The State of Digital Design: 2017 Edition


Four agency leads come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities in their industry, when everyone and everything is "digital" these days.

We partnered with The Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA) to bring together some of the best minds in the digital space to get their insight into the current state of digital design. Pauline Ploquin of Struck, Wesley ter Haar of Media Monks, Derek Fridman of Huge and Michael Burkin of Doberman shared their perspectives on a “digital agency’s” place in a world where everything is digital, the agency’s role when large corporations are building internal digital teams, and how the biggest changes for improving client collaboration have nothing to do with technology.
Positioning your agency as a “digital agency” used to be a differentiating factor in the marketplace. Now everything is digital to a large degree. So how do you refer to yourselves now?
Ploquin: For the customer digital is now the whole brand experience. So we have been moving away from really calling ourselves a “digital agency” and are focusing on positioning ourselves as a branded content and experience agency.
Fridman: We are anti the use of the word “digital” as a catch-all because it’s not about hardware. It’s about telling a compelling story. Digital is a limiter. Internally we say, “The best digital is invisible.” It’s when you don’t have to look at a screen and don’t have to engage an app or a web property but you are still having a connection to a brand that’s done through the air.
As digital specialists, does stopping use of the term “digital” as a differentiator for your agency give credit to the quality of work rising by traditional agencies, larger consultancies, and in-house teams?
ter Haar: I’ve actually rallied against the removing of the word digital from our industry because I think we underestimate the difference between what our companies offer versus companies that are new to digital. By losing some of the terminology and no longer proudly waving that flag we are giving away ground to companies that aren’t digital. Just because you have digital deliverables on your platform doesn’t mean you are digital. It is difficult to build digital within your practice or network if it’s not part of your DNA, as it’s driven by a mentality that is difficult to replicate at scale within companies that are hundreds of thousands of people. It’s such a cultural shift.
Ploquin: What I’m noticing with the new talent we are recruiting here is that they don’t differentiate between digital and non-digital. You’re a designer and that’s it. You make stuff.
With the increase in in-house digital teams at larger companies, is there still a role for digitally-focused agencies in the future? And what challenges do you see companies experiencing bringing in these specialties?
Fridman: Back in the day we would engage with a client and they would say they had some internal people working on digital, but these people would be a good couple of years behind us. That was great for us, as we could come in and help the client be successful. Fast-forward to now and people running the digital departments within companies are people like us. People at an agency that decided to go client side and make their own “agency” internally. Our clients get someone who has been there and done that and knows how to get the best work out of an agency and also help them bolster and build a team internally.
We’ve also seen other clients struggle to find the right level of talent who want to work on the client side. For a young and hungry designer the idea of working on the same stuff day in and day out isn’t very appealing. So larger companies are typically hiring people who are stationary, have a family and don’t want to move. The folks who have worked in the agency space are much smarter as to how we agencies like to get involved. So we have found our place is about asking how we can help their team get to their North Star.
Burkin: The fact that design innovation has a much more senior seat in these organizations is a good thing. Across the board these folk are serious about being design-led. They also recognize that no matter how good their teams are, they still need another perspective. It’s not a judgement on their team’s ability, but they actually need someone to come in and challenge some of the orthodoxies and help them fast-forward to another place.
What is your agency doing to foster that innovation?
Ploquin: It was interesting to read in the Soda Report that there is a big gap between what our understanding of what innovation is in a digital agency versus what clients imagine innovation is. For them it’s the shiny object and virtual reality. Those are shiny objects, not a long term strategy. The next frontier is the mind of the consumer, so we geeking out on neuroscience, rather than just virtual reality.
What changes have you made in your process in the last year in order to work more collaboratively with your clients?
Burkin: This might sound small, but it has bigger implications: We are doing much less documentation. For the vast majority of our project work, we have ditched wire frames. They’re slow and not the best way to communicate design anymore. Our brave and creative clients have much more interest in spending the time we have together to iterate rather than us create a bunch of decks that we present to them and then wait for feedback and waste a lot of time on. We are killing the deck!
Fridman: We made a fundamental change a few years ago to the model of “Present, go away, present, go away.” It doesn’t work and what we found is that we truly have to make ourselves partners in what we do. We set that as an expectation from the start: That your people are going to hang out with our people, and our people are going to hang out with yours. They see inherent value in their teams spending time with us and at the same time we are a lot more comfortable not disappearing and coming back. This way we can work hand-in-hand from day one.
* This interview has been edited and condensed. For a deeper dive, read the full 2017 SoDA report.
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