February 28, 2011No more big ideas: why digital agencies are small and scientific

I started my first blog, a Livejournal, in late 1999. Back then, the word “blog” didn’t even exist.

Twelve years ago, I never could have predicted I’d have a successful career using the same techniques I learned while writing teenage ramblings for my friends. Yet here I am.

I guess I’ve always been an early adopter. Yet it never ceases to amaze me that there are people out there who still don’t understand the value of digital.

The ad industry is changing, whether you like it or not.

I read this fascinating piece on the future of advertising after it was tweeted by Tom Albrighton and it helped to clarify a lot of things in my mind. I knew the ad industry was changing. What I didn’t know, until very recently, was that people like me were at the very forefront of it.

Part of me thinks “copywriter” is a misleading term for what I do. A “copywriter” at a traditional (read: old-fashioned) ad agency sits around with an art director and spends weeks coming up with “the big idea”, a few storyboards, and maybe a couple of hundred words. When I graduated from university, I wanted to be that sort of copywriter.

It’s only as I’ve grown up and improved my trade by actually working at it, I’ve learned that the days of “big idea” copywriters are numbered. Here’s why:

Digital media spend outstripped traditional spend in 2009. In other words – digital is king.

“Big ideas” don’t sell products any more. Websites do.

Sure, not every product is bought and sold online. But most company’s reputations are influenced,
if not outright determined, by what they do online.

What makes a “digital” copywriter? And why are digital copywriters the future?

When I say I’m a copywriter I mean I produce content as well as ideas. That can be anything from a few headlines to a site of ten thousand words. To help me produce content, I’ll have a broad understanding of:

  • Conversion rate optimization
  • User experience (UX) testing
  • Metrics (stats like bounce rates, etc)
  • Web design and development
  • Content marketing
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Social media integration

Applying these skills to my work makes me a digital copywriter. These are the skills that make me competent to produce content for the web.

Being able to write and being able to think conceptually is important. But if you don’t understand the bigger picture of how your words fit into a web design, or understand how your users browse the web, your words are useless. Sure, you’re still a copywriter. But you’d better stick to writing catchy jingles for the wireless, because you’re living in the past.

Ad agencies don’t understand digital, either. They’re still in love with the “big idea”.

I still laugh when I see “respected” ad agencies with websites that use Flash. Sometimes, I have to spend several minutes looking for the information I need. Haven’t you ever heard of an information architect, guys? What about user experience testing?

I don’t care if it looks pretty. Does it work?

That’s digital in a nutshell. A good digital campaign delivers in seconds, not minutes. Sure, your site looks pretty (if you like waiting five minutes for it to load). But by then, I’ve closed your window and I’m already getting the information I need from the competition.

The days of the big idea have been replaced by the quick sale. You don’t need a copywriter and art director to spend weeks working on a “big idea” when you can find a digital copywriter who’ll tell you adding “now” to your call to action could increase your conversion rate by 4%. Now.

Digital copywriters use scientific conversion rate optimization strategies to provide instantly verifiable ROI. A “big idea” campaign can’t.

“Big ideas” are hit and miss – digital is scientific.

It’s hit and miss whether a “big idea” sticks. And there’s no guarantee your idea is driving sales. Sure, we all remember the Cadbury’s Gorilla adverts — probably the most famous “big idea” ad produced by the UK in the last 10 years. But I can confidently say it never made me buy a single extra bar of Dairy Milk.

In fact, short term sales of Cadbury’s only rose by 5%, a figure that most commentators (scroll down) found disappointing — and given the high cost of saturation TV placements, hardly a great (or even long term) ROI.

But what about brand identity?

Sure, you say. 5% is average. But the Gorilla ad didn’t just increase sales. It increased brand awareness and brand loyalty. Ok, maybe. Prove it. You can’t. Digital agencies provide real metrics — hard stats that show you whether your campaigns are working.

Besides, for every successful “big idea” there are hundreds of failures. Did you know that the Cadbury’s Gorilla was only part of a much wider campaign? Can you remember any of the other ads that were part of that campaign? Didn’t think so.

