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What Happens When a ‘Dinosaur’ Goes Digital First at DigitasLBi-Chicago

Mark Peopsel was the "Visiting Social Media Professor" with DigitasLBi in Chicago this July. Photo by micagoto. text that will be hyperlinked

DigitasLBi in Chicago was good enough to work with the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication to host me as a Visiting Professor in Social Media from July 11 through July 22, 2016. Digitas’ Chicago office has participated in this program three years in a row and deserves some kind of award this year for hosting me, a former broadcast journalist turned social scientist, as I was sweaty, inquisitive and often quite vocal.

Please understand that as a former journalist, I almost took pride in not knowing how marketing worked for the better part of my career. Also give me some credit for accepting that in many ways every mass communicator must persuade people that what we say matters and is truthful. I’m tagging my dissertation advisor, Chair of the Strategic Communication Faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism Margaret Duffy, here because she taught me to recognize what’s strategic in all forms of mass communication, even news.

I went to Digitas because I wanted to start to understand how a successful “digital-first” media company works. I knew I was going to get a lot of sunshine and unicorns for awhile, but after two weeks there I also figured people would stop being polite. For the most part, this was true. After some time, I stopped being introduced when I entered meetings, and I  had enough contact with the strategy and analysis pros to sit in and even offer a thought once in awhile.

Adapting to a new age

I’m starting to develop an entrepreneurial media curriculum at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, which sometimes lets me believe I’m ahead of the curve, but there at Digitas, I was a dinosaur among unicorns.

Digital Marketing Professionals at DigitasLBi in Chicago plan a web and mobile shopping platform redesign with a client. Photo by Mark Poepsel.

There are plenty of 30-something and 40-something professionals at Digitas, but they are outnumbered by a vast pool of 25-year-olds with hybrid creative and analytical skills.

One day during my visit, I took part in a volunteer effort to paint a local school. There, it was apparent that the “kids” do most of the work.

Employees of DigitasLBi in Chicago help repaint and decorate Alfred Nobel Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side. Photo by Mark Poepsel.

Over the course of two weeks, I saw how social media campaigns and smaller initiatives are run for Miller Lite and Whirlpool/Maytag. I saw the role that analytics plays in the everyday work life, and I saw about 150 PowerPoint presentations focusing on key performance indicators (KPIs) over the course of nine working days.

Key Takeaways

Here are some key first impressions:

Chris Quintero is usually the person behind the brand for Miller Lite’s social media. Here he is working on the “Kick back” campaign for this year. Photo by Mark Poepsel.

  • Almost everything you do in the network society can be recorded and measured, and much of that data will be used to try to market to you, individually, more efficiently and effectively across all media channels.
  • This opens a new world in creative work because it needs to be highly tailored and specific to both the product and individual at the right time.
  • Yes, TV is still huge. But if brands see they can effectively market to millions of individuals “out on the long tail” and also amass a market rather than tapping into a mass market, they will do so. They’ll then demand proof that their efforts fostered behavioral outcomes.
  • The funnel is still very much a thing. It’s not the only thing, but it’s still talked about in the everyday work life of digital marketers.
  • Digital marketers often have to work with photos, videos, apps and user interfaces made for other purposes. Text can change relatively easily, so we should still teach our students that writing comes first, if only because good copy can act as an asset multiplier.
  • There will undoubtedly continue to be conflict between creatives who like to have time to write, and design, and shoot photos and video, and create graphics and art, and just about everyone else in the building.
  • Creatives must expect to consistently partner with strategy and analysis people to measure success according to agreed-upon metrics. Metrics are set by the platform, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest in agreement with the brand. Agencies help establish the metrics by which they are judged, but brands are much more sophisticated about social analytics than they were even a couple of years ago.
  • The project manager is the person who tries to keep creatives, brand representatives, accounts people and strategy and analytics people on the same page. Project managers are first and foremost communicators, so these are jobs we should prepare our students for.
  • What is success? It really depends on the social media platform, the size of the marketing effort, and how narrow an audience they were shooting for and what behaviors they hoped to influence.
  • It’s not enough to gain followers and likes. Yes, major brands have a big social media presence and cultivate engagement with their customers in the hopes that they become regulars and even brand advocates. That said, “organic” social reach has lost its luster in favor of measurable outcomes.

All of this could be unpacked and more carefully illustrated.

Tipping point

Final takeaway: We’re passing a point of equilibrium where digital advertising is surpassing TV advertising. This concerns me as someone who teaches in a program that’s heavy on the “TV and Radio,” somewhat light on social strategy, and still developing when it comes to digital and social media analytics. My students and fellow faculty members needed me to learn some best creative practices and to gain some strategic takeaways from these two weeks, which I certainly did. When it comes to doing the analytics, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

My advice to Journalism and Mass Communication programs is to do a little bit of everything when it comes to social strategy and analytics. Start small and evolve rapidly. That is, grab the unicorn by the mane and hold on for dear life. That’s what the pros are doing.

Mark Poepsel, PhD, is an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. He teaches media writing, media management, journalism and graduate research methods courses.

Mark Poepsel :Mark Poepsel worked as a general assignment television reporter for five years in Columbia, Missouri, in the Quad Cities (Iowa/Illinois), and in Tucson, Arizona. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism degree from Mizzou in 2002 with a focus on Broadcast Journalism. At the same time, he earned an English degree with a minor in Spanish. He earned a master’s degree in 2007 in Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona and took his Ph.D. in Journalism in 2011 back at the University of Missouri. In the spring of 2016, Mark took a team of students to third place in the Scripps International Innovators Cup – a media entrepreneurship pitch contest. He has also been a Scripps Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism as well as the Scripps Howard Visiting Professor in Social Media at DigitasLBi-Chicago.