The Soda Academy
"Creatively though, I think about other industries that have tried to adopt agency skills. Many have failed. I firmly believe there’s something we do that isn’t easily replicated, by humans or machines."
"Trends come into our work and give us inputs to respond to, things to act on or ignore, but they’re not often shaking the ground beneath us."
"At Big Spaceship, the mechanism that allows us to stay ahead is tied to our values and an organizational framework that allows us to be tremendously elastic. The combination of strong values and an elastic organization keeps us going strong as things change."

SoDA speaks with Big Spaceship about digital humanism, organizational elasticity and the need for a new vocabulary of innovation

In this year’s Global Digital Outlook Study with Forrester, we found that agency leaders and client-side marketers have a keen awareness that the term "digital" is rapidly disappearing as a meaningful way to describe and differentiate types of agencies and marketing tactics related to technology. On one hand, "digital" is just a label, a modifier, and it’s natural for this classification to evolve. That said, do you think this finding signals a broader wake-up call or existential crisis for agencies that have built their business (and their brand differentiation) on the idea of digital expertise? Do you still consider Big Spaceship a "digital agency"?

The industry is at a point now where most agencies – no matter their offering – have digital skills of some kind, so the word “digital” has little value from a differentiation standpoint, for anyone.

We stopped saying we were a digital agency because the word was no longer differentiating. It started to cut the other way – it put us into a narrow lane that implicitly misrepresented our broader offering and our point of view on culture and behavior.

For agencies that approach things similarly, losing the word shouldn't have any long-term detrimental effect because technology is intrinsic, but not singularly defining.

That said, there are groups out there that specialize in specific technologies or outputs. They face both commoditization and the challenge of reaching a level of strategic partnership.

Innovation continues to be an intense area of focus (hype, some might say) and the topic de rigueur of nearly every industry conversation. Interestingly, our findings this year point to an important difference in how agency leaders and client-side marketers think about innovation. Agencies describe innovation along the lines of design thinking (“solving existing problems in unique and novel ways”) while marketers gravitate to the notion of being first (“doing something that’s never been done before” or “embracing new technology before our competitors do”). Perhaps even more significantly, there is a major gap (polar extremes, in fact) in how marketers and agencies view the relative fitness and success of client-side organizational cultures to foster innovation. What accounts for these gaps in perspective and, in your opinion, is the polarity of these viewpoints a significant barrier for agencies and marketers working together to deliver innovation?

To me, these results signify a lack of clear definition. I’m sure there’s a gap, but what I see are two types of innovation – marketing innovation and systems innovation – being conflated by using a single word. Marketing innovation is marked by breaking through the noise by doing something first – using a new tech or a novel idea that gets shared by lots of people or generates outsized press value. It can usually be executed solely by an agency and a marketing team. That’s powerful and valuable, but unlikely to be resilient over time.

Systems innovation requires more cross-functional collaboration and is harder to realize within the siloed structures of many organizations. The resulting innovation may not be as immediately culturally impactful, but might open new revenue streams, reduce friction in the customer experience, or generate new product ideas more quickly – providing sustained value.

Both types of innovation are necessary and valuable, but calling them by the same name will lead to unnecessary confusion.

Based on this year’s study, it appears that the robots are poised to take over the world. Machine-driven technologies such as AI, Chatbots and Programmatic Advertising are top of the list for planned investment growth (marketers), revenue growth (agencies) and anticipated impact on approaches to marketing and design. What do you see as the potential of these emerging technologies? Are you concerned, at all, that increased automation, machine-driven learning and non-visual interaction modalities (e.g. voice) chip away at an agency business model that has historically thrived on human-led creative and design?

We’ve already seen how impactful AI and machine learning have been in media. Albert is a more recent example, but plenty of media companies are employing machine-learning in programmatic, to do things humans aren’t great at – massive data entry and analysis.

From a creative perspective, there’s this great example of a deep learning algorithm that was fed dozens of sci-fi screenplays, and then asked to write its own script. Then humans filmed it. The results were… not ready for primetime because machines don’t yet have a contextual understanding of human experience to craft a script with unspoken context and implicit meaning.

That day may arrive, but it will need to capture how our minds respond, uniquely, to the inputs that create our perspective on the world – we have bad memories, we speak in metaphors that aren’t entirely logical, we’re sarcastic, hyperbolic, absurd, non sequitur. I see a more symbiotic future for humans and AI. At least in the near term where they help complete tasks our minds aren’t well-suited to.

How that impacts agencies generally I can’t say. Obviously, there will be some efficiencies for media skillsets, and some loss of jobs as a result. Creatively though, I think about other industries that have tried to adopt agency skills. Many have failed. I firmly believe there’s something we do that isn’t easily replicated, by humans or machines.

What other trends do you see impacting your clients’ businesses and the way you work at Big Spaceship? As a “digitally native” agency, what are you doing to evolve and stay relevant?

Trends aren’t something I tend to worry about – we’ve built an organizational framework that is inherently adaptive. We’re a learning organization, and that’s the key to success in this economy. Trends come into our work and give us inputs to respond to, things to act on or ignore, but they’re not often shaking the ground beneath us.

At Big Spaceship, the mechanism that allows us to stay ahead is tied to our values and an organizational framework that allows us to be tremendously elastic. The combination of strong values and an elastic organization keeps us going strong as things change.

Boris Groysberg from Harvard Business School once said, “Organizational design is the single biggest problem facing business in the 21st century.” I’m glad to see acknowledgement of its importance inside large organizations. The fact that our relationships with clients are starting to bridge silos is incredibly encouraging to me because better work is on the other side.

This Q&A with Michael Lebowitz of Big Spaceship was informed by several key findings in the 2017-18 Global Digital Outlook Study from SoDA and Forrester.
  • More than 75% of agency leaders and client-side marketers agrees that the term "digital" will disappear within 5 years as a meaningful way to differentiate agency capabilities and marketing tactics related to technology. 27% of agency leader believe the distinction has already lost its relevance today.

  • 73% of marketers believe that their organizational structure actively fosters innovation (up 25 points from 2016) while 48% of agency leaders believe the opposite... that their clients’ organizations hinder their ability to innovate.

  • Programmatic Advertising, AI/Machine Learning and Chatbots / Voice-based Interfaces topped the list for emerging technologies in which marketers plan to make a "significant investment" over the next 12-18 months and agency leaders anticipated a "significant impact" on the overall marketing approaches for their clients.