During the short history of the internet, 1998 may be remembered as the year the web agency market started to grow up. It will also be remembered as the year when things got complicated. Closures, takeovers and the inexorable march of American agencies have all helped reshape the industry.
A couple of years ago it was simple. If a client wanted a website, it went to a company that built them. Some of these companies were divisions of ad agencies or below-the-line specialists, some were standalone digital agencies. Some were big, most were small, but they had one thing in common: they designed and built websites.
That's all changed. Quite a few of them are no longer in a position to build websites because they've gone bust. The veteran UK agency, Web-media, shut this spring, retaining just a skeleton staff and retiring into its shell company; the Cambridge-based New Media Factory went to the wall; Lowe Howard-Spink closed its Lowe Digital new-media division; and the production-led digital agency, AMX, was bought by its competitor, Real Time Studio.
Moreover, the agency market has been transformed by an influx of American companies setting up in the UK, buying British agencies and merging with each other. The Omnicom-owned US giant, Agency.com, acquired the UK's Online Magic after a lengthy period of partnership. USWeb, which claims to be the largest of all the web consultancies with 1,200 staff, bought the British company, Xplora, as part of a global expansion which has also seen it buy the marketing agency, CKS. The US agency, Poppe Tyson, merged with its media specialist compatriot, Modem Media; and the UK agency, CHBi, was acquired by its American peer, Razorfish.
Put this together and you have what looks like a shakeout. Of the agencies who have emerged intact at the other end, however, few would still position themselves as companies that build websites. Clients are moving away from "we want a website" to "we want a …