Making an Agency Digital to the Core

Why Digital Natives Are an Essential Ingredient

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I continue to be fascinated by how agencies change and how extraordinarily hard this can be to accomplish. Regardless of the difficulty, it's an essential agency survival skill. Great agencies learn how to continually reinvent themselves to the core, while merely good agencies often only change their outward structure. In some ways this pursuit of change, particularly as agencies define their relevance in the digital world, has been the great advertising drama of the last two years.

Hard to believe, but two years ago people were debating the merits between traditional and digital agencies, as if they had to choose between blue states and red states. Jump ahead to today, and most small agencies have carved out their own path. They have found a way to be true to their roots and have also made huge strides in their commitment to digital marketing. Digital vs. traditional no longer seems like a religious war.

PJA Advertising has made this journey along with the rest, and what I've learned is that change does not come from one defining choice. You need a commitment from the top. You need to redefine processes and roles. You need to bring in new resources and talent. More than anything, if you want to make changes that go beneath the surface to the core, you need to introduce a foreign agent that will chemically alter the composition of the agency. In our case, we didn't experience this degree of change until we opened our doors to the new breed of "digital natives" and gave them the freedom to introduce their digital DNA into the agency.

Specifically, digital natives are people who have spent their entire lives using the internet as an extension of themselves, and there are some good descriptions of the attributes that these people possess. Jeremiah Owyang wrote a nice post about digital natives on his blog, Web Strategy. Without the influence of these native speakers, most of us are doomed to clumsily translate conventional ideas into a digital format, rather than creating original ideas unique to the digital medium. We may master the outward forms but not the soul of the digital world.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating hiring some kid that spends 80 hours a week leveling his "World of Warcraft" character. I'm talking about a specific set of traits and insights that help transform an agency into an innovative digital marketing organization. Here's why every agency needs these people on staff.

They understand what happens under the digital hood. They see beneath the user interface to the underlying technologies. This gives them the ability to assess the true capabilities of a tool or platform and often manipulate it to their own purposes. They can define the digital experience on their own terms and not let it define them.

Digital natives have the skills to conduct their digital lives across many digital platforms with the ease with which an international traveler moves across continents. They can jump from platform to platform depending on its utility. This means that when planning marketing campaigns they can leave the beaten path to create more highly customized online experiences for consumers.

Digital natives treat their identity in the physical world and online as one entity. This makes their online personalities multidimensional and gives them better communications skills than the occasional visitor to Facebook and Twitter.

Because they conduct so much of their lives online, digital natives have a rich collection of experiences with brands in the digital world and a solid understanding about what kinds of communications are effective. With this fluency, they can expand an agency's vision for what is possible when developing strategies and campaigns.

Above all, digital natives get gaming. It's in their blood. As advertising and marketing agencies continue to adopt more of the principles and psychology of online gaming, all of us will need digital natives to help lead us through the maze of opportunities.

Agencies don't just need digital natives working in technical functions. We need them working throughout the agency in planning, media, account, and creative. They need to be allowed to experiment and explore and not be forced to work within old job titles and structures. If you're really serious about a digital transformation, these are the people who can shake up the organizational structure and push senior management to see the world in a fresh way. We're in a business that encourages clients to take big risks on change. We should be willing to do the same for ourselves.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. He's as irritated as everybody else that the iPad won't support Flash. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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