Mobile Agencies: soon to be surplus to requirement

When we set up the digital agency Glue, over a decade ago, my concern was that, rationally, Glue should not exist. How long could it be before the other agencies caught up, thus making ‘digital agencies’ redundant?

Smart mobile agencies are now wondering the same thing. And so are marketing clients.

Do they, for example, have a ‘Poster’ agency on their roster? No. So why do marketing people still have mobile agencies on their rosters?

Most of the marketers I talk to don’t particularly want to employ mobile agencies. (Any additional agency on the roster is additional hassle.) They are forced to employ specialist, single-medium agencies when the incumbent agencies are incompetent.

The big question is how long the window of incompetence stays open.

Meanwhile, what are these mobile agencies being used for?

In part, they make stuff that incumbent agencies cannot make – a short-term fix to a skills shortage. Some mobile agencies make things the incumbent agency actually can make, because they have a nervous client – acting as a comfort blanket.

Other mobile agencies are involved in mobile strategy. Although you might expect them to be doing this, in many cases they can’t charge for ‘strategy’ because clients don’t have budgets for it. Agencies have to throw in the valuable stuff for free, and try to make money on production.

Very few are being used to develop their clients’ digital strategy. (Ironically the place where they might be of most value.) Mobile is not just another new media choice, it is a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour.

For years, the marketing industry asked, “will this be the Year Of Mobile?” It will soon be difficult to conceive of what a non-mobile world could possibly be like. It’s already difficult for consumers to conceive of that. It’s a moment in time when consumers are significantly ahead of marketers.

Yet there is still no long-term case for a specialist mobile agency. In 2004, Christopher Booker argued (after a 34-year investigation) that in all of literature there are seven basic plot lines. There are some basic plot lines in marketing too.

None of the marketing people I talk to wake up thinking, “I really want to do something mobile”. They are more likely to be concerned with the core tasks of marketing – acquiring new customers, retaining existing ones, achieving greater sales volume, increasing distribution, not giving away discounts… These are the basic plot lines of marketing, and mobile is simply a new context.

Until mobile becomes ‘normalised’, and old-school agencies catch up, marketers may still need to hire agencies that specialise in the medium. But they will do so reluctantly, and they will hope for a day, very soon, when hiring a mobile agency would be as daft as hiring a poster agency.

So if you are running a mobile agency and wondering how long before your window closes, well I reckon half as long as I had. Possibly less.

Shaun Varga is the founder of Ingenuity and author of Brilliant Pitch

  • Simon Liss

    I think you have a point Shaun, and it stems from users becoming truly multi-channel in their behaviour. comScore data from earlier this year suggests that 65% of people in the UK use more than one platform to access the internet. So, if you are a strategist and only think about one channel, an agency that only sells a one channel solution or a business that focuses on one channel from an experience point of view, then you aren’t responding to this growing ‘multi-channel majority’ – and your approach is probably at loggerheads with current user behaviour and certainly at odds with the future.

    In this multi-channel reality the need is for businesses and agencies is to be, somehow, expert at everything. The truth is that its very hard to be expert at everything, or at least to not be as good at some things as you are at others.

    So, like it or not, there will always be a need to employ specialists to help you with new technologies, until these technologies become mainstream and you can afford to bring them in-house. This is already happening with mobile, and I agree that there is a diminishing value in continuing with or setting up specialist mono-channel mobile outfits.

    If mobile has had its peak and is now becoming mainstream, then the key for innovators and forward thinkers will be to identify and start to get to grips with the next emerging technologies. The theory being is that by becoming an expert at the start of the curve, you can thrive on the uniqueness of your knowledge until the rest of the world catches on. The logic applies to both agencies and businesses.

    My advice to businesses who need to operate in an evolving multi-channel world is simple – admit that you need help with emerging technology until it becomes mainstream, but never devolve responsibility for core strategy or user experience.

  • Grant Kemp

    Simon makes some really good points.
    Just because an agency can do a responsive site, doesn’t mean they understand how to convert on mobile. Responsive can convert really badly and cost 100,000s in lost revenue.

    Most brands are still trying out implementations to find things that work for mobile users and even if they know- > they will still need a lot of help figuring it out again when it changes. Mobile agencies are there to be champions of excellence and best practice across sectors.

    Mobile agencies aren’t going away anytime soon, just like ecommerce specialist agencies will thrive and social agencies will too. Just because you are converging experiences onto platforms doesn’t mean that you are converging conversion success. If anything there is a need to invest more in data, because even the cutting edge tools are painting a different picture from reality.

    Lovely controversial post. And great job on getting us to react. Looking forward to seeing what other people think.

  • Shaun Varga

    Thanks Simon, I agree with your comments. This is certainly a multi-channel world, (the phrase ‘omni-channel’ seems to be everywhere recently) and joined up skills have never been more important – or harder to find.

  • Steve Moncrieff

    I’d agree also, we have just merged our agency businesses and rebranded to reflect exactly this. Clients are changing as they seek the ‘omni channel’/ integrated approach and solution and I strongly believe you need a lead agency that can understand the complete picture. Whether that agency delivers all the elements is another matter.