 trillion (more than double of what was in 2017 - $2.3 trillion). Interestingly, as early as in 1964, IBM had designed an innovative e-commerce platform, SABRE, for airline ticket reservations.

Some 13 years ago, no one had heard of YouTube. Now it’s a community of a billion users that influences mainstream culture more than any single TV network. More and more such innovations in the world wide web have leveraged digital agencies to innovate and strategise newer means of connecting with consumers.

Reimagining the future of communication

In this blog, we will take a close look at some top of the mind digital agencies that have turned the digital world into a goldmine of opportunities and have carved a niche for themselves. Some of these agencies are independent networks, while some are part of global holding groups.

Most of the digital agencies covered in this blog have strong competencies of designing websites with interactive and experiential technologies. But how many could recall the first website ever designed. For the sake of trivia, Tim Berners-Lee accomplished this unique feat when on August 6, 1991, he created an experimental website as a result of his research at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, in the Swiss Alps. This website was called World Wide Web and the curious few with academic interests can check it at "http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html."

Three years after Berners-Lee’s creation, in 1994, Ajaz Ahmed and James Hilton founded AKQA in London. It had been one of the largest, independent digital agencies in the world till it was acquired by WPP in 2012, in what The Guardian termed as the ‘most significant deal’ in the digital advertising space. In 2001, Francisco Partners and Accenture had infused an investment of $70 million. This prompted AKQA to shift its headquarters out of London to San Francisco with a view to tap larger, global clients. The same year AKQA launched the Run London marathon for Nike with over 10,000 runners. The following year, it was 20,000. The jump is credited to an e-commerce platform it designed for Nike that enabled fast and easy registration for the run. It has helped Microsoft with new user experience for its Xbox360 in 2005 and during the Paris Motor Show in 2007, the agency created Fiat eco:Drive, an in-car app to help drivers reduce CO­­2 emission. A Nike Training Club app designed in 2011 was one of the world’s most downloaded training apps and it continues to add millions of users each year. The agency has also developed solutions for Google, Amazon, Volvo Cars, Rolls Royce, Netflix and a host of leading global brands.

Do you recall seeing the Evian “Roller Babies” campaign that was released in 2009, in which a group of toddlers in their diapers were seen doing stunts on roller skates, while a rap played in the background? This video was recognised by the Guinness World Records for most viewed online video advertisement; the viral campaign reached across almost 100 million viewers. It was one of the first YouTube exclusive ad campaigns to be produced then and was simultaneously launched in Europe, North America and Japan. The agency to execute this campaign was the New York headquartered, Havas Worldwide. Earlier known as Euro RSCG, this creative agency is part of the Havas group, which is the fifth largest advertising network behind WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic and Publicis. Havas has served some of the largest multi-nationals in strategising their digital footprints. This include the likes of Air France, IBM, Lacoste, LVMH, Mondelez, Pernod Ricard, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever.

An agency which has certainly created a ‘huge’ impact in the digital space ever since it was founded in 1999, is Huge. Based out of Brooklyn in New York, it was founded by four partners David Skokna, Sasha Kirovski, Gene Liebel and Aaron Shapiro. Their first major account was Ikea which hired the agency to redesign its websites. Later, Huge went on to launch websites for CNN, Reuters, Pepsi and Target, helping it gain commercial success and prominence in the industry. Currently, Huge offers a range of digital services covering strategy consulting, data science, experience design, advertising, content design, social media and CRM. Its success can be gauged from the fact that Advertising Age credited it as the Fastest Growing Company across all marketing disciplines in 2009 and again named it as one of the top 10 A-list agencies of 2012. Mediapost recognised it as Agency of the Year in 2017. Since 2008, Huge is a part of Interpublic Group. It works with Google, HBO, Lenovo, NBC, Nike, Procter & Gamble, among others.

What happens when the company which invented the Personal Computer (PC), the Automated Teller Machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the hard drive, and several other tech products and solutions, decide to foray into the business of experiential design and digital transformation? This is exactly what the 100-years old International Business Machines Corporation (IBM in short) did, when it launched its business division, Interactive Experience (IBM iX) in 2007. With a cherished history in technology innovation and product designing, venturing into the digital space was “a natural transition” as per Paul Papas, the Global Leader of IBM iX at its New York headquarters. In an interview to a business publication some time back, referring to the launch of iPhone, Papas said, “It’s changed the body of human expectation, so now we all have expectation... that everything can be as elegant as the most elegant experience I have on my phone. We actually formed iX with the premise around this mantra that the last best experience anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.” IBM iX employs more than 10,000 professionals who work on creative, digital, and analytics for clients including Nestle, Visa, and Air Canada. It has also been on a high acquisition diet, picking up digital advertising and design companies; it currently has a network of over 30 studios across the world.

