Mumbai: Independent digital agencies are attracting big-ticket advertisers as more of them look for specialized, nimble partners with expertise in managing brands online.

Photo courtesy: Bloomberg

Coca-Cola India, for instance, works with major agencies such as Leo Burnett India, McCann Erickson India and Ogilvy and Mather for soft drinks brands such as Thums Up, Coca-Cola and Limca. However, it appointed SapientNitro, an integrated marketing and technology services firm, to work on the company’s online brand strategy. “We are not predisposed to source of the idea. The focus is on getting the best idea out," said a spokesperson for the company, pointing to the successful run of its initiative with youth channel MTV, titled Coke Studio @ MTV. “So far, we’ve had 600,000 fans on Facebook and 13 million downloads, a bulk of which were paid for," he said. The company’s online strategy on this property was executed by multiple technology partners. “As a client we would love to find all our solutions in one place. That is the ideal situation, but we’re not there yet."

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Lenovo, the Chinese personal computer brand, works with Ogilvy and Mather. However, to manage its social media activity on Facebook and Twitter, Lenovo hired 22feet Communications Pvt. Ltd, an independent digital solutions provider. Shailendra Katyal, head of marketing, Lenovo India, said the company spends 5-12% of its advertising budget online.

The reasons for brands to rely on independent online specialists are easy to understand. For a start, “digital" is no longer just a banner ad or a website. “Digital is a world in which we connect, socialize… look for a job. Digital is not an outlier sitting on the periphery of technology: it’s at the very heart of it," said Ramswaroop Gopalan, country manager, SapientNitro, India, the integrated marketing and technology services firm that works with some Coca-Cola brands, Seagram’sBlenders Pride and Citibank India.

Secondly, digital or new media is dynamic and constantly changing. “As an advertising agency you have to be constantly on the ball, but as we see it, there is still not enough investment and commitment (on the part of large ad network) agencies. They’re usually playing catch up," said a Coca-Cola official.

Mahesh Murthy, founder of Pinstorm, a Mumbai-based digital marketing agency, maintains that to be effective, a firm needs to “have an enormous amount of in-house technology, it needs to understand and integrate customer service into brand voice." He said that digital agencies need to react seven days a week and “understand how to do creative that proliferates not through expensive commission-earning media buys, but through human-driven viral propagation."

Prasanth Mohanachandran, co-founder of Mumbai-based AgencyDigi Communications Pvt. Ltd, a Mumbai-based digital agency, agreed: “It’s good to say that the agency offers a 360-degree approach, but more often than not most brands pick an expert who will look at the different aspects whether it is creative, media buying and planning or public relations. This is also the case when it comes to digital."

According to Namrata Balwani, chief operating officer of the digital agency Media2win, growth in digital advertising has been fuelled by independent agencies. It was only later that the media networks formed digital arms of their own. “We are much faster in identifying market trends and gauging action in the digital sphere right from Facebook applications to tablets to iPhones compared to larger agencies. For larger advertising agencies, the focus remains on the creative side," said Balwani. Media2win works with clients such as Tata Sky, Bajaj Auto and Max NewYork Life insurance, among others.

Tata Docomo, a Tata Teleservices Ltd brand, for instance, has hired Interface Business Solutions to handle its brand interaction with consumers in the digital space.

“Internet is not an advertising medium but a medium to build engagement and conversation with consumers as it enables two-way communication with the customer," said Gurinder Singh Sandhu, head, corporate marketing, Tata Teleservices Ltd.

The brand works with Interface Business Solutions, a full-service agency that delivers an integrated strategy across creative, media and other specialized elements of Internet marketing such as search and communities, he said.

Surprisingly, network agencies often seek the assistance of independent boutique firms for their clients. “Often, the big advertising agencies look outside their own network to partner with the “best man for the job", said Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer for Mudra Group. He said most advertising agencies are not even remotely ready for the digital age. “Currently, digital accounts for a small piece of the ad spend pie. So several large agencies have neither the inclination nor the skill" to meet the challenges of the medium, he said.

While Mudra draws on the expertise of its own digital unit, Tribal DDB, to handle the online strategy for clients, it does not hesitate to seek help from technology vendors.