The Digital Exchange

If nothing else, SXSWi is a celebration of ideas. We share them, question them, challenge them and gather around them. Perhaps most importantly, we search for new ideas and try to imagine their consequences.

So it’s not entirely remarkable that Ben Malbon, executive director of innovation at BBH and managing partner and founder of BBH Labs, and his brother Tim, founder of London’s Made by Many, assembled 30 worldwide “competitors” to talk about how we might collaborate and innovate together in an effort to not only reinvent the future, but blow up the now.

However, in other ways it is remarkable. It represents another example of what many believe is the new competitive advantage: sharing. The idea that if we give away some of our thinking it might help our reputation, establish our authority and, more importantly, introduce us to others who, by returning the favor, make us smarter and more effective.

It makes sense for another reason. As media, technology and attitudes continue to change, we have to become learning organizations in addition to creative businesses. No one knows all the answers or even the questions. We can’t predict what will be the next big thing. We can’t be sure that what’s hot today will be here tomorrow. We don’t even know how to make a digital video go viral without luck and serendipity.

What marketers should do in the digital age is anything but obvious. Factor in traffic, conversion, content management, the value of engagement and how consumers behave (sharing, co-creating, etcetera) and, well, you get the picture.

We do know some things, however. Outbound advertising and marketing are rapidly becoming less impactful than digital engagement. The people who buy stuff spend more and more time online, logging onto the Web from their mobile devices, not even distinguishing one screen from another. They want access, content, utility, control, participation and to define their own community. They aren’t there to absorb messages but to harness and use information on their terms. And, of course, their scarce attention has to be earned.

For the first time this year, marketers may spend more money on digital and online ads than on print, but few if any know the perfect blend of paid, earned, or owned. Their challenges are our challenges.

So, could a collection of companies join forces to explore a new way of working? Could we get better at leveraging digital technology? Might we find more efficient ways to align agency and client organizations, perhaps eliminating the walls and silos that impede efficiency and agility? Is it possible to resolve all the arguments and debates about whether the campaign is dead while the platform reigns supreme? Maybe.

This meeting, held courtesy of the Society of Digital Agencies, was a first step. We explored ways to be open, stay relevant, add value and avoid doing what clients can do for themselves. We questioned the efficacy of the current agency or whether new kinds of alliances and partnerships would work better. And we suggested a host of ideas for what we could do next, including but not limited to the following:

• Embrace a new kind of ad-hoc cooperation assured by nothing more than our own commitment to help each other.

• Fund an organization we called a cloud. One rough scenario: Instead of working for one digital agency, a person would work for the cloud. During their tenure individuals would take on assignments from different agencies, in the process capturing a collective intelligence about best practices from each of the shops and sharing that intelligence with the network.

• Take on a startup (in return for an equity position) in hopes it might help the group define best practices for how digital can establish, launch and build a brand.

There were many others, from wikis to product ideas. But the most promising was the suggestion that all of the above, while potentially useful, were somewhat disappointing. They fell short of being disruptive. They won’t alter the status quo. They might make us better, but they won’t invent the future.

That last sentiment excites me most: a bunch of smart people, willing to work together beyond the walls of their own agencies to create (or at least try) something new. We have no idea where this might lead, but it’s worth finding out.

Even if nothing significant comes of it, we will at least keep the spirit of SXSWi alive: sharing ideas, questioning them, challenging them, gathering around them and best of all searching for new ones and imagining their consequences.
 
As Ben Malbon would tell you, we weren’t trying to be exclusive, simply keeping the group to a manageable size. But, since we all live in a digital age, our initial conversation is bound to spread. Join us.

Edward Boches is chief creative officer at Mullen. Follow him at twitter.com/edwardboches and http://edwardboches.com.