The Life And Times Of Deep Focus’ Ian Schafer

By SuperSpy 

We decided to ask Deep Focus’ CEO Ian Schafer what makes digital agencies different than traditional shops; why digital shops are opportunistic, the future, content downloading and the secret of his success. And for those looking to get a job at Deep Focus, Schafer was kind enough to let you know exactly what he’s looking for.

We thank Ian for his time and hope you enjoy it dear readers!


1. Digital implies cutting edge. In fact, some of the best indie
digital shops seem to us like trend units. Do you feel as though
that’s true – that digital agencies are required to be up on all
things “happening” in culture online and off? Do you clients expect that of you?

Digital agencies take many forms, and many play different roles. The vast majority of roles do not require an agency to be ‘hip’ or “cutting edge” or even aware of what’s next. The average agency is a role player, and winds up being average in the process. And many times, “average” is “good enough” (like the Cyndi Lauper song from The Goonies).

But the best agencies are up on all things “happening” in culture online and off. And for the record, an agency is not up on all things “happening” just because they have a “lab”. Or someone in charge of “innovation”. A true awareness of emerging trends, technologies, and behaviors requires an agency to make that awareness part of its culture — part of everyone that works there — to have it come through in every piece of work. The best digital agencies (creative, media, PR, or full service) know what is emerging, and what will ultimately emerge (sometimes two different things).

It seems to me, that if I was a client (again), I would want my digital agency to apply its collective intelligence to let me know what the next zeitgeist moment is going to be. Whether or not I should be putting my money into yet another social network. What my response should be (if any) to the latest negative blog meme about my brand. How the newest web technology can be applied to improve the conversation I can have with my consumers. I want to be working with people that don’t just know how to use Excel, but that OpenOffice exists. What an LOLcat is. Where to find out what the next new limited edition Air Force Ones are going to be. What Banksy’s latest exhibit was. Why BoingBoing loves steampunk. What RubyonRails is. Why APIs matter. All this knowledge plays a huge role in determining a media, creative, and/or publicity strategy whether relevant or not. They are necessary inputs if you want to be able to truly wield a medium whose generally un-programmed content changes by the nanosecond.

Each one of Deep Focus’ clients expects us to be partners in innovation, and that is why we choose to take them on. There is just way too much clutter and noise in the digital landscape (and any landscape, for that matter) to be irrelevant.

So is being culturally aware a requirement? No. Does it make you look silly if you’re not? Absolutely — at least to those that are.

2. You once said that digital agencies are opportunistic. Can you
expand on that idea for us. Aren’t all agencies opportunistic?

The average digital agencies are opportunistic in the sense that they have to be, and many want to be. Online spending is growing (and getting heavier) and way too few online agencies are equipped to handle that growth for them not to be opportunistic. But opportunities should not simply be taken because they present themselves — they should be taken in the spirit of partnerships and potential for long-term growth.

There is a lot of business that Deep Focus actually turns away because the clients would not make great partners. They will typically wind up at another agency that will execute without the immersion into the clients’ business that we ask for. Being opportunistic isn’t merely taking advantage of an opportunity; it’s exploiting every one. I prefer to choose our challenges carefully, making sure each client is a cultural and ideological fit, rather than simply saying yes to every request that comes our way. Sure, it might mean less revenue. But it means better work, and better results. That’s what I’m in this for.

3. Digital agencies are all the rage so why is it that you never hear about account wins or even new hires? It’s like a secret society.

We do our best to signal new hires, especially in senior management. I see new hires announced quite frequently in publications like MediaPost. But come to think of it, that mostly happens on the media side of the agency business. You don’t really hear about many new hires on the creative side. Maybe because “digital creatives” aren’t as sexy as the “traditional creatives”. But that will change. It should have already, to be honest.

