Rise of the machines: Touchcast’s Andrew Hawley on digital charlatans, heads of digital and the value of experiential

Andrew Hawley, the managing director of Touchcast was recently elected to the CAANZ executive board, an appointment that served as commendation for the quality of the digital work his agency has delivered since its inception.     

Recently, Touchcast was ranked 6th fastest growing company in New Zealand, and 46th fastest growing tech company in Asia Pacific. Touchcast’s work has featured at the RSVP and NZDM Awards in New Zealand, the Caples Awards in New York, at Cannes, the Future Marketing Awards for Asia Pacific Region, and the Best Design Awards in New Zealand. He has been on the digital jury of the Clio awards in Miami, and has judged the Axis and Effie Awards in New Zealand several times. 

And given his interest in creating digital experiences, StopPress recently sent him a few questions on how the interactive channel is evolving and what challenges this is introducing.      

StopPress: Previously, much has been said about digital charlatans in the industry. Is this still a problem these days or have the weeds been removed since digital first exploded onto the scene?
Andrew Hawley: Historically, this has always been a problem, and it’s still a challenge, perhaps exacerbated as the demand for quality digital thinking has grown. I do think people have learned more effective filtering techniques so that frequency of exposure is lessened.

Like many other agencies, when we hire new staff we initiate a range of tests depending on the roles. These have proven effective, especially with technical roles, with our long-term conversion rate very positive. Production and project management is an area we tend to focus on as well, especially considering the success or failure of many digital projects relying heavily on flexible work-flow management. Some people thrive under this pressure, and others fold.

I’d say the most challenging area to quantify experience and real ability is in account management and strategy. We have become far more effective at identifying substance from vaporware during the interview process but there are still many who talk a good game, and it’s not until they’re under extreme pressure that you discover the true extent of their capabilities, or lack thereof.
SP: How do you distinguish a charlatan from someone who is talented?

AH: We primarily rely on multiple interviews, skills testing and our own experience in the industry to spot the difference, and after making some mistakes over the past few years we think we’ve become quite good at identifying those without substance. 
SP: What does the oft-used phrase ‘digital skills’ even mean when it comes to creatives? Do they need these skills?

AH: It can mean many things depending on who’s using the phrase. I guess it depends on what your definition of ‘digital’ means. For a more traditional agency, digital might mean ‘digital campaigns’. For a retail business it might be a fusion of business logic, customer experience, e-commerce, brand experience and engagement campaigns. For a dev shop it might be focused on code, technical and environmental.

For us, digital is very broad and intersects all those things and more, so valuable digital skills for any employee begin at a philosophical level. In the case of a digital creative, they must be able to recognise and appreciate good thinking through the lens of code, mechanics, UX, and business logic as well as copy, motion, sound, graphic and image. After all, some of the best communication solutions might manifest as service design evolution or product improvement rather than a clever line of copy. 
For a creative role it certainly helps to have an appreciation, or enough experience, to know what can be achieved practically and systemically, and for what budget. It’s great to conceptualise fantastic digital campaign ideas, but much harder to deliver those ideas robustly and within budget.

SP: Is it still necessary for agencies/marketing departments to have a head of digital?

AH: This really depends on the overall organisational structure, but whatever that structure is, digital courses through a greater spectrum of an organisation’s component parts than ever before. So ideally, a holistic view of digital is needed by someone or a group of people for a brand experience to be cohesive to customers engaging with those various touchpoints.
Because we were founded as a digital agency, we don’t require a head of digital: everything we do is digital-first. For some of the more traditional agencies there might still be that role to ensure strategy and creative ideas are practical, realistic, and integrate with a broader digital ecosystem to deliver meaningful ROI, and a cohesive customer experience that is contextually relevant.
SP: How important is it to connect a digital campaign to the real world? Is that real world experiential element important? Do people still want something they can touch? 
AH: This depends on the campaign, the brand, the audience and the context, so there’s probably a range of answers, all of which could be correct given those variables. Certainly, when there’s an alignment of audience and brand that indicates an experiential component could either amplify or initiate a digital experience, it can be very compelling. We know people respond to things that engage them emotionally, and often experiential does that effectively, being able to draw upon a range of sensory triggers that digital alone cannot do. When experiential is fused with some of the hallmark attributes of digital such as live interaction, personalization, amplification, and community propagation, it can be a very powerful combination.

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