Mashing media, advertising and technology (interview)

I lived in New York City for about five years, and if I had to name one thing about the city that I loved most, it was its energy. The city just crackles with creativity and drive. Our inaugural marketing technologist interview was with New Yorker Jonathan Mendez, who in turn, introduced me to today’s metropolis-based interviewee: Darren Herman.

Like Jonathan, Darren is a multi-faceted marketing technologist: an entrepreneur, an early-stage venture investor, and the chief digital media officer of kbs+p/The Media Kitchen. Some of kbs+p’s clients include Giorgio Armani, Victoria Secret, Delta, PBS, Vanguard. As we were editing this interview, Darren unveiled a new initiative — kbs+p Ventures, an early-stage investment arm of kbs+p. (Coincidentally, their first announced investment was in Jonathan Mendez’s Yieldbot.) He also has a terrific blog where he shares additional thoughts and ideas on this space.

Darren Herman, Chief Digital Media Officer, kbs+p/The Media Kitchen

Marketing Technologist: Darren Herman

I find that many of the people who really “get” marketing technology have been Internet entrepreneurs or digital agency leaders. You’re both! What led you into this field?

Yeah, my background and CV wouldn’t pass the traditional talent management/HR departments of most major agencies, and I think that’s fantastic. I started my “career” as an entrepreneur at a young age and got my feet wet with building startups from the ground up.

I was introduced to the first love of my life, the Apple II and fascination began. I’ve done everything from contracting dysentery on the Oregon Trail, traveled around galaxies in Pax Imperia, and built some of the worlds largest cities (Sim City). [Ed: Early video game references here and here.]

After 12 years of building technology driven startups, I entered the agency world with a transparent agenda of bringing the two worlds together. At kbs+p, we call this Curated Collision.

Innovation happens in garages of Palo Alto. Innovation happens in the lofts of NYC. And many places in between. In order to truly understand where innovation is happening and how to harness it, you need to have experienced it first-hand and deeply participate in it. Sending out an RFP to a startup and asking them to fill out a proposal in Excel format is not harnessing early stage innovation.

“Sending out an RFP to a startup and asking them to fill out a proposal in Excel format is not harnessing early stage innovation.”

I’d like to think that we’re making great strides at understanding how marketing and technology are coming together and how to build and invest in the capabilities that an agency would need both internally and externally for the forthcoming decades.

On your blog, you wrote that you are fascinated by the “white space” that exists between media, advertising and technology. What do you mean by that?

The application of technology within the media and advertising world is sexy to me. I don’t know why, but somewhere in my DNA is a strand that recognizes this. Depending on the startup I’m working on or the agency I’m at, I get to position myself within this white space. In some cases, it’s only 2 of the three. Today, it’s all 3. It’s fascinating.

The white space is ripe for innovation. Chaos breeds opportunities for taming and when you are able to tame an area, you are recognizing opportunity and building both process and foundations that allow you to innovate on top of. Sometimes this innovation is technical. Sometimes it’s process oriented. Either way, it’s the opportunity of the white space that is thrilling because most people are scared of it and don’t want anything to do with it. I like to think that I thrive on the uncertainty and chaos.

The white space is ripe for innovation. Sometimes this innovation is technical. Sometimes it’s process oriented.”

Tell me about your role as Chief Digital Media Officer at kbs+p. What kinds of marketing technology are you working with these days? How do you evaluate and adopt them, internally and with your clients?

As Chief Digital Media Officer, I get to play both a client-facing role and an internal operations role. As client-facing, I along with my team provide strategies and tactics that allow us to put forth the best media plans and digital direction possible to hit whatever their goals are. From an operational perspective, I make sure we have the best tools and processes in place to deliver on both our client goals but also agency efficiencies. Part of my day involves talking with our clients, part of my day involves meeting with various agency brand teams, and the other parts are meeting with partners and vendors who can make our total solution/product better. Each day is different and that’s what the thrill of the job is to me.

We’re seeing a boom in the types of marketing technologies that are available to us. Everything from next generation search bid management tools to our internally incubated trading desk and DSP, Varick Media Management, through to data management platforms, dynamic creative, etc. The list can go on for pages. However, there is a trend I’m seeing and it deserves a paragraph or two here.

