The work of a digital marketing agency has changed dramatically over the past several years. Agency projects now extend far beyond simple website designthe work continually ventures into the realms of content and brand experience. Digital agencies have started to play an expanded strategic role for clients, and designers now have access to a higher-level audience that is empowered to make larger and more powerful decisions. Finally, the teams that execute the work have evolved to include an entirely new generation of designers who have grown up entirely in the digital age.
These changes have striking implications for the digital marketing industry. They create the context for exciting new possibilities, while simultaneously raising new challenges.
Overhauling Today’s Agencies
As recently as two or three years ago, digital marketing agencies like Organic worked primarily to create digital wrappers for pre-existing online and offline content. The starting assumption for any project was that we were creating a new website or reskinning an existing one. The client’s marketing department supplied content drawn from brochures, events, and white papers; our job was to refresh the brand and bring it up to date from a user-experience perspective. For many agencies this kind of engagement is still typical.
However, over the past few years, Organic’s clients have begun to look to us for richer, more complex responses to their marketing challenges. They increasingly recognize that the online platform demands its own original, unique content, not just repurposed brochure-wareand they’re making budgets available for us to create original, unique methods of experiencing this content. At the same time, our clients see us as playing a more strategic role in their business and are willing to reconsider preconceived notions of what a digital marketing campaign should look or “feel” like.
We now begin many projects not with an assumption, but with a question: Is creating another website even the right thing to do? Consumers don’t talk about and experience brands solely within the context of our clients’ websites, but everywhere they go, online and off. We recognize that there will always be a hub site; a brand needs a permanent home. But we are also focusing on ways to follow the brand conversation wherever it goes. We encourage our clients to think beyond micro-sites and embrace the idea of micro-experiences: widgets and applications that can be detached from the home site and syndicated across the Web, downloaded to desktops, synched with mobile devices, in order to give the client a presence on blogs, community sites, social networks, and even in the consumer’s own pocket.
For one Organic client, Bank of America, we created widgets for the iPhone, including an ATM locator and a mortgage-comparison engine, that can be syndicated easily to other websites and even pushed into a banner space to meet customers and prospects anywhere they go.
For fitness chain Equinox, we built an application that allows members to manage their entire experiencefrom booking reservations for a spinning class to managing personal training appointments to reviewing account informationall within a richly branded environment. Members can download the app to their desktop, sync it with Outlook, pull it into their mobile phone, and ultimately make it a seamless and essential part of their daily routine.
But with these rapidly evolving practices and capabilities come new challenges. As digital marketing agencies have moved beyond site redesigns and banner ads to take on an expanded role in branding, our proposals increasingly require executive-level signoff from a vice president or chief marketing officer. And while some executives can talk comfortably about XML data, tagging, and other modern user-experience concepts, many don’t speak that language, even if they interact regularly with the functionality itself. The upshot? We must make complex digital marketing concepts stand on their own andmore importanthelp executives understand exactly how our solutions will address their brand objectives.
A New Way to Sell New Ideas
In the Web 1.0 days, static jpegs were the standard “design language” used to describe an online experience. To fully understand a proposed design, the audience had to be aware of common cues and formatslike knowing that underlined text would take the user to another pagebut this was never really a problem with the people we were presenting to, typically technology directors, webmasters, and CIOs. Even so, much was left to the imaginationand to the storytelling ability of the person presenting the imagery.
Now not only are we presenting to an executive audience that’s often less versed in technical concepts and cues, but the ideas themselves are also much more sophisticated. Our clients want real innovation and new, different ways to connect with their customers. To meet their needs, we develop concepts that engage and involve consumers over a span of time to create a more valuable and relevant bidirectional interaction. We build custom software applications that our clients can offer to customers, providing useful functionality within a branded environment. We create online games that provide a different experience every time they are played. We build digital resources that will be used differently by each consumer. We can no longer think, or design, in single frames or snapshotstrying to convey the full richness of interactive user experiences like these through flat words and images would be an exercise in futility. So what do we do? Instead of getting the client to imagine what we’re talking about, we put it in their hands, with rapidly built functional prototypes that demonstrate our ideas in more powerful, dynamic ways.
Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia came to Organic with an RFP for Marthapedia, their ultimate online-research destination. While the traditional approach would have been to focus on selling our concept before beginning creative work, we recognized that in this case the two were inseparablethat a certain amount of creative work would be required in order to get the contract signed. We began with two intense weeks of on-the-street research into how people currently use the company’s contenthow they clip it, mark it up, and pull it into their livesand came up with unique ideas for extending Marthapedia’s usability and making it more functionally relevant. To communicate how it would actually look and work online, we then built a high-fidelity, functional prototype. Not only did this help us win the pitch and arrive at a statement of work, but the prototype also continued to provide a model for the early stages of the project itself.
In earlier years, without a specific method for building prototypes, we had to force their production through the same resource-intensive, relatively slow-moving process used for actual client work. Now, as prototyping has become more central to our work and to our sales process, we have created a more rapid and fluid approach with a sharpened focus on specific goals, such as getting technology involved early in the creative process to validate and push our thinking. Rather than driving to complete polished pieces, we seek to create a format for internal exploration and experimentation en route to a working prototype.
Previously, much of the challenge in prototyping lay in overcoming internal political and logistical hurdles: the six to 10 people required to complete a prototype represented a sizeable commitment even for an agency as large as Organic, and could seem like an unnecessary extravagance. Now we understand both the necessity of prototype building to support and sell today’s more complex design solutions, and the increased flexibility in resourcing and management that makes it more feasible. Armed with broader skill sets and more powerful tools, we can complete prototypes with a team half the size of what was previously requireda much easier sell for internal resource managers. Hand-selected personneldesigners, developers, musicians, filmmakerscan gather around a single screen to work more quickly, producing more detailed output than ever before.
The result, a fully functional prototype with interaction and movement, brings the client much closer to the actual experience that we’re trying to sell: the visceral reaction to the speed of motion; to the sound and feel of the build; to the way the prototype reacts to a user’s input and the emotional response it elicits. Such things can be executed in any number of different ways, and our success in selling the concept depends on convincingand showingthe client that we can deliver exactly the right version to reflect and support their brand.
Beyond helping us define our thinking and sell it more effectively, prototypes offer another compelling advantage: They’re a great tool for our clients to use internally, to socialize our proposals once we’re no longer around to explain and answer questions. We don’t have to rely on the storytelling or presentation skills of people on the client side; the prototype makes it simple for anyone to have a real, firsthand experience of the proposed project. And it often gets them excited enough to broaden the scope of their own thinking. Far from an extravagance, in fact, I’d argue that prototypes are becoming an indispensable sales tool, and prototyping an essential skill set for any digital marketing agency.
The increased importance of prototypes in communicating and selling our ideas also reflects another important development over the past two to three years: the critical role played by newcomers we like to call “digital natives.”
How the Latest Breed of Creatives are Changing the Game
Although everyone at agencies like Organic does their best to keep pace with the ever-changing digital marketing landscape, there is a new group of creatives entering the workforce that already have digital in their DNA. Members of the millennial generationor “digital natives”have joined creative teams everywhere and are having a profound and wide-reaching impact on our business, not only in helping create prototypes, but also in providing fresh insight and creativity to fuel continued innovation in digital marketing.
As executives call on digital marketing agencies to play a more strategic role, our ability to sell bigger ideas makes it possible for us to offer contributions that move beyond the pixel and into other environments.
For these young professionals, digital isn’t part of the mixit is the mix. Armed with a deeply intuitive sense of what’s now possible and how to make it happen, these newcomers are helping us to both broaden our own thinking and sell these ideas more effectively to our clients.
Needless to say, like many senior-level creatives, I am a “digital immigrant.” When I left college, the latest Mac was the “Classic” and we used the PMT, or photo mechanical transfer, to output artwork and communicate our ideas. For digital immigrants, our passion for digital has evolved on the job and we have essentially learned in real-time.
On the other hand, digital natives arrive fully formed, taught through an evolved curriculum that includes core design principles and a broad range of skills and technology know-how in video, audio, and interactive media. Inherent in their training is a focus on flexibilitythe willingness to pick up new tools or devices to tackle any marketing problem that their faced with. They’re also very brand savvy, always paying close attention to creating a consistent tone across multiple channels. What’s most remarkable is that they think of design not just in terms of static images, but also of time and narrative. Motion is in their genes.
I don’t mean to imply that digital natives represent a new breed of superdesigners, or that they are destined to supplant their digital-immigrant coworkers. Digital facility can be both a blessing and a curse, and digital natives do have some challenges to work through. In college they are often pushed quickly into execution, and this tendency can sometimes short-circuit the design process in agency life. Like all rookies they need the seasoning and judgment that comes only through firsthand, on-the-job experience. They have as much to learn from digital immigrants as we do from them.