Meanwhile, strategy consultancy firms and global systems integrators like Accenture and Deloitte have also been busy sharpening their competencies around interactive digital experiences and technology.

This is how Accenture started its division, Accenture Interactive, to provide its clients with digital marketing, mobility solutions and data analytics and create better experiences for the customers they serve. The 2017 Forrester Wave: Digital Experience Services Providers report has named Accenture Interactive as “Leader,” a dominating position among global digital agencies surveyed. The agency has successfully delivered digital solutions for Maserati, Melia Hotels International, Milan based custom-tailoring brand Larusmiani, Swedish grocery retailer Hemkop, Filipino wireless communication leader Smart Communications, among others.

Similarly, Deloitte Digital is the digital consultancy wing of Deloitte. Launched in 2012, the agency claims to be transforming the digital journey of their clients in a way that an agency or a traditional consultancy alone cannot. With approximately 10,000 people working in 48 countries, Deloitte Digital has been bullish on ramping up its advertising capabilities. It has acquired European ad agency Acne and San Francisco-based agency Heat, apart from hiring creative leadership team of McCann Australia in September 2017. Some of the key clients include LG Electronics, PepsiCo, pizza chain Papa Murphy’s and Pizza Hut, global beauty firms Estee Lauder and MAC.

Remember the ’90s when there was a beeline of web search engines (Lycos & Infoseek in 1994, Excite & Yahoo in 1995, AskJeeves in 1996, Google & MSN Search in 1998)? One agency decided to take advantage of this flood gate of search engines and offer a unique digital marketing service, unheard of till then. This is iCrossing. Founded in 1998 by Jeffrey Herzog as a standalone search engine marketing (SEM) agency, it was the first of its kind in US. Currently it is owned by Hearst, a global diversified media, entertainment and content company. iCrossing has today moved beyond SEM and has added solutions and expertise to help brands connect more efficiently and effectively with their customers. Some of the notable clients include Amazon, Bayer, Bridgestone, the BMW Group, LG, Microsoft, NBA and PepsiCo.

Much before creative agencies were rolling out engaging contents on the social media or developing experiential apps on mobile, Performance-based marketing was the buzzword on the world wide web. If you have heard of terms like Cost Per Mile (CPM), Cost Per Click (CPC) or Cost Per Lead (CPL), then you know better, what we are trying to lead to. The Maryland-based Merkle Inc has been one of the earliest pioneers of Performance Marketing. It was founded as a part of Merkle Press in 1971, later to be bought over by the current Chairman and CEO, David Williams in 1988. It is today one of the largest agencies in the areas of CRM, Direct Marketing and Search Marketing. Powered by advanced data analytics and innovative technology, it has maintained a leadership position in Performance Marketing for over three decades. In 2016, Merkle became a part of the Dentsu Aegis Network.

Following the footsteps of Merkle is Los Angeles based Single Grain, another data and analytics driven digital agency, which helps clients use a combination of digital channels to increase their visibility, conversions and revenue. The key services offered by the agency include Facebook advertising, Google AdWords, YouTube advertising, SEO and content marketing. Founded in 2009, it has driven remarkable revenue growths for clients like Amazon, Salesforce, Uber, Intuit, Random House, Alexa, UCLA, among others. The agency claims to have competence in managing specific industries like online education, e-commerce and blockchain.

One of the youngest entrants in the digital creative bandwagon has been Mirum. This San Diego based digital agency operates out of 24 global offices and was formed when JWT merged 11 independent digital agencies into a single network. The original agencies combined to create Mirum were HealthWallace, Quirk Agency, ActivearkJWT, Digitaria, Lunchbox, XM Asia, CASA, i-Cherry, Twist Image, Clarus and X-Prime. A powerhouse in the making, Mirum has already won a Gold Effie Award in 2018 for the Unilever campaign “AHOLD Feeding America Program – Hidden Camera on Hunger.” It picked up a Silver and a Bronze Effie as well for yet another campaign for Unilver and Nestle Purina respectively. Other notable clients include Finnair, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Axe and Starbucks.

Along with Mirum and AKQA, both of which are part of WPP, four more top of the mind digital agencies find special mention in this article. These are OgilvyOne Worldwide, Wunderman, VML and Possible.

