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07/08/2009 Why Agency Sites are NOT the Future of the Web

When Crispin Porters Web site went beta last week, the digital world was atwitter. What started as a rumble with Zeus Jones, shot forward with Modernista, awed us with Skittles suddenly went super prime time with http://beta.cpbgroup.com/. Finally, proof that all that we online marketers had talked about over the past year or so was starting to come true. The future of the Web had arrived via the hottest ad shop in the world.

Amidst all the gushing, by people who I think are some of the smartest people around, I couldn't help but thinking about how the gushers reminded me of Sally Field accepting her Oscar Award.  The very fact of Crispin following our flow instead of leading it made it sound like a collective gasp of "Alex, you like us. You really like us!"


The Crispin site is a good site for them. Just like the EVB site is good for those great digital marketers and the Barbarian Group's site is a sharp picture of who they are. Personally I love good agency sites, mostly because there are so few of them. But they're not the future of the Web. Not even close. Here's why:

  1. Agencies use their sites to show that they get it - First it was cool flash sites, and now its user generated, social media connected sites. Why? Because agencies need to use the medium itself to prove to prospects that they have command of the latest digital trends. For this subset of service providers, the medium IS really the message. For most businesses that's not the case. They don't have to show that they're flashy or hooked into social media to prove anything. It might help in some cases, but they're not selling the medium itself.
  2. People don't make purchase decisions on agency sites - While I've heard anecdotes I've never heard real stories of people who visited an agency site and hired them right there and then. Never. I can imagine some very small clients doing this but none of any significant business size. Has anyone else? People visit agency sites in a longer process. They've heard about the agency, they've seen some of its work; they're planning on visiting or asking them to respond to an RFP. They look at the agency site to confirm what they're thinking or to fill in some holes (and hopefully not create others). E-commerce sites (agency clients) need to sell something. Service businesses need to prove their competence and personality in areas that have nothing to do with the Web. Can you really take a look at a law firm's site design and technology and conclude they're very good lawyers? Probably not.
  3. Size matters - Many businesses have far more information to organize than do agency sites. Especially when you get into deep e-commerce sites. I love sites like EVB's and the Barbarian Group's because of their simplicity. It's much harder to do this with multi-layered, multi-national companies. Or maybe its not that much harder. It's just harder to convince those clients to go simple. While aggregation might seem to be the wave of the future even for these corporate giants, how the heck are you going to find out about the group you're really trying to contact through the company's Web site if everything is aggregation? Maybe the evolution of the semantic Web will solve this, but social media aggregation probably will not.

I think the new Crispin Porter & Bogusky site is great. But I liked their old site a lot too, with its simple, visual layout, where the work was front and center. I loved how they put their handbook right where everyone could read it.

There are a lot of businesses for whom this makes a lot of sense. Brands whose sites look to entertain and that thrive on conversations and image more than commerce. Starbucks, for example, or BMW. For   those brands, they can look at CPB and learn and aspire.

But many brands still look to the Web as one of their leading sales channel instead.

The new site, like EVB's, isn't necessarily a harbinger of the greater Web world. It's just a bunch of super smart people showing clients that they get how the digital world changes, and that they can master those changes. Rather than taking the execution as the model of the future, business should look at the concept behind what these firms are trying to achieve. Proof of their abilities.

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