It’s been fascinating to observe how the “digital strategist” role has evolved over the course of the past eight years. It’s been a journey and evolution to say the least and we’ve hit an interesting crux in marketing world. Shouldn’t everyone who works at an agency be a “digital strategist” that can tackle any facet of online marketing across any practice area or industry? Well yes, in some ideal world, that would be fantastic. But in reality, we’re far from it.
Does digital strategy touch nearly every facet of marketing communications? Absolutely. But just like media relations specialists, graphic designers or UX pros, digital strategy is structured upon a core set of skills, knowledge and personal passion. One does not become a digital strategist by just attending a few content marketing conferences or trainings. The role isn’t a simple checklist of skills you learn overnight and it’s rarely something that can be taught if the individual isn’t personally passionate about online marketing.
So then, what does it mean to be a digital strategist? Glad you asked.
My colleague Jon Yang, summed it up pretty well relative to agency world:
A digital strategist works with account teams and clients to identify business problems and define realistic goals and key performance indicators that, when paired with smart tactics and a solid understanding of the target audience, will result in empirical progress against the baseline – translation; ROI.
Clare McDermott adds insights on the broader relevant skills set in a recent Content Marketing Institute post:
Agencies used to be on the hunt for creatives. These days we hear agencies say they struggle to hire talented generalists. Lest you think that means someone who dabbles in many areas but masters none, think again. The new marketing generalist understands at a functional level multiple disciplines — including marketing technology, social, content strategy, corporate storytelling, and SEO. And they must be comfortable moving quickly, adapting, and taking risks.
Digital strategists are most effective when they apply their skills to a particular practice area or industry. Mastering digital health, specializing in B2B marketing, focusing on nonprofit marketing – it’s the deep industry and target audience knowledge that allows digital strategists to truly soar.
Ready for the real kicker? Great digital strategists aren’t just trendspotters, trainers or great plan writers. They are doers. They are folks that can conceive of an insightful and creative strategy, develop an amazing plan, sell in the plan and carry through with flawless management and execution of said strategy. These days, it’s not just the strategic vision but the tactical execution that is setting talent streams apart in the space. Vision is one thing. Vison + Execution is a completely different beast.
The truth of the matter is that good talent is hard to come by. We’re already witnessing the “digital strategist” title manifest in different ways as agencies adapt to changing communication trends and models. Those looking to make a mark are going to need to stand out from the crowd with proven ability as someone that can create the vision and get their hands dirty.
Go get ‘em.
Image courtesy of stefanerschwendner.
Everyone in visual media should be rejoicing that the masses are getting closer and closer to appreciating quality work. Photographers, designers, illustrators, animators; everyone just became more in demand and more valued because brands need daily content that is pinnable, sharable, tweetable, likable and ‘goes viral.’ I’m happy to report that while it seems like photography has “died” four times in the last 20 years, I’m still making images professionally.
But it’s a double edged sword. With visual experts now more valuable, it becomes more difficult for smaller companies or organizations on a budget to justify the top visual artists when their friend takes pretty good photos. This has always been happening, but ‘pretty good’ has moved from an image just being in focus to DSLR quality images that are ‘good enough.’
Ultimately though, no, putting a filter on a photo of your easy mac doesn’t make you an ‘artist’ and pinning from Bench.li doesn’t make you a ‘designer’, but the most valuable part of Instagram and Pinterest is that it forces you to make a choice. Which filter should I use to make this interesting? Which board should I put this on to create the most complete story? Choices like these are the start to understanding good visual aesthetic. Knowing why you make that choice is the next step, and one I think more and more people are catching on to. I’ll support anything that shows me more rule of thirds and less papyrus font.
You recently joined our team at Weber and this is your first agency experience. What are your thoughts on how visual storytelling is being integrated into PR/Marketing world?
I think if a kid walked into a PR firm looking to create visual/digital media a few years ago, they might have pointed him down the road to the nearest ad agency. I came from the journalism world, so a lot has been new to me over the last four weeks. But similar to journalism, or any other media making industry, PR is in a state of constant change and innovation. I think we can all agree that media orgs have adapted to the digital landscape, but now the question we’re all asking is how we can truly innovate within it. The difference I’ve seen at Weber Shandwick is a real commitment to the value of engaging visual content across digital platforms, which for me is the first step to that innovation. From video, to design, to creative community management, it has been refreshing to see a company invest in and embrace a true multimedia approach.
From creating a video short on a train ride to documenting a day at the Cannabis Farmer’s Market, what style of video is your favorite and what do you aspire to shoot more of?
I have really enjoyed exploring audio-slideshows. It’s an underused medium and is often pushed aside as a video wannabe, but I think it has advantage over traditional moving images in that the visuals and the audio are always equal. When creating an audio-slideshow, you are never sacrificing one for the other, as (most of the time) you have to do each part independently. The result, in my opinion, is a richer, more engaging audience experience for both senses.
