I was at a conference recently and a bunch of senior executives were braving coffee during a break. I recall this because the coffee was horrid and the snacks completely bland, even though we were at a five-star hotel. There should be an article on how hotel brands damage their equity by serving crappy food. Anyway, I digress.
More on the topic. Someone asked: “What are the characteristics one should look for when hiring people?”
We received interesting suggestions all round, like leadership qualities, being a team player, enthusiasm, passion, ambition and so on. All these are great qualities and I would highly recommend that you look for them when interviewing people.
Then someone said something that really caught my attention: “If you want to hire for digital, what is the best industry to pick people from?” It was an interesting question and everyone went quiet for a while. It also helped me take my mind off the tasteless spinach hors d’oeuvre I was struggling with.
One by one, the gentlemen gathered there started to volunteer their preferences. Plenty agreed they should be from the digital industry; someone said IT, a couple gave a nod to software developers and there was an odd call for hiring talent from the local Christian community. All these executives had sound reasons for their suggestions. For example, the last gentleman felt that the Christian community has a much better grip on spoken or colloquial English. Since most of the front-end engagement by brands in digital is in English, this gives them an edge. Eventually, everyone turned to me. I forced a sip of the sour, over-brewed caffeine down my throat and offered my humble opinion honestly: “Ad agencies; more specifically, the strategy and creative departments from the better ad agencies.”
Some of the executives were surprised. They were not entirely wrong when they protested that the typical ad agency executive does not necessarily understand digital. Dealing in traditional ATL media, they are used to a one-way mode of communication and therefore, don’t understand how engagement works or even how to make the best use of it for the brand’s benefit.
My argument, however, was that a communication specialist can be trained to do this. What is difficult for someone to grasp in a short time is how the communication with an audience should take place. And that is one of the biggest problems facing digital. The quality of communication is way below par. Ninety percent of the communication on digital is too tactical. It is short-term goal oriented and usually completely out of tune with what a brand stands for. So I asked them why would they expect a bunch of techies (who may be marvellous at what they do otherwise) to know how to drive a piece of dialogue out of a brand’s essence. It’s a complicated task at the best of times.
The last question was how important are communication skills (driving dialogue based on a brand’s strategy) in digital? “Would you hire a TV technician to make an ad for TV?” I asked.
And what kind of an argument is: “But he understands how TVs work?” Well, good for him but understanding how TV works is not as important as understanding how audiences work when you talk to them. The art of selling a brand by knowing exactly what to say, how to say it and when to say it should be the defining skill when looking for people who are going to use digital to sell brands.
My argument is simple; it is easier to train a communication expert to become a digital communication expert. It is an entirely different thing to train a technical person to become a creative brand communication specialist. This is not a hypothesis. This comes from years of experience in the digital industry and a lot of headaches from attempting to do just that. My experience is that the best results from digital communication can be driven by communication experts.
This is just the most basic of the problems. Let me demonstrate what I am trying to say through a slightly more complex issue. Brands are using ‘social listening’ to drive positive engagement. When you employ people who do not have a background in strategic communication, the only perspective they can derive from social listening is basic reputation management. For example, they will only be able to trace if something good is said and comment “Thank you” or “We will look into this,” if the feedback is negative. Is that the full scope of social listening? Really?
When it comes to digital, we place more importance on hiring someone who has the skills to boost a post rather than a better understanding of what should be said in that post. It’s like hiring amazing media planners to write copy for the next Lipton tea ad; they will write mediocre copy but make a great placement for it.
If I could train one strategist from the agency side to use a social listening tool (they already have very user-friendly GUIs), the same app will suddenly become a powerful research tool to analyse the current sentiment of your target audience and help drive future communication based on it.
When a brand wants to advertise on TV, radio, outdoor or at an event, they hire communication experts trained to weigh and write every word in a sentence to mean something and move towards a unified brand goal. Yet, when it comes to digital, we place more importance on hiring someone who has the skills to boost a post rather than a better understanding of what should be said in that post. It’s like hiring amazing media planners to write copy for the next Lipton tea ad; they will write mediocre copy but make a great placement for it.
This sort of thinking is dangerous. It is as clueless as the hotel manager smiling smugly in front of me, thinking he has served a great round of tea. The poor gentleman has no clue that the biscuits are so dry that you need to chug a mouthful of terrible coffee with each bite to wash them down.
Coming back to the topic... Why then, you may ask, are digital agencies doing this and getting away with it? Well, mainly because until now, digital has accounted for a very small portion of the budget for most big brands and an even smaller part of their overall communication strategy. However things have changed. For large brands, digital is becoming relevant and taking up a considerable portion of their annual marketing budgets. And with media rates inflating the way they are, for mid-sized brands and downwards, digital seems to be the major communication media, if not the only one. As this continues to happen, digital agencies will no longer be able to sell mediocre communication attached to great digital media plans, even if they deliver a great report in the end with an amazing number of likes and CPC. Brands will demand logic, structure and strategy in everything communicated on digital media; just like they do when dealing with other media. The development of their brand’s equity will always be paramount. Great brands, such as Coke, Pepsi or Surf have not won consumer hearts in this country by delivering random, short-term, tactical campaigns. They have built themselves into brand juggernauts by consistently driving a well-thought-out dialogue designed to win consumer hearts and confidence.
In the end, I learned two important lessons from that coffee break. One, bring your own coffee when you attend a conference at a five-star hotel in Karachi. (They don’t have a clue about what a good brew should taste like. If you are smart, you will also smuggle in some decent antipasto).Two, while you may agree or disagree with what I am saying (I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion), it is an odd argument to suggest digital agencies should be allowed to drive random bits of communication, even if they deliver a great number of thumbs up. Digital media will have to fall in line with all other media and deliver intelligent dialogue when engaging with consumers.
The mere fact that heads of digital agencies don’t understand how pressing this matter is, says a lot about the state of affairs in our industry. After all, why would you want to fix a problem if you do not agree there is a problem to begin with?
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, Kueball. firstname.lastname@example.org