A Third Way to Transformation: The True Digital Agency

by Michael Colombo

The recent push to accelerate digital initiatives inside of large companies has highlighted a crisis of execution inside many businesses. CEOs have asked their teams, “Given the resources and a top-down mandate, could you deliver faster?” In other words, if the excuses were all removed, would that make a difference? Can transformation be accelerated? And the answer, in many cases, has been, “No.” Given the internal inertia inside a large company, this is not surprising. But it’s not only corporate culture that stands in the way of change. It’s also the vendors.

Most CMOs and CIOs really only have two options when confronting complex digital initiatives. They can turn to their traditional agency partners, who have attempted to marry technology to the legacy brand and advertising capabilities within their portfolios. This, though, is a dead end. While working across agency silos in order to deliver compelling digital experiences can be difficult on an average day, doing it under an accelerated timeline is a constraint most agency constellations would find impossible to overcome. While each discipline needed to deliver a differentiated experience at speed may be buried somewhere within these constellations, they almost never come together in the product.

The other options are the management consultants and systems integrators. Long known to deliver slideware and offshore software factories at exorbitant rates, consultants and integrators are now trying to fashion themselves as cutting edge digital agencies. They want to sell execution because that’s what their client’s need more than ever, but the timelines they move on are close to infinite. And the quality of the experience that they deliver is sophomoric at its best. They may be able to deliver brilliant business plans or factories full of developers, but they’ve never been further from delivering what modern users expect to find in world class experiences.

That’s because delivering quality products at speed is extremely difficult. It requires another option. A true digital agency. One purpose-built for this do-or-die moment. These agencies, although few, have efficiencies built into their business. They are focused less on billable hours, and more on the goal of transformation, breakthrough experiences. Delivering experiences is the beating, bleeding heart of their business model. And to execute on it, they’ve had to develop a unique set of hybrid skills.

Old agencies built many of the brands that we love. The true digital agency builds many of the products that we love.

The traditional agency model, built around the ad, was a parochial calling. Get the creative right, and the rest fell into place. The true digital agency model, though, is different. That’s because consistently delivering world class experiences across multiple business domains is an order of magnitude more difficult. It requires every skill in business: Strategy, Design, Technology, Communication, Project Management, Execution, Measurement. It’s a small miracle every time it works.

The graphic design skills that formed the foundation of brand and advertising agencies now need to find their way into an interface. Designing a product that connects emotionally with its users requires a Ph.D.-level knowledge of the dance between design and psychology. The true digital agency has had to learn how the shape of a thing impacts our initial feelings about it, our memory of it, our enjoyment in using it. These agencies understand the nuance in experiences that reveal themselves. Entice us. Surprise us. They understand what make products beautiful.

Just as a beautiful piece of music has a mathematical definition for our emotional response, so do the products we use. But the math is abstract. Executing on it takes practice and eventual mastery in order to sum all of the parts. There is no easy way to craft uniquely relevant, organic, and memorable experiences. There is no easy way to set new standards. Consultants using sticky notes and flipcharts are not on a path to beauty. Imagine traversing analytics and interviews and A/B tests to arrive at a cathedral, or a novel, or a symphony? They can be used to inform requirements, but the end-to-end experience that a company delivers needs to be a symphony driven by the vision of a few and the belief of the many that digital interactions will define our relationships for at least the next generation.

Old agencies built many of the brands that we love. The true digital agency builds many of the products that we love. And to build those products, they need to master more than design. They need to traverse enterprise infrastructure like its old, yet familiar terrain. They need to imagine the new and figure out where it merges seamlessly into the old. They need to rethink almost everything that’s powering the experience. This is not merely “consulting” or “systems integration” or “UX design.” It’s not advice or manufacturing. It’s invention.

Imagine what it takes to build a Tesla. It means rethinking our entire concept of a car. The experience of driving and owning it. The way it’s engineered from the floorboards to the moonroof. This is how George Blankenship, a VP at Tesla put it back in 2013:

“Everything we do is difficult. And why is it so difficult? It’s because everything we do is impossible to everybody else. When you think about what Tesla does, and you go back four or five years ago and you say: ‘I am going to manufacture an electric car that is going to go over 200 miles, goes zero to 60 in under 4 seconds and it is going to look great.’ And what is everyone going to say? It’s impossible.

"And as soon as we do that, what do we say? ‘Now we are going to build a 4-door sedan that seats seven people and goes 300 miles and goes zero to 60 in under 4.5 seconds. Impossible for everybody else on the planet except for Tesla.”

That’s what many CEOs are looking for. They now understand that they need to accomplish the impossible or face extinction. They need to accelerate transformation. This is why the old agencies can’t help them, although their skills are relevant. And this is why the old management consultants and systems integrators can’t help them either, although their skills are also relevant. The true digital agency brings it together under one roof, and they own the challenge of fundamentally changing a client’s business. They understand the potential of new technology, and where that intersects with the expectations of users. It’s where what’s relevant meets what’s possible.

Making digital products that people find uniquely valuable is hard. Especially inside an enterprise where legacy thinking often smothers innovation in its cradle. Transforming an enterprise requires great ideas, great execution, and great communication in order to work across teams and corporate hierarchies to effect real change. And there are only a handful of companies that can deliver all of these things. These are the true digital agencies. They represent the third option. The only path to accelerate transformation.

Mike is the founder of Maark and has served as the agency’s strategic, creative and technology lead in programs ranging from complete digital transformation of Fortune 500 clients, end-to-end relaunch of category-leading brands, and strategy, design and development of new digital products.

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