Agency of the Year: Gold -- Digitas

by , Dec 7, 2012, 11:15 AM
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With its newsroom approach to real-time brand storytelling, Digitas continues to create campaigns with Page-One punch

On Monday, Feb. 27th, when a race car veered off course and crashed into an industrial dryer spilling a couple of hundred gallons of highly flammable jet fuel onto the Daytona International Speedway, it appeared that the 2012 Daytona 500 might be over with 40 laps left to go. But the track crew quickly extinguished the flames, and then a remarkable marketing opportunity occurred: They began pouring boxes of Tide powered detergent on the hazardous spill, demonstrating in a visceral, real-time, real-world situation — before thousands of attendees and millions of tv viewers — that the Procter & Gamble brand isn’t just good at cleaning clothes, but also is the preferred brand of hazmat cleanup crews. 

While that kind of product testimonial cannot be planned, it can be amplified if you have the right team in place to capitalize on the news cycle surrounding the event. As it turns out, p&g did, and as spectators at home watched their tv sets agape, a handful of executives sitting in a small control room in Digitas’ Boston headquarters watched along with them. In addition to the live tv feed, they also were watching screens showing a wide range of meta data surrounding the event, including live social media feeds and analytics they could use to monitor the story as it trended. Almost immediately, they began creating and distributing content on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that would amplify it.

As it turned out, the team, headed by Digitas Senior Vice President John Robinson, a former journalist turned agency creative, was already primed for action, coming off a similar real-time storytelling opportunity for Tide the previous day. As one of the sponsors of abc’s telecast of the Academy Awards, the Digitas crew helped craft real-time messages and stories congratulating and playing off of some of the Oscar winners as they were revealed live.

Days later, when extraordinarily violent storms and tornadoes ripped through America’s heartland, the Digitas team were also poised to capitalize on the real-time storytelling opportunity created when p&g sent its “Tide Loads of Hope” mobile laundry facilities to help devastated communities in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio clean-up from the natural disasters.

Bringing journalism to branding

The team was in place thanks to “Brandlive,” an experimental new content lab created by Digitas to see if it could begin to leverage the storytelling opportunities inherent in journalistic news and social media trending story cycles on behalf of a brand. The program was so successful, that p&g has since expanded the program to two of its other brands. And several other, as-yet-undisclosed Digitas clients are also now working with it.

While most big agencies are still trying to develop successful business models to capitalize on the shift toward real-time brand storytelling, the Digitas team turned to a model that has already been doing it successfully — more or less — for centuries: news organizations. But unlike some agency executives who now assert that “brands are journalists too,” Digitas’ Robinson says the goal isn’t to try and pass a brand, or its pitches, off as authentic journalistic news stories, but rather to use journalistic methods — especially the ability to contextualize how a story will play the next day — that editors and news producers do so well.

In fact, in preparation for Brandlive, Robinson and his team set up camp inside usa Today’s newsroom and sat in as flies-on-the-wall of the newspaper’s story meetings, to learn first-hand how top journalists shape the way stories are played. And then he built a “newsroom” to replicate it. And each morning the Brandlive team begins its day the way many newspapers do, with a meeting in which stories are pitched for the next day’s edition. Instead of journalists, the meetings consist of Digitas social media analytics and content creators, their clients’ brand managers, and if need be, their legal teams too.

As it turns out, real-time brand storytelling isn’t without its risks, and the Brandlive team hasn’t been afraid to take some when they believed there was a payoff for the brand. That’s what happened when satirical newspaper The Onion published a fictitious column penned by “Fred Hammond,” the hypothetical “director of digital video and social media ad integration for Tide Detergent,” which more or less made fun of the kind of real-time storytelling p&g was striving to achieve with Brandlive.

The Onion column, titled, “Hey, Everybody! This Cool New Tide Detergent Video Is Blowing Up All Over The Internet!,” lampooned so-called “viral” brand videos, by describing Tide’s as having “these cute, funny talking animals, a cool indie rock song, and kit’s just so hilariously random,” etc.

In response, the Brandlive team did the only logical thing — it created a parody of The Onion parody featuring many of the cliché elements described by The Onion, albeit tongue-in-cheek. The problem, says Digitas’ Robinson, is that after the agency uploaded it to YouTube and posted it on Facebook it realized that many of the Tide detergent fan base simply did not have enough of the backstory to understand where it was coming from, because they hadn’t read the original Onion column.