Casting a New Generation of Creative Teams
The presence of two distinct work cultures within an agency calls for a thoughtful approach to staffing. One scenario is all too familiar: An agency consists of teams who have, for the most part, worked together for several years, becoming close-knit in the process. Then a new generation arrives, and its members are assigned to new teams of their own. With no opportunity for assimilation, the two sides begin to see each other as rivals, healthy competition devolves into conflict, and the situation quickly becomes unproductive.
But this type of culture clash is not inevitable. The strongest creative teams usually include members from both generations, each bringing a different sensibility and skill set to the table. Digital-immigrant designers tend to focus more on conceptualization, whereas digital natives pay more attention to the breadth of what can be done with the concept. Senior creatives often feel a burst of energy in working with millennials, as they discover new tools for bringing their concepts to life. In return digital natives receive much-needed mentorship from their more seasoned colleagues for things that can’t be learned in a classroomsuch as how to deal with that arbitrary “no” to a good idea, how to sell harder without crossing lines, and how to preserve the integrity of their concepts while still pleasing the client. As we exchange insights and challenge each other’s creative responses to things, we connect through a shared love of design and an appetite to learn new skills that produce bigger and better work.
The broadening range of skills within the agencyfrom the brand-design and offline-marketing experience held by many digital immigrants to the cutting-edge digital skills of the nativesis vital in a business where, any given week, our clients might ask for deliverables ranging from A to Z. It goes without saying that digital natives, the Swiss Army Knife of creatives, are invaluable in this work. But equally important is the agility with which the agency management applies these resources to the work at hand.
At Organic we take a dynamic approach to staffing that reflects the constantly changing nature of our work. The creative group in our New York office consists of five defined teams, each led by a creative director and comprising a typical structure of assistant creative director, art director, senior designer, designer, copywriter, and motion designer. Rather than remaining fixed, though, these teams provide a fluid pool of talent that can be reassembled to meet a broad spectrum of requirements. Creative directors have visibility into each other’s work and swap resources laterally to build the ideal mini-team for each specific projecta copywriter from one group, an art director from another, a designer from a third. We think of it more as “casting” than resourcing: bringing together the ideal mix not only of skills, but also of personalities, to deliver the best work. Is there a creative visionary on the team? Is there a driver who’ll make sure the deadlines are hit? What are all the different ways we can bring people together to create different responses?
Once a project team has been assembledbut long before we start thinking about tools and executionwe kick off the project with a workshop to foster collaboration and conceptual brainstorming. The first step is to sequester ourselves in a room with no digital accesswhiteboard and pens onlyand develop concepts to establish the creative and thematic direction of the brand experience. We use a team-based approach to challenge and refine each other’s ideas, and draw on methods developed with the help of an outside facilitator to keep these sessions consistent and fruitful, while encouraging speed and creative ideation. Once we’ve agreed on three concepts, we move into a story-board/sketch phase to see how they might start to be appliedstill in written form only, and very loose. We also start to do background research: What is out there already? What platforms, software, and partners could we leverage to support our thinking? From these workshops we pull the strongest ideas and present them either to a larger internal team for validation, or, depending on the project, directly to the client. This typically produces a couple of front-runners to start visualization and exploration with. Finally, one or two ideas move on to prototyping.
Ultimately, of course, such internal agency dynamics are less interesting to the client than the results we deliver. As executives call on digital marketing agencies to play a more strategic role, our ability to sell bigger ideas makes it possible for us to offer contributions that move beyond the pixel and into other environments. When I look at some of the solutions that we’ve done in the past year, I see mobile applications, social networks, video concepts that connect 30-second clips to short films, and digital signage in Time Square that flows in the retail environment. Digital natives, rapid prototypes, and a broadening sense of the potential of digital marketing have helped us come this far. Where the industry goes next remains to be seenbut I look forward to finding out.
Conor Brady is the executive creative director at Organic. His client work at Organic includes Bank of America, iVillage, Sony Ericsson, and NBC. Brady joined Organic from Razorfish, where he was a creative director since 2001 working with brands including Conde Nast, Taj Hotels, Ford Motor Company, NBC, Nielsen Media, and the redesign of the New York Times website.
©2008 ACM 1072-5220/08/0700 $5.00
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2008 ACM, Inc.