Blog Post By: Ashley Heron

Finding Water: Being Good When Digital is Hard and the Living’s Easy


Welcome. You’ve joined an exciting digital agency. Your ability to create is boundless. Your limitations are only set by you and we are excited you are here. You will be busy soon. More so maybe than you have ever been before. However, the work you will do will not be easy. Digital marketing, design, production, and advertising is hard. Absurdly so. Great work often requires the most work. You will succeed and you will fail. Sorry, perfectionists.

It is not easy to hit CPAs.

It is nearly impossible to not have bugs in your website.

The creative the client will find “underwhelming” will be what you really love.

Its difficulty can be enumerated in lists, it can be exemplified in projects, and it can be maddening in its daily change.

It’s hard in that you can never quite know everything; relegated forever to being experts sometimes without expertise, and in that it is immediate — that elevation of issues and expectations of resolution are somehow coupled with immediacy (more on this later). Platforms start and become important in months, not years; their features change and break, new operating systems launch yearly, and some browsers, however old, seem to hold onto their life beyond reasonable expectations (I’m looking at you, Internet Explorer).

It can be “hard” to evolve from the mindset of working in “specs.” In the not too distant past, we heard from the printer “300dpi CMYK with a 1/4” bleed” and Photoshop, Illustrator, or Quark spit that out every time we hit save. We delivered 300x250 SWF banners with a 50k or less backup GIF (it’s pronounced gif, not jif, no matter what anyone says). We had Flash, and Flash was a singular development platform (don’t mistake this as nostalgia). We didn’t have to test with any rigor in dozens of versions of Firefox, Chrome, ten versions of Safari, and fourteen of Internet Explorer, across dozens of operating systems, on hundreds of devices, all with different screen sizes — you tested on your computer and it worked or it didn’t.

In reality, it became more difficult as now we have more questions, not more specs. These questions are most often one of two: Can you _____? I need ______?

Can you help me develop a Snapchat strategy? Can you help me get to a $10 CPA and scale my spend? I need better social creative — can you help? I need a website — how would you build it? It got hard because we moved from “specs” to more “questions” — and these questions have more variables than ever before: platform dependencies, browser versions, OS versions, hardware, screen resolution, etc., etc., etc. Did I mention it’s hard?

Resolution Immediacy

Resolution Immediacy

Digital has also introduced an as-yet-unnamed concept (to my knowledge). A concept I’ll call “Resolution Immediacy.” Never before has a service existed with an assumption that issue elevation and resolution can both be addressed immediately.

If your car doesn’t start in the morning, there is no concept that simply calling someone with urgency will resolve your issue immediately. The tow truck will come. You will exchange pleasantries. Your car will be towed. It will wait in line at the repair shop. They will do tests. They will call you with the results. You may need to order a part. It will take a few days to arrive. It will be replaced. And then you can finally turn in that rental car you have been sporting for the past week.

But, for some reason, when your site (a machine in its own right) goes down, when a bug is found, or when CPAs spike, there is an expectation that the client’s elevation of the issue moves you with immediacy to instant resolution. But the truth is you won’t know how long it will take to fix, as with your car. This thing that you built, or machine that we use, has literally never been built before in the history of ever. Therefore, guaranteed estimation is, by definition, impossible, how it will be fixed will require research, and why it broke (when it inevitably will) cannot be determined until it is fixed. So, yeah, it’s hard.

How to be Good at Hard Things

Now that you know working at a digital agency will eventually just end up in a pile of broken Jira tickets, why does it still excite and drive us in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? How do you do it well? At the core, it simply requires a mindset and accomplishing two key tasks:

1. The Mindset: “Find Water”

2. Task 1: Focus on Preparation

3. Task 2: Plan for Response

First, the Philosophy: Find Water

You are stranded on an island. What do you do? You want to be rescued so you quickly build a boat and sail heroically to a passing ship, right? Wrong. Being good at digital marketing is not about knowing all the answers; it’s about being good at “finding water.”

You may be an expert sailor, practiced and experienced. But this island cannot be assumed to be like your waters back home. It will be different, even if ever so slightly.

