Will the Last Independent Digital Agency Please Turn Off the Lights?

The news this week that digital behemoth 360i has been snapped up by agency uber-behemoth Dentsu will no doubt be seen by industry soothsayers as yet another sign that the era of the independent digital agency is drawing to a close. That empty prognostication has been trotted out on a near-daily basis in the industry press nearly since the birth of digital agencies 15 years ago, and it’s no truer now than it was then. So I’d like to offer this by way of preemptive rebuttal: HA!

OK, I have a little more to say than that. What’s troubling to me from the perspective of a fiercely independent digital shop – an apparent dinosaur wandering bewilderedly among the mammals, if the industry press is to be believed – is not the acquisition itself, or others like it. (Mazel tov to you, 360i! May your balance sheet grow ever-longer!) No, what’s troubling is the attitude in the industry – and, let’s face it, among many clients and prospects – that these acquisitions are like missing Lego® pieces that have been snapped together to form some beautiful creation, magically filling out an agency’s capabilities so that they can now truly do anything. Again I say, HA!

The reality is that agencies that have grown through acquisitions have, in most cases, only truly integrated their balance sheets, not their capabilities. More and more, the role of uber-behemoths like Dentsu is simply to acquire, not to define – they no longer stand for anything in particular, and how could they, with so many distinct cultures and capabilities all folded under one umbrella? But when industry standing is defined by size alone – as Ad Age does, however benignly, with its Top 100 index – then it creates easy misperceptions about what you’re getting when you hire a big shop.

Take Sapient, for instance – recently listed among the top five digital agencies. To those of us who grew up as digital agencies, Sapient’s late arrival is like watching an oversized party-crasher bogart the keg. Weren’t they an IT consulting firm? No, no, because they acquired digital agency PGI in 2008. So they must be great at digital marketing by now, right? I ate a chocolate chip cookie at lunch today, so now I’m a Keebler elf.

Industry analyst Sean Corcoran, who covers digital agencies for Forrester Research, argues that in order to understand what an agency is good at, you have to look at their DNA – where they came from and how they grew. Companies that grew through acquisition have many different strands of DNA drifting through their systems. I don’t at all claim this as a reason not to hire them; I’m merely arguing that you should know what you’re getting. In many cases, a small to mid-sized agency that has organically developed a team of seasoned veterans may actually have a much deeper bench in a given area than an agency many times its size. Look to the DNA, people! Look to the DNA.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the treehouse.

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Taylor Swift, Please Stop with the Fame Already

Is that too much to ask? Because it would really help out my agency, White Horse. Let me explain:

Did you ever read Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the protagonist Arthur Dent—a very nice, well-intentioned guy—keeps inadvertently killing this hapless creature, Agrajag, over its multiple lifetimes, purely by chance? No, you didn’t read that? Anyway, it’s like we’re Agrajag, and you’re Arthur Dent.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, because you’re not killing us, you’re killing our efforts at getting top search ranking, and you’re not doing it so much as your insanely popular song, “White Horse,” is doing it. And since making Web sites more search-friendly is a small but important part of what we do for a living, well, you can see why our request for you to stop being famous is entirely reasonable.

It’s not easy being White Horse. We’ve already suffered unsavory comparisons to Portland’s thriving heroin scene and to the White Horse of the Apocalypse. And then there was that unfortunate period in our brand history in which horse puns like “solutions for the open range” were used freely, but then we brought that on ourselves.

But you, Taylor Swift, you brought this on us. Your song started climbing the charts right around the time we started to get search engine traction with our redesigned site. Then it showed up on Grey’s Anatomy, guaranteeing another surge of popularity among that show’s weepy fan base, very few of whom, I’m willing to bet, are in the market for Web services, so I can’t credit you with any cross-pollination there. And then there was the whole Grammy nomination.

How do I know so much about your song? Because there’s an entire friggin’ Wikipedia page devoted to it. There is no Wikipedia page devoted to White Horse, one of the nation’s oldest and most reputable digital agencies, because anything we put up there is deemed promotional by the site’s army of power-mad, deletion-happy volunteer editors, and of course there is nothing promotional whatsoever about being a pop diva.

There is, however, a Wikipedia page devoted to “white horse,” which states that it is a horse “with a white hair coat and mostly unpigmented (pink) skin.” So we’ve got that going for us.

And don’t even get me started about YouTube.

But in deference to our mutual financial stake in the popularity of white horses and the fact that even the greatest pop song can’t reign forever, I was prepared to bury the hatchet for the new year. Until today.

We just put out a press release for what promises to be a great little Webinar on social media monitoring for the healthcare industry, and I tapped our name into Google News today for the cheap, but dependable, thrill of seeing our release at the top of the heap. But no. We happened to have chosen the same day that Kelly Clarkson released a cover of “White Horse,” which apparently is a big damn deal because she looks like she’s riding your coattails. Take a number, Kelly.

But the last laugh will be mine, Taylor Swift. Not the ideal kind of last laugh, in which I roll around in a large pile of money after winning a bunch of music awards, but a laugh nonetheless, in which I swipe back some of your search traffic with a blog post devoted to you! Ha-ha! Yeah, that did make me feel a little better. Sort of.

To paraphrase one of the great cultural commentators of our time, in one of the great Internet memes of the bygone era of 2009: I’m happy for you, Taylor Swift, and I’m gonna let you finish, but White Horse is the greatest “White Horse” of all time! Of all time!!