In other words, it was an inside joke that fell flat with some of the brand’s fans, because they weren’t on the inside of it. So the Brandlive team scrambled to utilize social media to fill in the gaps to provide context for the story behind the story. The best indication that it worked was a tweet from The Onion’s Managing Editor Kyle Ryan: “Well played, Tide, well played.”

Taking risks in the brand newsroom

As much fun as the p&g and Digitas teams seem to be having with Brandlive, it’s not all fun and games, according to the agency’s chief. “It’s a process and a method, but there’s also a lot of technology that we’ve put in place to do it,” says Digitas ceo Colin Kinsella. “A lot of agencies talk about doing something like this, but to actually be able to build the product, and the processes and methods and execute on them, takes a lot.”

And it is because of this fresh, yet highly disciplined and scientific approach to real-time brand storytelling that the editors of omma magazine pick Digitas as its agency of the year — for the third year in a row — not simply for cracking the code on content marketing, but for creating a business model that makes it work.
Kinsella predicts other agencies will follow with similar “brand newsroom” approaches, because it works. He can’t say how well it does, because p&g has asked the agency to keep it confidential, but he says, “on an roi basis, it is proving to be its most effective marketing channel.”

While Digitas won’t say, Cincinnati-based media shop Empower MediaMarketing did an roi analysis in the days following the Daytona 500 incident, which estimated that Brandlive generated more than $8 million worth of free, positive media impressions for the Tide brand. What the long-term return was on Tide’s brand reputation and esteem may be incalculable.
Kinsella says Brandlive is still evolving, but it’s already had a profound impact on Digitas’ clients, and on the agency itself. He says it began as a way to “fill in” gaps between client campaigns, but that the model is beginning to flip, and that the Brandlive approach is starting to become the “de facto place for marketing communications,” and that the traditional “paid media” (ie. advertising campaigns) agencies utilize will simply become a means for “accelerating” those stories.

“It began by filling in gaps. But it is becoming the way brands market,” he asserts. “And it’s not just affecting brands. It will change the agency too. This new, more agile way of working will become the new business model for us going forward.”

New Business: Up 40 percent

While Brandlive was the strongest criteria for selecting Digitas, the agency was firing on all other cylinders, including creative, branded content, analytics, R&D, and the metric many in the industry prize most: new business.

During 2012, the first year Kinsella flew solo as Digitas chief, succeeding former CEO Laura Lang who left to run Time Inc., Digitas racked up 17 major new business wins, including Taco Bell (digital aor), eBay (digital aor), Aetna (e-commerce lead), Sprint (lead), Vevo, Panasonic (global), Uniqlo, Google Mobile, and Victoria’s Secret.  Kinsella says it was the agency’s best new business year ever, and that new business grew 40 percent from 2011 and doubled 2010, contributing to net new revenues for the agency of $70 million.

On the creative front, it was the most recognized digital agency in the industry’s awards shows, winning 30 major awards, including nine Cannes Lions, and four Effies.

If there was any icing on Digitas’ 2012 cake, it was the evolution of its so-called NewFront initiative from an insular Digitas-only effort to kick-start digital content creation to a legit industry platform. The NewFront, which was originally conceived by former ceo Lang as a way to organize client brands with digital platforms and Hollywood content creators on behalf of Digitas, opened its doors to outside suppliers and competitors alike, evolving into a series of NewFronts produced by specific vendors such as aol, Hulu, Google/YouTube, Microsoft and Yahoo, which invited rival agencies and their clients to participate in what is becoming akin to network television’s famous upfronts.

Kinsella says the strategy was intentional, because Digitas realized the concept could never scale without leaving the agency’s doors and becoming a neutral platform for the digital industry to develop new concepts. As proof of its success, even rival agency executives have sung Digitas’ praises for doing it, and at presstime, Digitas announced that the Interactive Advertising Bureau was taking oversight of the NewFronts to ensure its neutrality going forward.

“By opening the doors and shifting it from a Digitas hosted event, we helped organize the industry to come together, pool their resources and communicate the value everyone brings to the marketplace,” Kinsella explains. “We created the stage for which digital video could be seen as the powerful, scaled tool that it is.

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