Now hear this: Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer, TBWA Worldwide

Canadian Colleen DeCourcy, an online ad vet at TBWA in New York, talks about the challenge of engaging an audience in the digital age.

Puzzled about what social media means for your marketing strategy? You’re not alone. Canadian-born Colleen DeCourcy, New York–based chief digital officer of ad agency TBWA Worldwide, spoke at the Canadian Business Leadership Forum about why businesses need to move at the speed of culture, and how the ad industry needs to change as well.

In the ad industry, a digital strategy is becoming a central part of the creative process. The split of the media budget needs to accommodate more flexibility, period. If I had my way, we would be day-trading media, because I want to know what’s going on in the news today, where people’s eyeballs are. But that’s not the way it works. So we start making our own media.

The proliferation of media means there are a thousand things being said every time your consumers turn around, and they’re talking to each other a lot now. They don’t want your view. They don’t really care, they won’t listen. You don’t hunt down target groups. That’s just not what’s really happening right now. That is old marketing talk. You can’t act like a sniper, because, honestly, nobody is what you think they are. They don’t behave the way they look to you. I’m a 43-year-old mother; I’m addicted to Xbox; I particularly like first-person-shooters; I wake up at three o’clock in the morning; I read all the gossip magazines so that nobody sees me doing it at work where I read The New York Times; I can’t balance my cheque book; I sleep for three hours a night, I’m always tired; and I can’t see without my glasses. That is a continuum of things that just don’t make sense when you start trying to target markets.

What you have to do is engage your audience. You need something I can be interested in. Figure out what it is that’s true to you, and if it’s true to me, we will find each other. That is really important. It doesn’t say we should be dealing with demographics, it doesn’t say we should be heavily researching, but it does say you and I are going to be true to each other. And if we are, and we both add value, then we’ll be together.

What does it come down to then? It’s that we need to own the conversation and not just the creative. And it’s not about this: online versus offline. Constant communications is really the thing that we’re looking at. That’s the thing that’s going to help you take your business to the next place. It’s a fleet of small initiatives that add together to create an ongoing communications program with your consumers about your products in response to culture 365 days a year. In this economy, we need to do more with our investments. We have to leverage key moments and own them to generate faster and more frequent information points about your companies and their brands — not ads.

Your new media mixed model is planned, anticipative and reactive. It’s a minute-by-minute world, what’s new is old right away. Everyone is content snacking. Nothing’s safe, nothing’s lost. You know the combination of instant messaging and Google means that information doesn’t stay in your computer; it’s out there in the world forever and I just reach for it. We all just pull it out of the cloud whenever we want it.

I’ve learned the hard way not to walk into a room of senior executives and say, “How many of you Twitter?” Some of them think it’s a proposition. But it doesn’t really matter how many executives Twitter. What matters is the answer to the following questions:
How important is it for your organization to interact with its users and customers?
How important is it for your organization to find a cost-effective way of interacting with them, forever and ever?
How important is it for your organization to receive direct feedback?
How important is it for your organization to allow for brand evangelism?
And how important is it for you to have an online presence?

Those are the questions we should be talking about, not the latest whiz-bang technology. The biggest problem right now is that the people who should be solving this problem need to do it with you, and your advertising and your audience are not in sync. As the marketplace shifts, so should your expectations. You need to be nimble, you need to be able to dress for the weather everyday. You don’t want to lay people off, you don’t want to fire your agency — they believe in you, they do know your brands — but you need them to be able to get in the right people and get rid of the wrong people — not because they’re not good, but because they’re just not what you need right now.

One of the things I wanted to leave you with was some kind of way forward, because everybody needs to cut spending. It’s the old adage: 50% is working, you just don’t know which 50%. Across that huge continuum, you don’t know how to connect the online and the offline worlds. The reality is, people look at things online and then they go away and think about it. They might not buy it online, they might buy it somewhere else, so what do you have to build? One of them is a technology infrastructure. Agencies have to be proud to stand up and say we own your technology infrastructure, in the same way they say we own your brand, because if brand is behaviour, the infrastructure is what allows you to do and say anything.

The next one is a unified project management office, because this is complicated and you can’t manage all these things. Your eyes are not on your business as long as they’re on mine. The other one is that you have to start looking at content creation and partnerships, because that’s the voice now. That’s how people communicate: video, film, ideas, they are capsular codes for culture. That’s what YouTube is all about. A major part of your business, or the agency that services your business, or your marketing group, needs to be about social media and management and engagement, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, discussion groups. So how do we do this? By having people in place: content creation, partnerships, in video, music, editorial and design, distribution and media.

You can’t settle for awareness anymore. What are your tools to talk to people? How do you keep your business nimble when you don’t know what the weather is going to be today? How do you skate with your head up? Ideas are put out much earlier and less completely formed so that others can finish them in their own ways. It’s almost impossible to know which grain of sand is going to start the avalanche.