Cracking Integration: Tips For Agencies Incorporating Digital

Cracking Web

Looking at How Agencies Integrate in China: an Outsider’s Perspective

When it comes to integrating digital offerings within agencies, I overheard a conversation where a client cracked a joke with another client of mine, “Try not to give your digital business to an agency named after a dead person.” With the possible exception of Ogilvy in Asia, this piece of advice highlights the lack of brand DNA, working culture and leadership needed to make agency integration of digital capabilities a successful affair.

So how is agency integration being handled in China right now?  At first glance, quite badly. Agencies tend to specialize in China, be it in TVC, print ads or websites as it’s a faster way to build capabilities and clients here prefer to work with best of breed agencies for specific work.

To change this state of affairs, mainstream creative agencies are eliminating their specialist digital labels and losing digital talents in the process. They hope that their clients would now be comfortable to let their non-digital staff lead website development, social media and digital advertising projects, even while such staff has to handle non-digital advertising work as well.

The results are not pretty and client dissatisfaction with such efforts remains high. This state of affairs reminds many of us of an equally unsuccessful attempt at integration.

In the 1990s, the big agencies claimed clients prefer an integrated partner for above the line advertising and below the line design work. But standalone branding and design agencies are still alive and prospering and clients have no inclination to ask agency to do design work as such work is generally expensive, slow and the work is not as good as design specialists.


So how should agencies do integration? Nick Law, CCO of R/GA, wrote an insightful piece in 2008 on the traditional agency’s approach to integration i.e. “integration at gun point”:

Nick shows exactly how this “gun-point” approach ignores the fact that media-agnostic thinking does not work in the age of personalized and mobile media. “Each time the medium changes, our relationship to the message changes.” The iPhone and its app stores have almost singlehandedly redefined consumer behavior, content publishing and advertising.

Nick Law’s thinking is prescient and a recent study supports his opinion. In Nov 2011, Avidan Strategies conducted a survey o assess the state of client/agency relationships and found that, “only 1 in 3 clients indicated that the traditional agencies are doing a good job of adding digital capabilities, becoming integrated, and evolving their business model to fit client needs. Agencies have tried to address this issue tactically, but shied away from reshaping business models to fit new realities of the digital marketplace.”

And the price to pay for incompetence? The report concluded that “clients are lowering the bar of their expectations, client/agency relationships are becoming transactional rather than partnership based.”


So how can agencies in China avoid the integration pitfalls encountered by agencies overseas?

This really depends on their vision for digital, which will influence the way they handle integration. There are 2 possible visions.

Scenario 1: Advertising will remain unchanged and digital is just another channel.

Clients favor digital from a one-stop hub for all their marketing and branding needs. Digital only adds more touch points and its output will be on additional interactive surfaces of different sizes and for different situations.

Advertising knowledge, principles and wisdom stays untouched by the new digital stuff. Creating a brand identity or marketing campaign in 2013 is the same as in the 1990s.

Scenario 2: Digital is more than a channel as it is evolving every type of advertising and communication space there is.

Media is now owned by all with thousands of media sources lead on by different channels and curators on YouTube. TV is no longer linear to the mainstream – there are other ways of having choices for dynamic content rather than relying on a TV remote.

Communication is not necessarily about information, but just as much about activities. PR has become a software industry of systems, surveillance and technology, where talking to journalists have become a niche replaced by the process of igniting ideas into communities, generating thousands of real time conversations that provide fertile ground for advertising and activation activities online and offline.

Design and identity is now a tool for product and services innovation rather than figuring out what logo, font or color scheme to apply.


Most agencies lean towards the first vision as it is the least disruptive to their way of thinking and working. Such agencies invariably fall under this mode of integration:

1) DINO = Digital In Name Only

This refers to traditional agencies that rely on a limited use of digital to mainly amplify the reach and response of their “branding” and integrated campaigns. They have no wish to develop full blown digital capabilities i.e. having their own tech team nor do they want to shift the majority of their non-digital staff out of their comfort zone.

Such agencies rely on interaction designers partnering non-digital creative staff or rely on digital staff creatively applying TV and print concepts online. If the client pays well, they may include a creative technologist and strategist to form a matrix team.

For the more progressive big agencies led by dynamic thought leaders and change agent, they either try to revolutionize their agency offering by large scale restructuring via a DIE approach:

2) DIE = Digital In Elimination

Such agencies eliminate staff whom they feel are not able to digitize or think in an integrated way. It’s an effective way of converting to digital but it leaves scars on those who remained or left. Such agencies can become quite bureaucratic as they try to integrate or digitize their work all the time, even when the client or brief does not require them to do so.

Some agencies also try to seamlessly integrate a large digital or mainstream creative acquisition with a total digital approach to agency culture such as CPB and SapientNitro. They typically fall under the Dale mode of agency integration:

3) DALE = Digital As Lifestyle Execution

Regardless of their digital or non-digital origins, these agencies now require its staff to eat and breathe digital i.e. proposing digital ideas for both work and play & mundane lifestyle chores. As if secluded from the world in their community/valley/dale, they do work that follow no one’s rules except their own. For people who can’t live by such rules in this creative environment, they will leave the agency voluntarily as they know they aren’t a good fit.

Such agencies are often highly innovative in digital and social media arena but their unique approach to work may not be welcomed by every client, especially those in the B2B arena.

With these agency integration models in play, agencies in China have choices to make based on their clientele and staff. Such agencies need to worry less about keeping the agency status quo or agency culture and rely more on digital and integrated talents with proven expertise to create the type of work and track record that can set the agency apart. Because these talents are your change agents.


Kestrel Lee

Written by: Kestrel Lee

Kestrel is a digital creative director who has led and developed brand-driven award winning integrated campaigns in Asia.

If you have queries or feedback, please contact him at the following link.

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  • zzzzzz

    blah blah blah…

  • LOL

    Well written. Don’t give your digital business to an agency named after a dead person is such an appropriate advice, especially coming from a client.

  • 不要脸

    How come chinasmack has such a sophisticated advertising section? It’s a bit of a random quirk to add on to a Chinese culture dispatch. Nowadays the ad section is better than the main section. Thanks to the horde of rabidly anti-Chinese shills, reading an article in the main section is a bit like walking a tightrope: ‘don’t look down’ (at the comments)

  • Jonathan Smith

    Digital marketing is more secure now. Time have gone when it was easy to crack.

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