As far as account wins go, the only ones you usually hear about are the AOR assignments given out by big brands to holding company- owned agencies. There just aren’t that many digital media and/or creative AOR assignments out there, though. Most digital assignments are still project-based, which means that announcements just don’t happen. Some agency might get a website, while another may get the media duties. We still, unfortunately, live in a world where many brands hold RFPs or procurement exercises for each digital effort — a highly inefficient process. The industry has almost been forced to pick a poison; have an AOR procurement-led review (yet only the holding companies get major consideration), or have individual assignments where independents (innovators) can actually win a significant chunk of the business.

You’re going to start to see all this change soon, though. As more innovative agencies start building up more robust offerings they will be able to compete as individual AORs. No longer will it be letting the kids get the digital business because the parents won the traditional business. The kids are growing up. And the parents are getting more and more out of touch. Digital agencies will start to get a little more vocal about wins, primarily because the companies that hire those agencies will finally let them.

4. What does the future look like for digital shops as part of the
industry at large? We’d love to hear your 2008-2010 prediction.

I’m not wavering off of my prediction that you will start to see more “digital shops” taking over overall brand strategy. This is based upon fundamentals of evolving technology and human behavior. 50% of homes own a digital TV. This number will be near 100% by 2010. Almost all media is going digital, and truly “digital shops” — not just online agencies — will have a leg up in every way. We’ve started to see announcements from some of the holding companies that seem to place a heavier emphasis on digital leadership. From my perspective that’s still a lot of smoke and mirrors. But we’re not far from that fantasy becoming a reality.

Digital agencies also have the opportunity to be legitimate thought leaders in the area of consumer behavior. Deep Focus has done this in practice for quite some time, but we’ll be making some extra-special moves in early 2008 to back it up.

5. Consumers are masters of content – from creation to mashing up to downloading anything and everything for free. We think downloading is one of the most overlooked trends out there. Yes, people download music, but now it’s movies, television (sans commercials), video games. What does that mean for the future of the advertising industry? Anything? Nothing?

Other than downloading, think about anything other media you might get “for free”. Free newspapers — wrapped in ads. Free broadcast television and radio — chock full o’commercials.

No one complains about these because there is a value exchange going on. You’re getting a newspaper at a convenient time (entering a subway, for example) for free, in exchange for having to see some ads in it. You’re getting LOST on TV because you’re willing to sit through commercials (or at least tolerate them). Regardless of how many people skip or avoid advertising, there are still exposures to it nonetheless, and those hold value for advertisers (although there needs to be more pressure put on measurement companies to help determine exactly what that value should be). The value to consumers is the content itself.

The problem here is that advances in technology happened more quickly than advances in the business model. It’s happened before, but this time, consumers have such unbridled access to technology that they can use it to get around existing business models. Piracy, which used to be limited to “Pirates” is now part of many individuals’ daily lives (risk of lawsuit or not). But what happens when those that are now pirates were once your best customers?

Big media screwed up by not addressing this sooner. Instead of thinking about how they could win back lost customers, they thought about how much lost revenue they could sue those customers for.

Advertising agencies have a responsibility to figure this out for these companies. Ad agencies should know consumer behavior. They should know technology. They should know and understand tolerances.

I actually don’t think this is that difficult a situation to resolve. As a matter of fact, I think there’s a formula. Simply provide the best quality, high-definition content at the best download speed, without DRM, support TV content with (a tolerable amount of) ads and sell movies (at a legitimate price — there’s a much lower distribution cost!), motivate people to share the content through incentives, and you’ll have a winner that could out-value P2P for both advertisers.

But wherever downloading takes us, this is going to take creativity and innovation to figure out how to make it effective and efficient for advertisers and tolerable for consumers. And who better to address this challenge than digital agencies? Gone are the days where agencies can just be given a canvas and be told, “here — go paint something”. Now, the medium is the canvas. It’s OK to color outside the lines. In fact, we encourage it.

The reality of the situation is that we, as advertising professionals, get paid to be intrusive. The best of us figure out how to convince you that we’re not intruding. If we actually used advertising to continually deliver and create better experiences in general, consumers — audiences — would accept it.

