Now is as good a time as any to be thinking about the future of digital (and social) as defined by those of us who provide services or even products around these. If you work for any agency or consultancy—this article is relevant for you. If you're on the "client side" consider it relevant as well as ultimately it is your business model and needs which dictate the market conditions that affect your partners, vendors and professional service providers. I'm writing this piece from the perspective of having worked at several digital agencies—some of which are still taking market share and others which have slowly faded away or been digested into other formations.
Today, I work for a large privately held company (Edelman) with a "practice" consisting of roughly 600 individuals globally who offer services in the "social-digital" space (Edelman Digital). Given that the word "innovation" is in my title, I am always thinking about how we service the market today vs. how will will need to service it tomorrow. I obsess a little about things like comoditization and have seen it happen in other places I've worked at during my career. Below are some things which have been keeping me up at night, with a few ideas around how to address them. They are specific to the "digital-social" space largely, but can be more broadly applied as well.
Talent Importing & Exporting
The ground war starts here. If you work for an agency or professional services firm which operates deeply on the digital and social side of things, you are competing with everyone for talent. From start-ups to brands to the big three (Facebook, Google & Twitter)—it is essential to "import" the best talent while they are still emerging and "export" them into different opportunities across your firm to ensure retention. I am convinced that the Darwinism which happens regularly in this business is connected to acquisition and retention of talent who not only possess the right skills but deeply understand "the culture of service"—an art in and of itself which is critical for any client relationship. In addition to service culture, talent must be able to speak "the language of business", especially when it comes to understanding how our clients build theirs.
Adaptation of Skillsets
Our world is changing daily. One of my recent tasks was to co-write a detailed point of view on how Facebook's latest changes affects the skillsets of the people who provide the services we make money from. For example, featured posts essentially converts brand page administrators into media buyers and real time analytics means community managers must become junior analytics consultants as well. There's no training course in the world designed to prepare your firm for the pace which our space runs at—you must have passionate, adaptable teams who are constantly challenging themselves to grow supported by leadership infrastructure which demands and rewards this. Simply put, we adapt or die.
Supply & Demand: The Keys To The Castle
As I mentioned earlier I think a lot about the services needed (as well as the ones which will be needed). For agencies specifically looking to gain market share in "social"—the "keys to the castle" so to speak are linked to how deeply we can embed ourselves in the platforms both internally and externally of our client partners. Translation—if you don't have direct access to a client's social properties and/or work closely with their teams, you are in trouble. The digital shops who both survived and are still thriving learned this lesson and are still here as a result. It's difficult to replace a partner who has helped create and maintain your infrastructure. The services we provide today must match market demand and be conducted flawlessly—for example if market demand suggests a need to run global social properties at scale, then you should be better at that than anyone else. Meet today's market demand and execute flawlessly while working on tomorrow's services today.
Ecosystem Development: Establish Your Alliances
Today's digital ecosystem is even more complex than yesterday's with new players emerging who attach themselves to the dominant platforms. From social CMS providers like Buddy Media, to data and analytic platforms such as Crimson Hexigon, Sysomos or Radian Six. Relationships with key partners (emphasis on plural) is critical to leveraging each other's strengths relationships and complimentary services. Should a digital or social agency develop their own ecosystems? The answer depends on the objective as well as the execution. Many "back end" platforms can be customized leveraging the API's of third parties. Today, build vs. assemble is a significant decision. Either way, I am convinced that for social and digital firms or those who wish to grow market share here—relationships built now will lead to success or failure later.
Integration: Multiple Roads
I could probably write more and perhaps I will at a later time, but this is a good start. While I haven't dwelled much on "integration"—It's also key, however there is more than one road which leads to that particular Rome. Ultimately integration of services (and agency partners) is linked to client business structure. Some are more hands-on, managing integration tightly and look for multiple partners while others seek to consolidate and empower certain partners to lead integration. But, while integration is complex and messy—I believe it's less critical than results. Websites that don't work, apps which aren't used and social execution which ends up in the media (in a bad way) are more significant indicators of success or the lack of, than having an agency structure which looks neat and tidy. In the end, it always has and will come down to execution and results.