Digital Agencies are Full of Shit

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Trying to Crawl Out of the Poo Pile

It’s been about 3 months since I took the proverbial leap and started my own thing. I distinctly remember sitting with Mel and Lee in a pokey little office borrowed from a previous boss, explaining the concept of the Envelope on the wall (that’s a story for another day) and that we were going to start a business for the right reason. Although we didn’t quite spell out exactly what that reason was there and then, we seemed to all be on the same wavelength that no matter what that reason was, it was more important than the ‘what’ we were going to do.

We’ve spent the last three months exploring (rather than ‘trying’ to figure out) what it is that we want to do and dabbling in schools of thought and praxis. I’ve taken a 5 month contract as Consulting Product Owner at OLX for Sub-Saharan Africa, which has allowed us to afford a bit of this exploration. Over and above that, it’s exposing us to product development at scale, and is a great opportunity for us to learn and define our future. While I’ve been doing that, we’ve been on a ‘what we do’ journey to explain to people ‘why’ they must give us their money. This is our journey so far:

“We’re a digital agency”

We know quite a few people that can code and design. We also know people that are looking for people that can code and design. So why don’t we introduce one to the other and take a cut?

At first, we thought, sure, we could justify this as a business model, in that we manage the product or in that we are introducing people to others, as many other digital agencies do. We could even pretend that we are developing the products ourselves. When I was at 4i Mobile, I distinctly remember working on a project with an agency (let’s call it Prekult). We were building an app for a client and we needed to speak to the people that made the design decisions at the clients. Prekult were so precious about the fact that their client belonged to them, to such an extent that we were not allowed to contact them directly to request something so simple as an image. We weren’t even allowed to put their logo on our website. The point of this story is that Prekult, in this scenario, were charging the client a shit load, paying us probably less than half, and adding absolutely no value of their own that I could see. In fact, they increased iterations, delays and miscommunications, so much so, that I honestly feel that these losses should have been tallied and charged to Prekult as opposed to paying them for their “services”.

If we’re going to work with suppliers and clients in the tech space, we weren’t going to be agents. We weren’t going to be a proprietary directory of developers nor a façade for others. We believe in transparency and making money only where and when we add value.

“We’re a front-edge digital agency”

So, if we were not going to be the traditional agency, what were we going to do? Well, what do we like doing? We like playing at the cutting edge. Our ideal job would be to travel the world playing with the newest toys on the block. We know a good number of people that build some really amazing 3D Models, some guys that do really awesome Augmented Reality, and even, guys that have just started VR companies. We are also quite disenchanted with the way that new tech is exposed to consumers for the first time - and again, we blame the agencies.

Agencies, in a quest to be seen as innovative, often go about using new technology in the wrong way. The wrong way, as we see it, is to start with the form, rather than the function. Take the QR Code for instance. Instead of using it for something useful like payments, it was initially used in countless terrible ways to charge clients lots of money for something that was not useful. How many QR codes have you seen on business cards, billboards, and ice tea cans that you never scanned? No, we wouldn’t be that agency, charging a client thousands of Rands for something you can generate on

Our approach to front-edge technology would be different. Instead of fixating on a specific, new, hyped technology and seeing what we could do with it and who would pay for it.We would put horse before cart; we would put problem before solution. Our strategy was (and still is) to explore the new technologies and product methods of the world and commit them to our memory banks and their usefulness to our product development armory. That’s why we (and we really do) spend 20% of our time researching the stuff that takes our fancy.

We want to be in the position that, when we are dealing with a digital product or business, we have the necessary knowledge of all the available solutions at our disposal, so as to ensure that we deliver the most effective of the lot; and, most specifically, the one that does the job the best - the one that’s fit for purpose.

This was a fine place to be, and we begun building our network and sitting with potential clients. It was during the these client meetings that we started to feel a bit uneasy. Yes, we were approaching new and cutting edge tech in the right way, but when we pitched it to clients, the reason why you would part with your money for new tech was just not crystallising. Most of our clients were so far from understanding the “Why” behind new technologies that we realised that “Front-edge technologies” was a How, and we didn’t want to sell how. We knew that there was a way for us to approach a business and for us to get paid for helping them ask why, and once we got the why, the how was just a matter of consequence.

“We are a nudge unit”

I’m not saying we have a bible at UNO, but if we did it would probably be “Inside the Nudge Unit” by David Halpern. Lee and I started a book club very early on after meeting each other, and this is one I traded him for the Social Animal by David Brooks (another must-read). In short, Inside the Nudge Unit tells the story of the rising acceptance of Behavioural Science in British government, and how it is used to influence projects to get real results. It’s not the kind of stuff where they advised someone to use a different picture and they got more likes or positive sentiments as a result. This is the kind of stuff where they change one line of copy on a tax collection letter and save the British Government millions of Pounds. This is the kind of stuff where they look at the way people are doing things and come up with a hypothesis to improve the core metric, or why they are doing it.

If, they hypothesise, we give people the option to opt out of a scheme rather than to opt in, then the number of people participating will increase. In order to do this, they need to know how to do a couple of things. Firstly, they need to know what the current participation numbers are and how to establish them. Secondly, they need to know how to test the hypothesis in such a way that there is enough volume to make a measurable difference to the result, but do it in a cheap and efficient manner. At the same time, they need to ensure that they are testing only the input variable and that all other variables are kept constant. Lastly they need to know how to measure the experiment and make a decision on whether to implement it based on the results.

At UNO, we’re sick of people doing things for the sake of likes or fuzzy feelings. We’re sick of agencies charging to build a website because they were asked to. We’re done with the days of doing things because some dude with 15 years experience thinks it’s the best idea. We’re done with believing small surveys and arbitrary feedback from our friends and family about how they would use our product. We believe that the only way to increase conversions is to proceed in a calculated, measured, comparable way. The scientific way.

“We’re Conversion Scientists”

We know we need to do the research, glean experience and do some hasthag innovation to come up with an idea of how we’ll increase the conversions of a website or marketing campaign, but the idea is just the starting point. The idea is the hypothesis. The idea is the “what if”. The idea is where we begin. We take the idea, isolate the one thing that it purports and test that in the real world, in live environments. We then measure that against the control group or starting point and compare the results. We test what businesses do, or want to do, or what we think think they should do. If it makes them more money or helps them grow, we do more of it. If it doesn’t, we don’t.

Posted on July 19 2016 by Stephen van der Heijden
Stephen is the founder of UNO Digital. He loves digital products, digital people, and people in the digital world.

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