Everything is Digital, But Digital isn’t Everything: A Conversation with Y&R CEO David Sable

//David Hirsch//

I’ve learned so much from my friend and Metamorphic advisor David Sable over the years. I met David for the first time 12 years ago when he keynoted the DMA Conference in Arizona. After he spoke, I waited for him so I could introduce myself and we’ve been friends ever since. I’ve spent countless hours talking with David about data, ubiquity of technology, credibility, and innovation. His insight and creative thinking are second to none. I’m excited to share his wisdom below.

#1 You have been doing this a long time, really beginning in direct response and now leading one of the top global agencies in the world. What’s changed in that time? What keeps you motivated day in and day out?

People want what they always wanted from their advertising — they want to be informed, they want to be engaged, they want entertainment, and they want honesty.  All told, they want to believe in something — not merely make a transaction.

Nowhere is that more evident than with retail.  With the proliferation of apps and one-click or push-to-buy, you’d think that all commerce today would be shifting online.  And yet, there has been a real surge of growth of brick-and-mortar stores and even Warby Parker and Bonobos — amongst many others — that began as online propositions — have invested in physical space.   It’s simple.  The experience of going into a store, where a salesperson can guide you, where you can see and touch what you want or didn’t know you wanted and where your friends can comment in real-time and in real-life is very different than sitting at your computer.  And consumers want both. This doesn’t make digital bad or brick and mortar obsolete. Once again, consumers want both.

What we have to understand is that technology is not an idea.  It enables an idea.  Look at the mission statements of Amazon and Sears.

We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavor to offer customers the lowest possible prices. Amazon, 2004

It is the Policy of Our House to Supply the Consumer Everything on which we can save him money, goods that can be delivered at your door anywhere in the United States for less than they can be procured from your local dealer…
Sears: 1897/1993, Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Chelsea House

I can interchange their names and it would be believable.

The problem is that we ascribe to Amazon accomplishments that are not theirs but are as old as commerce.

Furthermore, while data has always been critical to advertising, today we can use data in even smarter ways. It allows us to deliver what we have always done best — great ideas driven by smart insights and targeted toward the right audience.

This past June, I led the first ever jury for “Creative Data” at the Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity. The category rewarded smart use of data to inform insights and creative execution. As a rule, the jury stayed away from submissions that claimed “the-first-time ever in the history of mankind” or “Never Before Seen”— we instead rewarded examples that focused on and led to real-world application and solutions — a text-messaging service for emergency personnel to quickly access important data on patients; a system that matches kids on adoption databases with parents based on similar appearances; and a beautiful integration of data from 9/11 that was emotionally profound.

The thing that is lasting and ever important in our business is our creativity — our ability to tell stories that emotionally connect with consumers.  And that’s why I always advise people to go read the Iliad or Odyssey or the Bible, Shakespeare or Dante, works that have endured through time, rather than watch the latest cat video that’s gone viral if they’re looking to do good work.  Great work taps into human truths.

 #2 You’ve said some really incredible things over the years. One of my favorites has been “everything is digital but digital isn’t everything”. Can you elaborate on that?

We use digital channels and tools to get to restaurants and shows; we download TV and movies to watch when we want — and watch we do; we walk and use public transportation and share rides enhanced by our digital pathfinders; and we share the food we eat, the sights we see and the music we love with a single click. Digital is everything but not everything is digital.

Nothing beats a real crowd. Not even all the shares in the world. That’s why companies like Airbnb and EatWith are attracting a global audience — with the ease of booking and organizing travel, people prefer to spend vacation time with the locals rather than be on their own. And it explains the phenomenal success of WeWork and shared workspaces as the go-to place for entrepreneurs.

It’s why movie theatre attendance in the US is consistent with 1995 numbers despite outstanding content being produced by Netflix, HBO…we still crave the experience of a movie date…why Children’s book sales are having an amazing renaissance around the world… and why the top executives in Silicon Valley are sending their kids to the Waldorf School which bans technology from the classroom.

