"Digital is our behavior. Saying we need a 'digital plan' is no different than saying we need a plan for how we interact with people and how people interact with us."
--Joe Olsen
"The ability to generate insights, hypotheses and strategies from data is now a critical skill that needs to be developed within all businesses."
--Stephen Foxworthy
"Ask yourself are you saving people time, are you asking more of their cognitive resources than what you’re giving back in value – it’s not a strategy, but a paradigm to live by."
--Michael Lebowitz
"Take more risks."
--Eric Moore

Kate Richling, Phenomblue

The Connected Age: Connecting with the Industry’s Best

Looking for insight on today’s top trends, brands and the current communications landscape, The SoDA Report (TSR) editorial team reached out to four of the industry’s best.

  • Stephen Foxworthy
  • Michael Lebowitz
  • Eric Moore
  • Joe Olsen

(from left to right)

  • Stephen Foxworthy, Strategy Director, Reactive
  • Michael Lebowitz, CEO & Founder, Big Spaceship
  • Eric Moore, Managing Director, Huge
  • Joe Olsen, CEO & Founder, Phenomblue

Here’s what they had to say.

Q1: What does the “connected age” mean to you, and how would you (or your agency) describe today’s communications landscape?
Joe Olsen: Until the late ‘90s, we participated in one-way discussions with brands at a cadence they controlled. Technology exploded, seeping into every crevice of our existence – fundamentally, and irreparably, changing human behavior. The digital age was about mass creation. Then we evolved, and our ecosystem became a conversation that happens at the will of people – drastically changing our communication patterns and interaction models.

Today, everything is connected, and everything is on. There are more ways to interact with everyone and everything, and infinite patterns of information exchange. Interactions require intent and purpose, as every interaction with a company or brand is a chance to increase, or decrease, the value of the brand or the success of the business. But in the connected age, brands and companies are struggling to focus, to choose, to produce activity with results.

Michael Lebowitz: Everything will be connected before too long as all of our objects start to have some sort of basic intelligence and internet connectivity built into them. The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon has given way to the six degrees of separation between everyone and everything. We’ve talked about it for a long time, but I think the web has finally been rewired to revolve around people – moving away from a long-standing focus on pages. Companies are connected to each other in new ways. I think the challenge for the longest time was how to get things connected. Now, the challenge is how to make sense of it, how to bring strategy to it, how to organize it and how not to drown in it.

We’re in an age of abundance. We’re no longer looking for ways to break out of a very limited number of methods for communicating with people. Now, we have a seemingly endless amount of ways to communicate, which forces more strategy … more thoughtfulness. It forces brands and organizations that want, and need, to communicate to be more intentional and to have real purpose. Purpose drives strategy, strategy drives decision-making, and decision-making leads to everything you actually do. I think it has to be an incredibly intentional time. But at the same time, we must balance that intentionality with new ways that allow us to experiment like never before – lighter weight, less expensive ways to see what works and then act on those opportunities as you see them resonate in the world. Or, if they don’t resonate, you can pull the plug on them without investing a huge amount of effort or money.

Stephen Foxworthy: Now, more than ever, a holistic view of customer touchpoints, both digital and offline, is required to ensure a seamless customer experience. Digital may be disrupting whole industries, but it’s still important to understand the customer journey and lifecycle in order to add value. The ability to manage customer experiences across a range of platforms and touchpoints allows us to provide a more personalized, timely and relevant experience.

Eric Moore: To us, the connected age means we have the opportunity to connect multiple ‘things’ to each other in order to create more valuable experiences for people. More often than not, it’s about connecting a user to data to understand context and to drive personalized experiences like never before. It’s forcing us to evolve what we do in terms of the number of devices, interfaces and scenarios we design for. More importantly, it’s also allowing us to bring so much more power to bear in creating more contextually relevant experiences that can truly be helpful in people’s lives, and make users love using a brand or product.

Q2: What’s the most important thing to a brand’s success today?
Joe Olsen: A strong brand is an insurance policy – it doesn’t ensure that every choice will be successful, but it’s a great hedge if things go sideways. That insurance policy provides the foundation for market position, outside perception and inside perception – three key areas of brand building. A good brand can aid in the effectiveness and efficiency of brand building and a poor one can hinder the process or prevent it all together. I think the most important thing for success is to design and implement a focused, efficient and effective effort for building the brand … one handshake at a time.

Michael Lebowitz: Being extremely aware of the disruptors in your category. If I were a rental car company, I would pay very close to attention to Uber and Lyft, but also SilverCar, which is an upstart rental service where you can reserve nice cars for reasonable prices through your mobile phone. Brands need to pay attention to these disruptors not because they are suddenly going to reach a level of scale, but because they’re driving a lot of the innovation happening today in the area of customer experience and in the equality of customer services. Big companies haven’t really been challenged to provide that level of personal and frictionless customer service. Meanwhile, the disruptors are building brand loyalty by doing so.

Every interaction I have with a brand, whether it’s an interaction with a digital product or service, whether it’s a social post, a website or campaign of any kind – all of those interactions ladder up to what a brand really is. Our philosophy is every interaction matters, so how do you behave according to your purpose and your goals in every interaction you can control.

