If there was a single familiar refrain from digital shops over the past decade, it was that their older, traditional-agency brethren "didn't get it" when it came to digital. But lately, that widely acknowledged gap has begun to narrow to the point where "older" agencies can claim more success in some areas of digital marketing.
Take the recent Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" digital campaign, an effort that is already a textbook example of how an advertiser can make itself a vital part of digital culture. The campaign didn't come from any of the digital-agency stalwarts like R/GA, AKQA or Razorfish. Instead, it came from Wieden + Kennedy, a shop not long ago often labeled as wedded to TV and print.
The Old Spice success followed a strong showing for non-digital specialists in this year's awards shows. At Cannes, for example, top honors in the Cyber category went to Wieden for Nike Livestrong's "Chalkbot" and DDB Sweden for Volkswagen's "Fun Theory." The Cyber Agency of the Year Award went to Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
Thanks to social media, the biggest challenge for brands is often less about creating the kind of technically sophisticated "immersive experiences" that digital shops have specialized in and more about crafting engaging content that people are likely to share with each other. In the words of Internet guru Clay Shirky, "Communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring."
"Digital used to be this thing that was a little more computer and Internet based. You had to know coding, Flash and HTML," said Edward Boches, chief creative officer at Mullen. "Now, what you have to understand is how consumers behave in relationship to content, community, technology and media."
It is now common for traditional shops to have developers sitting among creatives. Wieden now has developers, designers and coders on staff. They are also bringing on well-known talent from digital shops to help translate their strengths in storytelling and brand building into the digital world.
"Historically, digital specialty shops have been called on to bring technical knowledge, and the brand shops have brought ideas," said Renny Gleeson, global director of digital strategies at Wieden. "The technical knowledge deals well with the rational, and the brand knowledge deals well with the emotional."
Crispin Porter + Bogusky has focused on interactive for years and now boasts 400 people in interactive, according to Winston Binch, a partner at CP+B who joined the agency from R/GA. It has even begun working as a solely digital agency for a few clients, including Vail Resorts.
At the same time, digital shops are trying to improve their brand capabilities. Bob Lord, CEO of Razorfish, said the gray area is growing thanks to digital tools and platforms simplifying.
"I don't believe I'm in the business of creating brand perception," he said. "I'm in the business to create brand reality. Hopefully that feeds back into the brand perception, but I'm not in the business to create that. There are a lot of other companies to do that."
Many question whether even a runaway success like Old Spice will pass as just another blip until the Internet moves onto something else. Digital shops can be assured their role in building complex technical systems, large Web sites and sophisticated mobile applications won't be challenged anytime soon, according to Barry Wacksman, chief growth officer at R/GA. Campaigns like the Old Spice response videos are "viral stunts," he said, which soon die out and then need to be repeated, a nearly impossible pace to maintain.
"None of us digital agencies have created anything viral of that magnitude," he said. "What they can't do is what we do: create platforms that people integrate into their lives."
To an extent, Gleeson agrees. He said Wieden, with its legacy in great storytelling, would stay focused on creating relations between brands and customers. How that's accomplished is different in digital, but building a "99 percent uptime, SLA-compliant e-commerce infrastructure is probably not going to be our cup of tea."
Not so for CP+B, according to Binch. It wants to move into digital product and platform creation. The agency has in the past handled large Web sites -- it built the brand sites for Volkswagen, Burger King and Domino's -- and is now building mobile applications like Movie Mode for Best Buy.
"A lot of digital agencies just design Web sites or build applications," Binch said. "We give every piece of collateral and media an idea. That helps our brands differentiate."
Still, competition between digital shops and traditional agencies mostly takes place at the margins, as traditional shops bring digital ideas and digital shops look to expand their remit into more traditional areas. To date, few traditional agencies have shown expertise in creating long-lasting technical platforms and social-media programs, according to Sean Corcoran, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Most are immature in the social-marketing space and are treating it on a campaign basis," he said.