Traditional agencies are driving away their digital superstars with their old ways

dan_monheit_hard_hatIn this guest post, Daniel Monheit argues that Australia’s creative agencies will never be able to hang on to digital talent

In 2010 Steve Jobs was invited by James Murdoch to speak at the annual News Corp management retreat. Jobs issued a blunt, critical assessment of what newspapers were trying to do in technology: “You’re going to find it hard to get things right, because you’re in New York and anyone who’s any good at tech works in Silicon Valley”.

And that’s when it hit me. The reason why Australia’s best traditional agencies, working with the most prolific clients and the biggest budgets cant manage to put out anything remotely passable as decent digital work.

Anyone who’s any good at digital works at an agency that actually believes in it.

Not believes in it as a way to tack another $30k on to a campaign budget or something for the new interns to play with. Agencies that believe that the future of our industry is digital. It’s opt in. It’s creating valuable experiences, not interrupting them. It’s building efficiencies and reducing costs for our clients, just as much as it’s growing their revenues. It’s not what it’s been for the last 70 years. And it’s awesome.

People who subscribe to this view don’t last six months in traditional agencies. They suffocate, or are crushed under the weight of endless banner campaigns and microsite rollouts based on print ads. Their brilliance, ingenuity and ambition goes unnoticed in the opulent shrines dedicated to 30 second spots, catchy jingles and 10% commissions.

The people best placed to lead this revolution are the ones being told to keep calm and carry on. Think the same. Digital is just another channel.

Is it any wonder they leave?

As the talented few are driven to the upstarts, the inevitable next wave of great agencies continues to gain momentum. Without the right people, the traditionals have no choice but to keep pushing digital to the bottom of the list, ignoring its fundamental differences and churning out more of the same.

They’ll keep enticing the superstars of tomorrow with huge salaries and exciting job titles, but just as quickly kill them with bureaucracy, old habits and outdated beliefs that just wont die. They’ll blame the turnover on “typical gen Ys”, and one day wonder where it all went wrong. Just like the newspapers.


  1. Logic
    15 Feb 12
    12:39 pm

  2. Unsubscribe

  3. Alex Campbell
    15 Feb 12
    12:59 pm

  4. Before the inevitable flamethrowing begins…

    I agree with your point, which seems almost self-evident. Of course digital talent attracts digital talent, and digital agencies are where this talent tends to congregate.

    And of course the best digital people don’t want to report into a traditional creative agency structure where the MD still gets his emails printed out and left on his desk so he can send handwritten replies, and where you have to go around explaining to creative directors that QR codes aren’t cool and holograms haven’t quite been invented yet.

    But this works both ways. Digital agencies are still seriously lacking the kind of true strategic and creative talent that the best creative agencies have. Until digital agencies can close this gap they will struggle to do truly great campaign work.

    The answer of course is somewhere in the middle. There is a lot that digital agencies can learn from creative and media agencies, and there is a lot that media and creative agencies can learn from digital agencies.

    If I’ve learned anything from talking with many, many senior agency people from every corner of industry, it’s that we are all holding ourselves back by treating ‘digital’ and ‘advertising’ as mutually exclusive.

  5. Ryan
    15 Feb 12
    12:59 pm

  6. A ballsy assessment, and I agree wholeheartedly.

  7. Errrr
    15 Feb 12
    1:05 pm

  8. The footer on your company website says “copyright 2010”.

    Perhaps the same applies to this piece of thinking.

  9. Rodd
    15 Feb 12
    1:07 pm

  10. Worse still, a lot get fed up enough to leave the communications industry altogether. That’s the real problem.

  11. Really?
    15 Feb 12
    1:08 pm

  12. This piece would be plausible about 5 years ago. Not sure which big agencies Daniel’s been working of late, but today this reads as pretty generic and incredibly cliched.

  13. Amen to this
    15 Feb 12
    1:14 pm

  14. Part of the problem is that doing digital properly involves a substantial investment that will scare a traditional agency’s CFO shitless.

