Rise of the machines: Sugar & Partners’ Dave Nash on running an integrated digital indy agency

As the industry continues to fragment, agencies are forced into adapting their approaches to ensure that clients’ demands are still met. And while they don’t always have the massive holding-company budgets at their disposal, indy agencies have the nimbleness to react quickly to change and redefine their role. And Sugar & Partners creative and digital director Dave Nash sees this as a major advantage at a time when more and more clients are asking for integrated advertising executions.  

StopPress: Is everything digital these days?

Dave Nash: If you want it to be yes. Whether you consider it a buzzword or not the ‘Internet of Things’ is the next big move in product development. And with Google at the forefront of this you can only expect an advertising platform to follow. But I’m hoping a smartphone paired smoke alarm won’t be serving up contents insurance banner ads as some poor bastard’s house is burning down …  

SP:  Have you ever had to deal with digital charlatans? What was this experience like?

DN:  Yes, horrific. Titles like ‘Futurist’ and ‘Evangelist’ promised so much but they usually only delivered a migraine-inducing PowerPoint presentation of other people’s work.

In an industry obsessed with finding faster, cheaper more effective commoditised ways to engage consumers, it’s easy to get sucked into a half-price offer for the new and improved search-engine-optimised-remarketing-mobile-optimised snake oil. Did I mention it was optimised?

Fortunately we’re in a business where you’re judged on what you’ve done, not what you’ve said. So there is always a time of expiry that weeds out any potential charlatans. There’s a great quote from Lee Clow that really sums up latching onto some new silver bullet – “What will you do when everyone is search-engine optimised? Oh right, go back to ideas.”

SP: What are some of the unique challenges facing an integrated digital agency?

DN: In an age of specialism, we’re the Swiss army knife. As we’re not a pure-play digital shop, we need to spend more time showcasing our skills and capabilities with prospective and existing clients. There are also huge advantages in having a broader offering, as brand owners have more and more brand experiences live at anyone time – it saves a huge amount of energy to have one partner managing and coordinating everything. We’ve recently picked up two new digital accounts demonstrating just that.

SP:  How do you deal with clients reluctant to adopt digital strategies?

DN:  There is usually a genuine business reason, or it comes down to education. New Zealand is a unique market where traditional media is still incredibly cost effective, so a lot of the reluctance comes from trying to fix something that isn’t broken. That’s where an integrated and strategic offer really helps. Identifying digital and social opportunities to support and fully leverage traditional media.  

I’ve had the good fortune of working with some pretty digitally savvy and brave clients in the past and have some pretty persuasive case studies for the likes of Kiwibank and TAB that show the great possibilities and effectiveness of digital.

SP:  In your experience, have pitching briefs become more digitally oriented over time? 

DN:  Absolutely, but the watch out if you’re already talking about execution before you’ve cracked the strategic opportunity. The question that does pop up often is ‘what does the future look like without TV?’ To which the answer is usually ‘online video’. The truth is the more things change the more they stay the same. While usage of media and habits may change, the principles of communication and entertainment don’t.

SP:  How important is digital proficiency to winning new accounts these days?

DN:  It depends on what you are pitching for, and how much your audience knows about you and the agency. Pitching for and winning the contract for a new app or a website you’ll need to go into fair amount of detail. When pitching for an integrated account, it’s more important to showcase how you can extend, leverage or bring to life the core idea in digital rather than talking about how may developers you’ve got. 

SP:  In the digital space, what do you look for in staff these days? What skills are you keen to bring into the agencies?

DN:  They have to get digital but, more importantly, get advertising and have an understanding of how marketing works. I’m always interested in people who have spent some time client side; it gives you perspective. Some bleeding-edge digital candidates often get lost down a digital rabbit hole; you need to remember social media is not a strategy.

SP:  As an indy, do you rely on freelancers to introduce specialised digital skills?

DN:  No, but yes. We’ve worked really hard to partner with one or two specialized dev houses. It’s at the point now where we operate like one team. It’s perfect. On complex one-off digital projects it doesn’t make business sense to hire a full-time specialised developer but I can assure you – you’ll want to have peace of mind you have access to the right skills at the drop of the hat if everything hits the fan.

SP:  How do you differentiate between skills that are best left to freelancers and those that should be brought in-house? Have you ever gotten this wrong and ended up forking out too much on freelancer bills?

DN:  It’s a constant learning process but you can definitely separate out people that ‘own’ the project and people that ‘contribute’ to the project. You can usually freelance the latter. I opt for more of a full-time freelance model, which allows for continuity for the rest of the team to plan meetings and workshops during those times.

SP:  It often seems that the most innovative digital campaigns demand customisation of the media channels (Found is a recent example). How important is your relationship with new media owners such as Facebook and Google? How involved are their creative teams in the creation of campaigns?

DN:  Very important. Google has been partnering with brands and agencies for many years now to bring their custom solutions to life, Project Re:brief is my favourite.  

If you don’t have a constant dialogue with local agency leads at Google and Facebook you’ll tend to miss the boat on any new opportunities. We aim to get a debrief as often as possible on industries relevant to our clients, then use this as good inspiration in creative briefs and use the best in class examples to inspire clients.

SP:  What does the future hold for indy agencies acting in the digital space? 

DN:  Freedom, agility and payouts. The major opportunity for indy agencies is the freedom from established revenue streams like media commission and production. Having the ability to move and pivot into what our clients really value and need. An agency will always be a business partner that can do what a marketing department can’t. That could be creativity, innovation or code. And eventually all roads lead to a global group wanting a slice of the pie. But I think we’ll see more of the likes of PwC, Deloitte and Accenture competing with WPP and Omnicom to be the leader in digital acquisition.

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