Digital agencies — brand custodians?

Is it time for digital agencies to take the lead on brand?

The prominence of digital agencies within the roster of major brands has increased markedly in the past decade, reflecting in part the rise of digital to become the most lucrative individual advertising category in Australia.

But could digital agencies ever take on custodianship of their clients’ brands?

It’s an idea once considered preposterous, with brand having long been nestled in the hands of the agency-of-record.

But according to Catherine Heath, head of strategy and planning for the US west coast operations of the digital agency Huge, the days of digital taking the lead on brand are approaching.

Speaking to CMO ahead of her address at the V21 conference in Melbourne on October 3, Heath says for some of her agencies’ clients, it has already happened.

“Digital agencies will be the brand custodians of the future,” Heath says. “For too long it has been the big above-the-line agency-of-record that gets to talk about the brand and design all of that, with the digital agency briefed on the side.

“Certainly in the US and certainly at Huge, we’re seeing a fundamental shift, because people are encountering brands digitally first. So if you have brand thinkers inside a digital agency there is no reason why you shouldn’t be the brand custodian.”

She says the first step down this path is for the brand owner to stop thinking about ‘digital’ as a subset within the media mix. Once the distinction around digital is taken away, this frees brands to think more openly.

“Life is digital, so we should just be thinking about ideas for a digital life,” Heath says. “It should be ‘life first’ thinking, as opposed to thinking about the channel first and what we are going to plug into it.”

Headquartered in the US and with offices across four continents, and a large number of brand name clients including Nike, the IPG-owned agency began life as a design and technology specialist agency. As it has grown in size it has also grown in capability, taking on more of its clients’ workloads and moving further ‘upstream’ in brand decision making.

Heath says the shift in responsibilities mirrors the growing prevalence of digital communications, and its prioritisation within the ranks of younger consumers.

“Most brands are fundamentally encountered digitally first, as opposed to traditional media,” Heath says. “We’re lucky we have some brave clients that really buy into that idea. It’s a longer journey for some other clients that have been doing things a certain way for a really long time.”

The rise of millennial consumers has further accelerated this thinking within Huge’s clients.

“They expect to have a digital-first brand relationship,” Heath says. “And that is not just in mature markets, but is being expedited in emerging markets.

“And on the corporate side, we are going to see a big shift in the types of people that are in the C-suite positions, because you are going to have millennials who are digital natives sitting in very influential positions, and they will expect their businesses and their brands and their marketing to reflect a digital life.”

She concedes however that the readiness of digital agencies to be the brand steward for clients remains a controversial debate.

“I would argue that having brand people within a digital agency is the future,” Heath says. “There would be a lot of people that disagree with me, but I really believe that the diffusion between brand and digital is imperative.”

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