If you work at an advertising agency, then you are are probably dealing with the “digital strategy” dilemma right now. Most of the top agencies around the world have reached a point in their digital evolution where they no longer need the digital silo that they bolted on a few years ago.
Getting rid of the digital silo is the right thing to do IMHO, but I would be lying to you if I said it was easy.
An important part of silo busting is figuring out how to reallocate the digital talent to the other departments within the agency. To accomplish this, you assemble a group of some of the smartest thought leaders in your agency together in a room and start people shuffling. Some of these reallocations are pretty simple (“Hello Digital Artist, welcome to the creative department”), but there are a few that fall into a grey area… and that is where the dilemma presents itself. One of those grey area roles that is sure to spark debate and some political posturing is the digital strategist.
The “digital strategy dilemma” discussion might go something like this…
Account “Well their title has ‘strategy’ in it, so they should go to the strategic planning department right?
Planner [Sighs audibly and stops scribbling in moleskin] “I think you are interpreting it too literally. Digital strategists are not really strategic planners and to be honest our planners disagree with the role even existing because we think we are capable of providing digital & social strategy without them. Look, I sketched a venn diagram to explain how we should put them somewhere else.”
Account [Finishes banging out an email on his Blackberry and holsters it in his belt clip] “Ok… Well how about creative? The digital strategist is always working closely with them to help guide them to turn their raw concepts into a series of refined executions within a larger communication strategy.”
Creative [Looks up from doodle sketch pad and removes fedora hat] “Yeah, but they are not art directors or copywriters, so they are not a fit in our department. What about account? Can we stick them there”
Account [Looks up from Blackberry and holsters it in belt clip] “Well, I know that account people do rely heavily on them for guidance on how to scope, setup and manage a digital/mobile/social project and they help us on calls with the client too. So, I guess we could take them in our department.”
Digital Strategy [Looks up from iPhone and pushes pause on Angry Birds game] “When you really think about it, digital strategists have a hand in providing guidance to all of the departments at our agency in one way or another. So, as long as we can keep doing what we do best and as long as the department we move to has legitimate career advancement opportunities for us, then we don’t care what department we move to.”
[Silence and some staring around the room]
Account “Um …well, ok I have a hard stop in 5 minutes so let’s put this digital strategy thing in the parking lot for now and we can revisit it later in another meeting.”
Digital Strategy [rolls eyes and returns to Angry Birds game]
Creative [Puts fedora hat back on but backwards this time because it looks cooler that way]
Planner [Lost in his own head as he scribbles out a "No Digital Strategy" manifesto in the form of a haiku]
Project Manager [Never heard a word of the entire discussion since she was tapping away on her laptop the whole time and never looked up]
[Group leaves the conference room with the digital strategy dilemma still in the parking lot on the whiteboard]
Let’s be honest, the task of reallocating digital strategy to another department is not the problem. The real problem is that your agency was probably never very clear on what the hell a digital strategist IS or what they DO as part of a project flow. What they do know is that the digital strategy role seems to be very helpful and important to the agency to be able to successfully execute digital/ mobile/ social project …and that digital strategists are consistently providing expert guidance to several other roles on the team ultimately making the work better.
Perhaps the best way to resolve the dilemma is to step back and take a closer look at the role and maybe that will help us find a new home for the misunderstood digital strategist.
What skills does a good digital strategist have?
Good digital strategists tend to be T-Shaped people who have a generalist level of expertise across many roles with a deep expertise in 1 – 2 specific areas (An expert in Social, Mobile, Analytics, Gaming, etc). This allows them the ability to move comfortably throughout the various roles on the team and give each of them relevant guidance to make their work better. A good digital strategist is as comfortable totally geeking out in a pile of data and graphs as they are leading a swarm/brainstorm to help take a raw concept and turn it into 10 executions that all work together in a communications plan.
What does a good digital strategist do with those skills?
When you look at the wide range of activities & outputs that a digital strategist contributes through the lens of a project and the stages within, the best word that sums it up to me is “GUIDANCE”. At a high level, the first half of a project for the digital strategist is about combing through tons of data and turning that into key insights and observations that inform the brief. The second half of a project is about taking a raw idea from the creative team and building an entire ecosystem of messaging and touchpoints around it.
Pre-Idea – Research, Planning and Brainstorming
The digital strategist is primarily working with the account management and strategic planning team during this stage of the project.
- Assesses the initiative that is about to begin and advises the account managers on which additional digital specialists should be added to the team in order to reach the best results.
- Performs research based on the task or business problem that we are addressing. The findings should be used to inform or accompany the Creative Brief and this is where the digital strategist will be working closely with the strategic planners.
- Identifies the measurements of success based on the business problem(s) that we are overcoming and the objectives.
- Provide crucial project planning and advice to the account & project managers for how to best organize the steps of the effort.
Outputs Might Include: Social/ Search Scour, Online Ecology Audit, Online & Social Performance Metrics Analysis, Customer Analysis/ Persona Development, Online Competitive Analysis, Measurements of Success Statement.
Post-Idea — Creative Guidance & Communication and Content Planning
The digital strategist transitions from working with the account and planner groups leading up to the “Big Idea” to working with the creative and technical/ developer teams to refine the idea and turn it into reality during this stage of the project.
- Works with the creative team to give them a clear view of the various opportunities in emerging tech, social, online, etc in a “blank slate” manner to not direct what the idea is but to help inspire their ideas.
- Evaluate and refine the “digital creative” work to help ensure it is best practice and has the user experience (UX) in mind.
- Identifies all of the possible properties within the brand/ campaign relative to the initiative and recommends how it will all link together + the role that each property should play in the overall experience.
- Identifies all of the development & hosting implications and creates the proper technical requirements documentation for our production partners (also serves as liaison to the technical team who may document this part).
- Works with the strategic planners and creative teams to think about the content plan for how we will continue to refresh this ..site/ page/ campaign over time after the initial launch.
- Works with QA, Production/Dev and UX teams to plan, execute and evaluate the early and in-development prototyping efforts.
- Works with the analytics team to identify the type of reporting that the team will be doing post-launch, then works with the account management team to start thinking about the ongoing operation of …data >> analyze >> insights >> recommendations that will need to occur on a weekly or monthly/ quarterly cycle.
Obviously I am just hitting the high-points here for a typical process that could be applied to a variety of different initiatives. There are a ton of other details that go into a typical initiative, but that just adds to the areas and tasks that a digital strategist plays a key guidance role.
So is the problem REALLY just the name itself?
I admit that I am totally biased here, but even if you water down my description of what a good digital strategist does …I think it is clear that they serve a very important role in the work that an advertising agency does. So, is the “digital strategy dilemma” that agencies are having right now just an issue with the title name itself? Understanding that the main argument is that nobody likes having the word “digital” in front of the strategic/ guidance part of the title — I don’t think it is as easy as just removing the first word. If that is all that we needed to do, then it would indicate that all strategic planners & brand planners can do what a good digital strategist does and vice versa (which is NOT realistic situation at all in most agencies btw).
So what do we rename digital strategists?
Engagement Planners? [feather ruffling & grunts inserted here].
Connections Planners? [more ruffling and posturing inserted here].
…Engagement Architects? [ok, I was just reaching here a little..]
What do you suggest? I would love to hear your recommendations for a name OR do you think the name is fine and the agencies should embrace it?
Comment and let me know.