Most “big ideas” fail. Agencies only carry on because they, and their clients, are addicted to spending vast sums in the hope of hitting the jackpot.

I hate to break it to you guys, but 99% of your ideas suck.

The digital way to build brand loyalty is cheaper and more effective.

I recommend a really simple solution to clients looking to build a brand identity:

1. Use your blog.

Don’t just write press releases. Engage with your customers and their lifestyles. If you’re a baker, give away some recipes for cookies. If you’re a vintage fashion store, blog about the latest trends — not just the things you sell. Be an active participant in the lifestyles of your customers.

2. Use social media.

Whether you prefer Facebook, Twitter, or, like me, Tumblr (also preferred by fashion brands), it’s a great way of getting out there and meeting your customers and talking to them one-on-one. A girl I know wears nothing but American Apparel. Not because she was swayed by their advertising, but because she started following them on Twitter after they started tweeting out discount codes.

3. Engage with the community (and pay if you have to)

I learned about Drakes of London because a fashion blog I read, A Suitable Wardrobe, is sponsored by them. Not only do they run banner ads, the author also writes about how much he loves them in his blog. I still trust the author, because his blog has proven time and time again he’s a man of taste and refinement. Paid blog posts are a much better way of advertising than a television or a banner ad — because it’s an endorsement from someone your customer trusts.

Plus, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and more permanent than a television ad. Your TV ad is gone in 30 seconds and forgotten in weeks. A blog post will remind customers of your company for years to come.

Why digital agencies are the future:

Digital agencies are the future because they’re small and agile and are able to offer proven ROI using scientific methods to increase conversion rates, often at a fraction of the cost of hit-and-miss “big idea” agencies still living in the 90s.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Big agencies are buying their way into digital.

Terrified of being left behind, a lot of bigger old-school agencies are acquiring smaller digital agencies with ready-made in house teams. Leo Burnett UK recently acquiring successful digital agency Holler is a great example. not least because Leo Burnett only allows you to read the blog entry about their acquisition in… PDF or JPG format. Nice acquisition, guys. Holler – your first task will be to teach the peeps at Leo Burnett how to use WordPress.

Digital. It’s the future, and it’s already here.

I’m 100% convinced the work I do is cutting edge. As a digital copywriter, my skills are increasingly in demand — because I can offer proven results at lower costs.

But there’s a certain type of copywiter who spits on the pavement and crosses the road when I tell him what I do because I’m about results, metrics, and conversion rates, not “big ideas”.

I don’t sit in an egg-like chair for several weeks thinking up the next Cadbury’s Gorilla ad. I don’t give my clients big ideas. I give them fast, effective, proven ways to reduce their costs and make more money.

Next time you’re in the market for an agency, or a copywriter, don’t ask them how creative their portfolio is. Ask them if their methods work. Creativity is important — but it has to be backed up by a knowledge of what people want.

And if you’re a traditional agency currently looking to hire a digital strategist, content marketer and copywriter who understands where the industry is heading, well, make me an offer. A starting salary of 50k and a girlfriend who looks like January Jones would be nice, but not a deal-breaker.

Who are your favourite digital agencies? I think Pirata London, Work Club and Brilliant are nice.

Comments welcome.

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This entry was posted on Monday, February 28th, 2011 at 8:56 pm and is filed under Advertising, Blog, Copywriting, Digital, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Ralston H. says:

    What do you think to

    “We tried fitting into a pigeon hole. We couldn’t. We’re not pigeons.”

  2. al says:

    Well you know what I think to sites in flash! Can’t find a way to access the non-flash site either and flash kills my macbook’s battery!

    Headline’s not bad. Not exactly original (‘hey look at us, we’re different and creative… like every other digital agency.’)

    Personally I’d go for a coffin and ‘you have the rest of your life to think inside a box…’

    Maybe not ;-)

  3. Tony Muir says:

    Nice post, thanks for sharing.

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