Waggener Edstrom Digital Chief: ‘We Need to Move From Output to Outcomes’

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Waggener Edstrom just promoted Jen Houston to the new role of president, Studio D and global lead.

Houston was previously senior vice president, and will continue to lead Studio D, the agency’s digital division, which has expanded from 37 full-time employees in July 2008 to 132 employees today. Houston has been with Waggener Edstrom since 1999.

PRNewser caught up with her today for an exclusive interview on her new position and much more.

How will your new role as president differ from your previous role as SVP?

The most important change is that we are bringing on what was formerly the research and measurement and product development teams into Studio D. So it broadens our pillars, which are experience design, content management, digital influence, narratives and branding and consulting. Adding the insight and analysis group to this explains how the breadth of the organization expanded with this role.

As part of this as well, I am on the board now at Waggener Edstrom. We think about digital broadly as not a stand alone but as part of all the strategic communications we do. I’m not only a change agent, but my job is to help Waggener Edstrom invent and envision what the future of communications looks like.

Studio D has recently hired executives from The Wall Street Journal, MySpace and HP. How have these “internal” practitioners adjusted to agency life?

One of the things I look for in all hires is a sense of curiosity and business acumen. These guys are playing the role of change agent, but also learning the discipline of communications and PR. We’re learning from both sides. Both Dave Patton [hired from the WSJ] and Tac Anderson [hired from HP] have mentioned that to me individually, about how much they bring and how much they have learned.

You mention Patton, who Studio D brought on as “editor-in-chief.” Many agencies are doubling down on content creation. What kinds of digital content are clients asking for most these days?

There are a couple of piece parts. First is how is content traveling, how content needs to change to be effective on channels. It’s no longer a linear narrative with a client story, it’s almost a neural network of content.

I may stumbled into tweet, see a video, read a story in The Wall Street Journal or a trade publication. There are lots of different steps on my journey to fall into that content story.

The second part is how do I become a media property myself. How do I bring incredible stories that happen within my company to an external audience. We are having a lot of conversations with people about how they build a traditional newsroom. Not as competitive of traditional media but as an aggregators, and extenders of those stories. That is what gets really exciting, the way we can tell those stories. it’s not shrinking, it’s expansive.

Your team recently built the website for The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof, for his book Half the Sky with Sheryl WuDunn. What were Kristof’s goals in terms of this digital presence?

One of the things we realized really quickly was that they have a tremendous opportunity to really start a movement. It wasn’t just a book. If you read them, you know that’s where they’re passion is.

The goal for the site was to give a platform, it was not about “buy a book,” but invited audiences to come in to become part of a movement. It’s a very simple site, but pulled out stories and made them live and interesting, and made it so audiences wanted to find out more and participate.

Does the current fuss about Facebook’s privacy issues really matter, or is this something we will all forget about a few months from now?

I’m a mom of three teenagers and one nine-year-old, and privacy continues across the board to be a key issue. Privacy doesn’t go away. I don’t think it’s about a Facebook privacy issue or not, it’s how do we as users of these channels think about our data as bits and pieces of who we are. We have to make decisions about what we will share and how we share.

How do you balance being profitable as a division with counseling other divisions of Waggener Edstrom on digital?

Waggener Edstrom’s model is very much an integrated approach. We see emerging channels and how to harness them over time can better be practiced within the account team. We think about audience first and then surround that audience with all the channels available to us. We go into clients that way. It’s not “we have to pull in our digital guys here.”

For us it hasn’t been a stumbling block. One of our key attributes at Waggener Edstrom is collaboration. We build that so that, one, we have futurist on staff that can be ahead of the client and two, our account staff are equally ready and efficient as anyone on Studio D. I think you see that in our rapid growth as well.

Is Studio D looking to make any acquisitions in 2010, or are you focused on organic growth?

We are constantly asking ourselves the age old business question: build, partner or buy? It is my hope that all of my colleagues in the communications industry are asking themselves the same thing. When Studio D was formed two and half years ago, and prior to that, Pam Edstrom said with a straight face, “I want you to build the future of communications. Find out who the right partners are, and what the organic strategy is.”

We are constantly evaluating what’s right. To date talent acquisition is the right thing to do, but partner strategy is equally powerful, as is potentially a buying strategy.

If you had $100 million to make acquisitions, who would you buy and why?

I would first start with what is the strategy and where are the areas that are under-served from business perspective. An area most interesting to me is the “proving ROI” on communications spend. So my real area of focus would be the evolution of the future of measurement. Companies like the Postranks of the world, and a variety of social media tools. I really believe that is the future.

The questions I get every time I go and speak is, “Tell me how I prove this, tell me how I how there is a value and benefit in the work I’m doing.” We need to move from output to outcomes and I don’t think anyone has figured that out yet. Expect to hear more from Waggener Edstrom in that space.

Lets say I’m the CMO of a Fortune 500 company looking to hire a digital agency. What would you tell me to help guide my search?

The first thing I would tell you is there is no such thing as a social media guru. I really believe that. I think that the guidance I’d give is to look to a set of companies that start first with outcomes you want to drive, instead of output. Then think about the audiences that you need to reach, and then think about communications objective against the business opportunities and audiences.

There are a lot of people still asking the question, saying, “We need a social strategy,” or a “Twitter strategy” and you’re going to fall down doing that.

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