    I left an ad agency in a similar scenario where digital was the offcuts of print and TVC art directed by big industry names that had no clue about Flash file sizes. And it doesn’t take much to hype up ones’ digital capability by sounding intelligent in a press release or pitch.

    Digital is much more complex than most understand, from a creative, technical and a production perspective.

    As long as the margins looked good business was good.

  15. Anonymous
    15 Feb 12
    1:28 pm

  16. 2008, is that you?

  17. Anon
    15 Feb 12
    1:36 pm

  18. You REALLY hit the nail on the head. +1

  19. Alison_F
    15 Feb 12
    2:52 pm

  20. I’ll bite… Daniel, can you name a few of the agencies that you are referring to in your article. It just seems so generalised that I’m not sure who you mean.

    And, while you’re at it can you confirm that these assertions are based on personal experience? ie: Have you worked within a traditional agency that experienced these issues or are your comments made from a considerable distance?

  21. beezlebub
    15 Feb 12
    2:55 pm

  22. I agree with cheeky remarks that this is a dated view – only because we all now know that digital is just another channel, is often ignored by consumers who are mostly seeking true content and is pretty crappy for brand-building.

    the notion that other forms of advertising ‘interrupt’ but digital does not is old-fashioned and quite bizarre to hear in this day and age

  23. littlep
    15 Feb 12
    3:03 pm

  24. It’s exactly the same at media agencies and I’d assume that a high % of people disagreeing with your comments are probably from a traditional media / creative background!

  25. Tim O'Neill
    15 Feb 12
    3:03 pm

  26. Hi Daniel,

    Although some of your comments ring true, it’s hard to agree with “…Australia’s best traditional agencies… cant manage to put out anything remotely passable as decent digital work”.

    If the Cannes Cyberlions are a baromoter of decent digital work (they are) then a quick look at last year’s only Australian finalists; Droga 5, Leo Burnett and Host. With only one winner (a Bronze to Droga 5 Sydney for Cascade Brewery).

    Would you class Droga 5, Leo Burnett and Host as “Traditional Agencies”? I am guessing yes (although I bet they wouldn’t).

    In my opinion, Australian traditional, digital, blended, hybrid, whatevers all can lift our game to really compete on the world-stage

  27. Logic
    15 Feb 12
    3:06 pm

  28. is this the stuff digital agencies sell on in pitches ‘oh, big agencies are such idiots etc etc’ … despite the fact most (including the author of this) have never worked in a large agency.

    “the revolution” i don’t think will be lead by people in agencies servicing the inane needs of marketers trying to increase market share by 1.7% btw.

    and I don’t think truly talented individuals (ie, remarkable ones) want to even work in advertising and sales roles. let’s not kid ourselves here. remarkable people do remarkable things, not sell ad spots and facebook monitoring.

  29. Geekist
    15 Feb 12
    3:06 pm

  30. Traditional Agency = Kodak

  31. MikeZed
    15 Feb 12
    3:30 pm

  32. Hi Daniel,

    That’s a big call to make given your LinkedIn shows you’ve never worked in a “traditional” agency. Having done my time in “integrated” agencies as well as purely digital spaces, there is an element of truth in what you say, but it is highly dated and very specific to particular agencies. If you look at the track record of Creative Showcase finalists and winners over the last couple of years, yes there are the digital agencies like Soap, Holler and Amnesia, but the traditional agencies like Leo Burnett, Droga5, Host, The Monkeys etc. are well up there, as well as “hybrids” like Tequila. I know i’d love to have the digital showreel of some of these “traditional” agencies, and their work and awards track record seems stronger than that represented on your site.

    So much as i enjoy a good traditional agency bashing, there are some very smart digital folk working inside some traditional agencies producing amazing work, and the blanket write off of them all is a bit silly.

