Commentary

Distribution, User Experiences Critical To Marketing

Distribution has become a great differentiator in modern marketing. As the technology for personalized marketing and advertising morphs into Web-based services residing in the cloud, competition will be around brand systems, not TV spots.  The new equation for successful marketing and advertising combines an idea, execution and distribution to create a branded user experience. 

Marketing will always pull emotion from the central creative idea. Yet in a world with many (and multiplying) platforms and a million personal channels, it's now execution and the quality of user experiences that determine the relevance of an agency.

This new marketing equation explains the rise of tech-savvy production shops to AOR status with leading advertisers. Core technology development, including software methodology and quality assurance, opens up a big plate of assignments that would never be discussed with a conventional ad/media agency.

It takes a different vision, organizational structure and culture to play this game.

It's nothing like creating a traditional brand promotion. For example, a few years ago, Hewlett-Packard wanted to own the desktop so people could set up computers faster and buy third-party software immediately. We designed software for a rich interactive process that reduced setup time (41 minutes to 14 minutes) and made it instinctive to buy Internet connectivity and security solutions from the setup module. Using the desktop as the distribution system paid off and in 18 months, the software had 20 language versions and 75 million replications, with millions in third-party revenues.

In this way, core technology can put an agency in the paradigm changing business. But there is a cost. To produce a multichannel customer experience, we have to reorganize the business around something bigger than the creative or technical disciplines. In trying to do that over the past three years, and growing significantly in the process, we've learned a few lessons that may provide some practical insights.

1.The experience is the product.
Three years ago, it became clear that the end game in digital had changed from developing microsites and creative promotions to designing branded customer experiences. We couldn't deliver on it, though, until we moved information architecture and user experience out from under creative. We identified user experience (UX) as a discipline, put it at the pinnacle of the agency and said this is ultimately our product -- delivering creative user experiences across channels. When we did that, it sent a message that neither creative nor technology is a be-all, end-all proposition, but it's the combination of the two disciplines that is critical. 

2.The digital world is flat.
The 22-year-olds coming into agencies have been living a multichannel life. They pride themselves on relevance and like to chase what's next. Top management naturally shares their urgency because what's next is what makes the agency relevant and sustainable. Resistance to change often comes from the middle-management layer -- people who aren't living the next technology or directly accountable for the next agency strategy. Swapping management levels for multichannel teams -- HP gets an account director, user experience specialist, creative/brand specialist and technology architect -- puts everyone on the same page and unlocks potential.

3.Transparency is the only policy.
Pace isn't something you can control in the user experience game. World-changing market opportunities come up suddenly, and you just have to say yes -- whether it's to a dozen specialists you hadn't budgeted for or a 24/7 month. The key is transparency among the troops -- explaining the imperative of meeting the demand, so it doesn't seem like management is whipping the horses just to meet numbers. That simple practice means the difference between resentment and results.

Finally, the best counsel on core technology innovation, operationally and technically, often comes from clients. I make it a practice to talk openly about where the agency is going and the challenges we face. The payoff is more than the invaluable input. Nothing will pull you closer to your clients.

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