Lack of Leadership: How Focusing on the Tactics Will Lead to Digital Failure
Everyone is talking about how we should be using our tactics better, smarter, harder, blah-blah ROI, but we seem to have replaced vision for startups and the future for APIs. What we are really missing is a point of view, a focus and an attention to detail that differentiates us from others and our clients from each other. How are the investments we make for our clients going to last or build up to something beyond just the next campaign?
Ultimately our work aspires to be original. It attempts to be relevant, and its objective is to solve a business problem — at least that is how I see it. In the digital and interactive space I have seen the explosion in tactics, in platforms and in ambition. It’s never been a more exciting time for us, and it’s never been harder to obtain reach. With digital as the only truly engaging medium, it is clear that many of our peers struggle to understand that fundamental concept. Actions taken, consumption of content and sharing are goals for our work. It is also something that we can be given the opportunity to lead, support or follow in a variety of ways. The heart of the problem, as I see it, is that there is a lack of understanding on how to best make use of a cacophony of opportunities. Time and again, we don’t know the right people to brief in order to collaborate well. We don’t understand who needs to be involved and who doesn’t. And, we don’t capitalize and reflect on those missed opportunities either for another client or for the next campaign cycle.
I believe this is true because I have yet to see anyone be a real leader in this space, be that an individual or an agency. The honest truth is no one — regardless of claims otherwise — has cracked that digital nut yet. Tactic, platform or latest fad, it is clear that no one owns anything or has stood out for long. There are a number of reasons for that; it isn’t just because our work is actually hard (despite that being true). It’s because it’s hard to get the right pieces aligned, more so in digital than in most other disciplines. We all want to do the best with the opportunities we have been given. No one works in this space because they lack the will. Evidence abounds in the re-formulation of ‘me-too’ executions that were award winning at one time but are nearly impossible to mimic or approach anew. We all find our inspiration from popular culture and each other, so why is it so hard to find a repeatable approach that is effective within digital?
Print has had about 100 years of successes and experience, and TV has about 50 years. I would be hard-pressed to suggest that a lack of innovation happens within either medium or that agencies haven’t been able to define themselves well within either space. Why can those tactics be creative and still executed formulaically? Each agency has a mission statement, regardless of how true or hollow it is, from storytellers to humor to empathy and so on. All try to portray themselves as leaders in a defined space that separates them from others, clearly identifies a type of culture and pays respect to what has made those agencies successful in the past. If this is true, why is digital in each of those places not also owned or wrapped up in that same ethos? For example, is Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest the best place to draw a digital line in the sand? Can we really do everything well with our budgets, time and creativity given the enormous amount of tactics that are available? It’s almost shocking that we default to tactics. We don’t bother trying to see what is going to be the most effective from a creative standpoint or even try to own a specific space and brand it as something done well with expertise and craft — the very things that define us and our agencies in the other mediums.
If one agency decided they were going to use a digital tactic for its clients because it made sense, it was the best use of the creative, it met all the objectives and, above all, it was a strong cultural fit for the agency and the creative minds, we would start seeing true ownership of the digital space. I believe things like this are key to our success. We need to tie everything we do back to what the agency does well. We then measure it or learn from mistakes and try something else. This is where real innovation and leadership lie. We all accept that it’s confusing out there, and this isn’t about laying blame or complaining it’s difficult. This is about leadership — owning something we can actually contribute to the space and effectively helping to shape all roles at an agency. Instead of everyone trying to learn about the latest, why don’t we challenge those to figure out how it fits into the foundation and principals that permeate the agency and will contribute to its success? Defaulting to tactics of any kind is not seizing the opportunity we have; it also doesn’t establish us as leaders or innovators in a space.
We need more leaders and fewer pretenders; there needs to be more ownership of longer-term executions and less about covering all the bases. Worrying so much about being on the cutting edge puts us too far in front of the people we need to reach. There are consequences for this splatter-gun approach. For me, the absence of leadership and work that actually reflects the agency is what we need to put our energies into.