What is the role of agencies in the digital transformation of brands?

Bra Willy Seyama | eNitiate | Traditional Agencies | Digital Transformation | July 2021-Banner

The findings in the previous eNsight that I published a few days ago left me with the déjà vu feeling. A blinding glimpse of the obvious.

But I must admit, I was hoping to see some improvements. 

Over the years, the many eNsights that were published on our platform show that South African consumers are counted among the world’s leading nations in their consumption of digital media

One of the updated findings is that South African consumers are in the top 4 for daily time spent on the Internet. You can find it on slide 34 of 2021 Global Digital Report

Unfortunately, brands in this country continue to lag behind the consumer digital trends. 

The digital advertising spend finding above led me to the question of this eNsight: are marketing and communications agencies themselves partly responsible for the slow digital transformation of brands in this country?

Stick with me, as I muse over “this question of the day”.

Table of Contents

A brief distinction between traditional marketing and digital marketing

Traditional marketing is described as “PUSH” marketing, while digital marketing is described as “PULL” marketing.

With the former, brands push their marketing messages to consumers, on a limited spectrum of media that are typically controlled by big media houses, which mainly do not allow for two-way conversations between the brands and the consumers, and where there is no consumer influence.

With the latter, brands rely on consumers to pull their marketing messages, on a wide spectrum of media that are owned by big and small online publishers (and individuals) alike, fragmenting the consumer market, where two-way conversations are the norm, and where consumers can exert influence on how brands and the media platforms conduct themselves.


How to be where your consumers are

In essence, traditional media put the locus of control in brands, while digital media put it in consumers.

Naturally, many brands (and I believe traditional agencies alike) battle to reconcile with the latter – the new normal. 

The scenario in the South African communications industry right now

The continued norm in South Africa is that traditional marketing and communications agencies lead, and digital agencies follow, in running brand accounts.

The traditional agencies play a key role in the development of brand blueprints, they develop brand communications strategies, and craft the big ideas.

The role of the digital agencies is to adapt the developed strategies and big ideas for digital communications. 


4 stats that show how South Africa’s digital adoption rates are growing ahead of global trends

By and large, digital agencies do not own a seat at the strategy table. At best, they get invited as guests with participatory privileges but limited or no voting rights. 






Steps 1 and 2 are the terrain of  traditional agencies, while step 3 is for all agencies. 

Think of Africa’s participatory roles at the G-7, or at the UN Security Council. 

Any change over the years in traditional agencies' communication solution models?

The first digital ad is traced back to 1994. Therefore, the sector is less than 30 years old.  Compare this to the traditional advertising sector, which was established around the around the 15th century!

However, the rapid adoption of the new media by consumers has been unprecedented, enabled by exponential digital technology developments.

Realising that this tsunami is unstoppable, many traditional agencies have incorporated aspects of digital communications in their frameworks, and some even claim that they have gone digital.

In my view though, the traditional agencies’ processes have not changed much. Let me explain.

Let's face it, (winning?) habits are hard to change

Traditional agencies in South Africa cannot be expected to change models that have worked for them, some for many decades, to new models that may end up killing the goose that has been laying the egg.

Read the last part of the sentence above together with the section about the distinction between traditional and digital marketing

To be frank, traditional agencies are for-profit businesses. Their approach to communication solutions is driven by this motive. Naturally then, they will do what they need to protect their slice of the budget.

Left unchecked and with unfettered power to determine communication approaches for brands they provide services for, …..

You can fill in the blanks.  

Would the eNitiaters behave the same way as traditional agencies if we were not born digital? P-r-o-ba-b-l-y!

At best, many traditional agencies that have incorporated digital capabilities are just tinkering

I therefore conclude that a fair number of traditional agencies that also offer digital solutions are eating their cake and having it – there is no need on their part to fix “what is not broken”, but they must be seen to offer “360 solutions” for self-preservation.

By and large, it is business as usual with elements of tinkering for many of these agencies. 

And the result?

Digital transformation of the serviced brands is held back.


Bra Willy Seyama | eNitiate | Social Media Penetration | Age Groups | South Africa | Digital Transformation | July 2021

As a good friend of mine, Sechaba Motsieloa, said recently: 

Brands must not overestimate [digital marketing] knowledge of traditional agencies. They must not underestimate the cost of their [agencies'] ignorance to their [brands'] business.

Is there a brand that provides best example of successful digital transformation?

When last did you see a Red Bull advert on television? 

Did you know that Red Bull is still the world’s biggest energy drink?

Did you know that South Africa was Red Bull’s 5th largest consumer market in the world as recently as in 2017? 

Did you know Red Bull generates huge amounts of content through the many properties it owns in sports and the arts, and publishes the generated  content on its own media platforms including Red Bull digital tv?  

In my experience, there is no better brand that is the benchmark for digital transformation.

What can brands in South Africa do about their lagging digital transformation?

Brands are the paymasters of marketing and communications agencies. Thus, they wield the power to force a change that will spur the required digital transformation, or risk becoming irrelevant in consumers’ lives.

I recommend the following five steps for Brand Marketers:

  1. Digital marketing upskilling.
    A digital marketing skills survey conducted by eNitiate in 2020 shows that there is 40% digital marketing knowledge gap in the industry. 
    Brand Marketers need to improve their own working knowledge of pull marketing; so that they can write better communication briefs that are clear with regards expected outcomes from digital solutions, ask the right questions, and make informed decisions.
  2. Equitable digital advertising spend.
    The 2021 threshold for brands’ digital advertising spend should be 23% of total advertising budget.
    This is the Brand Marketers’ yardstick, and anything less should raise alarm bells.
    The contribution should then be increased in line with the global average, expected to be 61% in 2021.
  3. Keeping traditional agencies honest.
    Left to their own devices, traditional agencies will become the impediment to brands’ digital transformation. 
    Brand Marketers should insist on the agencies moving with the times too, and measure their progress accordingly.
  4. Bringing digital agencies to the strategy table.
    Communications strategy is too important to be the preserve of traditional agencies in this new media era.
    Digital agencies need to have a permanent place, with full voting rights, at the strategy table. 
  5. Regular updates on digital trends.
    Changes in the digital communications arena are fast, and furious at times.
    Brand Marketers should be keeping a constant finger on the pulse of the digital trends.
    I recommend that digital trends be reviewed at least once every quarter. 
    Sharing of the ongoing digital trends should be one of the deliverables by digital agencies.

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