Eric Moore: Staying true to who you are. Today’s successful brands recognize their true brand capabilities, which ensures two things: elasticity and authenticity. Brands like Google and Uber know who they are and have a clear vision and purpose that allows them to both grow their business and their audience, all while staying true to themselves.

Stephen Foxworthy: Brands only succeed through their customers, so customer satisfaction remains one of the most important determining factors for brand success. Digital media, and particularly social networks, make a poor customer experience so easy to share. Brands need to be more vigilant about poor customer sentiment, and respond quickly to avoid service disasters quickly going viral.

Q3: How would you describe “digital” within the context of today?
Stephen Foxworthy: I believe that digital technology now underpins so much business communication and transactional activity that ‘digital’ is now simply business. Our approach to digital strategy has always been to identify the role digital technology plays in delivering a business strategy, or transforming it.

Eric Moore: Digital is like the air we breathe. It’s as essential to our lives today as electricity. We take it for granted, but we can’t live without it. We used to call things ‘digital’ to differentiate them from physical products and experiences, but that boundary is increasingly being eliminated. Digital is an experience, a product, a tool, a language, and an extension of ourselves, permeating almost every part of our lives. It’s more a way of being rather than a project or thing, and in many cases, distinguishing something as “digital” is becoming less and less relevant.

Joe Olsen: Digital is our behavior. It’s the way we interact with each other and everything around us. Saying we need a “digital plan” is no different than saying we need a plan for how we interact with people and how people interact with us.

Michael Lebowitz: There are agencies that are focused on digital and social, but we’re not because we see it all as a series of interactions that have to create value for customers and potential customers. So why is there a mobile agency vs. a web agency vs. a social agency? What you really need is a partner who can understand your business goals, and how you really exist in the world. You need a partner who can leverage those things, starting with digital and social, but extending out from there. Ultimately, I think what people are talking about is a combination of channels, media, platforms and – more importantly but less understood – types of human behavior that lead to more meaningful engagement with customers.

Q4: What related trends do you see affecting your clients this year, this month, right now?
Eric Moore: The conventional answer is social, mobile, responsive design, blah, blah, blah. But the underlying ‘trend’ is the rapid change in expectations users have for brands. Digital is the medium that is accelerating the change, driving the shift in expectations and transforming the fundamental nature of the customer-brand relationship.

Joe Olsen: The single biggest challenge right now is lack of strategic clarity and tactical effectiveness. Today, every experience matters and there are no silver bullets. The economics of the connected world are crippling many brands and businesses. They’re struggling to keep up, while implementing as much technology as possible at every turn, trying to find that silver bullet for success. But there is no silver bullet. Established players and upstarts in the technology world will continue to create a dizzying array of bright shiny objects for consumers. As the connected age settles in, I think the most important thing you can do as a marketing, advertising and communications leader is put relatable goals down on paper and then devise a strategy and identify the tactics that will allow you to keep your head down and see the forest through the trees.

Michael Lebowitz: The big trends that affect every client I speak to aren’t really trends at all. They center around the pain of being stuck inside of silos. Our clients use us a lot of the time to be the horizontal to their vertical. We’re not designed to mirror the organizational structure of a typical department based company We’re much more elastic and able to help cut across those silos – let us figure how to sift through it all and bring things together to create maximum value for customers.

Stephen Foxworthy: The biggest trends we’re seeing are an increased focus on holistic customer experience across channels, with personalized communications and content becoming much more important. Lifecycle marketing, marketing automation and personalization technology are now allowing us to deliver different experiences to individual customers more effectively.

Alongside this trend, the rise of easily accessible business intelligence and analytics tools for marketers are allowing much greater insight to be extracted from digital platforms. The ability to generate insights, hypotheses and strategies from this data is now a critical skill that needs to be developed within all businesses.

Q5: If you had one mantra to give the people in charge of brands today, what would it be?
Michael Lebowitz: When thinking about your customers, always give more than you expect in return. From a very simple, micro level, if you look at it interaction-for-interaction – ask yourself are you saving people time, are you asking more of their cognitive resources than what you’re giving back in value. It’s not a strategy, but a paradigm to live by. If every person in your company thought that way, you’d be an extremely successful company.

Stephen Foxworthy: Digital acumen is the life-blood of modern business. If you don’t have skilled and experienced people in house to drive digital transformation for your business, look to partner with agencies or consultants. Their role should not just be to do the work for you, but to help you and your people skill-up. Things are only going to change faster.

Joe Olsen: Results over activity. It’s important for brands to remember that almost all agencies operate from briefs, and their “strategy” will assume the challenge or task at hand is a bonafide ask to begin with. This work is rarely tied to clear and concise measurements and goals. It’s execution and tactics, essentially the last step in the process. Skipping to the end is a sure-fire way to create false positives, and unsustainable success. Be fair to your internal partners, your employees and your agencies. Set goals. Define measurements. Identify and prioritize tactics, then issue briefs.

Eric Moore: I would have answered this question the same way 20 years ago, and the answer’s still true today: take more risks.

About the Author: As Phenomblue’s Vice President of Marketing, Kate Richling oversees the agency’s marketing and social media outreach, as well as its inbound marketing efforts. Previously, Richling worked in public relations, creating and executing strategies for institutes of higher education and Blue Cross Blue Shield, as well as providing social media counsel to various non-profit organizations.