When Laura Lang ascended to CEO of Digitas in 2008, you'd think she was handed the keys to the kingdom. The agency was the pride of the digital advertising community, and had just been acquired by Paris-based agency holding company Publicis, whose Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy was busy telling the world that digital was the future of the agency business, and Digitas was now the jewel in Publicis' crown. And if that weren't enough digital writing on the wall, her predecessor, David Kenny, had moved into the chief digital strategy role for all of Publicis, had become co-managing director of its VivaKi digital and media operations, and was, by many accounts, the heir apparent to succeed Levy as CEO of the parent company. A layup, right?
Not exactly. The weight had fallen on Lang to keep Digitas' engine running, including its strong operating margins, new business record and contribution to Publicis' bottom line, even while integrating its operations into the rest of Publicis' digital arms. And, oh yeah, figure out a way to keep its practices and organization ahead of a digital curve that was being reinvented every 18 months or so. Three years later, Lang appears to have accomplished all of that, and as they say on Madison Avenue, much, much more.
Under Lang's management, Digitas delivered its best successive growth for new business revenue ever, and in 2010 won nearly 50 new clients globally, while growing its existing client business by double digits, making Digitas one of the biggest buyers of digital media in the world. Case proven? Not exactly. Lang's not settling for being a digital media juggernaut. She wants Digitas to be a digital marketing - and, yes, even creative - leader.
She began the way media shops - digital or analog - traditionally do, in the non-creative-agency-threatening-way: with branded content. Lang has made the creation of original digital content, and the ideas that come with it, an agency-wide mandate for Digitas. She also conceived an event that would catalyze it throughout her organization. Dubbed the Digital NewFront, the annual Digitas event is a nod to the TV industry's upfront, but with the emphasis on ideation versus deal-making. Though deals have surely come out of the Madison meets digital vine, including the award-winning "Real Women of Philadelphia" campaign for Kraft's Philadelphia cream cheese brand.
But that deal grew out of Lang's first and primary criteria for the initiative: innovation. By corralling some of Hollywood's best directorial, production and even in-front-of-the-camera talent in a summit with Digitas' media and creative teams, and client brand counterparts, Lang's theory is that it will inspire collaborations that wouldn't normally happen in the media industry's obligatory deal-making style, where vendors pitch what they've produced, or what's sitting on their shelves.
It's the same spirit of collaboration and ideation that has led Lang's organization to develop innovative media partnerships that are creative in their own right, including Digitas' mobile partnership with Google, which now looks prescient in retrospect. The agency also issued one of the first social commerce playbooks. In fact, Lang was one of the first industry executives to trumpet the notion that mobile and social were effectively blurring into a new array of technologies and connections between consumers and brands.
Other Digitas' digital firsts under Lang's helm include: The first all-digital touchscreen vending machine; n The first 3-D digital campaign (driving sales of over 166,000 units); n The first banner ad designed for a news publisher's iPad application; n The first social commerce platform for an airline within and across its Facebook presence; n The first national holiday dedicated to supporting small businesses; n One of the first mobile marketing campaigns in the industry - created in 2004.
While digital innovation might be expected given Digitas' name, reputation and its roots, Lang has made it the agency's imperative to develop a reputation for creativity, too. Not just in a supporting role, but as the creative AOR with important clients. She got her wish in 2010, when iconic insurance brand Aflac named Digitas its lead agency - besting conventional creative shops in a full-blown review process. She followed that act this year by being named the lead creative and media agency for Equifax's account.
In recognition of Digitas' creative chops, the Clio Awards bestowed its 2011 Grand Clio to Digitas for the "Small Business Saturday" campaign it created for American Express. That campaign also received a special Clio award for Facebook Integrated Media, and a Gold Clio for interactive/social media.
For Lang, the push to drive Digitas in these new directions - new media, new creative and content focuses - are all an extension of the original DNA that she and the rest of the team conceived when she joined the organization in 1999 and helped transform what was then a technology-focused B-to-B shop, Bronner Slosberg Humphrey Inc., and its spin-off, the Strategic Interactive Group, into what has become the modern day Digitas. But fundamentally, she says, it's all about understanding people and organizations.
"I have always been fascinated by the way people behave and why they behave that way. What inspires people and what motivates people. And that has been a theme through my career," she reflects, adding that what she is proudest of is her ability to "continue to listen to the things going on in the market, and being able to react to that change. Whether it was in my early days with the Internet at Bronner Slosberg Humphrey Inc. and the Strategic Interactive Group and why we brought them together, because we knew how important digital media was going to be. Or the creation of the NewFront, which was again a recognition that content was going to be created by many people, not just marketers. It sprang from an understanding of what is changing, and the fact that, as a client or an agency, we were going to need to be more nimble."
To that point, when asked where she sees herself in the next two or three years, she answers in the most nimble of ways: "Surprised. Because I cannot predict where we will be and what will inspire people. But I can listen."