We’re seeing a boom in the types of marketing technologies that are available to us.”

Digital is driving cross-silo collaboration and the tools that are being built are best used by multiple agency teams. Let me explain. In the early days of digital, and even today in some agency cases, digital is/was silo’d. There was a digital group that used digital tools and planned digital campaigns. By doing this, agencies essentially created a silo. Silos in themselves exhaust inefficiencies and are hard to integrate into the fabric of the larger agency. What I’m seeing today withi the digital landscape and how we’re uniquely positioned is that agencies who can offer an integrated offering (creative + media + communications) can drive a BIG digital idea that is exponentially greater than if it’s silo’d into one area. Think about it — any digital idea needs development, creative, media, PR, etc. If it’s all in one place and controlled tightly, it can be positively executed against.

Marketing technology (or ad tech as I refer to them) tools are being created now that service horizontally, not just vertically. These are the types of tools that are extremely important because they drive integration and they create stickiness. An example of this is a tool that can deliver a form of media, but drive insights that inform planning, and make ad operations much simpler. Maybe too simple an example but at least you get the picture. I think there is significant opportunity there and in order to deliver digital, which is not easy, you need to be integrated or at least have extremely tight agency partnerships and work really, really hard and well together.

You’ve worked with many different companies as an entrepreneur, an advisor, a consultant, an agency executive. From your experience, what makes some organizations more successful harnessing marketing technology than others?

Marketing technology generally disrupts whatever came before it. In order to be successful with marketing tech, you need to understand and let go of previous iterations and ideations of how you executed in the past. It’s hard to let go of what worked in the past — and having the vision to understand how the new shiny tool will deliver differently. Firms who have the vision and the patience to integrate a new tool have, in my opinion, the best chance of harnessing all of its power.

“In order to be successful with marketing tech, you need to let go of previous iterations and ideations of how you executed in the past.”

Where firms fail is when they dip their toe in the water. You cannot do this, but all too often, it’s done. You can’t half-ass an integration. It’ll fail. You’ll end up spending a lot of money for almost no gain.

Take the installation and integration steps seriously and you’ll have the best chance of successfully launching marketing technology. Then of course, but you’d be shocked at how many companies don’t do this — TRAIN your staff. Spend time and resource to make sure all of your staff knows how to use the tools. Do not keep the tools silo’d into just one business unit.

You’ve written that we’re entering “the data decade.” Beyond standard analytics, what should marketers — and marketing technologists — be think about with big data?

The astute data person calls me out on this every time. The reason: we’ve been in the data decade every since products and services exhausted data!

However, what I refer to regarding the “data decade” is the proliferation of thinking around harnessing the data to make business transforming decisions which are now much quicker due to digital exhaust. All too often we think of these decisions to improve media efficiency and targeting, but we also can use this data to inform product development, customer service, human resources, and the list goes on.

“We can also use this data to inform product development, customer service, human resources.”

Marketing technologists could be at the forefront of this as they are the ones who are identifying opportunities to harness technology for their organization. I think though that “marketing” would just sell it short — depending on the brand/agency of course. You should think about how to leverage technology to support the entire organization. There are key decision makers and influencers outside of the marketing group, so make sure you have the opportunity to figure out who they are and align them with the vision.

If you could give 30 seconds of wisdom on marketing technology to the CMO of a Fortune 500 company, what would you say?

Since innovation is happening at such a rapid pace, the best CMO’s will be (a) open to innovation and (b) able to identify where they should place their bets.

If the CMO doesn’t have an informal council of people to call upon to help vet opportunities, they should plan for this. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vaacum and there takes an entire village to raise a startup, so CMO’s should make friends with venture capitalists, world-class entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders to make sure that they understand the entire ecosystem.

“CMO’s should make friends with venture capitalists, world-class entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders to make sure that they understand the entire ecosystem.”

Any advice you would give to up-and-coming marketing technologists?

Tinker as much as you can. Tinkering is easiest when you work within a technology company, but since many marketing technologists work within agency walls without technology, it’s hard to get the experience. If you want to deal with technology on the day to day, especially in marketing and advertising, go take some time and join a technology driven startup (or larger company) and learn the ins/outs.

Tinker as much as you can.”

Thanks, Darren. Inspiring ideas!

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