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The internet has changed a lot since the 90s. The digital marketing sector has changed, too.

Once a business with an image as shabby as that of the web itself, digital marketing is now the bread-and-butter of much of the marketing and advertising industry. And with fewer pure-digital agencies, and more traditional shops with digital offerings, image and reputation counts for a lot more than it used to.

Describing the journey as “zero to hero” Brainlabs’s UK chief exec Joanna Lyall explains the last few decades have been a rollercoaster ride from the unknown, from being shrouded in doubt and suspicion to a “business-critical” role for clients right across the economy. The agency was voted the best in the country by its peers and rivals in The Drum’s UK Digital Agency Census this week.

“It has firmly become the bedrock of any marketing plan,” she insists. “It represents the closest connection we have to consumers. This has accelerated even more over the last year with digital being the connection we have to consumers.”  

Sixth-placed We Are Social’s UK chief exec, Jim Coleman explains that: “the agency landscape has continued to diversify both with agencies specialising in new areas such as influencer marketing, programmatic and creative technology and bigger shops incorporating these services into their offering.” 

And as digital marketing has grown more sophisticated, so have digital agencies. A clean image and decent brand are now necessary to compete in the labour marketplace and recruit the best of the best.  

As more of the agency landscape becomes digital-first, reputation has become a bigger concern. Coleman says: “Most traditional agencies say they can do digital. Some have added this capability really well, others haven’t. 

“Generally, the industry and candidates looking at agencies know which are which. Integrated agencies need a good reputation and credibility in digital if they’re going to attract the best candidates.” 

Sharon Harris, chief marketing officer of Jellyfish – the second-best agency on our peer ranking – explains that a positive reputation is part of the foundation for trust. Ultimately, we are in the business of relationships and communications to our partners that are committed to seeing them through to their end goal.”  

While a positive reputation is now a ‘must have’ Lyall points out that it comes from a lot of hard work, and clients know this. “Even if you have a good reputation, you have to keep challenging yourself, test ideas and learn new things in order to innovate and deliver even better work,” she insists. 

In the hierarchy of leveraging attributes, when presenting their brand to the outside world, what ingredients do digital agencies hold dear? “Ultimately an agency’s reputation is built on its ability to deliver on the client’s brand purpose, across the entire customer journey,” insists Accenture Interactive’s UK and Ireland lead, Pritesh Gadhia. The firm placed seventh in the Digital Agency Census peer rankings. “You can create the best ad campaign in the world but when you walk into the store or go to the website, if a brand does not live up to the promise at that specific moment in time, you’ve failed.”  

While Harris insists that big-name clients or prominent awards have always ultimately contribute to an agency’s profile, she asks with offices shuttered, is there much point for pristine glass cabinets filled with awards, without clients to show them off to?  

She explains: “there are now awards for everything. The value for trophies is diminishing, when you can instead ask, what are clients saying? What results do they get? There are agencies without big marquee awards that are revered for their performance and their delivery and rightly so.”  

Talent draw

For Lyall reputation comes from people and output. If you have talented people who are empowered by technology, and a best-in-class product, you will build a reputation based on ability and contribution to client’s results. If an agency offers something genuinely innovative and different, it will naturally stand out.” She adds that remote working has demonstrated that location is less important than it used to be.  

While brand image plays a critical role in winning clients, an attractive agency also draws in quality talent. “People want to work with those that make an impact,” insists Gadhia. “Talented people working within and across disciplines drive industry conversation, innovation and change at a global level.”

He says that in this way, in-house talent provides a dynamic learning hub, which nurtures great creative excellence, acting as a type of virtuous circle and radiating outwards.

Coleman explains that the value of the snowball effect that comes from this is it shows that “you’re a place where the best talent wants to be and can thrive, this of course enhances your reputation among others considering their options.  

“With great people, you can make great work. In our industry that’s important. Being somewhere you can make the work that will define your career.”  

While digital agencies were once the disruptors basking in the luxury of being ‘niche’, as digital holds greater and greater importance agencies need to broadcast their good reputations to ensure they don’t get lost in the mix.

The Drum’s Digital Agency Census, released throughout this month, has revealed a treasure trove of findings about the most respected agencies in the UK, as voted for by their own rivals. Learn more about The Drum’s UK Digital Agency Census 2021 and sign up for future updates here.