Leaders from agencies of all sizes and from around the globe descended on the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York to take part in the inaugural Learning Academy put on by SoDA — the Society of Digital Agencies.

SoDA serves as a global network for innovators creating the future of digital experiences. Their membership includes top agencies and elite production companies.

I got an opportunity to attend the intense, two-day hands-on conference that featured focused tracks ranging from business development and finance to strategy and design. Having been at a large global agency, a startup, and everything in between, I was eager not only to glean the insights of other leaders from similar backgrounds, but excited to contribute my own insights as well.

A wealth of information was shared, but here are my highlights:

1. Rules of engagement.
Having been to what seems like a million conferences and workshops, SoDA’s Learning Academy had a distinctly unique feel. I believe it’s due partly to the org’s ethos of collaboration that drove their set of “rules of the tavern” that include: We all contribute. We hold our conversations confidential. We speak with candor and respect our differences. Your business comes first.

These rules led to open and honest conversations where attendees knew they were in a “safe place,” versus using the same tired rhetoric that seemed overly rehearsed or disingenuous.

2. In business development, digital is (and should be) the tip of the spear.
My primary track during the conference was business development. The track was led by Leslie Bradshaw, managing partner of Made by Many, and Barbara Yolles, CMO of United Shore. They each gave highly useful information from their respective experience — Leslie from the digital-native, startup mentality and Barbara bringing years of “big agency” experience.

They had many keys to growth, but particularly interesting was a point that last year’s pitches focused on client pain points, whereas this year it’s all about digital nascent marketing. CMOs are starting to skew a bit younger, realizing their customers are digitally native and their brands aren’t connecting to build relationships. So while making new business “everyone’s business” at the agency, committing to digital should the priority if agencies are looking to grow.

3. Data is not four-letter word.
Well, it is, but you know what I mean. Many agencies struggle with data — how to use it, why it’s important and how to foster it. After all, agencies traditionally have been seen as a place where creativity abounds and data is a daunting, confusing buzzkill. Winning agencies, however, realize that data is important and insight derived from it can grow their (and their clients’) bottom line.


Paul Koch, Senior Data Analyst from Viget joined Jon Gibs, Group Vice President of Data Science & Analytics from HUGE to school us on data. It’s more than just analytics — it’s “the right experience for the right people, at the right time, in the right place.” Jon shared a model of illustrating ROI of analytics so that agencies can get operations behind dedicated analytics teams. And Paul shared a case study sharing their launch of the new Bronx Zoo website and how over 8 weeks they ran 42 initial tests, optimizing for conversions resulting in a more than 50% increase in online engagement of ticket sales. And they continue to optimize the site; their test-and-learn process uses data to push past the days of “set it and forget it” web platforms.

4. Creativity is a process.
You don’t have an ad conference without a track on creativity. I was excited to participate in this workshop, as I’ve been lucky enough to speak on the creative process in presentations for years. It was particularly interesting hearing all the viewpoints from startups, small agencies and big ones, and we even had a few account people in the room for good measure.

The session was facilitated by Guthrie Dolin, CXO of Mobile Data Labs and lecturer/advisor at Stanford, and Larry Johnson, Executive Strategy Director from Odopod. It was a lively discussion of tactics and methods to bring the very best out of those agency staffers whose charge is not only to come up with great ideas, but to do it every single day. Group brainstorming was encouraged, using a Japanese proverb to drive the point home: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

But how do you wrangle groups of diverse and divergent mindsets? By having a few key roles in all brainstorms. A facilitator conducts and builds the framework for the discussion, while keeping the room focused. A coordinator captures all ideas and organizes the for review. The participants should come prepared with context (i.e. do their homework!) and open minds. I can’t stress enough how important the last point is of assigning pre-work to participants prior to the session. This allows for less time to be wasted getting up to speed, and also will allow those who tend to be more introverted spend time thinking on the problem away from the larger group.

At the end of two days, I felt enriched and inspired, and hope that maybe I contributed to that same feeling for others. The SoDA staff worked hard in putting the Learning Academy together, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves as a resource for the industry.

Introductions are the hardest part.

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