…Or maybe I am just trying to forcefully meld my love of photography with my obsession with radio, podcasts and spoken word.
But regardless of the medium, I will always be a documentarian. My eye and my ear are ultimately the only difference between me and the next guy with a DSLR, a blog and some discipline in an ever-flattening (thankfully) media landscape. My focus is always on becoming a better listener and observer. Hopefully that will always be in style.
Name three visual storytellers or outlets that you regularly follow and keep an eye on.
Damon Winter: Photojournalist for the New York Times.
Damon has greatly influenced my work since I started following him during the 2008 presidential election; work for which he ended up winning a Pulitzer. His style is ethereal yet incredibly technical, and he really pushes the boundaries of what a chronicle of daily events can look like, and for some, photojournalism in general.
Theron Humphrey: Thiswildidea.com
As I said above, audio is my second love, and Theron has really taken to the idea of using it (along with photography, of course) as a means to record the history of the individual just for the fact that he believes should be done. He’s not afraid to post a 15-minute audio narrative to do justice to his subject instead of the general public; a move that might appear to be a pretty bold in today’s media environment, but he just knows his audience (Something any media maker can learn from). He also has an awesome dog.
Made by Hand:
I wish I could say that I could follow these folks regularly, but the 5-6 month waits are always worth it. They connect the DSLR-inspired, photographic video aesthetic with an approach that is nostalgic in style (anybody with a colophon on their website is trying to bring something back) and subject that tingles my child-of-a-baby-boomer senses. It’s the type of storytelling that makes me want to stop whatever I’M doing and do that. Can’t wait for the Bike Maker.
Wake up call. Times are a changin’ for the PR industry. Fast.
Now more than ever, our industry is witnessing the need for new roles and skills at agencies. What lies at the heart of this change? Agencies are being called upon to solve new and unique business problems that require highly integrated approaches using owned, earned and paid media. Whereas in the past, one could break into PR by having decent writing and media relations skills, agency models are aggressively shifting to reflect the need for more producers, editors, content strategists, designers, copywriters and creative directors that often reflect models used at ad agencies.
Companies are quickly catching on to the value of centralizing planning, production, execution and measurement under one roof to improve project efficiency and nimble decision making. While some agencies have made moves to shift from a traditional title structure, most big agencies are still working to define the best model and approach to reflect the versatile new talent and capabilities of their teams.
Below are three evolving positions (of many) that are helping PR agencies put a stake in the ground in this new landscape. As you think about your own career, map out and drill down on the variety of skills that you are applying across your client work on a daily basis. Chances are good that you’re touching some degree of work tied to each of the roles described and beyond.
PR pros have always been recognized as solid writers. The written word will continue to serve as the foundation for communications. Nonetheless, we now operate in a visually-driven communications environment where we need to think strategically about combining text and visuals to effectively deliver targeted messages. Moreso, these communications need to be on brand and highly engaging – all the time. Whether communicating through a video, infographic, tweet or Facebook status update, content directors are being called upon to help guide overarching brand voice and ensure that every piece of brand content resonates with your customers and target audience.
People to Check Out: Chris Sewell
We’re there. Creativity and technology have merged and are at the center point of well designed engagement campaigns. It’s simply unacceptable for Creative Directors to not have a deep understanding of digital strategy and likewise, Digital Strategists must think and plan through the eyes of a creative and design lens. This convergence has lead to the evolving role of Creative Technologists who are able to bring a new and unique perspective to the role of planning as well as guide smart execution on everything from site builds and videos to effective paid content syndication and online community management.
People to Check Out: Parker Ward, Justin Tsang
As more and more brands are moving towards self-publishing models and exploring new avenues for taking their message straight to their target audience, so too are agencies expected to help shape and support these communication models. At their core, publishing sites operate just like online news sites and thus require a structured team chalk full of managing and associate editors, writers, community managers, art directors/graphic designers and content producers. Naturally, this role has a close tie in with Content Directors and Creative Technologists who embody the skills needed to effectively plan and operate these sites.
People to Check Out: David Patton
In closing, I would encourage you to remember that a title is in fact just a title. At the heart of each of the positions above, you’ll note the important shift at senior levels from mere strategic guidance and oversight to practical execution. These aren’t just planners and managers. These are doers. We need more experienced doers in our industry and that may very well mean that we need to get over the title game and follow suit of Swedish ad shop Honesty by abolishing digital titles all together.
As reported in Ad Age, Honesty’s CEO Walter Naeslund remarked:
“We are really getting rid of excuses for the rest of the staff not to learn digital and mobile,” he said. “After the announcement this morning the entire agency was suddenly on their feet devouring blogs, podcasts and whitepapers when they realized it was going to be their own responsibility and nobody else’s to deliver on digital and mobile. It was a beautiful sight…”
It’s a grand vision for big agencies but I couldn’t agree more Mr. Naeslund. We’re operating in a brave new world. Time to take action and adjust.
Photo courtesy of stevendepolo.