Is digital strategy too important to be left to digital agencies?

In a provocative article in last week’s NMA, editor Michael Nutley seems to suggest that digital business strategy is too important to be entrusted to digital agencies, or indeed any marketing agency.

I don’t agree.

In my experience working for tech startups, agencies and large portal sites, I’ve found that lots of the best ideas come from code and production teams. People who really understand the technology and use it on a daily basis, people who spend time on Slashdot or contributing to Zend. People who are playing with and creating the technologies and applications the general public will use in two or three years’ time.

As William Gibson said, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

And that’s a problem for most non-digital businesses, because they don’t have those type of people in senior strategic positions. This is, in part, a generational issue – ‘digital natives’ brought up on the first home computers are, in the main, just reaching 40 and tend not to be in positions of great influence in large non-digital businesses, however, by the time this changes it may be too late for some of these businesses. We’re on the verge of another step-change in our use of digital technologies, the ubiqitous, always-on, semantic, internet of things is just around the corner (though it needs a snappier title). The digital and physical worlds are about to become much more integrated, something that will fundamentally rearchitect the way that many businesses are managed.

If I were the CEO of a large non-digital business, I’d want to have a ‘digital native’, and by that I mean someone who can at least form an href, use an FTP client, or who has an account on Github at a very senior strategic position in the company. If I didn’t have a significant digital component to my business, I’d certainly want to appoint an agency with significant experience in service design and application development (not just creating banners, buttons and Flash microsites) to work with my digital strategy director. As I mentioned before, proximity and access to production teams is fundamentally important – even a ‘digital native’ on their own with no access to a wider production team will struggle to keep up with developments in such a rapidly developing environment.

I’d also speak to academics, and management consultancies, too, but in my experience neither are good at consumer-facing strategy or understanding the nitty-gritty of front-end production, which is often where the digital game is won or lost. Whether the agency I chose were a digital pureplay or a more traditional integrated one is not really relevant, there are good and bad in both worlds, though I definitely wouldn’t make the decision to go with one agency for the sake of short-term expediency, because Michael is certainly right about one thing: digital strategy is far too important for that.

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