In the wake of apocalyptic forecasts and ominous predictions of the future of web agencies, I’m offering my positively optimistic, if slightly off-topic, view on a creative industry that won’t change as much as we fear.
If you’re a subscriber of 8 Gram Gorilla you can’t help but have noticed the recent mentions of Khoi Vinh’s article about the end of client services, along with Nate Peretic’s prompt response in Gordon’s outline of Primate’s strategy to survive the impending doom and destruction. (If you’re not a subscriber you bloody well should be, but that’s besides the point.) It appears we should all be preparing for a grim future and start hatching our plans on how to tackle the difficulties of serving clients in a hostile environment.
Cause it is a hostile environment, right? The surge of freelancers, in-house web teams, open source alternatives to expensive software, and free online tutorials – it’s all making it harder for us to offer something unique to our clients, isn’t it? Wrong.
The democratisation of tools
Since the dawn of the digital age and the birth of the internet, our tools have become more sophisticated, infinitely more available, and – crucially – cheaper by the hour. Not surprisingly, this leaves a lot of web professionals a little scared. The tricks of the trade are no longer a secret, and most of the weapons in our arsenal have been distributed for anyone to use.
What if all of our clients pick up their very own Web-o-tron 3000 and blast out their own online products?
What if all of our clients pick up their very own Web-o-tron 3000 and blast out their own online products? Any monkey with a keyboard can create a free WordPress site these days, so why would company X hire an expensive agency to handle their online presence?
Fear not, it will all be ok. It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last.
When layout tools like QuarkExpress or InDesign came about, it didn’t put design agencies out of business. When digital photography entered the stage, it didn’t put professional photographers on the street. When digital print reached a consumable standard, it didn’t send traditional printers straight to an early grave. And even though all these tools are now available at a fraction of their pre-digital costs, most companies don’t do their own creative, publishing or design jobs themselves – agencies are still serving millions of clients every day.
The only real change the democratisation of tools brings about is an abundance of low-value professionals
The only real change the democratisation of tools brings about is an abundance of low-value professionals (and their low-value customers); hobby designers; amateur photographers; bloggers-come-authors (Hello World!); and self-taught new media strategists. Now, I’m by no means knocking anyone who take an interest in the industry without wanting to commit to a lengthy education, nor do I wish to offend anyone who measures creativity by the number of photoshop tutorial one has completed. On the contrary, I think the people embracing information technology en masse is vastly beneficial to the progress of our industry, and indeed the world as we know it. But I digress.
My point is that even though the influx of cheap technology opens up the market to pretty much anyone, there are still people out there who appreciate high-value services. And they won’t go away anytime soon because they lack the skill and experience that agencies offer, and it’s cheaper (in the short run), and less risky, to hire a specialist team than to run one. You see, agencies are kinda like (or, if you’re being pedantic, totally not like) butchers.
Would you like meat in your sausage?
Most of you will agree that the hand made sausages at your local, high quality butcher are probably better than the ones you buy in the value section at the supermarket. If you don’t, allow me to elaborate. For starters, your butcher – provided he is a good one – has personally chosen the meat he’s putting in his sausages. He’s maybe even seen the animals roam free on a farm nearby before meeting their untimely (but necessary!) death at the slaughterhouse. Years of experience has given him a unique ability judge exactly how tightly he can pack the sausages before they burst, how long and at what temperature they need to hang, and the perfect balance of spices needed to acquire the right flavour and texture.
Those of us who care more about price will go for the cheap meat/bone/sawdust combination on offer at 50% in the discount aisle
The supermarket, on the other hand, takes full advantage of the modern tools of industrialised farming, meat factories, automated food processing, etc. so it’s sausages are understandably a lot cheaper than the butcher’s – but obviously not of the same quality. Your average meat eater understands this difference, and so those of us who care more about the quality of our sausages than the price will opt for the more expensive, but also more scrumptiously crafted experience. Those of us who care more about price will go for the cheap meat/bone/sawdust combination on offer at 50% in the discount aisle.
All the while, if we wanted to we could have bought the tools, read up on sausage making and created our own – exactly the way we wanted them. So why don’t we? Because we don’t have the experience or skill to match the butcher (or the supermarket for that matter), nor the time to acquire them, and ultimately we’re happy to pay for the expertise we lack.
Expertise is timeless
So whether you’re developing apps, designing web sites, analysing google stats, writing copy or doing flash ads (ok, maybe not that last one), remember that HTML5 does not generate ideas, photoshop will never tell you which layout works best, and there is no magical content generator out there. Your expertise – your accumulated knowledge, skill and industry know-how – is your most valuable asset, and if you’re good enough, quality-minded clients will take notice. If you want to be a butcher, that is.
If you want to be a supermarket just keep slashing your prices, further industrialise your process, outsource as much as you can and pray your client’s won’t notice that awful smell until he’s paid you.
Disclaimer: This article is written by a naive, chronically optimistic designer who’s yet to be thoroughly punched in the face. Should you find ME in the gutter 3 years from now, rest assured I traded my mac, wacom and CS license for a life-time supply of Asda Smart Price bangers before giving up.