The 1972 acquision of Hodes-Daniel Company, a direct marketing firm by Ogilvy & Mather, is what the company refers to as the foundation of OgilvyOne in the coming years. Some 11 years later, Ogilvy & Mather Direct established the Electronic Marketing Group, becoming the first agency network in the world to establish an interactive capability. O&M’s web development team was set-up in 1993 and the following year the agency managed a banner ad for IBM (one of the earliest online advertisings) on HotWired. Finally, in 1997 OgilvyOne Worldwide was launched, which by 2000 was operating out of 44 offices worldwide. By 2005, it has become the most awarded digital agency. In 2007, OgilvyOne became the first agency to launch a global network of digital innovation labs. A Forrester Research report in 2012 named OgilvyOne as the sole “Leader” among 13 top agencies, while a Gartner Global Digital Marketing Agencies Report named it a “Leader” in 2016 and 2017 editions of Magic Quadrant.

Wunderman started operations in 1958. Founded by Lester Wunderman, the company soon achieved a leadership position in Direct Marketing. Working for American Express across global locations, the agency renamed itself as Wunderman Worldwide in the 1980s. Since 2001, the agency has largely focussed and expanded its reach into the interactive, strategic and data-analysis fields. Currently it is a part of Young & Rubicam Brands and a member of WPP. Forrester Research has named the agency as a “Leader” in marketing database operations and a “Strong Performer” in customer engagement strategy. Notable clients include Microsoft, Nestle Purina, Pantene and Danone.

In 1992, John Valentine, Scott McCormick and Craig Ligibel set out to create VML in Kansas City, USA. Northwest Airlines was the first large-sized account bagged by the agency. Currently a part of WPP, the agency has three core practices – strategy & intelligence, marketing & advertising and platforms & experiences. Some of the clients it works with include Wendy’s, Gatorade, Legoland Resort, Colgate, Absolut, Dell, Ford and Electrolux.

Another leading digital agency from the WPP stable is Possible. With over 1500 people around the globe, it works with some of the most dynamic brands, including Microsoft, Adidas, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, AT&T and Turner. Possible’s services cover Strategic Planning, Creative Campaigns, Digital Product Development, Ecommerce Technology, Web and Social Strategy, Mobility and User Experience Development. From games to mobile applications, immersive content to experiential campaigns, Possible has been making impactful communication possible for its clients.

In October 2016, global network Publicis merged two of its biggest digital agencies, SapientNitro and Razorfish, to create SapientRazorfish. Razorfish was originally founded in 1994 in New York by Craig Kanarick and Jeff Dachis. On the other hand, SapientNitro has been the digital media division of Sapient, a global marketing and technology consulting firm. Publicis acquired Sapient in 2015. Forrester has named SapientRazorfish a “Leader” in its Digital Experience Service Providers report for 2017. The agency currently operates out of 49 cities worldwide and has serviced Mercedes-Benz, RBS Group, Marks & Spencer, Bosch, Spotify, among others.

Bob Greenberg along with his brother Richard, in 1977 founded R/Greenberg Associates focussed on developing leading-edge motion graphics and live-action films. The brothers pioneered computer-assisted filmmaking and created ground-breaking visual effects for movies such as Alien, Predator, Se7en, and Zelig. After 400 feature films and over 4000 video commercials, the company decided to use its technology leadership to diversify into an interactive digital agency in 1995. R/GA has become one of the most successful integrated marketing services companies, creating everything from new products and digital services, to social and mobile campaigns, to broadcast commercials. The company serves as the digital partner to Fortune 500 companies and world-renowned brands, including Nike, Beats by Dre, Unilever, Samsung, Google, and Johnson & Johnson. It was recently ranked no. 6 on Ad Age’s 2018 A-List.

Some of the other notable creative and strategy agencies which have made their niche in this ever expanding digital industry include Leap (Louisville, USA), AMPAgency (Los Angeles, USA), Rise Interactive (Chicago, USA), Latitude Digital Marketing (Cheshire, UK), Fetch (London, UK), Jelly Fish (Maryland, USA), Blue Fountain Media (New York, USA) and Beyond (New York, USA). There are multiple others based out of USA, Europe, India, China and South East Asia and the numbers keep on growing every week.

However, many experts are concerned that few agencies are equipped to provide true cross-platform, integrated marketing strategies; a handful of the innovative start-ups have the breadth of experience to sew their ideas into relevant and sustainable customer experiences; and whilst technology and platform providers have the technical know how to manage the complex data and channel mix needed for success, they seriously lack creative bite. In summary, we now have digital agencies vying to become full-service agencies, while traditional shops are yearning to become more digitally integrated.

Agencies are constantly on their feet, innovating new solutions and thinking beyond ‘contents’ and ‘advertising.’ They are upping their game in machine learning, artificial intelligence, sixth sense technology and internet-of-things. Virtual Reality is passe, Augmented Reality is the new buzzword. After all, nobody can afford to get left behind in this race.