An Interview with David Armano of Edelman Digital on Convergence

As a Contributing Editor for Brandingmag, I recently sat down with David Armano, the Managing Director of Edelman Digital in Chicago, and had a wide ranging discussion on the forces shaping the marketing agency of tomorrow. A full 25-minute video interview is also available at the bottom of the article.

Brandingmag: First of all, what is your definition of a digital agency at this point?

David Armano: That’s a great a question… I don’t think there really is a definition of a digital agency anymore, with the exception for the reality that one of the things a digital agency does that’s different than maybe another type of agency is that the services at its core are of a digital nature, versus being additive…. when you look at other agencies, they may have started in broadcast, they may have started in media and then they added on and expanded, and for a digital agency, or even in our case, where we operate as a digital agency within the larger construct of Edelman,  our core offerings are digital in nature, so that’s probably the fundamental difference.

BM: That brings up an interesting conundrum, which is, how does one define or even constructively limit your services? For instance, there’s a new eMarketer report out, and it basically talks about the blurring of offline and online marketing.

DA: Yes.

BM: So I’m curious, operating within the Edelman structure, how much do you discreetly blur those lines in-house?

DA: Massively. We have all kinds of practices, digital being one. We have a consumer practice, we have a corporate practice, often-times we’re working with those other practices, we just happen to go deep in the digital expertise. All the chatter out there is that all these lines have blurred, and that’s all true, it’s just that when you saddle up with partners, if the depth isn’t there, you can’t execute. That’s the difference.

BM: Will the agency of the future continue to be siloed, or will it become more of a centralized agency with closer operating practices within?

DA: I think that there’s going to be more forced working together… every business has some type of agency ecosystem in place. Some have very small ones, where they really try to do a lot themselves, and they rely on just a few, some have really big ones with a lot of specialty agencies, some have big ones with an established lead. I’m in the middle of [a project] right now, where we have a client that’s going to put out a major campaign during the Emmys , and there are going to be social components as the campaign goes out, and we’re going to be monitoring and listening and producing content, and we are going to a “competitor agency’s”  place to set up shop and do al these things and we are forcing each other to work together, right,  because that’s convergence, that’s something that didn’t really exist as much in the past, and that’s, I think, where the silos start coming down.

We have client stakeholders in the same room with multiple agencies in a physical space with other partners, all working together, awkwardly. This is a newer model .

BM: Do you see the opportunity, the need for you to be able to – or any part of Edelman – to be able to initiate a core idea?

DA: I think that’s what’s in play. Not in this example, but in another example we – my team working with some other partners – are working on  specific assignments where we’re doing just that role.  And I will say that we have a few stakeholders on the client side that believe in it, they believe in, “Ideas are going to come from, well, it doesn’t really matter.”

We work in what I call a more responsive model. We’re not working in linear broadcast, we’re working in these content cycles. You might have a campaign that takes from inception to spreading out six months. We’ll work sometimes in a one month or two month cycle…. What I’ve seen in that situation is that the person who’s acting as CMO in this case believes in that model and is empowering us to do it. But yes… the preconceived notions are still there.

Right now there are conversations being had to say “Look,  this other model is at play and nobody really owns it so we’re just going to give the business to people who work in that way. And all that means, just to expand on that, is that I all think that means is that pie gets dispersed a little bit more. At the end of the day, it’s got to be about where the client needs to be relevant.

We have a few stakeholders on the client side that believe in it, they believe in, “Ideas are going to come from, well, it doesn’t really matter.”

BM: Do you see the changes in consumer consumption, the real time, anywhere media consumption, breaking down the type of creative that’s needed?

DA: Yes, absolutely… behavior has shifted;  it’s this [lifting his smartphone], it’s constantly doing this [looking at your device], constantly checking… I call this consumer behavior “media snacking,” because we’re constantly distracted, we’re constantly doing this, liking and viewing one-minute video… So in that mode of “I’m constantly snacking on media,” brands need to figure out new ways of getting through. That is the behavioral shift that is triggering all these things we’re talking about, that is causing this sort of convergence. It’s more difficult for brands to break through when the end consumer is getting information from 50 different sources at any time of the day because they can.

CK: So do you think the whole creative development process, where creative originates within the client-agency process is going to change significantly?

DA: The message we’re acting against at Edelman is, the nucleus is, creative, strategy and analytics. It’s actually that trio…

The formula is deceptively simple now, it’s  you have to have the audience to get reach, and really good content with some reach can get amplified, which gives you even more reach. So to go back to that “I’m in the streams, I’m distracted, but I’m looking at thing other people share, but you’ll get to me if I’m already following you and the content’s really good. So I think that, in that example, the fact is it’s a great example of integrated marketing done well. It’s not getting the headlines, but it’s really smart because what a brand like Oreo is doing is they’re building up reach across these social channels which, in aggregate, can go into the millions, and when you combine good content, good creative content that’s insight-driven, with paid components on channels that you own – that, by the way, are much more cost-effective –  you can achieve reach in things that you’ve only previously seen in things like broadcast.

By the way, it’s really hard work. It’s hard for these brands to build up audiences over time.

BM: Yes, everybody still thinks social and content is free for some reason.

DA: No it is not… it is now officially a paid game.

CK: One last thing.  You used the term “integrated marketing,” which has been around for a bit. But Edelman has always been known as a PR firm.  How do you see Edelman marching into the future and integrating things in this new way.

DA: It’s a landscape we’re trying to navigate, and it’s not very easy, but the strengths that we have, definitely on the digital side –  I mean, our digital practice is now over 900 people globally – that model that I just described to you, the social pieces that come with that model,  are definitely a place that we play in.

On the “PR” side – I use the air quotes because it’s even difficult to break it out these days – there are different ways to do the native advertising in an editorial sense, and we are definitely strengthening our relationships with some of the media companies that do that.  That’s a little bit of a grayer area, that’s almost case-by-case. It’s one thing to partner with a Buzzfeed and another thing to partner with The Atlantic.  So they offer those products, we’re talking to them, we’re interested in it, but on that side…

BM: You don’t want to be the next Scientology in The Atlantic

Tomorrow’s agency is creative, media savvy and highly collaborative.

DA: It’s something that we’re grappling with. Our CEO has talked about how he’s changed his stance on it, where it used to be no paid at all, it’s now “OK, we’re at least open to that.”  I think that the complex thing about paid in today’s complex sort of integrated environment, including PR, is that the definition of paid is not what it used to be.

In the social space, we’ll talk about it as converged media, because even with a paid social post, there’s a paid component, an earned component and an owned component. You have ownership over the property… you’re not going to get as much traction if it’s not good content and you get some organic sharing and likes, and you’re also not going to get that traction unless you promote it. It’s paid, earned and owned all in one post – it’s converged.

BM: Just to close out.. if you had to describe tomorrow’s agency in one sentence, what would it be?

DA: I would say creative, media savvy and highly collaborative.

CK: OK, David Armano at Edelman Digital, thank you very much.

DA: Thank you.

Full length interview: