The Soda Academy

Introduction to The SoDA Report

Digital marketing and design have come a long way since their inception and awkward adolescence – before we had an aperture on what it could and would be. When digital was new, we early adopters cut the paths for brands (and many others) to follow. The process of building digital skillsets has been a baptism by fire for advertising, writ large. There have been winners and losers throughout, and those that endured grew and evolved to shape digital (and advertising in general) and make it stronger.

Early on, digital opened new ways to communicate and distribute. But the idea that we as digital agencies are successful solely because we know how to navigate those ways needs to change. While it’s true that technology is at the core of what we do, digital shops are becoming known for the ability to connect with people in ways that resonate. Less intrusion and matching luggage, more utility and inspiration.

Because technology is always changing, and consumers respond to those shifts faster than any agency ever could, this year’s Digital Outlook study finding that digital agencies have taken a larger role in reaching people than ever before makes sense. Agencies born digital have a congenital comfort with the speed at which things change. It’s in the bones. So, while we can say the field is at an inflection point, we’re not facing upheaval. Just the opposite; it’s business as usual. It’s not a single point of inflection, it’s the age of inflection.

While many established agencies have played catch-up, we’ve soldiered ahead, in many cases into spaces once occupied solely by traditional agencies. We’ve been able to do this because human culture and behavior are both influenced and shaped by technology; they’re intrinsic. From reaching people through social communities to creating better commerce experiences to big brand moments, deep understanding of the connections between culture, behavior and technology is the linchpin.

Today the market is hungry for what we do. It’s time to up the ante. If we’re going to continue to chart the course for brands, and the marketing industry in general, I believe we need to collectively redefine digital from a more humanist perspective.

At Big Spaceship, putting people first has always served us well. It keeps us focused on the things that have true impact rather than getting distracted by the latest platform, meme et al. Plenty of natively digital agencies are making a transition by repositioning themselves as full-service. While this solves one part of the problem by giving them a broader perception in terms of offering, it doesn’t necessarily transmit that unique human element.

For starters, let’s once and for all lose the word “digital” as a category in the agency business. Let’s build a more nuanced vocabulary that describes what we do and how we do it. I guess we’d have to rename SoDA, but that could be fun.

Meanwhile the competition is beating down the door. In-house agencies, management consultancies, PR firms, content studios: they’re everywhere. For good reason, too; as the report shows, digital budgets are growing, as are the shares of those budgets that are going to digital agencies. Remember when we were clamoring for one percent of spend? Those days are long gone.

This year’s report bears this all out, from the financial to the etymological. Like the finding that agencies and marketers disagree about the definition of innovation (and on how viable innovation really is). The funny thing is that a lot of the fogginess would clear up if we stopped trying to conflate what it is we do to an ethereal plane where we only speak in generalities, and started being specific. This is really hard to do, but vitally important to rooting and substantiating our work.

Ultimately, the greatest advantage will come from a laser focus on what people need and want, and keeping apace with technology. Putting people at the center means deeply understanding them as individuals and in the endless configurations at our disposal for reaching them. Adding something positive, useful or meaningful to their lives is what it’s all about. That, combined with the cultural and structural advantage of being natively digital is the key to a continued movement toward the center of the design and communications ecosystem.