    (Congrats on the publicity drive, btw. Fairfax articles, 2 x Mumbrella posts, all in the last month – i hope it’s driving lots of new leads)

  33. r**phy
    15 Feb 12
    4:06 pm

  34. I couldn’t agree more. I left a big “traditional” agency for exactly this reason. The agency threw money at me when i was leaving but I just wanted to make more of an impact doing digital work. What the traditional agencies sometimes forget is that good people are more often driven by innovation and a sense of achievement than they are by money. With the attitude most traditional agencies have, the money will start drying up soon. The digital agency I work for now is constantly recruiting the best minds from traditional agencies and everyone is loving it here – and we’ve all taken massive pay cuts…but we get to CREATE THE FUTURE!

  35. Anonymous
    15 Feb 12
    4:21 pm

  36. Guess BWM aren’t feeling much love from hard hat now Leggo’s Valetine’s Day is over. Would love to be at the next ‘all agency’ WIP after Rob reads this little missive!

  37. Dan Monheit
    15 Feb 12
    4:22 pm

  38. Hi all,

    Great to see some passionate views on both sides, and very happy to be pulled up about three agencies who are doing exceptional work (especially droga5).

    Thanks also for all the “I agree but can’t say so publicly” emails I’ve received in the last couple of hours.

    @MikeZed, you’re right – I’ve never worked in a traditional agency but have spent the last seven years interviewing people trying to leave them.

  39. Jeepers
    15 Feb 12
    4:32 pm

  40. I have to say, you write like someone from a digital agency.

  41. Tom
    15 Feb 12
    4:39 pm

  42. +1 @Logic

  43. Jeepers
    15 Feb 12
    4:42 pm

  44. And secondly how about some examples to back up your points?

  45. Aidoadguy
    15 Feb 12
    4:45 pm

  46. Maybe it’s because traditional agencies are waking up to the fact that unlike TV, radio and print, very few major brands have ever been built soley through digital media.
    Maybe it’s because more people watch television now than ever before.
    Maybe it’s because the top You Tube clip still has less viewers than black and white TV had when man landed on the moon in 1969.
    Maybe it’s because a brand like McDonalds has 6 times more people passing through their stores everyday (and forking out cash) than they have as fans on Facebook.
    Maybe it’s because they saw Pepsi chuck all their coin into the digitally acclaimed ‘refresh’ project and for the first time in living memory slip to third place behind the two Cokes.
    Last week was Superbowl week. Every TV station, radio station, newspaper, social media site was in a frenzy about the Superbowl television ads.
    I didn’t hear one single mention, anywhere about any superbowl digital campaign.

    You work it out Mr Digital guy.

  47. YAWN
    15 Feb 12
    5:07 pm

  48. This is a sad perspective Daniel, especially when it indicates you’ve written it at a distance not through self experience.

    As you’re a fan of Steve Jobs here’s another quote worth reading “experts are clueless”.

  49. kevin ferry
    15 Feb 12
    5:37 pm

  50. Fella I like your style, pick a fight with some of the big guns in the playground, but to be honest it’s all rubbish.

    Why? Because I have worked on both sides of the fence. (Yes there’s a divide sadly) and I have found from personal experience some very talented people and some dreadful ones in both traditional and digital agencies.

    The companies and clients who do the best and most successful work are the ones who ignore this divide and hit that lovely sweet spot for running a great agency by attracting the best talent in all areas of comms.

    Now leave the playground before you get another bashing.

    Feel free to check out my roll call: if you think I might not be qualified to make this judgement.

  51. MikeZed
    15 Feb 12
    6:02 pm

  52. @dan – the fact that you’ve based this article on seven years interviewing big agency refugees explains a lot of it – it’s the digital people that haven’t left their mainstream agency you should chat to, so you can hear how great it can be. I worked in mainstream agencies for a long time before going “specialist” digital and it can be deeply frustrating – but at the same time, in the right environment with the right team, it can be incredible to be able to deliver highly integrated campaigns that use all the different channels in very cool ways.

