The Agency Side of Business: Shiv Singh, Razorfish

Posted on July 15th 2009

Shiv Singh Idate2009-067

The first time I had a chance to meet a Razorfish team in late 2000 and was impressed by their ideas. Shiv Singh and I crossed paths early on in my blogging and I've been reading his work since. He just announced the launch of Fluent, the Social Influence Marketing report. There are some interesting observations in the report, some of which I will need to think about.

I would be really interested in David Alston's and Olivier Blanchard's take on SIM as related to measurement and engagement. Maybe we can start a conversation with Shiv here in the comments.

I asked Shiv for his take on the agency side of business.

How did you come to join Razorfish and when did you become the company's Global Social Media Lead?

Shiv: I came to Razorfish over ten years ago and have worked in its Boston, San Francisco, London and New York offices. I actually came to Razorfish through a company that was acquired by it back in 1999.

At that time Razorfish focused on creating useful, usable and desirable user experiences for the web. It didn't do much in the media side of the business. I moved into the role of the company's VP & Global Social Media Lead two years ago.

Has your focus been exploring alternatives to traditional advertising or has it evolved to that point? How do you decide what is best to integrate in marketing and communications activities? Does a company culture play a role in that?

Shiv: Yes, that has definitely been a part of my job. But I'd emphasize that the focus is also very much on how marketing as a whole is changing and how marketers need to take advantage of these new opportunities while also revisiting some of the core assumptions that have driven marketing for decades. This is about more than advertising but marketing more broadly too.

What's interesting is that on the advertising front, we're seeing that social media being the perfect complement to all the traditional forms of advertising. It doesn't replace advertising as we know it but extends it enabling companies to form much deeper, longer term emotionally driven and more balanced relationships with consumers.

The best way to integrate these other forms of advertising is to first understand what works and what doesn't. But then it is extremely important to know the brand and the permission that the brand has to do certain things digitally. That is really the most important factor.

After that it comes down to judgment, imagination, risk taking and metrics. That's how we decide. We make mistakes as we get the various marketing activities to work for each other and with each other but we learn a lot along the way. And our clients respect that.

You have been an active participant in many social networks and have direct experience with social media. How much did your direct involvement help you feel you understand its dynamics well enough to explain them to your clients?

Is your decision to experiment with certain tools based on potential client work with them? How do you prioritize where you're spending learning time?

Shiv: Yes, my active participation has made a huge difference for my own learning and it dates back to my participation with The Well back in the 1990s. When I start to learn about something now its less driven by a specific client need and more by a curiosity.

Invariably, a lot of my friends keep me tapped into the latest and greatest innovations in the social web and that serves as a nice prioritization filter. That's one of the many advantages to working with some really smart people in a large agency. I also run a wine magazine (with an accompanying blog) and that helps me always practice what I preach and think as a brand and not just as an agency person.

It's not enough to explore and participate too though. I do a lot of reading and my past research into social network theory helps me frame the trends, the dynamics of the space, the technologies and human behavior in simple and easy to understand terms. My graduate research gave me a mental model that makes everything far more digestible. I try to keep up with the research by reading the journals but that's difficult sometimes.

From the corporate side I have not been impressed with some agencies over the years. Creative that did not sell and account teams that did not understand the business have by and large been a problem.

Social media is transforming work, the dynamics and business models. Yet, it seems that agencies have underestimated this shift.

As an agency that made a really good transition from digital to engagement, does Razorfish have the opposite challenge - that of educating and enlightening clients?

Shiv: I sometimes feel that folks on the agency side of the industry underestimate their clients. Our clients are more cautious than us for good reasons. Their jobs are typically on the line, they're less likely to be over the top on a specific phenomena and they're always constrained by the politics of their organization.

Over the years, I've learnt as much from many of my clients as I have from internal teams. So rather than saying we're tasked with educating and enlightening our clients, I'd say we learn equally from each other even about new phenomena like social media which can turn a business inside out.

