Ten or so years ago, the big whinge in digital marketing was silos. Digital vets know the lament all too well -- digital was siloed off from print and from broadcast. Interactive never got to sit at the grownups' table. Campaigns never pointed anyone to the web page (hard to believe now, but it was certainly true then).
If all this were changed (the lament continued), digital would get its due. It would get more branding ad dollars and evolve far beyond email offers for nutritional supplements (which, of course it did).
Less than a decade later, digital advertising and media comprise a multi-billion-dollar industry. You don't hear a lot about silos any more. Yet I've begun to worry about them. Namely, that silos are springing up right and left within digital itself.
More on that later because there's another opposing view on this, from none other than Jonathan Mildenhall, Coca-Cola's VP of global advertising strategy and creative excellence.
In a discussion last week about what he looked for when selecting an agency, among other criteria he named the ability to collaborate.
"Digital brilliance has always come from understanding how to collaborate with very different types of thinkers -- storytellers, producers, and developers," said Mildenhall. "The digital industry has grown up out of collaboration. Traditional agencies have taught collaboration for the last decade, but they're only just now understanding how to practice collaboration. The rhetoric of collaboration is finally coming home as a reality."
Interesting thinking. Are we really good at collaborating in digital? The disparity of talents and personality types necessary to realize even the smallest campaign or digital initiative prompted the editors of this publication to ask me last week to write a piece on how to speak geek. It's not easy to bring right brain and left-brain talent together and make anything happen.
Meanwhile, digital's not getting any easier. Discrete disciplines are more complex by the week. Email, SEO, SEM, media planning and buying, creative, and analytics are just a few of the digital verticals that often require their own slew of specialists. New platforms are cropping up all the time, and have to be accounted for and made to work flawlessly, user-experience wise. (Tablets! Android! iOS!)
Bottom line: Increasingly, we understand less and less what our colleagues across the table actually do.
Another hindrance to collaboration? An increasing lack of clear boundaries and responsibilities as the lines separating advertising, media, content, and social blur smudge.
A digital marketing executive at a major healthcare company laments managing multiple agencies: one for social, one for display, one for media, and so on. Two years ago, she said, everything worked fine. Now, "They're all posting to our YouTube channel. It's a nightmare -- yet doing this is critical to each individual agency's performance goals."
So, who manages the collaboration? The rules that worked smoothly a scant two years ago are suddenly no longer applicable.
Another obstacle to collaboration is data. It's hard to get different teams on the same page if they aren't looking at the same data in the same way to work toward common goals, even if each team's point of departure is a different one.
All the above, as well as all future roadblocks to collaboration, will very soon have to be carefully considered and strategically overcome by the agencies that expect to remain competitive in digital.
Why? Clients have your number. Collaboration is explicitly what major brands say is the "No. 1 criterion for agency selection." A brand doesn't want its advertising agency telling it that the company can do social media, too. The brand wants the ad shop to work in harmony with the social team, and it wants the two to inform and enhance the other's efforts.
Easier said than done, and also easier when the shops expected to work in tandem are agencies of record (AORs), "part of the family," as one client-side executive recently put it.
Yet collaboration, and a deliberate attempt to avoid even the appearance of silos, seems a critical ingredient to becoming AOR nowadays.
That alone should provide some serious motivation for playing well with others.
Rebecca Lieb is an analyst in digital advertising/media for Altimeter Group.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.