The fall 2014 Digiday Agency Summit was held in Austin, a fitting backdrop as the annual host for SXSW, and generally being known as a city full of creativity and a growing innovation scene.

DAS is unique in format from most conferences with rapid fire content — sessions last no more than 10-20 minutes — and it’s also purposefully small, with attendance kept below 500 people. The result is a lot of great content and a lot of relationship building between attendees made up of brands, agencies, media platforms and technologists.

As a former DAS panelist, I was eager to discover what trends this year’s content would uncover. What I found is that many agencies are going through the same peaks and valleys as we do here at SJ&P, as we continue to evolve and grow as an agency ourselves.

The (Talent) Struggle is Real.

As the advertising industry grows into an experiential, innovative landscape, recruiting and retaining talent was the over-arching theme of many sessions. Pete Stein, CEO of Razorfish, and Kristen Cavallo, President of Mullen, both described the challenge of dealing with a 25% turnover rate with agency talent.

Cavallo’s approach at Mullen is to allow employees to choose their own outlets for professional development, saying that one employee took banjo lessons because they felt music helped them be a more creative thinker. She also says that Mullen recruits candidates from places like MIT and Google — perhaps a challenge for traditional agency recruiters — and they also lose talent to those same places.

Stein offered insight into agency employees saying they have three base needs: 1) They want great culture, 2) they want a boss that looks out for them and 3) they want training and professional development.

My key insight is that agencies need to truly invest in human capital and that may mean using non-traditional methods of recruiting and professional development.

Experiential is the New Black.

Experiential marketing has been around for years, but with the proliferation of digital and social platforms, it’s almost becoming the cost of entry for successful campaigns. Doing it right is the hard part.

Brian Shultz, of Magnetic Collaborative, discussed strategic tips for successful brand experiences, accompanied by a few great examples:

1. Keep it simple: You don’t need to have a flashy, high tech execution to be successful; in fact if it’s too complicated people won’t engage. Shultz described Kraft’s “Giant Noodle” install for their Mac & Cheese that was simply a giant macaroni noodle that was left at key locations. No interaction, no tech, but it people stopped and created their own content with pictures and social posts and made it a success.

2. Be organic and utilitarian: Buzz is great, but if your experience can be useful, the more engagement it can receive. Delta promoted its new seat-back USB ports by providing USB charging ports in Uber cars as a thoughtful — and utilitarian — way of highlighting their new offering.

3. Get emotional. Use humans, not actors: It’s all about authenticity. To capture true reactions gives your experience legitimacy, and the more emotional it is, the more likely it is to resonate. We’ve all seen the great stunts put on by WestJet.

If You Want To Innovate, You Have to Make Stuff.

Innovation is vital to growth in our industry. In a panel called “Evolve or Die,” Colin Nagy of the Barbarian Group and Ben Gaddis of T3 discussed ways for agencies to get involved. Yes, the overuse of the term “hacking” is one way to look at it, but the idea is to iterate quickly and not be afraid to make something to execute a big idea. They called it “tinkering” but the result is the same; a fast, iterative process that is collaborative with the client so they can see the return on the effort. Some agencies have a separate labs group, while many others go so far as to work directly with startups as a business incubator.

Gaddis described T3’s 7-Eleven mobile app, Scout, that collects mobile data an turns it into personalized content for a user, as a product of their proprietary lab group:

When we constructed our digital lab here at SJ&P, we continued to build on our “maker culture,” by not just being makers of meaning, but makers of experiences. Ardunios, Raspberry Pis, and beacons are some of our tools, but the point is less about tools and more about fostering the culture of creation.

So while technology changes quickly in our industry, these macro-trends still continue to ring true. Be authentic. Be confident in your ability to create something new if it helps sell an idea. And the most important takeaway, in my opinion, is to invest in your people. As Jon Jackson, ECD of HUGE said in his session, “Culture is important. You make the best things with your best friends.”

Shane B. Santiago is Vice President and Digital Director at St. John & Partners where he is responsible for leading our team of experience designers, developers and innovative thinkers. Shane is a geek whisperer, wristwatch addict (collector, if addict is too strong), and early adopter of all things tech who loves to spend his downtime outdoors with his wife and sons.

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