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4 digital agency chiefs on brand success in the connected age


4 digital agency chiefs on brand success in the connected age


Looking for insight on today’s top trends, brands and the current communications landscape, Kate Richling from the editorial team working on ‘The SoDA Report’ reached out to four of the best the international digital agency world has to offer. Here’s what they had to say.


Kate Richling: What does the ‘connected age’ mean to you, and how would you describe today’s communications landscape?

Joe Olsen, CEO and founder, Phenomblue: Until the late 90s, we participated in one-way discussions with brands at a cadence they controlled. Technology exploded, seeping into every crevice of our existence and fundamentally, and irreparably, changing human behaviour. The digital age was about mass creation. Then we evolved, and our ecosystem became a conversation that happens at the will of people – drastically changing our communication patterns and interaction models.

Today, everything is connected, and everything is on. There are more ways to interact with everyone and everything, and infinite patterns of information exchange. Interactions require intent and purpose, as every interaction with a company or brand is a chance to increase, or decrease, the value of the brand or the success of the business. But in the connected age, brands and companies are struggling to focus, to choose, to produce activity with results.

Michael Lebowitz, CEO and founder, Big Spaceship: Today, we have persistent connectivity between nearly everything, and certainly everything will be connected before too long as all of our objects start to have some sort of basic intelligence and internet connectivity built into them. The ‘Six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ has extended, and the six degrees of separation between everyone has fully manifested now. We talked about it for a long time, but now I think the web has really been rewired from a focus on pages to now revolve around people – so now everybody is connected to everybody else or can be. Companies are connected to each other in new ways. I think the challenge for the longest time was how to get things connected. Now, the challenge is how to make sense of it, how to bring strategy to it, how to organise it and how to not drown in it.

It’s well established from a communications perspective, we’re in an age of abundance. We’re no longer looking for ways to break out of a very limited number of methods for communicating with people. Now, we have an endless amount of ways to communicate, which forces more strategy… more thoughtfulness. It forces brands and organisations that want, and need, to communicate to be more intentional and to have real purpose. Purpose drives strategy, and strategy drives the decision-making, and decision-making leads to everything you actually do. I think it has to be an incredibly intentional time. But at the same time, we must balance that intentionality with new ways that allow us like never before – lighter weight, less expensive ways to see what works and then act on those opportunities as you see them resonate in the world, or pull the plug on them without investing a huge amount of effort or money if they are not resonating.

Stephen Foxworthy, strategy director, Reactive: Now, more than ever, a holistic view of customer touch points, both digital and offline, is required to ensure a seamless customer experience. Digital may be disrupting whole industries, but it’s still important to understand the customer journey and lifecycle in order to add value. The ability to manage customer experiences across a range of platforms and touch points allow us to provide a more personalised, timely and relevant experience.

Eric Moore, managing director, Huge: To us, the connected age means we have the opportunity to connect multiple ‘things’ to each other in order to create more valuable experiences for people. More often than not, it’s about connecting a user-to-data-to-context. It’s forcing us to evolve what we do, in terms of the number of devices and interfaces, and scenarios we design for, but it’s also allowing us to bring so much more power to bear in creating more contextually relevant experiences that can truly be helpful in people’s lives, and make users love using a brand or product.


KR: What’s the most important thing to a brand’s success today?

JO: A strong brand is an insurance policy – it does not ensure that every choice will be successful, but it’s a great hedge if things go sideways. That insurance policy provides the foundation for market position, outside perception and inside perception – three key areas of brand building. A good brand can aid in the effectiveness and efficiency of brand building and a poor one can hinder the process or prevent it all together. I think the most important thing for success is to design and implement a focused, efficient and effective effort for building their brand… one handshake at a time.

ML: Being extremely aware of the disruptors in your category. If I were a rental car company, I would pay very close to attention to Uber and Lyft, but also SilverCar, which is an upstart rental service where you can reserve nice cars for reasonable prices through your mobile phone. Brands need to pay attention to these disruptors not because they are suddenly going to reach a level of scale, but because they’re driving a lot of the innovations happening today in the area of customer experience and in the equality of customer services. Big companies haven’t really been challenged to provide that level of personal and frictionless customer service.

With modern, younger companies, if you email them saying you have a problem, they solve that problem and that’s what builds loyalty. Every interaction I have with a brand, whether it’s an interaction with a digital product or service, whether it’s a social post, a website or campaign of any kind – all of those interactions ladder up to what a brand really is. Our philosophy is ‘every interaction matters’, so how do you behave according to your purpose and your goals in every interaction you can control.

EM: Staying true to who you are. Today’s successful brands recognise their true brand capability, which ensures two things: elasticity and authenticity. Brands like Google and Uber know who they are and have a clear vision and purpose that allows them to both grow their business and audiences, while staying true to themselves.

