First Impressions of a Digital Marketing Agency

Chris Quintero, Social Strategist

Chris is usually the person behind the brand for Miller Lite’s social media. Here he is working on the “Kick back” campaign for this summer.

DigitasLBi in Chicago was good enough to work with the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication to host me as a “Visiting Professor in Social Media” from July 11 through July 22, 2016. Digitas’ Chicago office has participated in this program three years in a row and deserves some kind of award for hosting me, a former broadcast journalist, this year as I was sweaty and vocal much of the time. Sweaty vocals are only cool if you’re on stage backed by the Famous Flames or welcoming your radio listeners to another bright day in Vietnam.

Please understand that as a former journalist I almost took pride in not knowing how advertising / integrated marketing worked for the better part of my career. Also give me some credit for figuring out that strategic communication matters quite a bit and that in many ways every mass communicator is trying to convince people she or he is telling the truth, at least some version of it. So, I’m coming around to the fact that marketing is essential even if it’s not what I do or what I primarily teach. I’m going to tag my dissertation advisor, Chair of the Strategic Communication Faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism Margaret Duffy here because she is who taught me that.

I went because I need to know how a successful “digital-first” media company works. I knew I was going to get a lot of sunshine and unicorns for awhile, but after two weeks there I also figured people would stop being polite and…as it turns out get almost none of my 90s references. Jesus of Suburbia are the people young there.

It’s pretty much 22-28 year olds running things with management in their late 40s / early 50s looking on. I’m 36, and I can pass for 55. But there’s another issue. Senior Vice Presidents in their 50s actually looked like they were in their 40s. So in a way I was the oldest, least experienced person there for two weeks. I see myself as ahead of the game in academia because 36 is sort of young for a professor, and people are allowed to look their age, excepting of course, every one of my colleagues at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville’s Department of Mass Comm. Also, I’m starting to develop an entrepreneurial media curriculum, which lets me believe I’m ahead of the curve, but there I was a dinosaur among unicorns.

Chicago is nyuuuge for advertising. Digitas is at 180 N. LaSalle,which puts it across from the State of Illinois Building (James R. Thompson Center) and not far from Leo Burnett-Chicago, which is also owned by Publicis. I may or may not have spent most of the first day trying to mentally draw an organizational chart from the people sitting around me up to the Management Board in France. I couldn’t do it, and my guess is most people working at DigitasLBi in Chicago don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it.

It might seem funny that there are a lot of VPs and Senior VPs of different capabilities and tasks all over the place, but to me it made sense pretty quickly because in the context of a recent college graduate, most people there are at a senior level. They may leave a VP position elsewhere to come to Digitas, so it makes sense that they recognize the level of work.

Generally speaking, people arrive at Digitas right at 9 a.m. and leave at about 5:30 p.m., although my view could be affected by being seated near interns and people in Strategy and Analytics, who have relatively predictable schedules. People chatted each other up very early in the day and then from about 5 p.m. on. Otherwise it was all business and was eerily quiet. There would be probably 80 – 100 people working on a floor, depending on the layout, and there were always meetings going on, but people weren’t messing around. My biased opinion of advertising students from J-school is that they were always running around with scissors and glue and occasionally glitter making a mess and doing creative stuff while everyone else was trying speak Truth to Power.

I guess the equivalent of that in an actual marketing firm in a time after the turn of the 21st Century is a bunch of 20-something kids with their heads glued to mobile devices and laptops looking at sets of key performance indicators (KPIs) trying to figure out how to make the next PowerPoint.

Everything runs on presentation software, on setting bars for social media reach and then beating those goals, on figuring out how to do more with less creative, and on being comfortable with the idea that we may hire 200 people next year or we may lose 50 but really probably not.

I sat on the 16th floor. I drank four La Croix of various fruit-like flavors each day from one of many fridges stocked with free stuff. I made my way to the 11th floor for carbs at least twice per day, and I interviewed about 40 people and sat in on about 15 meetings over the course of 14 days, one of which was given over to Volunteer Day where the staff painted Alfred Nobel Elementary School.

We’re passing a point of equilibrium where digital advertising is surpassing TV advertising. This concerns me as someone who teaches in a program that’s heavy on the TV and Radio and somewhat light on social strategy. My students and fellow faculty members really needed me to learn some best practices and to have some strategic takeaways from these two weeks, so I will share all sorts of those in subsequent posts.

Key First Impressions:

  • Almost everything you do in the network society can be recorded and measured, and everything that can be measured will be used to try to market to people more efficiently and effectively in social and on other digital media channels.
  • Cookies track your every move often through display ads served up to you through some app that you allowed to access your location. That data can be cross-referenced with store data to figure out what you’re buying and when, and this enables digital marketing organizations to make profiles based on real, actual people. You aren’t identified as yourself, exactly, but there’s you and hundreds of millions of other people “in there.”
  • With that data, you can expect much more direct and detailed advertising trying to push you to complete purchases.
  • This opens up sort of a new world in creative work because it needs to be highly tailored and specific to the product at the right time.
  • There will undoubtedly continue to be conflict between creatives who like to have time to write and design and shoot photos and video and create graphics and art and  just about everyone else in the building.
  • This is not new, but the ways it plays out will be nuanced down to the campaign, the digital platform, and to the limited realm of possible creative work.
  • The level of preparation and connection with strategy and analytics needed to be able to measure success according to agreed-upon metrics is going to be extremely high, so analytics people and creatives will continue to have to work together, and this gives project managers a reason for being.
  • It doesn’t take that long to establish some basic key performance indicators for a new digital media product or platform, but they may never be perfected because another platform or trend in information sharing is coming along in 18 months.
  • The relationship between brand, i.e. Miller Lite and agency and agency and vendor, i.e. Twitter will probably work best when someone in the agency acts as an extension of the brand’s marketing team and then is as informed as possible on what vendors can do to deliver creative messages.
  • The realm of possibilities is so great, creative will get lost in the mix if it doesn’t speak up for itself and listen closely to what’s needed by the strategy and analytics people which can then be sold to the brand, e.g. we’re going to target a specific subset of men 21-28 for a summer campaign using a social platform and we have to know how to measure success before one photo has been taken or tweet has been crafted.
  • Crafting social to look off the cusp but be legal and professional is really difficult.
  • There’s still a lot of authentic social connection going on – it just mainly happens in direct messages and communications of that sort depending on the platform.

Obviously all of this needs to be unpacked and illustrated.

This was my first post in a series about my experiences as a mass media scholar and media entrepreneurship professor with a journalist’s mindset in a “below-the-line” agency in Downtown Chicago.  (“Below-the-line” is characterized by the types of media it’s NOT, which is interesting and tells me that there are still some dinosaur-like concepts afloat in advertising-integrated marketing just as there are in journalism.  That which is NOT “radio, television, billboards, print and film” is how below-the-line is defined.

Turns out, there’s a whole lot in that NOT.



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