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The Death of the Digital Agency as Site Builder?

I was part of my first website build in 1996 at one of the original “interactive” ad agencies, Modem Media. The site was an online brochure for AT&T’s WorldNet dial-up internet service, and was created to provide early digital advertising pioneers with a basis for understanding the new world of online ads. Thanks to the Wayback Machine internet archive, here’s a snapshot of the home page from way back then:

media bistro

It was kickass for ’96, it had great design, great content and even had animated gifs (that pie actually steamed, far out!). You can still see most of it here:

But get this: It took a talented team of marketers, producers, designers, artists, engineers, QA specialists, webmasters and other uniquely skilled individuals to bring it to life and to get it live on AT&T’s internal servers over months of hard, well-funded work. It was based on a great strategy and user insight, it used the most advanced technology available at that time, and was designed and enabled by some of the leading talents in digital at that time. I don’t remember the exact budget, but suffice it to say that AT&T paid well over $100,000 for this effort, just to design, build and get it live. If we wanted to make a simple change to the site, even just a text change, we’d have to fill out forms and wait several weeks just to begin testing it.

Today, other than the custom illustrations, you or I, with no specialized design or technical skills, could build a website at the same high level of design and technical sophistication in a day. And if we then wanted to add or change content, we could do so in 5 minutes.

This fact is becoming well known among a certain group of businesses: The small business who doesn’t have the budget, the staff or the time to invest in a digital agency to create what they can do themselves with new toolsets that have emerged.

Services like WordPress have moved well beyond their early iterations as primarily blogging platforms. Low-cost hosting platforms like Wix, Squarespace, Weebly and many others provide free tools and templates that allow a business with some focused dedication and smart upfront thinking to create lovely, highly functional company websites that are pre-built to match best practices in design, functionality, navigation, data capture, and more.

Not only that, it allows 1 person “agencies” to exist that never could have before. For instance, using a free, pre-existing template on behalf of one of Hewson Group’s clients, I was able to create a simple 6 page landing page micro-site ( with rich content and simple data capture in less than a week using one of these platforms, and then optimize it for conversion performance multiple times per week to gain the best results:


I didn’t use a professional designer, a technical engineer, or a producer, I just used my laptop, a Shutterstock account and an internet connection. Is it going to be featured at Cannes or win a FWA Site of the Day? No, but on the other hand, I charged well less than 5% of what AT&T paid Modem Media 20 years ago, and it is building my client’s business successfully. Watch out Razorfish. :)

Does this mean that there’s no longer a place for the full staff digital agency as a site design and build resource for smaller clients? No, but it’s now heading that way, based on economics and technology’s advances towards self-service. How long until, along with computer program-aided media buying, bigger companies begin to consider how tools like the ones I’ve mentioned here will allow them to simplify their own approach to website design and development and step away from the high-priced agency model that still is hanging on?

Want to learn more about this trend? We’re here to chat:

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