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If your agency has a head of digital, you’re working with the wrong agency


If your agency has a head of digital, you’re working with the wrong agency


Brian Vella, CEO of DT, tries out his hypothesis around what certain job titles say about an organisation.


As an industry, we’ve seen for some time senior digital leadership appointments. At first this would feel natural given acceleration in technology and changes in consumer behavior, however it raises some bigger questions. Questions because we’re in the middle of the most dynamic era of marketing yet and the value agencies bring has never been more important.

I have a hypothesis. If your agency has a head of digital, chief digital officer, head of innovation or anything of the nature, that agency (and your business) is in dangerous territory.

Digital today is ubiquitous. It runs through every aspect of consumer/customer behavior. So it equally has to run seamlessly through your agency. It can’t be one person’s responsibility, or even one department’s responsibility. Agencies that appoint such roles need to remind themselves to not forget about digital. It’s the difference between thinking digital or being digital. And in today’s world you wholly need to be digital to move the needle on brands and business.

Tom Goodwin from Havas Media recently wrote: “Digital transformation is not about a digital department… it is not the role of any additional unit to take your company from irrelevance to leadership. It’s a philosophy that all must adopt”. He went on to say, “You don’t need a head of digital or a digital department. In fact you should banish the word digital as an entirely redundant word”.

While there are many other variables (perhaps another post) the agencies that have a higher chance of delivering relevant and impactful work to their clients have an entire workforce who appreciate and understand the modern consumer. And that means living and breathing digital behavior. By having a head of digital you’re essentially saying to the rest of the agency it’s not their responsibility. At its worst this department will also be relatively small, so the majority of the agency isn’t thinking this way first. A huge barrier to getting the right type of outcomes. No doubt many will challenge this though – unless deep digital experience can be credibly presented as baked into an agency, it should be questioned. For broader evidence of this take a look at the 2015 list of Most Innovative Companies. 70% of the top 10 companies have digital in their DNA. They were born that way. Agencies exist to be innovative.

Fast Company recently described six rules to unleash the innovative potential of people. The key word here is people and it’s plural. Everyone has the opportunity to think digitally and indeed everyone should be. Systems, symbols and signals should all support this.

In essence what I’m suggesting is to fervently avoid traditional versus online marketing. While many will scoff and assert, ‘Of course we don’t do that!’, in reality it’s still very common. Head of digital roles are Exhibit A. It also comes through in the press releases that archetypally follow agencies work. “The campaign was supported by digital, social….” This is Exhibit B. Its channel thinking at its best and you don’t have to read marketing news for long to witness it today.

While the risk is high now, fast-forward a few years as the Internet of Things takes shape. Having a partner that intuitively understands this world and how to leverage it will be incredibly important. You should be able to talk to anyone in your agency and have a strong, digitally literate conversation.

We believe that to truly connect with consumers the modern CMO thinks equally in terms of reaching customers, building relationships and meaningful experiences (Reach, Relationships and Depth). Critically, digital interactions run through every part of the customer journey. It’s therefore everyone’s responsibility. Of course, it’s equally not just about digital, or technology; the timeless skill in understanding human behavior and creativity will always be important. But what’s more important is having both.

So, when next evaluating your agency question whether a head of digital or CDO role exists. If it does think carefully about what it suggests about their culture, what they value and believe in, and their ability to do work that truly connects. If they do exist, perhaps ask them if they sit next to the head of print or head of TV.

Brian Vella


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