Media All Star: Jonathan Nelson

Like many of his peers, Jonathan Nelson began 2015 by making a pilgrimage to media industry mecca CES. Unlike most of his peers, he never “walked the floor” at the multitude of exhibition halls to gaze at all the bright, shiny objects on display, and he never put a foot inside one of the keynotes, panels or conference sessions. He was there to do what he’s been doing for more than a quarter of a century: network, build relationships and cut deals to engineer the future of media and marketing. CES was just a convenient place to do that, and in between proprietary meetings with uber platforms like Facebook and Google and hobnobbing with clients, Nelson took a moment to have coffee with a trade reporter to riff on the state of the digital media industry, the role of digital agency organizations and how they would adapt and evolve in a new omnichannel universe of infinite options and opportunities.

The best way to describe that future, he said, borrowing a term from the tech world’s startup community, is “agile marketing.” The term, an allusion to the term “agile development” that the tech industry uses to describe its shift from a classic, rigid approach to development, underpins the spirit of “disruption,” “iteration,” “adaptation,” “pivoting” and the notion of building things that are “good enough” for the moment, because you know as soon as you develop them that moment will move on to something newer, even more disruptive and so on, and so on, and so on.

Appropriating the logic of technology community he works so closely with, Nelson said “agile marketing” is premised on that same continuous loop of constant innovation and improvement, and the notion that there is no such thing as “perfect,” just the pursuit of making things better than they were.

It’s a smart way to think in the current world of digital media, and it’s probably the only way to think when you’re running one of the world’s biggest digital media organizations, Omnicom Digital, which the agency holding company created in 2009 to centralize the operations, intelligence and best practices across some of the best digital agencies in the industry, including pioneering digital shop Organic, which Nelson co-founded in 1993, built into a market leader, and eventually sold to Omnicom to become its flagship.

It’s the same spirit that inspired Nelson to form Organic and begin a path toward constant innovation and agile marketing that continues today. Nelson, who qualifies on anyone’s digital media “old timers” list, earned his stripes by not just being there, but making it happen. His roots go back to serving the first-ever Internet ad campaign — a banner ad for AT&T that appeared on (originally called HotWired) — on Oct. 27, 1994, just as the World Wide Web was truly emerging.

Nelson recalls how primitive digital technology was at the time and the pains the Organic team had to go through in order to serve the ad onto’s pages. There were no networked ad servers at the time, but as luck would have it, Organic’s San Francisco headquarters was situated on the floor above Wired’s, and he says they drilled a hole through the floor to run wires from Organic’s computers directly into Wired’s.

The Internet has come a long way since then, as has the proliferation of digital media options and digital advertising services. The key to success, says Nelson, is remaining agile and open to the next new thing, developing, iterating and adapting.

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