Can Digital Products Build Brands?

Agency veteran and former CP+B ECD Ari Merkin has joined forces with AgencyNet to create TEN, an agency that plans to fuse brand building and digital product development to more successfully reach a generation of consumers who believe “doing” matters more than “saying.”

Digiday caught up with Merkin and AgencyNet founder and CEO Richard Lent to find out why they think digital products and innovations are crucial for building brands and why they believe their combination of experience will prove so valuable to clients.

Talk me through TEN’s plan to fuse branding with digital innovation and products.
RL: AgencyNet is 18 years old, and we’ve always been very technology and strategy focused. Six months ago, I was connected with Ari through a friend, and when we got together, we saw that we greatly complemented each other’s skillets. As an agency, we didn’t have a master at understanding how to truly speak in a brand’s language. While that was something we were lacking, it seemed like an incredible opportunity and it was something our clients were asking for more. We started talking about this model to combine both brand sensibility and technology to most effectively reach the modern consumer. We believe that today the best path to consumers is almost always through some sort of technology or platform. We want to create products and platforms to solve brand problems.

You talk about TEN catering to the “era of the Do Brand.” What does that mean?
RL: Historically, brands would create a product and then go out and tell the world about it, but 90 percent of the time they were just saying what the product benefits were; they were telling consumers. Now, digital consumers are in control, so brands really need to stop saying and start doing. Marketing needs to be more about platforms and technologies that create value.
AM: And it’s about building deeper and sustainable connections. Brands can’t just rely on image any more; they need action. They need to do, not just say, and they need to add value.

Is this type of offering still difficult to sell into clients?
RL: This area is new to clients and to their structures and budgets, and that can be challenging. Two or three years ago, we were pushing this and didn’t get anywhere near as much traction as we’ve started to see in the last year. I think we approach it a little differently to the way others do, though. We try to recognize the white space opportunities around brands and then go out and create rapid prototypes. Then we can take those to clients and let them touch them and feel them, and I think we see more traction by doing that, and by giving them a reason to believe. We are also flexible with how we work. We do work for hire, revenue share, co-development. I think that helps because every client has different processes.

How do you structure your teams for this combination of branding and technology?
AM: The kind of work we want to do stems from both of those areas. We use the agency disciplines just like any other agency; we have interaction designers, and functions like art and copy, but generally those folks tend to lean either towards the brand side or the innovation side. We wanted to model this company after its leadership: me on the brand side, Rich on the innovation side. I’ve been building brands my entire career, and this job is about bringing that experience to this existing team. It seems like a no-brainer to bring these worlds together and make a marriage that could lead to truly innovative work.

So if brands can be built through platforms and products, what’s the future of paid media and advertising?
RL: I think media and advertising has its place, but it’s lessening. Certainly, right now, it’s about a healthy blend of owned, earned and paid media. All pieces play a role, and if you can capitalize on all of them, you’ve accomplished your mission. The challenge with products and platforms is sometimes reaching the audience. Social is lessening the need for paid media, but you still have to get the snowball to the edge before it starts rolling. You need to get it there, and sometimes paid media is the way to do it.
AM: Regardless of products and platforms, at the end of the day, brands sometimes need to come out and say what they do. That doesn’t just happen by itself, so sometimes you need the paid media part. We don’t hate paid like a lot of digital agencies, but we believe the innovation comes first and then works its way out to the media part.