Partners Not Vendors!

A Digital Production Manifesto

Matthew Carlin
Jan 13, 2014 · 4 min read

People, like seagulls, are drawn to shiny objects. It’s totally understandable, but running toward that shiny object is not always the wisest course of action. In digital, we’ve seen many shiny things come and go over the years. From Facebook widgets to viral videos to mobile apps and back again, there’s been an endless supply of trendy ways to spend marketing dollars and an endless array of vendors available for each of them.

As the production director at Undercurrent, at least once a week I receive a request for the names and numbers of the best companies that make shiny things. This too is understandable; the great digital products we see from stalwarts like Nike andDomino’s, and the fantastic innovations from start-ups like Fab and Spotify, make it seem so easy. And logic dictates that you should be able to hire the vendor who created one of their digital things to enjoy the same results.

But outsourcing to a vendor doesn’t account for the collaborative, iterative nature of digital. Digital is rooted in technology. A bunch of relatively nascent technologies at that. As marketing increasingly moves toward product and content development, attention becomes an increasingly scarce commodity and the goal shifts to engagement. The landscape becomes much more complex — it requires flexibility, good planning, quick action, and quite often an iron stomach. In short, the best work requires true partnership, not a turnkey solution.

Fast, Cheap, Awesome, Committed — Choose Three (But Really Choose One)

The age-old Production Triangle (aka Triple Constraint) dictates that between fast, cheap and awesome, you can choose two. Since without awesome you can’t really get attention, there’s only ever been one choice — fast or cheap. In the new digital paradigm, which we’ll call The Digital Production Quadrangle, there’s a fourth factor — commitment. And since engagement implies a deeper relationship with a brand, it requires commitment from the brand itself. So we’re back to one choice again: fast or cheap.

Production choices aside, the very notion of commitment and partnership also implies a deeper relationship than a vendor. Vendors can sell you literal or figurative widgets, but can they take the time to truly understand your target? Are they willing to sell you platforms for sustainable engagement instead of an endless stream of shiny objects?

The best work requires true partnership, not a turnkey solution.

Erin Matts, Chief Digital Marketing Officer at Glam Media, who has been a pioneering digital collaborator from both sides of the table since her days as Chief Digital Officer at OMD, sums it up nicely:

“Vendors are selling goods and services that more often than not seem to solve superficial issues,” she says. “A partner has more than just their own interests — selling — in mind. As an industry, we’re starting to move beyond solving surface problems, like an advertising problem or a media problem, and getting to the roots of solving a business problem.”

In other words, marketing is business.

New Goals, New Process

Solving these deeper issues and achieving more ambitious business goals also requires a different process. The increasing popularity of Lean UX and agile development practices does indicate a sea change on the horizon. But these approaches simply can’t succeed in the vacuum of a vendor mindset. Collaboration is a must from the start; defining a strategy that allows for pivoting later is key to creating successful products and spreadable content.

Michael Piliero, Partner and Creative Director at Brooklyn digital agencyFreeAssociation, specifically builds in time at the beginning of scopes to workshop with clients and leave room for collaboration and exploration.

“We’ve realized that the more flexibility we can infuse in our agreements, the better the results,” Piliero explains. “Most of the time, firms receive an RFP, articulate the primary strategy and design concept in the proposal, lock into numbers and timing, and then (if they win), execute against the proposal. There are so many problems with that approach. Sadly, this process has yielded a tremendous amount of low-quality, low-traffic, and ultimately, low-value web products. ”

Erin Matts echoes the approach.

“Get it 80% there, get it out the door, show it to consumers and see if you can improve it. Or kill it,” says Matts. “This is not to suggest that whatever you’re putting out there at 70% — 80% is without a strategy.”

Caveat: The Collaboration Conundrum

When it comes to collaboration and determining exactly who needs to be in the trenches creating digital awesomeness, it is a bit of a slippery slope. Frequent, active involvement and face-to-face time between the key stakeholders (clients, strategists, designers, developers) is essential. Without that temporal and intellectual investment, progress is difficult. Err in the other direction with too many cooks in the kitchen and you seriously risk spoiling the digital broth. This is what we call the Collaboration Conundrum.

No Magic Tricks

In the end, there’s no magic wand you can wave or secret bat phone you can pick up that leads to creating great digital stuff. Sometimes the solutions to complex business problems don’t even take the form of a website, media buy or mobile app. But when you build a solid base of trust, collaboration and commitment to forge a true partnership, that’s when the magic does happen.

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