Digital ideas, platforms and eco-systems

For years, digital agencies have strived to distinguish themselves from traditional advertising agencies that practice digital with the claim that they build platforms – applications and utility that delivery functionality and integrate into people’s lives – while ad agencies come up with digital gimmicks. In fact it was in the news today. As the argument goes, the latter may generate awareness and buzz, but like all offline advertising campaign, they quickly lose their impact when the media buy comes to an end, calling for yet another campaign and then another.

This is true. It was true of Subservient Chicken, true of the Cadbury Gorilla, and true, inevitably, of Old Spice’s recent social media frenzy. In fact, once these campaigns end the only people who tend to remember them are agency types scrambling to replicate their temporary success while making it look as if they didn’t copy the idea.

Meanwhile platforms like Garmin Connect (bet you never even heard of it unless you’re a road cyclist and a Garmin user) and iPhone apps like Stylebook, Zipcar and Timberland Expeditions (one of ours) continue to attract users, generate downloads, and provide the kind of functionality that earns both loyalty and repeat business.

The fact is brands and marketers need both. Without awareness and buzz, the kind of utility that makes a brand indispensable (if that’s possible) never gets embraced. Nike Plus would be invisible if it weren’t for the brand equity built up with years of advertising.

However, the challenge now is more complicated than what’s implied by the debate between idea and platform. The new frontier is the ecosystem. (Yes I know that term gets used to mean a lot of things; but for this purpose it means the interdependency of a brand’s multiple digital properties.) Think about it.  Most brands have an advertising campaign. They probably have a website that offers more than brochure-ware and delivers something of genuine use — either applications, commerce, customized user-experiences, community or how-to videos.

But with the proliferation of social media, chances are good that a brand also has a Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel and at least one if not three iPhone apps. (I recently had a prospect tell me, “We need apps, lots of apps. It’s important for you to know that we’re app happy around here, so whatever you do bring us apps.”) And since the pre iPhone craze was “build me a micro-site,” chances are good it also has half a dozen of those.

Years ago, John Wanamaker said he knew that half his advertising worked, he just wasn’t sure which half.  Today, with all the metrics and analytics baked into everything we do there’s little doubt that we know which stuff works. But do you know whether it all works together?

My suggestion is that if digital agencies and traditional agencies continue fighting over the idea versus the platform they’re wasting words and energy. The new frontier will be the brand’s overall digital ecosystem and figuring out how to get advertising, platforms, social media, conversation strategy and a brand’s existing community of customers to reinforce each other in a way that generates awareness, allows prospects to enter a relationship on their own terms (whether they want to learn, connect, join, transact, share or simply watch) and then holds onto them, ideally turning them into advocates.

Got eco-system?


Very interesting!
I do agree on the idea that the new frontier for brands and agencies is to build ecosystems. Yet in your definition of the ecosystem, I would get rid of one word: "digital". I think that "the interdependency of a brand's multiple properties" can't be limited to digital. How the whole collection of ideas and experiences (online and offline) with the brand stays coherent over time and space is what really matters. The Red Bull ecosystem could well be one of the best illustration of this.

This post also reminds me of "Baked in" last chapter "The way forward", where Bogusky and Windsor depict brands as "systems". Here is an extract:

"Maybe brand was the best most companies could hope for, but with advances in technology, the best companies and products are creating systems that answer entire aspects of our lives. Systems don't ask you to know their story because you are already a part of their story. Systems don't ask to be a part of your identity because they are already a part of how you live your life. And systems don't hope for brand loyalty because they shape themselves to how you use them. You aren't loyal to a brand. You're loyal to what you've created. This is the power of systems. And although many of the best examples seem to be coming out of the digital space, the reality is that they are less about where and more about everywhere. A great system can be accessed wherever and whenever the customer needs it."

Always nice reading you.

Bruce DeBoer
Bruce DeBoer

Interesting stuff.

I'm curious: at what point in the integration process does the agency start creating product for clients? Let's say Mullen creates an App for a client that is in support of the brand while at the same time becomes a product unto itself; maybe something like (totally not sure if this is even possible) an iPad app that takes an imprint of your foot when you step on the screen to measure size and shape. This would be a great branded app but also a product, no? And what does that mean for agencies? if anything.

David Lee
David Lee

Great article! Very thought provoking.

From my perspective, the key is integration across all platforms and I believe this requires a strong CMO to control this (it is even better if he/she has a strong agency lead doing this too).

I agree with Howie, from my experience the agency and the members of the marketing team get stove piped and need a person to step back and see the big picture. At the end of the day it's about the users experience and that is the glasses the CMO (and agency lead) need to wear when overlooking the eco-system.

If the client has developed a detailed strategy and communication plan they can use this to come back to ensure they stay on mark and don't get caught up with following others, and instead can blaze their own trails that keep their customers engaged.


Characteristically smart and nuanced thinking Mr Boches-so very glad it avoided the campaigns versus platforms dichotomy. As you say, we need both-wonderful platforms will languish undiscovered without campaigns, while campaigns will expire quickly without leading on to longer term platforms. But as you say, it is ultimately about the eco-system-how do these elements (and every other aspect of a brand's digital presence) work together? Digital, more than any other channel is an ecosystem (hence the web..) and if any one part of the system is broken, the system will struggle. Which leaves me with two thoughts:

-If campaigns (and display) are a fundamental part of the ecosystem, how can we reinvent digital advertising to step beyond the depressing response rates it currently sees? Digital display is much derided today but part of the ecosystem it is and as it breaks down, the ecosystem suffers

-If, as I agree, the ecosystem is fundamentally important, how do we prevent the digital industry from going through the fragmentation ATL agencies have suffered from, where search lies with one agency, advertising with another, social with another?

Mike Scheiner
Mike Scheiner

The problem or at least approach that most agencies and digital firms take is looking at a clients brand as individual components or tactics. Your example of a prospect requiring an app? Why do they want the app, what value or benefit will it be to the user and how will it add value in terms of time, knowledge, or convenience? These same questions should be asked first when developing the overall platform. Which will then determine how the executions keep relating back to answering the brands objectives and goals. Creatives and Planners to need to work collaboratively ( going back to your T staffing structure) to visually map out the ecosystem. From there you’ll quickly begin to shape the approach and see how the entire brand engages and triggers other components and users that are both external and internal.


spot on.
it's about the complete buying journey and every touchpoint, including those touchpoints where the 'message' comes fom sources other than the brand.
good work.

Howie G
Howie G

Very interesting post Edward. I agree with the way campaigns die in people's minds. Obviously if your product is great like Timberland Hiking Shoes, everyday they are used is its own campaign. But if you don't keep in touch it opens other brands to touch and then be involved when next time to buy.

To your last point. Isn't the problem lack of coherent financial incentives that give long term best value considering Brands and Agencies are segmented (thus your ideas and platform argument)?

For example you have creatives and media buyers focused on different platforms (print, TV, digital etc) as well as Brand Execs who do the same based on core competency (for good and bad). Everyone wants fame/credit or fight for budgets. One group loses work to another and gets upset. This takes place on the Agency and Brand sides. But the goal is current and future sales no matter what the 'platform' or 'media segment'.

Wouldn't the only way to control this completely is a brand doing everything in house so everyone gets incentivized on sales/profits. Not sure how an Agency that makes money on billings shares in success by giving up control/billings to someone else.