The digital landscape is constantly changing. Technology evolves at such a pace that how we work with clients and how we talk about what we do is shifting, too. Given all the moving parts, it can be hard for digital agencies and clients to speak a language that resonates and makes sense to both, while still being open enough to allow for the vast opportunities inherent in a technology partnership. We tell clients to always be clear about what they do, whether it’s on their website or in marketing materials or conversation. We’re taking our own advice and doing the same: being clear about what a digital agency does.

Why I’m Talking About This

Language is a huge problem within our industry. Even the word digital is subjective — what people think it means and what people think we do varies. No one’s to blame for the problem, but we do need to change it.

So what does it mean to be a digital agency? We make software. We create business applications. We produce complex systems that sell, organize, share, communicate and enable interactions and transactions that move business. The concept of “interactions” and “interactive” is critical here. Not everything that appears on a screen is an interactive, digitally-driven project. As an example, banner ads aren’t interactive, they are advertising delivered in a digital channel. And there’s a difference. The work of a true digital agency is interactive; it has functionality that brings together strategy, design, content, and code to create something that people use.

This conversation is important because great digital work requires collaboration, and collaboration requires a common understanding. Digital agencies and clients need to work together in ways that clients and agencies haven’t had to do in the past: our projects span departments and serve business objectives in more ways than ever before.

What’s Changed? The Digital Agency now.

In what ways has the industry evolved? How are digital agencies different from the other kinds of agencies?

Specializing in creative or technology doesn’t cut it.

Most agency models are rooted in advertising. The model is pretty straightforward: a client hires an agency to “raise brand awareness,” the agency ideates three big, shiny campaigns that make consumers see (and emotionally connect with) the brand in a new way, the client approves an idea, and the campaign is rolled out across multiple channels. Think Mad Men. This model totally works for advertising, but it doesn’t work for digital. On the other hand, digital products can’t be driven by the technology and functionality alone — it has to connect with users visually and emotionally.

Excellent digital work requires both creatives and developers truly working together to create great products. Moreover, digital work often intersects with behind-the-scene business systems such that agencies must have business strategy chops, too. Creative, technology, and strategy — all must-haves for a digital agency.

The work is often confidential.

Speaking of advertising agency legacies, they have a tradition of making announcements about new business when they land it and then pointing to high-profile campaigns as they roll out. Clients — and the press — are used to seeing public examples of past work and using that as a basis for decision making about who to work with. But in many instances digital agencies can’t do that; frequently we work on projects that involve sensitive information. IP concerns or login gates block us from talking about or showing the range of our capabilities. We can speak to what’s possible, but not always show proof of it. This makes it even more critical that we develop a clear language and knowledge base around what we do (not what we’ve done) and foster a trusting partnership from there.

Ongoing relationships are more common.

We’re seeing a shift away from projects and toward partnerships. In the new digital landscape, clients and teams are starting to understand that digital projects — when done right — are frequently more complex and touch on more parts of their business than they ever imagined. Technology can enhance nearly every touchpoint that a user encounters. We’re finding that more clients now look for solutions that include many aspects of their business ecosystem; such solutions require scalability, front-end research, iterations, post-launch analytics, and ongoing maintenance and updates based on metrics.

This ongoing-partnership approach has changed the way we think of “users.” This term originally referred to the users of whatever end-product was being created. Now, it’s more nuanced. Many of the things we build for clients live forever, which means they have to maintain and update it. So they are now our end-users — of our services and the software we create. The partnership, and product, are only successful if they’re empowered users of what we build. This requires a fluidity and continuity that is unlike other client/vendor relationships. We don’t — and can’t — produce something and then walk away or produce something that they can’t use.

Proprietary technology and software is an asset, not a liability.

Over the years, clients’ comfort with proprietary software has evolved. It used to be that the idea of using an agency’s proprietary software was a scary thought — it signified inflexibility and dependence. But as projects have come and gone and grown up, clients have to come realize that all software is owned by someone. It may not be owned by the digital agency with whom they’re working, but that doesn’t make it any less “owned.” So why not have the owner of the software you rely on also be the partner with whom you’re working, because the quality and capacity of your digital business is directly proportionate to the relationship you have with your software provider.

As an agency, we’re technology objective: the best solution is always the one that works best for the client and end-user. But we’ve also continually developed and improved our own software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model specifically because we knew, early on, that we could provide the best efficiencies, support and service if we used our own platform and worked in close, collaborative partnership with clients. Today, that platform is the building block of many web, mobile, and environmental applications that we maintain, host, and update for our clients. We’re proudly technology objective and equally as proud of our software.

What Will Hopefully Change

Clients frequently approach digital agencies the same way they approach advertising agencies: with a specific thing that they’d like done — be it a website, a social media strategy, or an app. Unfortunately, that’s going about it all wrong. That’s not to say that clients never know the right solutions, but coming into a conversation with a problem and working collaboratively to find a solution is a more effective way to engage a digital agency. Clients are used to RFPs and POs with specific line items, but, as we like to say, “you know your business, and we know ours.” The technology solutions that digital agencies can provide are vast, if they understand the problem and the business objectives clients are trying to achieve.

On the agency side, we have to get specific about what we do — our skills, tools, and technologies — and use that vocabulary to build connections with clients’ actual needs and to communicate what an effective digital partnership is. To describe digital products and services as “best in class,” “enterprise quality,” or “best practices” means nothing. Let’s ditch the marketing speak and help clients understand what we really do, and how we can work together.