    But you’ve certainly managed to poke the angry bear…

  53. Tim
    15 Feb 12
    6:08 pm

  54. Ok. So I’ve worked at a few of the so-called traditional agencies, on the digital teams, and I’ve also worked in focussed digital businesses.

    Seems to me there are a few things rarely acknowledged.

    1. Traditional agencies tend to want to tell stories in a picture, a word and a narrative. The output is seen as commercial art. Digital agencies tend to want work in mediums in which the audience guides their own experience and hence success comes by delivering great experiences. The output is mostly seem as something functional. Taste within those businesses is often led by the mediums in which their strengths lie. Goes without saying – you’re good at what you like.

    2. Not all agencies do advertising. Traditional agencies tend to do acquisition work (big pieces of work that get heaps of attention). Digital agencies generally do customer conversion and retention work (or they’re best at that). Websites and iPhone apps generally aren’t there to let people know you exist for example. So, the gut instinct of a digital person is quite different from that of a traditional person.

    3. Extraction rates on digital projects are generally around 80% and extraction rates on big traditional work – ie TV is 20%. This is simply because production of the trad work is usually outsourced to production companies whereas digital is usually done in-house. Of course being digital I’m not in a position to really quantify this exactly, but it’s my firm understanding. Maybe someone can correct me.

    Of course big brush strokes and all that. There are obvious exceptions. Enormously talented people in both camps. Probably just trying to do very different things and confusingly using the same language.

  55. Anonymous
    15 Feb 12
    9:02 pm

  56. I consult with a lot of agencies and I can totally see where Daniel is coming from.

    One agency I work with has seen every project manager leave on average within 6 months. The reason, they feel the agency doesn’t get digital. The same agency hired a senior strategist and then did everything they possibly could to get in the way of them doing their job. Funny they left in less than a year.

    Agencies don’t make life easy for themselves. The first and biggest mistake is putting their ECD in charge of the digital folks. ECDs (most not all) don’t get digital at all. If you don’t understand a business you have no right to be in charge of it.

    Amid all this one agency is amazing and puts out the cleverest digital strategies despite not being digital. It’s of course Droga 5 with the Great Schlep using Sarah Silverman for Obama, Air force One and Raise a Glass for VB.

    Those guys get it, few others do.

  57. jean cave
    15 Feb 12
    10:09 pm

  58. Do you think that interviewing is a good way to assess creativity, forward-thinking, and/or any other character trait? I am not sure it is.

  59. Niall Flynn
    15 Feb 12
    11:32 pm

  60. So true I have been this soldier in so many agencies, integrated works if it happens at concept level. In my opinion the structures are to blame you have a junior web dev trying to get a senior AD or brand manager to make a change or to actually digitise a project, they are rarely listened to and the frustration mounts.

    Great post and so personally relevant, keep up the good work :)

  61. Sean
    16 Feb 12
    12:15 am

  62. It’s nice to see someone finally voicing an opinion. The lack of thought leadership from digital agencies in this country amazes me. So I applaud you Daniel for being one of the few to be putting forward a point of view (and not just taking pot shots from the side)

    We need more conversation and debate to lift the quality of people and culture across all agencies. I think the comment from Rodd puts it best. The real issue is all the people leaving the industry all together.

  63. Marky Mark
    16 Feb 12
    12:28 am

  64. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said Dan Monheit, it’s just amazing to see so many people got personally offended. The truth definitely hurts.

  65. Hard hat hard lesson
    16 Feb 12
    6:07 am

  66. I disagree with your comments. I think the very best digital talent go to traditional agencies (ie down in Melbourne last week) where they invariably enter a cluster fuck and can’t get good work out because of legacy issues but stay because of money

  67. Not Just Agencies
    16 Feb 12
    7:58 am

  68. Digital is revolutionising everything. It isn’t just traditional agencies with old skool business models who are suffering and finding it hard to adapt. Traditional publishers, retailers, manufacturers, it goes on…

    Out with the old, in with the new. Many of the “old boys” at the top of the big traditionals and indeed shareholders too, hold back some of the companies who actually have a chance to adapt.