6. Why do you think that Deep Focus has had such success?

Deep Focus has had success for many reasons. For one, we choose our clients carefully. They want to innovate, break new ground, and lead. We also take innovation and creativity very seriously — across all disciplines. The multiple-disciplined approach we take here is at the core of everything. Being able to attack every challenge with an understanding of how to develop the best creative, the most innovative, effective, and efficient media approach, and right communications strategy makes everything just work better — and everyone smarter. We also really do believe that it is our responsibility to be thought leaders in this industry, and beyond. If we can’t lead our industry, how can we expect to lead clients?

When I started the agency, there were two major goals; the first was to revolutionize the way advertisers speak to their consumers; the other was to make sure the industry knew every time we did it. The first part is the cultural fabric of the agency, and the second part only happens when you can build a reputation upon good work, good people, good business practices, and good karma. People are proud to say they work with us, and that’s what I’m most proud of. If we do good by our clients, and by their consumers, the rest will just happen. It’s like The Secret. Without the bullsh*t.

7. Your agency has pushed into the gaming sector. Smart move. How is it that you are handling more basic interactive work, media buying, content creation and gaming successfully while other digital shops can barely make a working website?

Deep Focus goes where the consumer is about to go. We’ve long identified gaming (kids’ virtual worlds, alternate reality games, consoles, MMORPGs, etc.) as being trends to watch, and rather than publish them, we put them to work for our clients. We’ve got people here that are into everything. And we encourage them to dive deeper, creating teams of experts in the process. Strategy and understanding are equally as important as execution here, and everyone — I mean everyone — contributes to that. Every discipline contributes to every discipline. We’ve gotten some amazing results from that way of doing things.

Plus, anyone can come up with the next big idea and take ownership for bringing it to fruition. It’s an opportunity I always wish I had when I was coming up through this business, so I want to make it available for everyone here. We actually started a program here called FGI (Friggin’ Great Ideas) where people can submit ideas for peer review, and have them graduate into full-blown efforts for clients or even the agency itself.

The bottom line is that you can’t just read trades or blogs. You have to live this stuff. And we do it every day, myself included. A while ago, after buying Guitar Hero for the agency, I sent an email challenging people to a duel. I got back the following response:

‘I have to say I feel pretty lucky to work at a company where the boss would/could say: “I’ve beaten guitar hero 2 and 3 on expert and hard levels respectively. Shall we do an internal battle? We now have Guitar Hero in-house outside my office…”’

I love hearing that.

8. Is there anyone on your staff who deserves a shout-out for some recent wonderful work

I’m going to freestyle rap this one. Shout-outs go to Nick B. & David D. for The Jericho ARG, Michael M. for The Wire content and media creativity, Jason G. for AS3 wizardry, Jon F. for the PHP (yeah you know me), Eric D. for Jackass 2.5 media strategy, Jason L. for an HBO site that’s cuh-razy, Christian B. for keeping us known in the industry, Lindsey I. for being “clutch” in the hizzy, and the LA team for bringin’ in the bizzy. While I’m out, lets just call out the whole agency.

9. What do you look for in an employee? We ask this as we’re sure
there are tons of folks who are looking to work at Deep Focus

I want people that are sponges — people that can soak up information and then wring it out in puddles of genius. People that can tell me the most recent non-fiction book they’ve read. People that understand (and write) blogs. People that know what the EFF is. People that can quote movies and can DJ. People that can compare sneakers with me. People that know creative is just art unless it’s put in the right context and seen by the right people. People that can admit they are wrong. People that know the difference between “its” and “it’s”. People that can beat me in Rock Band. People that have opinions. People that want to rise up-ah. People that believe they can make a difference. People that are willing to use their powers for good — not evil. People who realize that they are consumers too. People that want to be in advertising because they hate advertising. People that are english, psychology, computer science or math majors. People who know who Lee Majors is. People who can not only learn, but teach. People that can lead. And people that are probably reading this right now. Yeah. You. If you think you’ve got what it takes, send an email with your resume and favorite Lee Majors moment to