SF: Brands only succeed through their customers, so customer satisfaction remains one of the most important aspects. However, digital media such as social networks make a poor customer experience so easy to share. Brands need to be more vigilant about poor customer sentiment, and respond quickly to avoid service disasters quickly going viral.


KR: How would you describe ‘digital’ within the context of today?

SF: I believe that digital technology now underpins so much business communication and transactional activity that ‘digital’ is now simply business. Our approach to digital strategy has always been to identify the role digital technology plays in delivering a business strategy, or transforming it.

EM: Digital is like the air we breathe. It’s as essential to our lives today as electricity. We take it for granted, but we can’t live without it. We used to call things ‘digital’ to differentiate them from physical products and experiences, but that boundary is increasingly being eliminated. Digital is an experience, a product, a tool, a language, and an extension of ourselves, permeating almost every part of our lives. It’s more a way of being rather than a project or thing, and in many cases, distinguishing something as “digital” is becoming less and less relevant.

JO: Digital is our behaviour. It’s the way we interact with each other and everything around us. Saying we need a ‘digital plan’ is no different than saying we need a plan for how we interact with people and how people interact with us.

ML: There are agencies that are focused on digital and social, but we’re not because we see it all as a series of interactions that have to create value for customers and potential customers. So why is there a mobile agency versus a web agency versus a social agency? What you really need is a partner that can understand your business goals, and how you really exist in the world. You need a partner who can leverage those things, starting with digital and social, but extending out from there. I think ultimately what people are talking about is a combination of channels, media, platforms, and more importantly but less understood, types of human behaviour that lead to more meaningful engagement with customers.


KR: What related trends do you see affecting your clients this year, this month, right now?

EM: The conventional answer is social, mobile, responsive design, blah, blah, blah. But the underlying ‘trend’ is the rapid change in expectations users have for brands. Digital is the medium that is accelerating the change, driving the shift in expectations and transforming the fundamental nature of the traditional customer-brand relationship.

JO: The single biggest challenge right now is lack of strategic clarity and tactical effectiveness. Today, every experience matters and there are no silver bullets. The economics of the connected world are crippling many brands and businesses. They’re struggling to keep up, while implementing as much technology as possible at every turn, trying to get that silver bullet for success. But there is no bullet, and technology will continue to foster compelling solutions for an audience focused on shiny objects and brands struggling to keep pace with pop culture. As the connected age settles in, I think the most important thing you can do as a marketing, advertising and communications leader is put relatable goals down on paper and then devise a strategy and identify the tactics that will allow you to keep your head down and see the forest through the trees. 

ML: The big trends that affect every client I speak to aren’t really trends at all. They centre around the pain of being stuck inside of silos. Our clients use us a lot of the time to be the horizontal to their vertical. We’re not designed to mirror structures like lots of departmental companies. We’re much more elastic and able to help cut across those silos – let us figure how to sift through it all and bring things together to create maximum value for customers. 

SF: The biggest trends we’re seeing are an increased focus on holistic customer experience across channels, with personalised communications and content becoming much more important. Lifecycle marketing, marketing automation and personalisation technology are now allowing us to deliver different experiences to individual customers more effectively.

Alongside this trend, the rise in easily accessible business intelligence and analytics tools for marketers are allowing much greater insight to be extracted from digital platforms. The ability to generate insights, hypotheses and strategies from this data is now a critical skill that needs to be developed within all businesses.


KR: If you had one mantra to give the people in charge of brands today, what would it be?

ML: When thinking about your customers, always give more than you expect in return. From a very simple, micro level, if you look at it interaction-for-interaction – ask yourself are you saving people time, are you asking more of their cognitive resources than what you’re giving back in value – it’s not a strategy, but a paradigm to live by. If every person in your company thought that way, you’d be an extremely successful company.

SF: Digital capability is the life-blood of modern business. If you don’t have skilled and experienced people in-house to deliver digital transformation for your business, look to partner with agencies or consultants not just to do work for you, but to help you and your people skill-up. Things are only going to change faster. 

JO: Results over activity. It’s important for brands to remember that almost all agencies operate from briefs, and their ‘strategy’ will assume the challenge or task at hand is a bonafide ask to begin with. This work is rarely tied to clear and concise measurements and goals. It’s execution and tactics, essentially the last step in the process. Skipping to the end is a sure-fire way to create false positives, and unsustainable success. Be fair to your internal partners, your employees and your agencies. Set goals. Define measurements. Identify and prioritise tactics, then issue briefs.

EM: I would have answered this question the same way 20 years ago, and the answer’s still true today: take more risks.



This article appears in ‘The SoDA Report’ by SoDA, The Digital Society. The full report can be viewed here.

About the interviewer: Kate Richling is vice president of marketing at Phenomblue, a connected communications firm. Previously, she created and executed public relations and social media strategies for Creighton University, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, the City of Omaha and The Field Museum. Her stories have been seen in The New York TimesWiredGood Morning America and USA Today.


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