The Eternal Debate

>> Monday, November 9, 2009

Mac vs. PC
Star Wars vs. Star Trek
Boxers vs. briefs

Outside of the agency world, bring up any of the above and it's sure to spark a heated debate over a cold pint.

Inside the agency world, however, the fastest way to pick a fight is to pick a side in the "traditional" vs "digital" agency debate. Case in point: the recent AdAge blog post by Ana Andjelic, titled "Why Digital Agencies Aren't Ready to Lead," which is setting off a firestorm of debate from both sides of the aisle.

There is a natural tendency to over-simplify and stereotype each kind of agency—labeling the digital agency as innovative, fresh, and nimble but not very strategic; characterizing traditional agencies as having creative and strategic strength but lacking in terms of experimentation, technology and speed—and these stereotypes are usually the first things people challenge. A quick scan of the article's comments will show you exactly what I'm talking about.

But arguing over the accuracy of a stereotype or debating the merits of one agency type over another overlooks an interesting concept that the article introduces, which is a theory of "exploration vs exploitation". As described by James March, organizations, in an effort to evolve and grow, must balance the "exploration of new possibilities" against "the exploitation of old certainties." Do they invest in an unknown future at the expense of current profit? Or do they play to current strengths and reap immediate benefit while sacrificing in the long term? As someone who has helped an agency change over the past several years, I know all too well how challenging it is to find the right balance between these two opposable forces.

Whether you agree with the overall sentiment of the post (that digital agencies just don't get it) or not, it's clear that the rapidly changing needs of our clients are the driving force behind this evolution. They need agencies that are capable of generating innovative ideas while mastering execution, and ones that can demonstrate success in both mass channels and more precise and measurable ones. Regardless of how they are labeled, agencies that "get" this will succeed; those that don't will struggle.

Time will tell if it's the digital agencies or traditional ones that ultimately "win" this battle to balance exploration and exploitation, but everyone stands to benefit as a result. Continued evolution, and therefore competition, leads to a stronger marketplace, where ideas are better, the solutions more innovative, and our clients are more successful in achieving their goals.

When that happens, not only will agencies and clients win, but our consumers do too.


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