Leading With Digital

Last night I had dinner with the head creative director of an agency on the West Coast.  We were discussing the topic that seems to be on everyone’s mind: “How does an agency truly become digital?” Big agencies, small agencies, PR practices, CRM firms, even the major media companies are all trying to figure out how to get a bigger slice of the digital pie. 

Let’s say you are a 50-employee agency, or 100 or even 300. Where do you start? Who do you hire? What is the right structure to get an agency to be truly integrated and deliver the right message to the right audience in a creative and effective way that is completely media agnostic? 

To begin, it’s important to understand the discrepancy between the major advertising agencies and the niche digital shops. One side of the spectrum has large multinational brands, understands marketing and knows how to produce major media campaigns, but tends to be too top-heavy to truly embrace the entrepreneurship that is needed to live in a digital world. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll find firms that are nimble, innovative, entrepreneurial, can embrace any technology and have an understanding of how to build digital applications, experiences and platforms. Despite this, they tend to lack in strategic marketing and planning as well as deep client relationships because they are often hired by the larger agencies on a project basis. They also tend to be too focused on digital to move from digital shop to marketing content agency.

With all those differences in mind, the most immediate is an understanding of technology. Agencies find themselves asking, “Do I need to hire an engineering staff?” In short, the answer is “No.” Hiring a bunch of engineers to crunch hours of code would not be an efficient model for an agency looking to get into the digital space. Engineering and production models in the digital space are becoming a commodity business. There are companies around the world that could easily take a big idea — consisting of comps, mock-ups, user-flows and designs — and turn it into a fully functioning gizmo faster, cheaper and more efficiently than a lot of agency teams, especially those that are just getting started in digital. In addition, there are companies in more efficient economies that are able to produce digital content and applications at a fraction of the cost using offshore and near-shore production resources. That isn’t to say that once an agency has become “digital” it shouldn’t invest in broadening its capabilities — which may require engineering capabilities — but that’s another article.

The truth is, “becoming digital” isn’t about hiring 30 people, reorganizing your departments and finding 18-year-olds to give director titles; it’s about changing the way you think and ultimately to lead with digital. An agency that already has a foundation in traditional media is positioned well to evolve quickly into the digital space, but leadership comes from the top down. And as consumers continue to shift from lean-back to lean-forward media consumption, and as more and more platforms become IP connected and allow a level of interactivity, all media will gradually become digital.

When you lead with digital, “How will the consumer interact with my brand?” is always the first question. The key word there is interact.  The problem comes first, then the audience, then the solution. You don’t go into the brief with an expectation of what you want to create; you go into the brief with an expectation that a solution will manifest itself in the best and most efficient way possible for the target audience. This means that the solution might not necessarily be media, but it could be a product, a Web site, a video game, a banner or even a print ad.

For an agency to lead with digital, it takes confidence, a willingness to take risks and a comfort with change. Sometimes this takes an employee who acts as an evangelist, nurturing, supporting and empowering others to let their imaginations run wild, and helping everyone within the organization understand what the engineers in the digital world are building and how they affect the way we communicate. To be digital requires education, exposure and the willingness to embrace change. But it’s not about digital experts within organizations; it’s about everyone in the company being empowered by understanding the space, because a good idea can come from anywhere. As we say at MDC Partners, it is really just about infusing digital into the DNA of an organization that ultimately leads to true innovation.

The days of the pitch from the creative director who spends 99.9 percent of a client meeting selling his big-budget-Hollywood-director-produced TV spot for $5 million, who only mentions that they also want to do something digital and viral that uses social networks as he is walking out the door, are long gone. Clients are asking for digital thinking: accountable, trackable, emotional experiences that bring a potential customer into a world of interaction and personalized encounters. Digital thinking that is built on marketing principles that empower a user to become an advocate for the brand and make the brand more relevant to them than the 30 seconds of television that they fast-forwarded through during American Idol

Brandon Berger is vp, digital innovation at MDC Partners.