Digital Agencies: the new Systems Integrators?

2012 was a year topped and tailed by analyst statements that point for me to some interesting changes in the way in which technology is consumed, managed and commissioned by big organisations: in January, Gartner reported that “by 2017 the CMO will spend more on IT than the CIO” (something that has been often repeated, yet rarely analysed); in December, Forrester analysed the increasing impact that digital agencies are having on the development of mobile technology.

Let’s first of all look at those two pieces of analysis in a bit more detail (with the proviso that I’ve only read summary coverage of the pieces). With Gartner, it’s obviously way easier to make up predictions about the future than it is to analyses the reality of today (controversial, I know, but there you go). However the way in which both cloud services are making commissioning and deployment of systems much easier and (from a CapEx perspective) cheaper, and the increasing trend towards customer-facing technologies like the web, social and apps that are commissioned externally without the involvement of IT, give Gartner’s pronouncement some credence. My own hunch, though, is that both CIO and CMO will be seeing significantly less spend on technology overall as decision making gets decentralized.

With the Forrester report, the nub of the interesting part seems to be that most IT decision makers surveyed (57%) don’t have a mobile strategy high up on their agendas, and as such the digital agency world seems to be picking up a lot of work unhindered by the controls of traditional IT management.

So let’s get that last bit straight: in a consumer technology world in which increasingly the mobile phone is being seen as someone’s “primary” device, business IT still generally sees mobile as something not important enough about which to have a strategy. At the same time, consumer technology is raising the expectations of most company employees that mobile should matter, if not be the platform of first choice.

There are obviously opportunities that digital agencies are picking up as a result of this disconnect in the Business to Consumer and Business to Business space and  it’s inevitably going to start to spread further into the business to employee arena too. There are two ways I see this could go…

The first is a complete mess of poorly implemented point solutions, where agencies work in a disconnected manner on a project-by-project basis, taking advantage of clients who don’t really know what it is that they want. Vast vaults of technical debt are built up, and we look back in  a few years time wondering why any of this was allowed to happen.

The second is more interesting; agencies with their DNA in understanding how to get people to change behaviours are able to convince businesses that new approaches to technology deployment are required. “Change” becomes the key focus, not a guilt-induced line on a Gantt chart, and communication becomes the key to delivering meaningful business impact. Agencies enhance their value further by being able to build relationships across corporations that give them an insight to their clients that is greater than a single department view.

The reality will inevitably be somewhere in between, but I see a huge opportunity for a new breed of agency/client interaction that is about enabling change through the sorts of approaches that have underpinned marketing rather than engineering.

I talked through some of this recently with a number of the agencies that we use in the UK. One of the responses was particularly telling: “You know that IBM is trying to become a marketing agency?”…


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