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11/20/2009 Digital Leadership

On my trip to Boston this week I had the pleasure listening to an amazing group of digital pros talk about using labs and experimentation to change culture within an agency. The underlying message was that clients demanded digital expertise and solutions but that agencies still scrambled to show that they could deliver this. Traditional agencies, those weaned on the 30-second spot and the dynamic duo model of copywriter/art director, face the biggest challenge to change, as opposed to the pure digital players.

I also took the opportunity to talk briefly with Edward Boches, Chief Creative Officer of Mullen. I've been following and interacting with Edward on Twitter and in the blogosphere, which is always fun. But in person is better. And I finally got to ask him the question I find most relevant:

"What did you do to shift the focus at Mullen from traditional to digital?" Now Mullen has always had a large interactive group but so do a lot of places. But if you compare what they're doing this year, and the attention they're receiving as a digital/social media agency, something's happening. And they're starting to leapfrog the other agency giants in Boston.

Edward's answer was consistent with other successful digital leaders. He discovered digital with a passion and became, at least mildly, obsessed with it. He thought it was a blast. It wasn't that he became the best technologist or the hottest coder. It was that as he dug in and played with it, it filled him with ideas and excitement and spoke to his creative muse.

That, in essence, is what every digital leader has to have. An excitement, if not passion, for the possibilities of technology. You can't fake that excitement. I don't think you can delegate that excitement. Many of today's leaders think hiring some one or some two will solve that problem, while the leaders sit back and see what happens. This can only work if the leader cedes much of his or her control to the new people. Which almost never happens.


If you look back over the past 10+ years, that's how agencies tried to manage the digital space. They started interactive groups, hired online specialists and then put their focus back on the traditional side. They were always surprised to find that their agencies weren't further ahead.

I had the pleasure of meeting Scott McCormick of VML several times. To me, Scott is great example of digital leadership. He took a medium sized, midwestern agency and helped turn them into one of the world's digital powerhouses. When I talked to Scott, his love of technology and gadgets always came out. He thought the digital space was so much fun that he surrounded himself with incredibly smart people who felt the same way. Scott always played down his own knowledge but it was clear to me that his passion drove the success of VML. The incredibly smart people around him aren't enough without that leadership.

Digital leadership, like any other leadership, doesn't flow from logic it flows from passion. The problem for many agency leaders is that they don't have that digital passion. But few are willing to leave or cede control so that their agencies can change.

If the traditional agency model dies, you can chalk it up to the lack of digital leadership.


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