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"Everything That Can Be Digital, Will Be"


Razorfish’s CCO Anthony Yell speaks to LBB’s Adam Bennett, in association with Adobe, about the advantages of creative data, the early days of the internet boom, and why our journey towards digital needn’t leave analog behind

"Everything That Can Be Digital, Will Be"

Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry. 

In this conversation we talk with Anthony Yell, CCO of Razorfish. In the 90s, Anthony had a front-row seat for the dotcom boom in San Francisco. Today, he draws on two decades of experience in digital at Razorfish to make sense of an ever-changing medium. In this interview, Anthony reflects on the early days of Silicon Valley, the often misunderstood value of creative data, and the joys of analog in an increasingly digital world.

Q> You came straight out of University in England and into the belly of the digital beast, and the early days of Silicon Valley, in San Francisco. How did you find taking that plunge?

Anthony> It was great! San Francisco in the 90’s was a wonderful melting pot of interesting people, thinking, and culture, and a lovely place to land post-UK. However, dare I say it, it was also a little less stunning than it is today. That’s due in large part to the brutalist elevated freeway system that sliced through the city. That included onee road that ran along the entire Embarcadero waterfront, blocking the view of the Bay. Trust me, it looks a lot better now since it was torn down! 

At the time I arrived, the internet was just starting to be explored in terms of new business models, products, services and offerings. However, in those early days it was all quite basic, such as 8-bit color, 640x480 screen resolutions, and noisy dial up modems that could barely manage to achieve the heady speeds of 14.4 baud. But it was still more interesting to me than more conventional and standardized mediums such as TV, Print, and Radio. Those were all well-understood, had a defined role, and didn’t change that much. However, it was the complete opposite for all things digital since everything changed almost daily: the proliferation of services & channels, the speed and omnipresence of access, all the enabling technologies, and ultimately all the new customer behaviors and expectations that it unlocked. 

In short, it was quite the disruptive medium and this remains the case today. Which is why it is still a fascinating space to explore creativity in 2020.

You’ve been working at Razorfish/Sapient/Publicis in some manifestation for a long time, and are currently in your second spell. What is it about the company that makes you stick around?

Anthony> For me, it’s all about the people I get to work with - both the teams and the clients. Mix that in with the opportunities we all get to work on together, and honestly, it’s been a boatload of fun. I’ve also been fortunate to have experienced many different jobs, roles and responsibilities during my time with the company, in part due to the good year over year growth that was achieved, as well as the almost yearly strategic mergers and acquisitions activity. This resulted in expanded opportunities for me, and every time there was some M&A activity, I met new people, got to experience new ways of thinking, and often had access to different capabilities, talent and clients. 

This often led to the need to re-position, and at times, re-brand the company to make sure its purpose, culture and capabilities were understood in the market. I would offer this happened quite a lot, especially in the last few years. The outcome for me, and for many others who work here, is that it feels new. Its adaptability, its orientation towards change is healthy, and fundamental to any agency or company in today’s world.

Why was 2020 the right time for Razorfish to make its return, and what differentiates it from the other digital brands/offerings under the Publicis umbrella?

Anthony> Well, in retrospect, you could say that Covid-19 has punctuated the need for an agency like Razorfish—an agency born from the belief 25 years ago that “everything that can be digital, will be.” Twenty-five years later, the future has become the present. We live in a digitally-centric world, and one that has helped us stay connected over the past six months. 

And if you look at the brands and businesses that have been able to survive and thrive during the pandemic, adapting to the new normal, they are all digitally-enabled. But digital is constantly changing and the landscape of companies, offerings, services, etc. that a modern marketing team and CMO have to figure out is massively complex and growing year after year. You need a digital agency partner with the right experience, capabilities, and culture to help parse all these elements and make something that makes a difference for your customer. This is where Razorfish comes in. 

Our purpose is to create unforgettable experiences that connect and enrich people’s lives. We do this through a culture that embraces diversity, and an ingenious mindset that seeks to deepen the relationship between customers and brands. This is how we can transform marketing for all: Our clients, their customers, and the world we all live in. That world is omni-channel, fueled by data and powered by technology. Razorfish has the relevant experience and deep expertise across all of it: from products & platforms, to campaigns & content to physical & digital. This is a highly unique mix of capabilities in any one agency, and it is supported by our core disciplines and talent that include data, strategy, creative, technology and media - all in-house and within one culture. We believe this interconnection is critical to success, as connecting the complexity of all things digital means knowing and understanding all things digital. 

Last year, Publicis acquired Epsilon. What kind of doors does such a high quality of data open for you guys? What are you now able to do?

Anthony> Well, it’s pretty simple: the better you know someone, the more you can relate to them, fully understand what they are trying to do, and meet and exceed their expectations. As such, you can offer them a better product, a better service and communicate with them in a more meaningful manner. That said, getting good data and parsing it to make sense of it in a manner that is actionable is difficult and time consuming. This is where Epsilon comes in. 

With over 50 years of experience in helping brands transform customer experiences, they offer a powerful and proprietary product suite that enables us, and our clients, to go deeper and get a more accurate view of the customer than ever before. They combine transactional, behavioral and contextual data into a single, insightful, and actionable view of the customer. I know there seems to be an ongoing debate about data, specifically so-called BIG DATA, but really, it’s just information that can help paint a clear picture of whatever you are trying to understand. As a creative, it helps me focus on what matters most and to do something better. 

