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The Exchange Lab

Agencies unite to figure out digital's future - and it looks human

By counting every dollar, making data human, thinking customer first and finding unicorn-shaped employees, independent agencies are solving industry problems. A Campaign US-The Exchange Lab hosted dinner debated this and more...

"The biggest opportunity for marketers is the chance to get as close to understanding the user as possible. We need to stop talking impressions and cookies, and start talking about the human."

Vivian Nantembe is the senior relationship director at The Exchange Lab and was speaking at a lively and honest conversation during SXSW in Austin, Texas. 

How to lead the next revolution in digital underpinned the discussion – as independent media and creative agencies discussed the opportunities facing them – and the barriers they need to overcome to achieve their agency’s goals. Programmatic advertising pioneers The Exchange Lab hosted the event alongside Campaign US.

Held to account
It was widely agreed that accountability and lack of transparency is one of the biggest issues facing independent agencies. Anders Wahlquist, CEO at B-Reel described the "immense" reach in digital as the opportunity and the challenge.

"We used to have four channels. Now you can reach anyone in the world.  But that is also the challenge – getting it right." 

The Exchange Lab’s director of strategy and marketplace solutions Wade Kuiken-Rogers agreed that the the biggest threat to the industry is the same as the opportunities – people must use and understand the data properly. "We’ve got to make sure we’re leveraging the right people and opportunities," he said.

It’s about telling the full story and not being fragmented when it comes to digital, said Ali Plonchak, managing director of digital strategy and integration at Cross Media (left): "There’s a need to stop measuring in siloes, we need to measure across everything."

Sid Lee’s global head of strategy development San Rahi believes agencies need to focus on "quantifying the meaningful things" for clients, as he believes the industry has been good at quantifying the non-meaningful things in the past.

Some indie agencies have full transparency with clients on spend. Kevin Kelly, CEO at Bigbuzz said: "We have to tell clients every month where every dollar went. We have to tell them exactly what they’re paying for. We have to be accountable."

But Barkley’s director of content Aniesia Williams asked if there is a need for accountability on both sides of the table. Williams questioned if there is a need for clients to be more accountable.  

Educating brands about digital
Clients look to agencies to help them succeed in digital but some still don’t understand the medium, according to Tracy Arrington, EVP, Media & Operations at Camp

"I think the word ‘digital’ is still intimidating on the brand-side. They are paralysed because they don’t understand at grass-roots level how it works. We spend a lot of time breaking bad habits. There’s a lot to be said about being human in the digital space."

McGarrah Jessee’s media director Keri Bender (right) agreed some clients are still looking for a "silver bullet" to get them where they need to be.

"Clients ask how much to put in TV, digital or social –  but it’s for us to explain how a customer interacts with your brand, and there is value in exposure and interaction. It’s not just about putting money in search because it’s most efficient, for example".

Rahi explains that one of the biggest challenges is to let go of the definition ‘digital’. "Clients have to show up everywhere with commitment," he explained.

Kelly agreed that the term ‘digital’ can be a distraction: "We’re in the business of marketing and advertising is one of our tools. I’d love to lose ‘digital’."

But Code and Theory co-founder and CEO Dan Gardner thinks digital-first in his business: "We call ourselves a digital agency and we’re not shy about it. We say that because digital is the first way we approach problems. We live in a digital world, people wake up, they look at their phones first and they sleep with the phone by their head. Most people in their day work that way and that’s mostly how we solve our client’s problems."

Williams added that "new and shiny objects" can be a distraction for clients: "It’s about being very clear and targeted about what you’re doing and knowing what the overall goal is. Are we straying away from that because we’re attracted to something shiny?"

Arrington added that sometimes clients need their agency partners to have a strong voice and to say ‘no’ sometimes: "Saying no is important and can set you apart but take time to say why you’re saying no and offer alternatives." 

Solve the problem, don’t sell the solution
Achieving speed, style and scale in digital presents challenges. Agency leaders described why it’s difficult but possible with the right people, partners and processes.

Gardner explained that scaling creativity is a big question they grapple with and strive for every day: "We don’t want to sell or service the same problems. It’s about the best people finding the right solutions for a particular problem."

"What is the best possible way to tell the story – start there," suggested Imre’s senior programme director Ben Ruoff. 

Kelly agreed and explained the right solution is medium agnostic. 

"Maybe we’re not even solving the right problem. We have a job ahead of us to hire the right people, tackle the right problems and create the best solutions." 

Finding those ‘unicorns’
"Clients hire your culture, your culture is your people," said Rahi.

Sourcing the talent to navigate the fast-changing, opportunity-laden digital landscape, is a shared challenge for independent creative and media agencies.

Ben Arnold, managing director, US, at We Are Social (above) describes these talented people as ‘unicorns’.

"In our agency, we use the term ‘unicorns’, they are designers, they are strategists and more, they have a mix of skills and are extremely valuable. I’m increasingly looking for this talent".

Gardner approaches recruitment with a key principle: "Hire the right person, not fill the role."  

Mother New York strategist Evan Carpenter explained that it’s important to "keep an eye out for people that ‘sparkle’.

"You want people with ambition but also who show they can keep that ambition up – even when agency life can be challenging. If a program starts off with all the dreams in the world, but ends up being very challenging, you need people who keep it going."

Nantembe explained it’s also about finding people who understand and work towards the client’s goals, not just their’s or the agency’s:  "Every decision you make about this campaign has to align with my client’s goals."

"It’s an exciting time for independent agencies to work closer together to solve common issues and move forward as an industry."

Williams added that the talent must be diverse: "We need more diverse people at the table in creating advertising. There isn’t just one customer and we must reflect that as an industry. We could do much better in this industry." 

"As an educator as well as a ad professional, I’m beating the drum about hard work and being more concerned with how you think and solve problems. The only constant in this business is change. Human beings resistant to change – they want to be comfortable. Need to be able to say I don’t know how to do that but i’m going to find out how," explained Arrington.

"You can have breadth of knowledge but you can’t have depth in every way. That is what the industry is seeking – teach kids how to think and not just check boxes."

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