    Many more companies will go under, many more start up’s will grow stronger.

  69. Jeremy
    16 Feb 12
    11:53 am

  70. I agree there is a lot of truth to your article, but it probably goes one step further.

    Traditional agencies aren’t entirely to blame, I think there is an appetite for embracing not only digital and other new ways of thinking in traditional agencies. The real challenge is for clients to embrace this way of thinking, but more importantly convincing clients to pay for it.

    in the current broken advertising landscape where media agencies often have more budget and strategic influence than creative agencies, the problem is only amplified.

    Whilst there are marketers out there saying that want to play in digital / new media and have big ideas that change the way people feel about their brand, few are actually serious. Deep down they want their big traditional campaigns that make them feel good. It gives them an opportunity to take an excursion out to a big fun TV shoot day where they get that little glimpse of excitement in their otherwise mundane boring lives.

    Marketing is often treated too much like a science, by nature marketers are risk adverse, therefore it is easy to default back to the position doing what is safe and familiar.

    There are examples in Australia where big traditional agencies have done some great things in the digital space, but it should be their clients who are applauded for giving them the opportunity to do so.

  71. Schmal
    16 Feb 12
    1:38 pm

  72. There are no good ideas on the HardHat website. Case closed.

  73. gen y
    16 Feb 12
    2:04 pm

  74. Love a good polarizing article! And I totes agree. Those big agencies are like a massive star trek spaceship in a time when you need to be versatile, be ready to take quick turns and react fast to be innovative.

    All the sweet digi talent I know have left the ship


  75. DH
    16 Feb 12
    2:13 pm

  76. @Tim – Agree with your review, which has some actual behavioural reasons behind why things are the way they are, unlike Dan’s broad generalisation.

    Disturbingly, there seems to be this type of elitsit arrogance popping up everywhere from some of these new “digital superstars”.

    Some are great thinkers, creatively gifted and technical profficient but very few are all of these things – across all areas.

  77. Schmal
    16 Feb 12
    2:49 pm

  78. From a creative perspective this article misses the mark by an internet.
    The best creative talent aren’t specialists in media, of which digital is another channel, they create ideas. And great ideas don’t depend on any media, they transcend it. So you’re not getting the best creative talent, I’ve seen your website. You must obviously be talking about other roles – and those roles are irrelevant if your end product, the creative, isn’t great.

  79. Anonymous
    16 Feb 12
    2:53 pm

  80. @gen y

    omg good one!
    lol. ily

  81. Wild Oscar
    16 Feb 12
    3:51 pm

  82. Get me a violin

  83. Rob
    16 Feb 12
    4:06 pm

  84. While there is some truth to this Dan, I’d like to think that things aren’t so black and white. Its true that the majority of agencies would most likely fit the stereotype you’ve described, but that doesn’t mean that all digital creatives are going to be satisfied working in a purely digital agency. The benefits of moving to a digital agency can often be met with a new set of frustrations.

    There are plenty of agencies out there that do get it right and are able to see the bigger picture. The ‘digital superstars’ are the ones who have already worked this out and moved on to these types of agencies.

  85. richie
    16 Feb 12
    4:07 pm

  86. this guy is 100% right, im sick of fucking ad agencies claiming that they “do digital” mocking a piece of shit up and then having it sliced from a .psd in india is not “doing digital”. the worst part is that they charge like 100-200k for a site that is built in open source CMS and has the SEO of a word document.

  87. Chappy
    16 Feb 12
    4:40 pm

  88. I’ll file this one away and enjoy reading it in a few years’ time. By that stage, traditional agencies and digital agencies will be called agencies, and we will all be singing from the same hymn book. If I remember my days as an altar boy, not all people sing as eloquently as others. You get the nanny-goats with their warbly tones, the screechers, the silent mumbly types and then those who hold an honest tune. Such discrepancies will always occur in any competitive industry – religion and advertising alike.

