Is maintaining a standalone digital practice still preferable for an agency?

Burson-Marsteller's Tony Telloni and Ken Makovsky of Makovsky & Co. debate the merits of maintaining a standalone digital practice.

Yes

Tony Telloni
Burson-Marsteller's NY market leader; president, Proof Integrated Comms.
Runs separate digital practice for its clients and Burson's

Digital is hardly new, even though companies and brands that use digital to truly define and differentiate themselves is still somewhat new. Everyone in our industry needs to have a strong foundation for how digital drives attention, reputation, and credibility. With that in mind, there are three primary reasons why a standalone digital practice makes sense. 

Clients expect more. In many scenarios, clients hire agencies with the expectation that we'll be their Sherpa and guide them through a slippery slope for the short term, but that we also know where we're going in the long term (desired outcome and desired results). Dedicated and separate digital experts must be those Sherpas. They often imply and come with a cachet and authority that can only be derived from an external adviser.  

Agencies expect more. The digital landscape is moving so quickly that it is unrealistic to expect everyone to be subject-matter experts in the digital world of today, as well as the digital world of tomorrow. We need dedicated people internally to help the rest of us. It makes sense in so many other industries. You hire a trainer to help you at the gym. You hire a nutritionist to eat healthier. We need digital experts to make sure our staff achieves peak performance with the latest and even "not ready for prime time" digital trends.

Finance folks expect more. At the end of the day, agencies are acquiring and partnering with digital/social media boutiques because they recognize the revenue potential that follows that expertise. Clients these days expect their agencies to understand the digital world, but just as they do in a crisis, they recognize the need to pay for experts to lead them out of the confusing jungle of digital and into social media. In the end, the monetization of digital is real.

There will come a day when the idea of a separate digital practice will become obsolete, but we're not quite there yet. As long as everyone expects more, I expect the demand for separate digital expertise will remain a premium in the communications field.

No

Ken Makovsky
President and CEO, Makovsky & Co.
Mandates digital expertise to be embedded throughout the agency via training

Early on, some PR firms hired Web developers or coders - with minimal understanding of communications strategy - to create new digital "practices" serving the account teams. It made sense then. It no longer does. We shouldn't just hire tech-savvy specialists; we should acquire their skills.

Consumer-generated media are transforming our profession at an astonishing rate. Yet many people are still not comfortable or experienced with the underlying technology. The question of how best to inject a client's corporate messages and protect its brand has never been more complicated.

Effective communications today is as multidimensional as the people it's meant to reach. Isolating social media from traditional media - and all the other communications channels available - is worse than a mistake. It's a suicidal strategy.

My firm was founded on a belief that specialization is the best way to build reputation, sales, and fair valuation for our clients in specific sectors (e.g., financial, health, technology). But our content experts are also our social media experts. It's far easier for PR pros to learn social media than for most programmers to fully understand subtle industry-specific issues, customer hot buttons, communications channels, and compliance requirements with the depth of our sector specialists.

Today, when we put together a communications strategy for a client, we use all the weapons in our arsenal, harnessing their combined power in a fully integrated fashion. It's no longer just a question of disseminating unified corporate messages. Today, we're consciously channel-agnostic whereby we put the people important to our clients first, whether they are reading a magazine, tweeting, or on the front lines of an unruly mob protesting a corporate policy.

We need to break down the walls that separate account staff from social media experts and embed the expertise in every practice. It's tough - and may be culturally upsetting - but integrating the social sphere into every aspect of our business will ultimately deliver sales and better, more effective programs for clients.

PRWeek's View:

The need for a digital expertise has never been gerater, but a standalone practice does not ensure that an agency actually possesses it. The goal should be integration with dedicated experts shepherding colleagues and clients.

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