You’ve run a similar Direct Response campaign before, and you think this new one will be just like the old one. Incorrect.

You have built a dozen sweepstakes before, and if you think that this new sweeps will be the same, you just drifted into the North Pacific Gyre, forever to go in circles.

You must, instead, only do the most important thing next. This is easy to lose sight of. Without seeking first water, then shelter, then food, analyzing the tides and wind, preparing your materials and supplies for the journey, and testing your raft before sailing, you will find quickly that you will fail at your intended goal.

The best marketers — the best at any job — know inherently the next question to ask, not all the questions. They know that digital is not a checklist; it’s a frame of mind. At its simplest it can be defined as “trying to think about the things you have not thought about yet.” The best know how to “find water.”

Second, Preparation:

Projects are linear. They almost always take the amount of time you allocate in the beginning to go from start to finish. And, without fail, project pain points occur when that timeline is accelerated. Being accepting of this means it’s also our job to be good preparers and to manage expectations.

So how do you prepare? At HYFN, we do this in a variety of forms (Discovery, Technology Choice, Exit Criteria Definition, Designs, Due Diligence, etc.), but, ultimately, we are trying to set the rules for our “machine.” You must set expectations for whatever you are building or whatever program you are running. This is so fundamentally important that even in the dichotomy of the two key project management principles of Agile and Waterfall, the step they both start with is “Define.”

We define primarily through exit criteria at HYFN, but regardless of your output or lexicon, use preparation to set expectations and to have written “rules” by which you will hold everyone accountable.

Third, Plan for Response:

What do these companies and dates have in common?

Resolution Immediacy

They all broke. They all have had critical infrastructure failures.

Not what you thought? Google goes down. Facebook goes down. Microsoft’s cloud computing platform even went down during their 2015 cloud computing conference (facepalm). So, yes, I’m sorry to report that your site or platform will go down, too. And your launch may be delayed because the internet breaks. This is not to excuse failure, and this is not to say that you shouldn’t demand excellence. This is to say that if you do not plan for response, you are knocking on Noah’s door in your raincoat and it is already too late. The best companies, the best agencies plan for response.

Facebook knows this. As of writing this post, there are over 500 reported bugs on Facebook. And not all of these get resolved within 30 days. In fact, 10% don’t. But this is a company that understands it’s their job to plan for response, to openly track and monitor. In the same, you must have a plan for response.

At HYFN, we use Jira because response is as critical as an issue occurring(which it will). And we do all of this so we can ultimately embrace “ETA unknown” (remember that part on immediacy?). Have a place to file, have a place to track, to diagnose, to fix, and to — most importantly — learn from mistakes to avoid the same one twice.

Digital is Not a Checklist. Ever.

Digital is hard because it is trying to think about the things you have not thought about yet. But if you embrace this, if you revel in finding water, you can use all of this philosophy, preparation, and response planning to form guiding principles. Here are ours:

MANAGE: Daily manage expectations.

COMMUNICATE: Daily communicate all available information.

EMPOWER: Daily empower the client to make decisions and communicate to their teams.

USER-FIRST: Daily consider the end-user in order to ensure that we are achieving the objective.

LEAD: Daily lead the client to decisions that achieve the business outcome desired, and never be just facilitators of information.

Every last element is about managing informed decisions. Do that, and that alone, and you can be an expert, without expertise, in a hard environment.

Why We do the Hard Things

In all of this — the hard parts, the challenges, the response, the downtime, the frustrations — you will find success. You will have success because you will refuse to accept anything else. You accept that it is your daily goal to be better, and with that mentality, you can build anything. You can do anything you set out to accomplish. And that is why hard matters. That is why hard is empowering. It is exciting.

At HYFN, we can speak aloud challenges and asks of our clients and bring things to life through the genius of the team(s). That is why we come to work every day, to bang our heads against the wall, to climb uphill when things are changing, when it’s hard, when we are perfectionists and can’t be perfect. And that is what motivates us: the rock that won’t move is a rock worth pushing. Because when it edges ever so slightly, we understand the effort involved; the satisfaction in knowing that we signed up for the hardest problem; we figured it out, and for that, we can be proud. Because it was hard

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