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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