2016: The Digital Agency

How many of you have read or seen “2001: A Space Odyssey”? The film was produced in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick, with Arthur C. Clarke penning the novel shortly thereafter. As a product of the 1980’s and 90’s, it was always one of those films (I didn’t like to read as a kid, but could watch a film) that seemed to me to be fairly accurate in retrospect and was always in the curriculum in school. We all remember HAL 9000, the computer that basically controlled the spaceship. So many parallels could be drawn with how things actually have played out, and over decades the film proved to be somewhat predictive of how certain facets of life have evolved stemming mostly from technology. I don’t know this for sure, but I have to think a lot of our technology pioneers were spurred by at least the premise of this film/novel. And for anyone with a creative bone in their body, it likely had to strike a nerve by opening minds to possibilities, to potential, and to what eventually “could be.” The digital agency model was the “could be” for me.

In late 2011, I took stock of what “could be” for me. I do this exercise every year with my wife – specifically on October 31 – where we set goals, talk about where we think our lives are heading, our careers, and much more. We literally jot down on a piece of paper, or an envelope or a napkin, what we want to do in the next year. We put it on the fridge to remind us every day what is most important to us individually and as a couple. We rip it up every subsequent October 31, and do it all over again.

What made 2011 different was that I very clearly stated that the agency model, and the model that includes all digital & marketing service providers, was terribly broken and outdated. I knew a little something about that, having worked on both the client and agency side and being frustrated that CMO’s  and CEO’s couldn’t get the service they wanted from agencies, and that agencies were too old and too slow (by and large) to really respond to a client’s needs effectively.

I came up with the model in my head of a virtual agency. Sprouse Marketing Group was born. It isn’t a new concept, and I don’t profess to have invented it. But, I do profess to helping carve out what an agency needs to look like in 2013, and certainly by 2016, and know for certain it is viable.

A few of the inefficiencies from the old model, and things I noted in my own head at the time, were:

1) In this age of technology, why would agencies only pull their talent pool and employees locally? Part of the agency “schtick” is that they market themselves to be best in breed when it comes to marketing or advertising talent. Best in breed by definition shouldn’t be, and can’t be, ever confined locally.

2) In this age of networking and social media, the same questions apply. If an agency has a really good candidate who is truly “best in breed”, why would you not hire that person because they live somewhere else? Best and brightest people are best and brightest, you can’t confine it geographically. Further, in terms of networking, there are about 50,000 ways to get to know someone. If you don’t know someone, I guarantee someone else you know does.

3) Speed. Most agencies are notoriously slow. The speed of business today is far from slow. I know firms (PR, marketing, ad firms, etc.) who don’t respond to emails in 48 hours…during weekdays. That doesn’t fly anymore.

4) Culture. I’m huge on company culture (one of our clients in particular puts culture at a premium, and I wholeheartedly agree with them). The only thing was…if you agree with #’s 1-3 above, an agency’s culture today or in recent years is really beholden to local talent, those who are deemed to be best in breed in one or a few markets, and then exposing them to the exact same culture of complacency that doesn’t really work anymore.

What I believe, and know to have worked and will work, is the following:

1) Strong leadership always wins. But leaders nowadays have to know how to lead and inspire from afar. They have to know how to communicate over the phone, over Skype, over email. In-person leadership is valuable, but I would say we’ve tipped past the point that it is THE make or break quality of a company or agency. If you can inspire – and operate – across multiple time zones, it makes your life easier…NOT more difficult.

2) Best in breed employees means best in breed anywhere. I always want the best people whether they’re in Seattle, Florida or London. I don’t care what time zone you’re in. And with so much information out there, you know who is best in breed and who’s not. There’s actually no excuse to NOT know this and not know who you’re teaming up with from a talent perspective.

3) Relationships matter more than ever before. This might seem counter-intuitive to my points above. But, no one said the move to the 2016 Digital Agency was easy. When you build trust and a culture with a team of people that at their core share the same goals, work ethic and values, it is possible to prove this. I would argue that relationships are MORE important than ever before, not less. People like to say social media has watered-down real relationships. I wouldn’t say the opposite of that statement is true; but, how we communicate has just changed the game. One person that works with me I’ve never met in person. But, this person came highly recommend from a very trusted source, we spent time getting to know each other, I spent a lot of time doing research on this person, spending time figuring out if that person could work in our type of environment, talk to this person regularly, email them every day, etc. It works.

4) Traveling the world playing tennis years ago, I always remembered thinking “gosh, I wish I could work with this person even though they’re from Australia.” One of the guys I traveled with also with a business degree who I really liked was from Canberra. In the 90’s, having a relationship with someone professionally wasn’t really possible. Now it is. I think like-minded people are genuinely attracted to each other and technology has made it such that geography is no longer a barrier. If you like somebody, and you share the same core values, the digital agency of tomorrow is possible. It means you have to be able to identify talent and cultural fit. But it’s possible.

Being the best at what you do, and being a terrific cultural fit, trumps WHERE you do what you do. Every. Single. Time.

I firmly believe that smaller boutiques, like the one I started and so many others I know of the same ilk that have cropped up, is where the marketing and technology services business is headed, and what the new agency will eventually look like. Instead of competing in your local market for talented people, you’re competing without boundaries, and you’re looking for people with the discipline to do great things and be receptive to leadership from afar in some cases.

What do you think? Is the digital marketing, PR and agency services business fundamentally changing how I’ve described? I believe it is. Interested to hear your take.