Digital strategy is a fairly new concept in France; and while business is booming, I can’t say I’m pleased by the overall direction it’s taking.
A number of “digital strategists”, like myself, work as freelancers, and not often by choice. A few big agencies have taken the dive and hired a strategist, but these people often have little experience and a broad network of buddies: they’re simply the comfortable choice. This poses several frustrations for freelance strategists:
- A strategy is only as effective as its execution and follow-through. It’s expensive to buy one, but an utter waste of money if the people arranging its execution lack the digital knowledge to see the project through effectively. Inevitably, the strategist gets blamed for this.
- Planning an effective strategy involves close-knit collaboration and contact with the client. As freelancers we can’t be present for every major decision that gets made on an account, and agencies are generally reluctant to provide strategists with too much exposure to the client, or even to its own team. France, like ancient Rome, prides itself on its bureaucracy: once something passes out of my hands it may pass through five or six others before the client even sees it. I typically have no idea what that final product looks like. As for requesting client feedback? You may as well be pulling teeth.
- Your new in-house strategist, that guy you like so much, will throw your freelance strategist’s baby out with the bathwater. In a way, it’s understandable: it’s his time to shine, and he doesn’t want to sell something he can’t take all the credit for … particularly if you, the Big Agency, are relying on him to “transform” you into a digital leader.
When I asked Eric Clermontet of E2C2 why so few experienced digital strategists manage to get hired directly, he explained that the majority of digital specialists today are too expensive for agencies to justify hiring, so it’s more convenient to hunt down a cheaper alternative, even one with little or no experience. It’s also an issue of culture. Older agencies, with no roots in digital, want desperately to take a bite out of increasingly savoury digital accounts, but they also want to work with people within their comfort zones: people they can control, and whose thinking they can understand. The final product is typically a less-than-equipped digital team.
Consider: a guy you like who was great at packaging design will not necessarily be a great UX designer. He may produce nice sites, but he won’t immediately understand navigation and user experience, which are de facto skills for online graphic designers.
Working with freelancers also provides agencies an illusion of control without involving deep commitment. An agency can tell the strategist what to do, stop the work if it doesn’t like it, and hire new ones if the first strategy doesn’t work out. To understand the logic of this, you must understand the French hiring system: once a person’s passed their trial period, it’s incredibly expensive and next to impossible to fire them. You’re stuck with him, and the investment of being stuck is enormous in itself: in addition to the salary you pay obligatory social charges in addition to time off, as well as mandatory yearly training. These fees ultimately cost the hirer an additional 40-50%per month on top of the base salary.
Let me help you Big Agency folks out. Here’s what you need to know to properly implement a digital strategy:
- Building an online community takes a lot of support. It involves dedicated teams, a sense of ownership from the team leader, sponsorship (particularly for Facebook), immediate client response when a situation escalates, and external promotion and reinforcement. In other words, digital strategy is not plug-and-play software.
- Digital strategy must be coherent with other marketing messages that the brand is disseminating. A brand can’t position itself one way on TV and another way online; it’s already hard enough for users to remember a single message. How do you expect them to remember two? They’ll remember neither. This means a strategist needs to be able to see and account for all the work being done alongside digital. Ideally, a digital strategy is also reinforced by everything else in the brand ecosystem.
- A digital strategy requires serious benchmarks, accounting both for what the client wants and for the realities of the market. This is one reason why client contact is so important: it’s hard enough to define what a client wants without having to filter what she’s saying through an agency, which has its own agenda. Because social is an animal whose nature few people understand, today it’s also the work of a digital strategist to help a client define their objectives. You can’t nail those down by playing Telephone.
- A solid strategy is a long-term strategy. It often happens that I develop a baseline strategy for the way a brand will look, feel, and engage customers online. The purpose of this exercise is to naturally transmit the brand’s existing DNA onto social, then build on that. One or two months in, the agency will come back to me and say something crazy like, “We don’t understand why we don’t have 200,000 Likes on Facebook yet, so we’re changing the strategy.” This attitude becomes a refrain that repeats itself every two months.
I once heard it said that you can tell a restaurant’s failing if it often changes its base menu items: the act betrays lack of confidence in itself and a fundamental instability that scares people away. It’s the same for digital: online, ideas rise and fall every day. If people have even the smallest suspicion that you’re not committed to what you’re saying and doing, they’ll exit stage left long before you pull yourself together.
- A strong strategy demands accompaniment. The power of digital lies in your ability to track sentiment, behaviour and other metrics in real-time. This feedback enables your strategist to gauge how well the work is faring and make adjustments as-needed. This is not possible if you buy the strategy and walk away.
Late last year, I sold a strategy to an agency and helped them find a community manager for the client in question. The community manager is invested in the brand and knows her work well. One thing she does regularly is send weekly reports to myself and to the agency. Three months in, they demanded a meeting to discuss changing the strategy. It was during this discussion that we discovered that they had not been sending the reports to the client -- meaning that the client herself had no idea how her social presence was faring, and could not even provide informed feedback. An oversight like this is inexcusable; their excuse? They didn’t know they had to.
These are just a few things that will help agencies better understand what a digital strategy actually is. These are the two big takeaways: digital isn’t turnkey; it’s a powerful extension to the brand’s existing persona, messaging strategy and customer relationship. Secondly, hire and enable digital strategists who know what they’re doing, even if their way of working is alien and kind of freaks you out. It’s the only way to help your agency evolve, ensure placement of the right team members, and nurture a strategy through its lifecycle appropriately. If you want credibility in digital, there is no shortcut.