Last week at SxSW Ben Malbon, executive director of innovation at BBH and managing partner and founder of BBH Labs, and his brother Tim, founder of London’s Made by Many, assembled 30 worldwide “competitors” to talk about how we might collaborate and innovate together in an effort to not only reinvent the future, but blow up the now.
We gathered at Roy’s, right across from the Convention Center, courtesy of SoDa, which had rented the restaurant for much of the week. There were folks from Agency Net, BBH Labs, Boulder Digital Works, Barbarian Group, Big Spaceship, Cake, Colossal Squid, Exopolis, Golin Harris, Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, Hyper Island, IQ Interactive, Made by Many, McCann, Media Arts Lab, Mullen, Odopod, Rain, Society of Digital Agencies, Struck, Tangerine, Undercurrent and Victors & Spoils.
For many of us, this two hour session, filled with questions, ideas, thoughts on how to work together — all framed in the challenges of social, cultural and technological change — was one of the high points of the week.
The question we asked: Could a collection of companies join forces to explore a new way of working? Could we get better at leveraging digital technology? Might we find more efficient ways to align agency and client organizations, perhaps eliminating the walls and silos that impede efficiency and agility? Is it possible to resolve all the arguments and debates about whether the campaign is dead while the platform reigns supreme?
Our answer: Maybe. If we actually try some stuff.
I threw together a recap of the meeting, which previously ran in AdWeek. They took it down, but you can read it below. Enjoy. If you want, you can even leave a non-anonymous comment. Either here or there. As always, thanks for reading and sharing your ideas. It’s what this blog, social media and digital are all about.
Collaborating with competitors at SxSWi: a new strategy for the digital age
(previously published in AdWeek.)
If nothing else, SxSWi is a celebration of ideas. We share them, question them, challenge them and gather around them. Perhaps most importantly we search for new ideas and try to imagine their consequences.
So in some ways it’s not remarkable that BBH Labs’ Ben Malbon and his brother Tim, the founder of London’s Made by Many, assembled 30 “competitors” from across the country and the world to talk about how we might collaborate, share and innovate together in an effort to not only re-invent the future, but blow up the now.
However, in other ways it is remarkable; for it represents yet another example of what many of us believe is the new competitive advantage: sharing. The idea that if we give away some of our thinking it might help our reputation, establish our authority, and more importantly, introduce us to others who, by returning the favor, make us smarter and more effective ourselves.
Of course it makes sense for another reason. As media, technology and attitudes continue to change, we all have to become learning organizations in addition to creative businesses. No one knows all the answers or even the questions. We can’t predict what new device or program or platform will be the next big thing. We can’t be sure that what’s hot today will be here in another year. We don’t even know how to make a digital video go viral without luck and serendipity.
The collective we, and perhaps some of the individuals in the room, may think they know what marketers should do in the digital age. But if digital is everything from enduring platforms and commerce sites, to micro-sites, iPhone apps, and what we do with Twitter’s API (not to mention OLA and digital media), it’s anything but obvious. Factor in traffic, conversion, content management, the value of engagement and how consumers behave (sharing, co-creating, searching/solving, transacting) and, well, you get the picture.
We do know some things, however. Outbound advertising and marketing is rapidly becoming less impactful than digital engagement. The people who buy stuff spend more and more time online, logging onto the web from their mobile devices, not even bothering to distinguish one screen from another. They want access, content, utility, control, participation and the chance to define their own community. They aren’t there to absorb messages but rather to harness and use information on their terms. And, of course, their scarce attention isn’t for sale. It has to be earned.
For the first time this year, marketers may spend more money on digital and online advertising than on print, but let’s face it, few if any know the perfect blend of paid, earned, or owned. Their challenges are our challenges.
So, could a collection of companies working together figure out a way to get smarter and more competitive? And what could we do for clients? Teach them better ways to take advantage of digital opportunities? Help them structure their own internal organizations in ways that makes more sense, perhaps eliminating the walls and silos that impede efficiency and agility? Break them of their dependence on their version of crack cocaine: circulars for retailers; direct mail for credit cars; banner ads that don’t get noticed, never mind clicked; micro-sites that receive little traffic; iPhone apps that lie dormant after day one?
This meeting, held at a place called Roy’s across from the Convention Center in Austin, courtesy of SoDA (Society for Digital Agencies) who themselves have built a cooperative group of C-level digital agency executives to ponder the future and support each other’s effort to prosper, was a first step.
As a group we explored new ways to be open, stay relevant, add value and avoid doing what clients can do for themselves. We questioned the efficacy of the current agency or whether new kinds of alliances and partnerships would work better. And we suggested a host of ideas for what we could do next, including but not limited to the following:
Embrace a new kind of ad-hoc cooperation across agencies, assured by nothing more than our own commitment to help each other.
Fund an experimental organization we called a cloud. One rough scenario goes like this. Instead of working for one digital agency, a person would work for the cloud. During their tenure in the cloud individuals would take on assignments from lots of different agencies, in the process capturing a collective intelligence about best practices from each of the shops and sharing that intelligence with the entire network.
Take on a start-up (in return for an equity position) in hopes it might help the group define best practices for how digital can establish, launch and build a brand.
There were many others, from wikis to product ideas. But the most promising was the suggestion that all of the above, while potentially useful, were somewhat disappointing. They fell short of being disruptive. They won’t alter the status quo. They might make us better but they won’t invent the future.
That last sentiment is what excites me most: the fact that there is a bunch of smart people, willing to work together, beyond the walls of their own agencies, to create (or at least try) something entirely new. We have no idea where this might lead, but it’s worth finding out.
And even if nothing significant comes of it, we will at least keep the spirit of SxSWi alive well after we depart Austin: sharing ideas, questioning them, challenging them, gathering around them and best of all searching for new ones and imagining their consequences.
If you’re interested, here’s a list of companies and organizations whose senior people joined our conversation: Agency Net, BBH Labs, Boulder Digital Works, Barbarian Group, Big Spaceship, Cake, Colossal Squid, Exopolis, Golin Harris, Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, Hyper Island, IQ Interactive, Made by Many, McCann, Media Arts Lab, Mullen, Odopod, Society of Digital Agencies, Struck, Tangerine, Undercurrent and Victors & Spoils.
As Ben Malbon would tell you, we weren’t trying to be exclusive, simply keeping the group to a manageable size. But, since we all live in a digital age, our initial conversation is bound to spread. Join us.