Stovepiping The Future

Any normal person will of course have heard nothing about the recent merger between LBIcon (business consulting, branding, communication and technology services) with Framfab (web marketing, design and production) into the largest digital design, marcomms, branding and technology firm in Europe. Indeed, the newly-merged entity will rival that of the super giants of Digitas, Omincom and others that currently graze among the lush forests of digital media in the States and Asia. This is surely a tectonic event.

Hot on the heels of the merger barely a year ago of Framfab UK with Oyster Partners Ltd (the last of the UK’s big independents, and the company I joined a few years ago), there now follows an almighty integration process. The various fiefdoms of Lost Boys, MetaDesign, Wheel, IconMediaLab and others will now presumably start to meld with the mighty Framfab UK, Sweden, Denmark and the rest. The skills, the experience, the sheer vibrance of the new company will surely strike terror into rivals’ hearts. Not only that, but we will all soon be pulling under a new brand identity. 1,200 employees await the decision. The popular choice is WOLF (Wheel Oyster LBIcon Framfab) – OK that was a joke, but then it was hard not to think that Framfab’s “It’s always personal” moniker isn’t also pulling your leg.

So – is all this a good thing? For investors, directors and large corporate clients, Christmas has come early. But the Internet is changing; has always been changing – and it pays no heed to corporate machination.

What used to be called the “new media industry” is rooted in advertising and marketing: bound by rosters, pitching, retainers and contracts. The senior management of large corporations such as BT, Allied Domecq, Unilever and Vodafone wield increasingly large budgets directed at what are now increasingly large agencies to look after their online brands. After all, 60% of their customers are now regularly on line (probably more like 80% in some sectors). These brands expect their agencies to deliver superior on line customer experience. Nothing will change there at least, and the logical direction (indeed the only direction) our industry can take now to deliver “full service” – which Julie Lane explains. Indeed, I can’t bear to think what working anywhere that does not at least aspire to full service would be like.

Typically, however, design and build continue to be awarded separately – echoing the split that exists between these two activities in related industries like architecture and film. This is the first big problem. Readers of this blog will be familiar with the issues around this as I’ve explained them several times, as have others. The Internet (and the web in particular) is not like print, radio, TV, film or any other media with which it currently shares a production industry model with. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog: highly-scalable and robust platforms can (if you want) be constructed for very low cost, if not literally free. Consequently, some of the best user experiences are being made by tiny production operations that have never pitched for anything; have never been on anyone’s roster, and would never, ever, consider chucking wireframes, HTML templates and 100-page specification documents over the wall to some offshore codeshop in Mumbai. I don’t know of any of the current crop of “Web 2.0” offerings produced by an agency/client relationship.

So on the face of it, old-school M&A activity in our industry is taking us one direction while creating the best online experiences involves going in the opposite one. Granted, ROI, measurablilty and branding are perhaps not the imperatives here, but those things are constructs, sub-contexts and products, not drivers, of the experiences that people are interested in.

Certainly, I see a clear pattern in my work. It rears its head in every project I’m involved with: we in the big agencies have the capacity to design great experiences, but they fall apart in the the execution because good websites are built by tight teams. We can’t get tight teams together because the frictions are just too great. Why? The list is long: even if the contract isn’t crippled from the start by the aforementioned split between design and build, the high-value relationships involved mean that heavily-specified designs must be delivered before “final signoff.” In turn this makes the specification phase far more important than it should be. Just ask most IAs: they spend far more time doing non-design, non-IA stuff with their nose in spreadsheets as often as user tests, protoypes or sketchbooks. The millstone of ill-conceived “pitch promises,” fixed-price contracts and old-fashioned politics also makes sure those user tests better not turn up anything disruptive – it might threaten the deadlines! Add to this the mysterious tendency for build operations having to use platforms not of their choosing, and the increasingly discussed inability to specify some kinds of interaction design so that it can be executed by developers in another building (let alone in another country), and you end up polishing the proverbial turd. It really means something when I, and others of my ilk, am more often ashamed than proud of sites I’ve designed for clients once they go live.

Moan, moan, moan. But there is something that could be done. Something that would not only allow us to compete with those who are currently producing the best experiences, but also allows us to make use of our size. That thing is, to coin a phrase, “constructive stovepiping.” After years of assuming that economies of scale exist in web design, and that “knowledge sharing” and communication across disciplines was best, circumstances may show this is now not the case. If such things really produced the best work, then we would have found them easier (or at least more attractive) as we saw their supposed benefits bear fruit. Instead, what has been notable is that the larger agencies have seen diseconomies of scale, inefficiency beyond basic resource sharing, and a lack of creativity while the likes of 37 Signals, Headshift and (gasp!) Google and Yahoo lead the way.

Perhaps this is just an inevitable side-effect of size. But why not keep it small while getting bigger? Fight integration; resist the compulsory sharing of information until those who want it ask for it. Eschew the constructions of internal efficiencies – they’re doomed anyway as they have always been. We all know what we’re trying to do – that’s not contended – so instead focus on small teams with specialisms able to carry their ideas though to good execution. If this can be done while allowing these teams to make use of the larger size of their parent organisation on demand (facilities, consultation, support) then the newly-merged entity will really start to make sense.

I fear that for now at least, things will go the other way. The drive to a “full-service” identity will instead compound the problem and once the flush of the initial merger wears off, the current pattern of frustration will weave ever tighter into our work.