It is not surprising that according to Google’s 2014 Annual Report, the most searched for “how to” terms in Britain included: (1) How to Kiss (2) How to Draw (3) How to Meditate. We live in the real world. We use technology to enhance it.

As I mentioned before, the smartest brands — like Warby Parker and Bonobos are realizing that digital and retail isn’t an either/or proposition. And that while technology has evolved the way we order taxis, shop and book vacation, Uber’s success depends on its service and reputation, Amazon free shipping is second nature to so-called old-fashioned catalogers and Airbnb only works because of a community of trustworthy renters and honorable guests.

#3 How has technology changed the agency model and where do the new opportunities lie?

Technology is technology — just as TV is technology, print is technology, outdoors is technology.  It’s always a mistake to use technology just to show that you’re using a new technology.  And I think that often, when it’s used gratuitously, it does feel out of place and intrusive.

The best work, on the other hand, always strikes a balance between Creativity and Innovation.  Creativity tells the story.  Innovation drives it through the right channels.  Work that doesn’t have creativity is boring. And work without innovation is ineffectual.  When you get it right, the technology enables and uplifts the idea.

The smartest marketers will find a way to bridge the two seamlessly — and when they do it will create an exponential value for the consumer.

In truth, technology has changed every business to operate more efficiently.

In our business, technology is not a barrier and there is an incredible opportunity to integrate it to strengthen our work to be more creative and more innovative.

Our team in Turkey that works with Vodafone, for example, developed an app for women that allowed them to secretly call for help in the face of domestic abuse – by shaking their phone. And since we couldn’t promote the app on TV, we hid the content in cosmetic-tutorial videos, on tags in clothing stores, and in targeted voice messages to female Vodafone customers.

The insight and idea drove the success. The technology enabled it to work.

Our focus should be on using all our powerful tools to create businesses that customers love, crave, don’t want to live without —not just monetizing the next all-pervasive way to communicate.

I think it is also interesting to note that while we are increasing the opportunities to monetize, productivity is at an all-time low (see last week’s Wall Street Journal piece, “Beyond the Internet, Innovation Struggles.”) Google’s corporate restructure highlights the need for (and perhaps lack of) Innovation for bettered lives rather than for the sake of monetization.

#4 Some people have said publishers are going out of business and brands are becoming publishers. What do brands need to compete in today’s competitive market?

Brands and Agencies have always been in the content space — we just didn’t call it content. Wish we did.

Today publishers have to worry about their credibility more than ever before. Even Gawker is confronting the challenge of prioritizing content by what will be click-worthy vs. what is ethical and true to their brand focus.

And click-worthy content in truth is a single commodity on the web — no one is really paying attention to it. And if they are, it’s not valuable.

The notion of credibility, on the other hand, is hugely valuable — that’s why viewership on CNN (and other so-called “traditional’ news sources) increases during times of crises.

Brands need to be credible to their roots. It’s easy to say we are all publishers — if Kellogg’s were to go in the News business, who would believe them? But they can be a credible source on breakfast nutrition, for example.

It’s also interesting that up-and-coming tech companies in publishing are quickly grabbing execs from the “old school” media world to ensure they build profitable businesses (Snapchat’s hiring CNN news correspondent, Buzzfeed’s hiring long-time Pepsico Markerting exec, VICE’s hiring former Conde Nast Ad exec). The pattern can’t be ignored. Digital businesses are realizing that being “digital” is just not enough.

This is an exciting moment for all content creators — Creating high quality content with strong editorial integrity is much more important than being digitally savvy and getting lots of likes.

#5 What advice would you give start up founders on navigating the agencies and showcasing their value?

·      Don’t get caught up in Digibabble

·      Avoid “first-time in history of mankind” or “never before seen” unless its actually true

·      What is the value of your product to the Agency’s clients and their consumers in their real lives

·      Distinguish Innovation for the sake of Innovation vs. Innovation for Survival

·      Be able to Articulate your mission in one short sentence

·      Stick to your mission

·      Ask yourself, are you changing the world — most think they are and claim they are but often not while looking for opportunities to monetize rather than solutions that offer real solutions

·      Understand the business challenge or need before you present