    In the meantime, the digital savvy will seek each other out to make cool shit. The traditionalists will flock together to safeguard the sanctity of advertising, and in the meantime all our bosses are working out where to buy that damn hymn book.

  89. Anon
    17 Feb 12
    7:17 am

  90. @Tim O’Neill, Droga5 are 7 years old – hardly a ‘traditional’ agency. There’s ‘traditional’ as in TV and ‘traditional’ as in the old guard.

    I don’t see anyone citing great digital work from McCann Erickson, Badjar Ogilvy, Grey, JWT, Wunderman, DDB and friends.

  91. James
    17 Feb 12
    8:41 am

  92. As a Digital person whose done his time in both Ad agency and Digital shop, I can wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of the article. I don’t think the lag between traditional and digital uptake is to blame however, I think it comes down to a simple set of priorities.

    In Ad shops, the premium is always placed on the idea — Design and Development are a slave to this, so time after time it means doing uninteresting work (banners / Facebook tabs etc.). Clients typically come to (good) digital agencies for awesome *focussed* digital ideas, and don’t suffer under having to do things for the sake a huge campaign.

    I think Ad agencies will continue to struggle to find good digital talent because quite frankly, why would you work somewhere where your product isn’t the ultimate goal? Why not go and work for digital agency — Or increasingly these days, a tech/app startup? And not to mention inefficiencies in project management, or the difficulties integration (still) brings to digital workflow.

    In short, Advertising is going to need something sexy to pull digital talent back in. Keep running things as they are, and really ask yourself: why would YOU work in Ad shop as things stand?

  93. Geekist
    17 Feb 12
    9:05 am

  94. I think it is important to point out that the reference to “Digital” or in fact “Digital People” is ridiculous. Being a technologist personally that actually builds things digital is in fact zero’s & one’s (001000110010010), and that’s all it will ever be.

    What you all seem to grapple to understand is that advertising, marketing and media is served up onto “platforms” such as paper, cinema, radio, OOH, TV, PC, Tablet & Mobile devices. Sure the Internet has spawned new platforms however at the end of the day the creative and ideas are all the same. Understanding the technology well enough to realise what is potentially possible on the various platforms is still limited in both Traditional & Digital agencies globally in 80% of cases.

  95. JayZ
    17 Feb 12
    1:16 pm

  96. @Geekist – couldn’t agree more.
    People with Digital in front of their title are a joke, and I should know, I had to fight to get it removed from my title.
    This is a “special needs” article time-warped from around 2005

  97. Tony Richardson
    22 Feb 12
    3:52 pm

  98. Why don’t all the clever digital types who have commented about dunderhead traditional agencies go directly to the clients?

    It can’t be that hard … and they’d make a fortune!

  99. Mark
    24 Feb 12
    3:04 pm

  100. digital superstars???

    Granted it’s harder to feel like a superstar in a traditional agency when a creative team often gets the glory.

    This article just sounded a bit like sourgrapes.

  101. Andrew Bolt & Gina Reinhardt's Love Child
    24 Feb 12
    3:19 pm

  102. Aaah yes. I remember the olden days.

    When agencies created “facsimilie” divisions. You know. To take advantage of the creative opportunities and business altering paradigms of the nascent facsimilie industry.

    Which I believed superceded the “talkies” division………

    The more things change the more they stay the same. Except of course, the zealots are a lot more patronising and vocal now days.

    Now I must sigh. And roll my eyes.

  103. FromTheInterwebs
    28 Feb 12
    12:29 pm

  104. I’m assuming you have more experience creating real digital experiences, rather than faking them with green screens?

  105. Anonymous
    9 Mar 12
    11:05 am

  106. This guy = Troll