Regarding the shift that social media has caused, it is indeed huge. And everybody from the agencies to the brands and the technology vendors are figuring out how social media is transforming their businesses and their relationships with other players in their ecosystem.

In the case of Razorfish, being digital at the core definitely puts us at an advantage. All our employees were highly active on the social platforms before the phenomena hit the mainstream. In fact, many of us have been designing and marketing on websites with core social elements for a number of years now.

We recognize that the recent shift is huge (the turning point for us was a year and a half ago when we said that social media is resulting in a whole new form of marketing as important as brand marketing and direct response. See your 2008 Digital Outlook Report for more on that).

Every day we learn something more about it and try to harness the best thinking from within our company and from the industry at large to our clients. Fundamentally, we believe that brands can't push messages anymore. They must participate...they must do.

Credibility and value are the currency of social media. Companies are struggling to figure this one out, especially those that are used to think in terms of their messages.

You have an advantage over internal resources in companies: as an outsider, your advice may be followed. How do you work with companies to help them build better relationships with their customers?

Shiv: We continuously ask our clients to put themselves in the shoes of their customers and imagine a world in which every brand that their customers interact with is trying to engage in a conversation or follow them on twitter.

That's when they realize that it can all feel like a fish market. How do you succeed in a world like that? Only by providing better value exchanges and what we consider to be a better ROE — return on emotion. And by making your brand one about doing and not just about pushing messages.

What do you think is in store for agencies in the next 3-5 years? Will agencies rethink their dependency on media? Is there a new model in sight?

Shiv: I think agencies are about to transform significantly. Firstly the separation between digital and traditional agencies is going to continue to blur. Separating those two worlds doesn't make sense anymore. Everything is digital even TV is going digital.

Secondly, agencies are going to realize that a big idea with multiple executions needs to be replaced by the notion of many small ideas that are created in response to consumer behavior and are adapted, changed or pulled as consumers interact with it. These small ideas when strung together create the brand story. To think along these lines requires a totally different mindset and organizational structure for many agencies.

I also believe that agencies are going to need to focus on business transformation. Helping businesses transform themselves through digital technologies to increase the value they provide consumers.

It isn't going to be just about marketing but how can you reorient your organization to engage with consumers in real time, incorporate their thinking into everything from product development and customer service and yes also serve as the influencers for your brand. The agencies that can play this role too and move beyond the strict worlds of advertising will win.

The dependence on media is already reducing. The new model will have to be a more consultancy oriented one.

What is your personal secret sauce? How do you influence your colleagues and team?

Shiv: Secret sauce? I'm not sure if have anything specific though I would say a few things help me a lot — I seek out mentors who provide me with valuable advice and guidance. I also follow their careers so that I can understand not only how they think but what decisions they make and why.

Secondly, I try to practice what I preach and get my hands as dirty as possible. I learn the most when I work with teams on the ground and that's one of the special benefits with working for Razorfish — lots of really smart people who are generous with their time, energetic and collaborative.

And thirdly, I believe in the Woody Allen philosophy that 80% of success is showing up. I try to show up as much as possible and be there for my clients, teams and peers. Everything else tends to fall into place.

In terms of influencing colleagues and teams, I depend on the wisdom of the crowds within the agency to do the influencing. The best ideas always rise to the top and by promoting an active community of social media enthusiasts who debate every facet of social media vigorously, a lot of ideas get tested by the community. I influence through this community just as they influence me and keep me straight.

Who would be your ideal client?

Shiv: A client that gives us permission to help them transform their business via digital top to bottom. We've got the innovative thinkers, the experience and know the realities of the corporate world. We're ready for any challenge!

_______

I don't know about you, but the idea of small chunks of contribution to knowledge and relationships to form the whole resonates with me. It's probably why I took to social media so readily, I've been operating at that level, in analog or digital space, for a number of years.

These were my questions. What questions do you have for Shiv?

[image for Social Networking Conference, 2009]