Life. Then Strategy

Why the world doesn’t need another digital strategist

OK. Knives down; I scratch easily. I’m not against the digital strategist. I just don’t believe the world needs more digital strategists. Here’s my point:

Digital strategists in creative agencies exist to over-compensate for agency muscles that have not grown in traditional areas; the problem is that agencies aren’t set up to get the most out of them so they often float, irritate then leave. Forcing the role into redundancy now while bringing in deeply specialist skills from outside advertising will help agencies adapt better.

Why the water is so murky

‘Digital’ is a mischievously loaded word

‘Digital’ tends to get used by agencies in two interesting yet unsaid ways:
i. ‘Some complicated stuff we need to charge a lot for’
ii. And, when used in combination with ‘digital strategy’, I find there’s often an undercurrent of ‘not as important as real planning’

These two points underlie the challenges that many agencies are facing:

1. The concept of status: change happens when it’s ‘important’ enough

What sort of ideas do you want your agency to come up with? The next Subservient Chicken or the next Facebook? The next Old Spice guy or the next Kickstarter?

Obviously, all are/were ‘successful’ in their own right – but if you’re focused on wacky Cannes-oriented campaigns, you need to be clear about this and realise that you may miss a much bigger pool of thinking. Thing is, why would you want to miss out on this other more utility and community type thinking? There’s often more revenue in it and it’s incredibly powerful over the long-term (you can create new revenue streams for clients, learn more about their customers). Much of the time, the answer is simply that it’s not cool. We’re so socially conscious – even when we hide behind professional expertise.

The concept of status in many agencies is twisted.

I just came back from New York (for more, read: Moving to a New York advertising agency) where I met a lot of different companies and spoke to a lot of different people. Most digital strategists and digital strategy directors I met were downstream, often hands-off, involved in client education, talking at conferences and get handed ideas from the traditional art director and copywriter paradigm and asked to do something with them. Most – not all.

A lot of the structures around them didn’t know how to get the most out of them and so the ‘digital strategist’ is often called out as being ineffectual. They’re seen as shiny new things you wave around to distract a room – they present some stats on Twitter, show an example of an augmented reality app then disappear.

I’ve seen the same thing in Australia – it’s why so many of them change agencies so often. The companies believe they need to prove their digital credentials (strangely, one or two ‘digital strategists’ is supposed to achieve this) but don’t structurally change to get the most out of these brains… and I believe that much of the resistance to structural change is due to perceptions of status within the creative industries.

An example…

The first thing I’d always want to look at with a new client is the basics (for more, read How to do account planning – a simple approach). And, the basics for me (in account planning – not just ‘digital strategy’) start with search. Through keyword research you can understand the path to purchase, the taxonomy of a category, which words you should and shouldn’t use in your communications, seasonality of search, the geography of interest (is the sales force in the right areas?), which brands are front of mind (much quicker than brand tracking) and so on.

Now, search is critically un-sexy – a fact that will keep the search industry well paid for years. An agency belief in the importance of search leads to less Flash websites, more investment in content, the need for rigorous analytics, more long-term thinking, possibly less Cannes-like thinking – but it’s extremely effective. I’d rather get search right before putting money into a glossy campaign. I love it – but if your agency wants to make the next Subservient Chicken then this stuff will be disgustingly un-cool.

Having said that, I do believe an agency can do both types of work – but not everyone wants to. There’s no status in it.

My point: change needs to happen at the head – not at the knees – and status currently gets in the way.

2. Complexity justifies cost but gets in the way

Most agency business models are based on head hours and most people struggle to make informed yet ultimately intuitive decisions. These dynamics lead to a situation where most agencies charge for industry not quality and effectiveness. And, if things seem complicated, then we can argue it takes longer to do… so we can charge more for doing them.

There are definitely ‘digital strategists’ who fear-monger and baffle with complexity in the hope of revealing themselves as the only rational, safe solution. And, agencies with ‘digital strategists’ often say: “But they make it so complicated; nobody understands them.”

Here’s the rub. Technology is complicated; human behaviour usually isn’t. If the strategist focuses on the tech – not the behaviour – then of course everything seems complicated. And, to be honest, I think some strategists hide in the tech (‘We can do a mobile app, a social game, some AR, an ARG, a Facebook app.’ To which one says: ‘Yes, but why… and where’s the insight?’). So, if you’re working with a strategist who does this, pull them out of it and get them to focus on the people stuff. When clients buy a TVC, they don’t need to know how satellites work (OK, long-bow metaphor – but you get my point).

Ultimately, my argument about complexity and ‘digital strategy’ is: make it brutally human.

And guess whose primary role it is in an agency to understand people? That’s right, the account planner.

The Digital Reality Check

There are a lot of uncomfortable truths about ‘digital’ that many agencies need to wrap their heads around if they’re serious about it.