It feels like there's a tension in the industry between long-term brand building work and more immediate, performance-driven marketing that can be associated with 'data’. What are your thoughts on that?

Anthony> Maybe so, but I don’t see the difference. Any decision you make should be as informed as possible, that way you can determine the best course of action, whether applied to a long-term strategy or to more immediate goals and objectives. Ultimately, it’s all brand building, as the total experience is the brand. Mess up any one part of it, no matter how small, and you’ve negatively affected it. So, brand building is all the parts, not just one stream. I would offer the main difference is that, near term, performance can use data to automate certain aspects, which actually frees up time, people and cash to focus on longer-term marketing goals and objectives. 

Q> What's your view on the 'customer journey' approach to advertising, and where does the work you do with Razorfish sit along that journey?

Anthony> I prefer to have the understanding that comes from a good customer journey model, as it helps provide more context and, similarly to data, that is just useful to know. In short, the journey creates a more behavioral lens through which we can see the customer, and since behavior is ultimately what we are all trying to influence, that is good! I would also offer that there are lots of similarities within our industry in terms of behavior even though they are not called the same thing. As an example, I think media strategy and user experience are very similar in reality: they both seek to shape and influence customer behavior and drive actions towards end goals. They both need to be designed to do so. Customer journey is a good way to think about what we are all trying to achieve, and this is also very true for Razorfish. Our work tends to be omni-channel—how all these elements connect and drive the type of outcomes our clients are seeking is usually the hardest part

Q> How do you see the relationship between the pandemic and our world’s accelerating digital transformation?

Anthony> I feel like Bernard Marr does a good job of summing up the relationship: “If ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, Covid-19 forced many around the world to rethink our daily lives from work to school to entertainment.” 

Beyond the obvious mass-uptake of remote working, we are staying connected digitally to family and friends. It has stressed the need for brands and businesses to be digitally enabled, to have direct to consumer channels that are powered by data-driven digital ecosystems, to be more adept at changing faster, and to be able to stand up new products & platforms that offer new ways for customers to engage and transact and adapt to the new normal. 

You’re Razorfish’s CCO, but do you consider yourself as ‘a creative’ in the traditional sense in the industry?

Anthony> I view myself as a creative, absolutely. To me, that means I am someone who uses creativity to solve complex brand and business problems that exist in our omni-channel world. 

That said, advertising/communications/content is just one part of that world. To be a modern creative, you have to understand the entire omni-channel experience from products & platforms, to campaigns & content, through to how this all exists within physical & digital. I would offer that most of our clients operate across all these spaces, and some of the biggest challenges they face are connecting them in an effective manner, so that the customer gets a seamless experience. It’s harder to do that if you don’t really understand them. 

Q> Are there any misconceptions you run into around creative data? How do you personally define the term, and what advice would you give for anyone in the industry looking to get to grips with it? 

Anthony> I think there are misconceptions around creative data. On the surface, it’s a fairly new word and category, and you can see that more broadly across the industry, in festivals and competitions, where they are adding in the category. Combine that with different schools of thought around how it may positively influence, or negatively dictate, creative, and yeah, the misconceptions arise. 

But really, it’s just the continuation of a need to become as informed as possible around whatever the creative challenge is. It should add value to any brief and subsequent thinking. As discussed earlier, it’s a tool for people to help them see something that they couldn’t see before: a new insight, a new behavior, a different segment, a better way to tell a story, or a completely different opportunity. As such, hopefully you can make a more informed and impactful decision regarding the work. Ultimately, you can use it to your advantage, or not.

And what do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Any current obsessions?

Anthony> Ha, great question. Well, having spent the vast majority of my professional life in the digital space, I do like to disconnect from it as much as possible in my spare time, on the weekends and on holidays. So, it starts with trying not to look at my phone every minute. And then it quickly evolves into making/fixing things, mostly analog things. That could range from working on old cars, making bicycles, or even racing speed boats and motorcycles. I also enjoy working on the house. I have no problem taking a room back to studs and building it back up. In all honesty, my current obsession is to get my list of DIY projects down to a manageable amount. 

Finally, is there a happy compromise to be found between the worlds of analog and digital? Does running towards digital mean we need to run away from analog?

Anthony> Absolutely. I think a happy compromise is essential, and no, you don’t have to run away from analog to get the most out of digital. I don’t think of them as mutually exclusive at all. In fact, they can be highly complementary to one another. But you have to find the right balance between the two that suits you and your day-to-day life to get the most out of them. 

I’m sure that balance is very different for different people, based on their circumstances, needs and stage in life. For me personally, that balance is extremely important and something I value a lot. Working in digital for the past 25 years has certainly exposed me to all manner of digitally-centric things, from technologies and devices, to services and new behaviors, to new channels and ways to connect them and more. So, I enjoy, and need, to spend time with purely analog things. 

It is a welcome departure, and quite frankly, a massive reminder of how amazing things are - especially when you get some much-needed perspective.

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Adobe, Thu, 03 Sep 2020 09:53:40 GMT