New Huge CEO Pete Stein: ‘At the heart, consultancies are not creative’

IPG digital agency Huge has a new leader in Razorfish vet Pete Stein. Stein, who will serve as global CEO, will be tasked with managing the agency at a time when digital agencies are dealing with growing competition from consultancies, which offer services similar to those of digital agencies. That being said, Stein isn’t planning to add media buying or PR capabilities to the digital shop’s offerings to compete. He believes there’s potential for Huge to grow by becoming a shop known for helping brands create a consistent experience for consumers across all of a brand’s touchpoints — be it Instagram or in-store.

Digiday spoke to Stein about where he sees growth opportunities, Cannes plans and why the agency takes a conservative stance on using new technologies.

Consultancies are a big competitor for digital agencies right now. How will you compete?
This space we occupy brings together those kind of two core capabilities, of the product thinking along with the brand thinking. Obviously, the consulting companies are doing that. But doing that through acquisition and buying companies is hard. It’s really hard. Getting different companies within the same company to work together is not easy. They’re just very big cultural differences. The reality is the core of the consulting companies have an amazing seat at the table. They really know the business. But at the heart, they’re not creative, their culture is not creative. One of the amazing things about Huge is that all those capabilities were established organically and they’re really part of the core of who we are.

Agencies have been adding offerings to compete. The line between creative, media and digital agencies has blurred. Where do you see Huge evolving? 
The digital mindset will stay. I see us right now, and this may evolve, but we’re more of a brand experience agency. The lines between traditional and digital are so blurred right now. We want to be the lead partner for clients that want someone who really has that deep expertise in both brand and customer experience thinking and wants to bring them together. We’re not going to lean into media planning and buying. We’re not going to go deep into PR. We’re not looking to get into those territories at all. But when it comes to creating, whether it be a spot that’s going to live on TV or a product that is used every day by the consumer, we’ve got the capabilities to do both of those really well.

What is your vision for the future of Huge?
We’re developing that now. It’ll be probably 90 to 100 days before I have it. We want to make a massive impact on the lives of consumers and businesses. We believe that our ability to bring the product and design thinking in combination with strong brand communications allows puts us in a unique position to impact the future of business.

Where in the brand world are you looking at with most interest?
The blueprint right now comes from the direct-to-consumer brands like Allbirds and Casper. What they’ve shown is that if you have an obsession with the customer experience, if [you’re really] data savvy, if you bring really strong product experience to life, if you know how to create a brand that is value and mission-based then you can scale and grow and consumers will love you. Where we’re uniquely situated is our ability to help legacy brands to make a transition to being more like direct-to-consumer brands and also helping direct-to-consumer brands to scale and grow beyond where they have.

Huge is a digital agency that uses data. Consumers have become more aware of how their data is used. How do you grapple with trying to make something personalized for consumers without it being creepy?
We do a lot of work not just in the digital world but in the physical world. Facial recognition technology is getting to a place where you could recognize someone walking into a store and after seeing them day after day. We have our own coffee shop in Atlanta and we could [use facial recognition technology to] recognize someone and send a signal to the barista and start making their drink. But you have to weigh in the human factor. Is that going to be creepy or is that going to be viewed as a benefit? Part of the challenge of this world is different people, different cultures, different age groups, different mindsets, people view it differently. One person may view it as amazing, awesome and value added and another person may view it as creepy. We will continue to play in that space. But we will always take the conservative view there.

The coffee shop will remain a testing hub under your leadership.
Yeah. We’ve got a new version of it launching in the next couple of weeks. We’ve done a refresh. We’re very excited to continue to use it and to learn from it. I actually haven’t gotten the full tour yet. I’m headed down to Atlanta the week after next, so I will get to see it.

We’re a couple weeks from Cannes. What will Huge be doing there?
We’re going to have a hackathon with Amazon focused on sustainability and Earth Day. We created a product, a Tampon dispenser, Hooha, and we’ll be showing that off at Cannes.

Where are the pain points right now at Huge?
I’m three days in.

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