Confessions of a Brand Digital Manager

In the newest installment of Digiday’s Confessions series, the head of social media and digital at an apparel brand explains dealing with digital immigrant bosses, coping with sudden changes to social platforms and what agencies fail to understand about life inside the brand.

What’s the most frustrating part of your job?
Digital wonder. When C-suite individuals who aren’t close to the digital space, either suffer from unrealistic brand envy or only gauge what’s “in” or “cool” because someone in their family told them its now cool. Bringing something to the table to strategically evaluate is perfectly acceptable, but always remember if it’s not right for the brand, or doesn’t add value to the brand, don’t do it.

Is it just a lack of understanding from top execs?
Depends on the type of industry you work in. More often than not, in some of the industries that aren’t so closely related to technology — ie. you’re not Apple — you have a definite knowledge gap between the individuals who really understand the user experience, how to innovate and be creative in the space because they live it day-in and day-out, versus the ones who only deal with all things digital in theoretical terms. In my opinion, the most important piece of this evolved business model, especially when it comes to the new media landscape, is having a C-suite that’s willing to trust individuals that really do understand the space and be willing to take risks.

Agencies constantly complain about being treated like vendors. Is this fair?
Having worked on both the agency and client side, I’m a true believer that this really depends on the agency. There are very specific traits and characteristics that I use to distinguish between a true brand partner versus a vendor:

  • How well they know my brand’s business/industry
  • What are their priorities: long-term relationship or short-term gains
  • How well they understand our brand’s culture

Wanting to be treated like more than just a vendor means embracing both the good and bad parts of a true partnership. If you only want to be considered partners when things are going well and in your favor, chances are, a brand won’t ever consider you more than a vendor. But what is most telling are the day-to-day interactions a brand has with its agency.

Consider these few questions:

  • Can you stay up to speed with the industry discussions a brand has on a daily basis?
  • Do you know what key metrics your client is concerned about?
  • Can you anticipate your client’s business needs before they ask?
  • Have you shared an idea to help your client’s business lately without them prompting you?
  • Do you fix problems/mistakes without automatically raising the additional money or retainer card?
  • Do you know how to successfully sell an idea up your client’s corporate ladder? (This is probably one of the most overlooked yet critical aspects of being a true partner – think Lee Clow and Steve Jobs.)

If your answer is no to more than several of these questions, then perhaps the agency should really reconsider why it should be treated like more than a vendor. On the other hand, if your client isn’t willing to pull back the curtains to give you a better view so you can actually be a real partner, then maybe you should really be asking if that’s the right relationship for the agency.

What don’t agencies get about life at a big brand?
How important cultural dynamics are at a big brand. Understanding the nuances and all aspects of the corporate structure and culture could really facilitate how agencies could positively impact and also interact with the brand. Understanding the chain of command, who really impacts decisions, and who to keep as an ally is really key to navigating a big brand. Most agencies know that it’s important to know what keeps their clients up at night, and they always make it a point to know when you first get a client. But this genuine concern fades quickly, and only a fraction of agencies I’ve interacted with actually continually take a pulse and understand how these concerns or business problems evolve and change day-to-day and over time. I too will readily admit that when I was on the agency side, I should have done more to understand my client’s pressure points. Not only that, but at the pace that business moves today and for agencies that really want to be considered a true partner, I think it’s critical to start making a habit of asking their clients on a monthly, if not weekly, basis what are the most pressing challenges with the business or brand. It’s no longer good enough to just ask on a quarterly basis.

If you could give one word of advice to your CMO in regards to how your company could better excel in digital, what would it be?
Digital marketing has really enabled a new era of being able to track and measure marketing efforts. However, at the end of the day, in a digital world that changes and evolves so quickly, letting these metrics drive most of your decisions is really only doing yourself a disservice. This doesn’t mean that the numbers don’t matter, but if you’re smart you’ll just use them as a barometer to ensure you’re staying on course. In the digital space, to really win, you have to embrace change and be comfortable in taking risks because staying relevant is more difficult than ever. Ultimately, the best user-experiences will always win out in the digital world. But what is best practice today, might not be tomorrow and definitely won’t be in a few months.

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