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Monday, January 4, 2010

6 Digital Agency Survival Tips for 2010

Brought to you by Liz Ross

It's that time of year again. Only a couple weeks ago, honey glazed ham, mashed potatoes, and fighting with hoards of people over $15 DVD players in the aisles of Wal-Mart was all the rage. And although the holidays are now behind us, two types of articles are still in season -- the first being the much anticipated and expected lists of the "best" and the "worst" campaigns, products, and songs of the year past. The other common article type consists of predictions and proclamations for the year ahead. This is one of the latter.

Looking to survive in the ever-changing agency world? What follows is some proverbial food for thought for digital agencies in 2010. I hope some of them prove to be valuable for you and your business.

And now, without further ado, here are top six agency survival tips for the coming year.

Stop calling yourself a "digital agency."

It is official: The world has changed. This means that it's no longer important or relevant to define ourselves and our agencies by the channels in which we execute. Everything is digital, and all communication is delivered through digital channels. With this being true, the very idea of a digital agency is irrelevant. Focus on creating an agency that derives its identity and culture from the creation of powerful, relevant stories that are based in real insight.

The pace of change is quickening -- keep moving.

We are living in a time of tremendous change, and we're exposed to volumes of data that can be almost completely indecipherable. We live in a culture that is occurring in real-time, all the time. This means that there is no delay. Ever. We order a Samsung flat-screen television, and we want it set up and in our living rooms immediately.

What does this mean for agencies in 2010? We must devise new and constructive methods for listening -- and more importantly, understanding. There is no shortage of tools on the market today meant to help us listen to the cacophony of conversations that are happening in the world. What is missing by and large, however, is the ability to understand what we are listening to. We must find better ways to understand context and nuance and identify insights that are true to the human condition but not necessarily obvious.

Never stop asking "why?"

In our business, it is very easy to fall into the trap of the "obvious-sight." I wrote earlier of the importance of not only listening but also understanding. This is true in all human relationships, yet we have become complacent about the identification of insights.

We can all agree that we have seen many a brief where the singular insight is "Moms love their kids," or my second favorite, "Mom is busy." While these are true, and essentially inarguable, they are not insights. If the truth is "Moms are busy," force yourself and your teams to ask "why?" If the answer is "because the kids have a lot of activities," ask "why" again. When the answer is "that it's important for them to be well-rounded human beings," once again, force yourself to ask "why." You get the idea. Having and fostering an insatiable curiosity about the human condition is what creates great marketing.

Stories are the currency of our business.

We can all get caught up in what we do. Shows like "Mad Men" perpetuate the idea that we are doing glamorous, important work that is sexy and even a little bit dangerous. For those of us who have been lucky enough to grace the lobby bar at Shutters in Santa Monica, it can sometimes feel as though we are doing something that deserves great respect and admiration. Almost as if we are celebrities ourselves. But this notion would be wrong.

We are storytellers, and it is no more complicated than that. If you think back to the earliest tribes of humans, stories connected us to one another and were the currency of culture and family. In essence, stories are our lifeblood and define who we are as people. Agencies have lost, for the most part, the love of a good story. We have been subsumed by tactics, technologies, and nifty ways to use Flash to make things sparkle and move.

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is John Candy and Steve Martin in the hotel room in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." It's the scene where Steve Martin wakes up to John Candy snuggling him, and he utters the famous phrase, "Those aren't two pillows!" What happens after the line is what we should all take note of: Steve Martin unloads on John Candy in a mean-spirited, angry diatribe that could only happen after days of hideous travel mishaps. Steve Martin says to John Candy's character, "And by the way, when you tell a story, have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!"

Truer words could not be spoken where our business is concerned today. Agencies need to not only understand the art of the story, but also have reverence for the way in which the story is delivered. We owe it to ourselves, and to the people we ask to engage with our marketing programs, to write better stories. We need to create stories that go beyond a suburban mom getting her harried family out the door in the morning with hot toaster waffles in hand, or a young couple impressing the neighbors with a new car. We need to create stories that move, delight, and surprise us with their power and resonance. With the technology we have in-hand, it is incumbent upon us to create more surprising stories than ever before.

Don't divorce what we do as a business from who you are as a person.

As agency people, digital or otherwise, we can be a little cavalier about our own media habits. We create television commercials and use DVRs to obliterate them from our sight. We create banners and microsites that we never even visit. The days of people waiting to receive our messages are over. The only proof you need is in your own behavior. What was the last television commercial you watched or banner you clicked on? We comfort ourselves with the soothing refrain of "we are not the target" or "they're not like us." The good news is that they are more like "us" than ever before, and it would be richly rewarding to treat the people we are marketing to the same way we wish to be treated.

Often, this assertion can be perceived and misconstrued as an indictment of all marketing. It is not. There is a place for television, banners, microsites, and emails. It is important for brands to share their stories and help people understand how their products and services can fit into our lives. What is critical is that we have a conversation about what all of this means. Have an open dialogue about what is best for your client, and ultimately, the audience, and don't hold on to sacred cows. Everything should be in question, and it's our job to push the envelope of what is possible and what is good.

Innovation is the lifeblood of any organization

Finally, no agency (or company, really) will survive without a healthy understanding and respect for the importance of innovation. We collectively gaze in wonder at Google, a company that seems to have so much money that it can afford to innovate. Companies that expect, and even demand, innovation from their employees have happier employees, happier clients and, by extension, more money.

Look for specific and measurable ways to encourage people to innovate within your organization and be accepting and forward-looking when some, inevitably, fail. Change does not come out of a two-day offsite where everything is "figured out" and all the answers are clear. Change comes from a relentless, steady focus on forward motion and discovery.

Adopt a program like Google's, in which you allow people to spend some percentage of their time in exploration of things that interest them. Require them to share and report back to their teams and the company what they've learned and how they're thinking. Only then will you begin to understand that change isn't a singular event, but a constant flow of ideas and thoughts that will cumulatively reinvent the way we look at our world.

2010 should prove to be another exceptional year, and that is a very good thing. The only constant is change, and I for one, along with the teams at my agency, look forward to a spectacular year that will continue to shape and redefine our industry.

Here's to a great 2010.

Liz Ross is EVP and chief growth officer for Digitas U.S.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous post, Liz. I especially like your comments about the importance of innovation. Seth Godin offered a tidbit last year that I've held onto. He advised you to look into your SENT email folder and see how many begin with RE: -- that is, you simply responding to someone else. Instead, he suggests we all initiate things, regularly and enthusiastically. This is especially true in our questionnable economy. You can outsource many things to India. Creativity, ingenuity and storytelling, you cannot.