Skip to main content

Cognition

The digital agency is dead. Long live the digital agency.

In a mad dash to join all things product many are taking their design or development talents to South Beach the product space. Why the exodus? Curiosity led me to ask former digital agency practitioners representing design, development, and business analytic practice areas why they left agency life to pursue product work.

Some left more than a year ago, others within the last six months, and some are onboarding as this article goes to the web. Responses included…

“Digital has become a commodity, like selling #2 pencils.”

“There is nothing left to invent, it’s all been done.”

“Client services is a grind.”

“I just got tired of clients dictating what I have to do.”

“Product development is an area I want to explore.”

Overall, this small sample afforded me an opportunity to talk with professionals from different backgrounds and gather insights into whether the digital agency as we know it is going, or has gone, the way of the dodo. What I learned is that people are exhausted by client service work, generally uninspired in the digital space, and looking for their next professional development opportunity. All valid reasons. This got me thinking about the industry as a whole. My perception is that there is a lot of movement from web work into product work. Is anyone else feeling this way? Does this perceived exodus signal the end of digital agencies, the next step in the digital agency evolution, or are people just moving to the newer, shinier toy? My thoughts on the listed responses follow as I attempt to make peace with my own perception.

Watch your metaphor

“Digital has become a commodity, like selling #2 pencils.”

To say that web design and development is a commodity is a fair statement on the basis that there is, on the surface, little differentiation between vendors and the tools used to create a website. In that way I think the #2 pencil reference is accurate. At project’s end, the website is likely responsive, and built using HTML, CSS, and some level of behavioral development, like Javascript. The commodity reference ends here.

Quality is not a commodity, and the website produced in the preceding example is very different from agency to agency with respect to user experience, number of unique templates designed and built, quality checking, and the impact the new design has on the client’s business. Digital agencies may produce using similar tools, but we’re not all producing the same thing. This is the biggest distinction, in my opinion, between the agencies of today. Some user experiences and designs reflect a lot of caring, others slightly less, and still others are diluted versions of web design void of thought, and care. Why does quality differ so much? In some cases, agencies are trying to do more with less staff. Some agencies are just trying to figure out how to work in the current market. Is Agile the way or is agile the way? Maybe scrum-fall? Waterfall? Lean or RAD? Whatever the methodology, finding efficiencies in your process while continuing to deliver value to clients is key to staying in business. I’m sure this has more than a few agency owners discussing mergers and buyouts etc… Another reason may be linked to what clients, with internal web expertise in-house, are asking agencies to do – less actual web work and more content or SEO, or web work with much less control over the entire process.

No new horizons

“There is nothing left to invent, it’s all been done.”

Invention vs innovation is an old debate.

The very nature of the web and the evolution of technology will ensure that invention and innovation flourish over time, albeit at a slower rate than we may be used to, or are willing to accept. Product may be the new frontier – there is more to uncover more quickly than the web allows for – and there is no question that finding new and exciting ways to design and build websites is harder today. But ours is an industry built on the backs of smart, curious, and driven people. Web fonts happened, HTML5, CSS3, and SVG happened. If we maintain a perspective of what’s next we’ll pass right by what’s left. I think evolution of design from individual pages to design systems, Atomic Design will continue to evolve, as will its effect on how we develop the front-end and back-end code for websites. Templating tools, like Mustache and frameworks like Laravel offer the type of integration that can further streamline the time and effort is takes to integrate templates into content management systems.

Clients

“Client services is a grind.”

“I just got tired of clients dictating what I have to do.”

Client service is a grind, and clients do dictate our work (timelines, budgets). But classifying something as a grind is a matter of perspective. Moving to the product side isn’t necessarily an escape from “the grind”. It may amount to trading one constraint for another. The grind of client service work, to me, is the effort that is needed to create and develop a design. The payoff comes when we see our work come to life. You may find that moving through product iterations becomes a grind too, however the fact that you can watch something grow and evolve from iteration to iteration may be revitalizing in itself. In my former product management days I loved seeing our product evolve to be better, to solve more customer issues, and ultimately become a tool our clients could not imagine life without. I don’t miss horse trading requirements with marketing managers or IT leads, or the late night product pushes, but our entire team took great pride in our individual contributions to the product. After two years of non-stop product work I cheered a little, on the inside, when the dot-com bubble finally burst. Turned out product work, for me, had become a grind.

Change changing places

“Product development is an area I want to explore.”

Product development, particularly developing apps, is different from web development. If learning object oriented programming is your motivation or you’re looking to develop new skills I say go for it. These are personal and professional development decisions. If the agency you work for doesn’t offer product opportunities (or plan to) know that there are plenty of agencies that do, and they may love to chat. At the risk of sound like an agency cheerleader, I’m just saying that you may not have to leave the agency life to find what you seek. Things are cyclical, you may find a move into product work nets you a few years of reprieve and then a trip back to the agency life.

Conclusion

I’d like to say “Thank You” to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts and answer my questions. In speaking with practitioners I realized that no matter the process, quality will always be a differentiator and that perspective is important for innovation, and happiness. I also learned that people value agencies, although what they value changes with time. Most importantly I learned that my perception of digital agency exodus isn’t a sign of the end of agencies. People who grew up with the web are really just ready to explore other opportunities. There isn’t a product conspiracy to kill digital agencies – no grassy knoll here – people are just exercising their free will. To those who have moved on I wish you all of the best. For those sticking around, know this, agencies are not dead, long live agencies!

Have you thought about the future of your agency? I’d love to hear your thoughts on where you think agencies are headed.

Back to Top

comments powered by Disqus