We’re All Digital Now — How can brands and agencies survive?

When I first started Cyber-Duck 13 years ago, I couldn’t imagine just how much the world would change and just how pervasive digital would become. How can brands and agencies continue to compete in this brave new world where technology is second nature to us all?

Danny Bluestone
Jul 4, 2018 · 10 min read
Eran Zinman, Cyber-Duck’s first full time software developer in 2005. He is now founder of Monday.com

As the character Brooks says in the Shawshank Redemption, ‘I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere.’ The scenes where Brook tries to get to grips with how his world has changed are touching, but not in a good way. I’ve had a better experience than Brooks, not with automobiles but with how far digital has come. When I started Cyber-Duck thirteen years ago, it was just my geeky mate and I with a really glorified feature phone (a good old Nokia E61). Now, my 92 year old great aunt counts her birthday well-wishers on Facebook via her smartphone.

Brooks in the movie Shawshank Redemption — I feel the same when I am catching the tube at Wembley Central

This is a level of digital proliferation that was quite unimaginable in 2005. Back then, simply to focus on digital was innovative in and of itself. The world has changed beyond recognition, with the latest generation having no memory of analogue whatsoever. Just look at how intuitive smartphones and tablets have become — now, two year olds can work an iPad; who needs a manual anymore? Even my little toddler is able to take selfies and can film me with my iPhone, although not very well!

The challenges now facing brands and agencies is whether they can keep fostering disruption in a world where we’re all digital savvy. They can do this by continuing to provide solutions to everyday annoyances and solving those little nuanced problems that take us time, both offline and online. Think about how annoying it is that you still have to post your no-claims bonus to your insurance provider despite being with the same provider last year. Think about how you still have no idea which bin you have to put out this week — was it the blue or the brown? Remember when you struggled to connect with your old university buddies on the alumni portal, and then found that Facebook is still the best tool to do so? We’ve probably only solved a fraction of our lives’ pain points.

I am having to send the insurance company a copy of my wife’s no claim bonus despite being with the same provider last year. A central no claims bonus database would help.

For brands and agencies, the path to a successful future lies in providing innovative solutions to these kind of problems. In this ever-changing world, we will foster disruption and continue to grow only if we stay ahead of the curve, using cutting-edge techniques and technologies to improve all of our lives.

THE NEW AGENCY REALITY

Agencies in particular are waking up to this truth. On the one hand, their traditional work is drying up, especially as their clients can now slice and dice Sketch and PSD files themselves. For forward-thinking agencies, the road to success lies in understanding where the frustrations of individuals and society overlap and how effective user and data research can help. Effective research is the basis of a grounded strategy that enables meaningful design solutions (powered by technology) for organisations and brands. Understanding this and utilising research to achieve well implemented user-centric products and services is what it means to be innovative in the world today.

At Cyber-Duck, we have embodied this drive for innovation in all our work — it was a tenet upon which I founded the agency. We pride ourselves on bringing our expertise and innovative solutions to brands and organisations, knowledge they don’t have in-house.

Looking back, I can see that we have been an instrumental partner for many of our clients. Because we stand at the cutting edge of user experience design, technology and digital transformation, we’re able to bring the extra boost to the in-house team. For iSmash, we used our expertise to launch their ecommerce proposition and help with the instore experience, while for BAM, the construction giant, we empowered them to better educate their audience about how they work within the community. In both instances user-centred design (UCD) played a crucial role.

Cyber-Duck helped iSmash with their ecommerce and in-store digital platform (image from http://www.oryxalign.com/oryxalign-sign-contract-with-ismash/)

I strongly believe that independent agencies play a pivotal role in fostering disruption and in enabling brands to overcome the challenges of tomorrow. They have a unique advantage over larger global networks as they are not biased towards specific partners and don’t have external shareholders or a holding group to report to. Likewise, independents have the advantage of being free thinkers. Another advantage independents have is that some global agencies and management consultancies have had their reputations dented due to auditing negligence, toxic work-environments, failure to address work-life balance and a host of other controversies which trickle down and taint their culture. Similarly, by focusing on too many businesses and services, larger consultancy groups have struggled to provide a proposition that holds integrity. On the other hand, agencies like Cyber-Duck are at the right size to have senior directors servicing accounts and have the right type of model and staff retention to ensure only experienced professionals service clients.

THE FOUNDING VISION MEANS EVERYTHING

Apple aims to ‘think different’; Tesla aims to produce a purely electronic fleet of vehicles; Airbnb wants you to holiday like a local. All of these companies have a founding principle that sets them apart from all competitors. They are differentiators. Ultimately, the success or failure of a company rests on the strength and resilience of its founding principle.

When I founded Cyber-Duck, I wanted to bring simplicity to our clients by making sense of the noise, disruption and opportunities around them. While others claimed to do this too, few blended user experience, technology and process at the very heart of their organisation. Our founding mission was ‘exceptional experiences everywhere’. This is Cyber-Duck’s differentiator. Others may focus on a shiny new technology, like blockchain, AI/ML and automation in and of themselves, but we focus on the outcomes these technologies will bring to users by listening to what users say and what the data tells us. As a result, we’re able to see the bigger picture beyond the flashy new technology — we can see the way it will actually impact people’s lives through a better user experience.

Agencies used to help clients with simple HTML coding and SEO, but the agencies of tomorrow will help brands to craft inspiring offerings like de-centralised health records. Independent agencies stand at the forefront of this new information revolution — they alone have the expertise and versatility to ensure brands enter this brave new world with the best possible chance to succeed. These agencies, like Cyber-Duck, will be able to jump in and out of an organisation to deliver precision and strategic operations like a SWAT unit. Where there are phenomenal risks and rewards for large brands, in-house teams will often prefer to use agency commandos that are well versed on the process, have worked together for over a decade and have the advantage of having executed similar strategies successfully before in a matter of months.