1. Difficulty and morale

It’s often difficult and, if your team is ambitious, every project will feel like something completely new. This can lead to project stress and morale issues. I’ve seen it first hand in multiple agencies and have come to appreciate a point the 37 Signals guys make in their book Rework: try not to work on projects that take too long to launch as they kill morale.

2. New ways of working

You will likely need more people to work on a digital project and in ways few are accustomed to in creative agencies (eg little hierarchy). They’ll often need to do a deeper and broader level of continuous thinking compared to concepting an ad. You may need to let them disappear into a room for a few weeks undisturbed. Most agencies aren’t set up for this (from a business or environmental point of view). For many agencies, digital projects aren’t included in the retainer so having hybrid teams of people on and off retainer committed to one project can throw up issues around accounting plus the common desire to have people available for other stuff when you want… like you may if a team was working on a traditional campaign.

3. Hierarchy and authority

So, who makes the call? Creative Directors still rule most agencies. But is an art director or copy writer by trade in a position to make a call on a mobile app or website interface? Or even on content? So, as digital folds back into the guts of most agencies, instead of being hidden in an agency sub-brand, are you structured to foster debate between different crafts or will your structure stifle the digital thinking you want?

4. Change can be lonely

And, finally, not everyone in your company will want these sorts of changes to work. They’ll block passively (by not helping, by cutting off access to clients, by letting projects slide) or aggressively (by cutting off budgets, excluding people). Nigel Marsh once said to me: “People don’t change unless their careers depend on it.” It’s so true. I’ve seen this dynamic at play where people have avoided change (eg in agencies where the Head of Digital has the lonely KPI of growing digital revenue on existing clients instead of the Group Account Directors – in which case, guess what happens? Not much!) and succeeded at forcing change through (eg FMCG C-Level executives mandating digital and search budgets to their marketing teams). Whatever you do, KPIs need to be re-thought and shared.

What to do about it

1. Turn your account planners into digital strategists

Re-marry your account planners to not just what a brand is about and for whom but also to the customer journey and user experience. I deeply believe that following this simple approach to account planning is a good starting point for planners who are detached from the experience. I don’t see how a planner could follow that process and not add a tonne of insight and help sharpen the ‘digital’ thinking immediately.

2. Bring in the specialists; keep them upstream

To get ‘digital strategy’ cranking you need search, user experience (UX), technology, community, content (creation and syndication) and analytics smarts. From what I can tell, few agencies bring these skills upstream – most are in an ‘Experience’, ‘Digital’, ‘Analytics’ or ‘Production’ silo. People with these skills need to be able to influence the bigger picture as early as possible and then come in deep as the projects progress.

3. Make careers depend on it

If you want change, make everyone accountable for it. If you’re clear about what sort of ideas you want to make, track how many are presented then progressed. Track your own revenue and profit to the SKU: if you made coffee tables, I bet you’d know how much a screw costs, which sorts of tables were most profitable and most successful. I haven’t found many agencies with this level of analysis – the roles of IT and Finance in agencies need to be re-thought too (ie to drive the business not count it and fix it) but we’ll save that for another time.

4. Re-shape your teams

The advent of the Creative Technologist is interesting (read Marie-Claire Jenkins’ take here). It seems to be a very advertising-agency-like naming convention that at once calls out that they’re a specialist but also says, “Oh, it’s OK: they’re one of us.” I’m still on the fence with the title but dig the skillset. What I’m also interested in is seeing how they’re ‘used’. In some agencies, ‘creative teams’ are now 3: art director, copywriter and creative technologist. This seems forced and I wonder how much daily impact the technologist has in this setting where the original team they’re grafted onto will probably still want ownership of the creative idea and will have a longer-term career plan (for the duo).

The bigger question all of this asks though is where are the other team models that seem to work in companies like Google, in innovations companies, in start-ups?

Big Spaceship, a digital agency in DUMBO, New York, work (and sit) in teams of 6 or 7 (not in offices and cubicles like most New York agencies). Each team is autonomous and, I believe, relatively hierarchy-less. You can read about their approach in the Harvard Business Review.

There’s a tonne of research out there about organizational design – I wonder if legacy retainer models and status systems are preventing experimentation here?

5. New money, new ways of charging

There’s a lot of talk right now about agencies creating their own IP (products, systems) that they can sell so they’re less dependent on the head hour model. It will be interesting to see who truly invests and thrives in this rather than using it as fodder for journalists. Either way, moving beyond the head hour model is bound to happen – surely?

6. Re-think your ‘digital strategist’

If you have digital strategists, I believe it’s time to help them either develop into account planners, specialise in an area like community or UX, or even try them as a ‘creative’. There’s probably another 2-3 years before these changes naturally happen anyway. Every strategist is different so explore what they’re most interested in.


I’ve tried to make this as constructive as possible. Although I know it will offend some, please keep your comments constructive as well. Is it time to put the digital strategists out of their misery? What’s worked and failed for you?

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