Digital agency ‘commandos’ from Cyber-Duck working on an exciting FinTech product for an international client

PRINCIPLES FOR THE AGE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

That is exactly why I founded Cyber-Duck — to act as an interdisciplinary squad of developers, marketers and designers for clients. Our focus is on the connection between the human psyche, design and technology, and how to bind these together to drive a pleasurable user experience (UX). With the number of internet users reaching 3.6 billion, half of the world’s population, most brands now require the aid of proven interdisciplinary teams to disrupt their industry. Central to disruption is an effective product and UX.

To illustrate my point, ask yourself this:

How does an instant chat business like Slack become worth at least $5.1 billion within just five years?

How can an unknown company like Monzo acquire 500,000 new UK customers within three years?

What does a company like Uber do to be valued at $69 billion and provide over two billion rides annually in a mere nine years?

Since 2010 Cyber-Duck has been running hackathons. Here Matt Gibson, Cyber-Duck’s Chief Production Officer is admiring what his team developed over a weekend

Established brands are failing to disrupt their industry in quite the same way as these new nimble organisations. Brands are busy doing their jobs and are often blinded by the day to day realities around them. Many fall into the trap of spending too much money on advertising when what they need are user-focused products and services. So how can they succeed? To succeed they must question not only the interface and the channel, but whether the interface, business logic or campaign need to exist in their current form at all. Whilst digital transformation is about pivots, it often starts with gradual and iterative improvement to products and services.

As we will look to the future I find that the brands must ground their foundations with the following principles:

1. Trust — users must be able to trust your brand and feel secure using it

2. Utility — users need to be able to find what they are looking for; by engaging with a service they can fulfil their needs

3. Narrative — users need to be wowed to buy into the brand narrative

4. Creativity — your products should be invigorating and inspiring to users

5. User focused — start with the user and build your back-offices, processes and business model around them

Notice that the word user is present in every single principle. Balancing these principles is hard. Achieving internal alignment among your stakeholders when undergoing a transformation is also difficult. But this is where a good user-centred agency excels.

HOW CYBER-DUCK FOSTERS INNOVATION

Every year in my business plan I look at what clients require from us to ensure we remain relevant. For an agency like Cyber-Duck to compete against global networks it needs leverage and strong partnerships. Whilst the global agency groups are going through tougher times, I want to look at building an independent consortium of digital agencies with trusted partners so we can leverage off each other. In this way, we can work together with clients and other agencies to provide the expertise that will propel our industry into the world of tomorrow.

Our annual business plan presentation for the digital agency at the Laura Ashley Hotel in Elstree, Hertfordshire

One way that I am further fostering creativity within Cyber-Duck is in the diversity of our leadership team. In recent years, I have been proud to grow the leadership team to six directors. Each director, myself included, started at a junior level. We all became ‘multi-faceted’ professionals, but first we ‘swept the floors’. We now give grand board room presentations to prestigious organisations like the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and present to people like Mark Carney from Bank of England in person.

Throughout my career I have been privileged to meet lots of inspirational characters, which I believe has also encouraged greater innovation. In 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting Justin Cooke, CEO of Fortune Cookie and a chairman of BIMA. I have always been inspired by Justin and his work, so it is with great pleasure that I can announce that Justin has joined the Cyber-Duck board as a non-exec director (NED).

But I don’t want us to stop there. While I’m proud of the board’s current makeup, I’m disappointed that we don’t have any female directors yet. This is going to change though, and I have set a goal to have at least three additional female directors within 3 years.

To further grow the agency and foster the creative thinking we need to succeed, I also want to focus on three big things a year. This year, we’re starting to write our second book that follows on the heels of our UX Book and the UX Companion app, which has over 50K users worldwide. Meanwhile, although Sir Jonny Ive argued that you shouldn’t talk about something before you build it, I’m really excited that we’ll be building a prototype conversational interface (CUI) and AI this year to help people with disabilities. My neighbour is disabled and even going to the toilet is risky business for him. I want people like him to be able to be able to alert neighbours like me through voice, physical buttons and sensors. We’re also proud to be working on a new learning management system and academy concept to help educate not only our own staff but clients and other agencies.

My neighbour does not really benefit from technology. He is unable to use voice assistants and is at the constant risk of falling over with no way to seek help. What are we doing as digital agencies to help people like him?

HOW WILL BRANDS AND AGENCIES SURVIVE?

Brands and agencies face an ever-changing world. Not only is technology evolving at an unprecedented rate, user needs and how they interact with technology is rapidly evolving too. But it is through innovation that brands and agencies alike can triumph.

One question I get asked frequently is, are independent agencies dying? My answer is always, hell no! I think that agencies like Cyber-Duck really understand the intersection between the user, marketing and technology. We deliver proofs of concept or prototypes to what is achievable before companies spend millions. The answer is not for agencies to become product companies but to work with industry together as a force for good and to change lives.

At 13 years of age, Cyber-Duck now has stood the test of time and our ethos has been vindicated. This moment symbolises our ‘rite of passage’. Now is our time to be a force for good. Our new website launched recently, is focused on UX focused digital transformation which is what we represent. I’d love to hear what you think of our new website that embodies this philosophy.

Danny Bluestone

Written by

My first word was 'button' and I have been pressing them ever since! Founder of Cyber-Duck, a UK digital agency that loves brand strategy, UX and technology

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