Cutting Edge Tech And The Agency: Q&A With Benjamin Spiegel Of MMI Agency
How can agencies tap into technological innovation when the best developers want to work for start-ups or tech companies? We discuss this dilemma with the head of one mid-sized agency that's put an interesting solution in place.
For brands and agencies to keep up with the constantly evolving consumer landscape, they need to be on the leading cusp of innovation — which often means technology-based innovation.
The challenge is that most of the world’s top developers do not want to work for a brand, or even an agency. They want to work for Facebook, Google or another shiny startup.
For agencies, this means they need to either accept that they will not always have the best developers or find alternative solutions. Since the rise of advertising technology, the idea of having technology departments within agencies has been much discussed; this concept leads to interesting new models.
The Houston-based MMI agency, whose clients include Shell, Minute Maid, nrg, Air Liquide, Allstate and the US Department of Defense, recently struck a partnership with a UK company called The Sandpit — a relationship meant to help MMI stay at the forefront of technology. (After this interview was conducted, the agency also announced a deal with Knime, an open source software developer with expertise in data management.)
Here, we discuss with CEO Benjamin Spiegel (disclosure: a contributor to Marketing Land and Search Engine Land) the Sandpit relationship and the challenge for agencies to keep up with technological advances.
Q. Can you tell me how you’ve dealt with this challenge in the past, either at MMI or in your past roles? (Spiegel joined MMI as CEO in June after having served as VP of Innovation at Catalyst/GroupM.)
In my previous role, I worked for a very data-centric agency/holding company, WPP. The agency has made some very smart investments into technology and data companies.
While this is a great solution for entities of their size, we smaller agencies and brands have to seek out alternative ways to find innovative solutions that can stand up to established players.
Q. In your experience, does the client usually come to you with the new technology, or do you come to them, or how does that usually work?
With the rise of the VC community and the explosion of ad tech, it has become a common case that a startup reaches out to the brand, and then the brand involves its agency. In my last agency, we created a great process for startups to pitch agencies, and I think this is a very successful approach.
But as brands become smarter in digital and technology, I foresee the need to create a clear framework that manages the interaction between startups, agencies and brands. Without that, there will be lots of disruptions in the chase for the next shiny thing.
Q. One of the reasons this is so challenging is the time it takes to genuinely vet new technologies for their usefulness and their ROI potential. How are you going about that with this new partnership? Do you have a dedicated person or team whose job it is to evaluate new technologies, or is it a small part of everyone’s job?
In order to prequalify new solutions and make sure we are not putting our clients at unnecessary risk, we created an internal team that evaluates and tests all solutions and platforms to extensive lengths. We ensure that they meet our clients’ security requirements, follow privacy laws, and most of all, are stable.
We also created an internal panel (made up of practice and account leads) that meets monthly with our partners to discuss product changes and updates. One thing to mention here is trust. We are very transparent with our clients on the maturity of these solutions and the potential risks involved. It’s the fragile balance of security vs. market advantage that is so important to attain.
On of the reasons we have chosen The Sandpit is that they are doing that 24/7. The tech start-up businesses that are part of The Sandpit have already undergone a process of market testing and wider roadmap work (both technical and commercial).
Q. At what point do you bring a new technology to the client? How does your process typically work?
In most scenarios, we partner with a client to identify a problem or opportunity and put together an “innovation brief.” We then issue that brief to our partners, and they come back to us with initial ideas. After some preliminary vetting, we then bring the finalist to the client to propose the solution.
The other instances are more random: most often someone on our innovation panel likes a solution, and they bring it to the client. We try to not take the approach of finding solutions without a problem. I say try, because often we find things that are so cool we just have to “create” a problem for them to solve ;)
Obviously, there is always a balance between the client’s appetite to innovate and the reality of what’s possible or best for their business goals.
Q. Will your partnership with The Sandpit prevent you from working with other technology providers besides their incubator companies?
No, both The Sandpit and MMI believe in delivering the maximum value to our clients, and in order to do that, we have to constantly look outside of what we know and discover new possibilities and opportunities.
Often, we create a solution that will benefit our clients and another one of the client’s partner agencies. For instance, we developed a custom search engine marketing (SEM) solution recently for one of our energy clients that is now being actively used by them and their search agency.
Our role is to connect and help our brands win against the competition, even if it doesn’t always fill our pockets.
That being said, the custom IP we are building in collaboration with The Sandpit brings us, as an agency, an extremely competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Q. Does your relationship with The Sandpit, which seems to involve your helping them improve and hone their products for agencies, have a financial upside for MMI? Do you get special pricing for using these technologies, or do you get an equity stake in the companies?
The primary benefit for MMI is the advantage it delivers for us as an agency. We can walk into any pitch and showcase solutions and technologies that we know nobody has access to.
This leads to us being able to bring first-to-market solutions to our clients that will make them stand out from the crowd and win. The financial upside is really to our clients; in exchange for them influencing and helping to shape the product, they often receive exclusive rights to their “features,” as well as free or at-cost pricing.
Q. Your press release mentions launching a US-based digital technology lab in collaboration with Sandpit Lab. How will this work?
Some of this is still confidential, but we are working on a few different models that will allow us to leverage our incredibly smart local talent and provide a Sandpit-like model for them to use and leverage for growth.
We are also expanding our in-house innovation capabilities with The Sandpit to enable a thorough integration between brands, account teams and innovators.
Q. One of the potential advantages for having such a public program is that clients and potential clients know you’re plugged into the latest technological advances. How much of a factor do you think that is, when clients are looking for an agency partner?
I have a deep belief that brands choose agencies to be innovative and creative. One client once told me that if they wanted only search, they would just outsource it or hire the people directly. They expected us to do search SEM + innovation + new ideas + creativity.
In today’s competitive agency landscape, you must have something unique that sets you apart. As an agency, you have to choose if you want to invest in building that.
We decided to partner with the innovation leader and let them focus on what they do best, and we focus on what we do best. That magic combination will provide the greatest value to the clients. And yes, being able to show the client something they have never seen before gives you the advantage.
Q. It’s easy to justify spending time evaluating tools that end up being super-useful or big hits. But what about those that are ultimately not useful? There’s a danger that the ROI of taking this time will be questioned, or that staffers will get discouraged. How do you lessen the risk of that for your team members?
Whenever we talk to third parties about this partnership, they immediately recognize the benefit to our client brands, as well as to the startups.
What most people don’t immediately recognize is the benefit this partnership has to our teams. This relationship enables our teams to touch technologies that no one else has ever touched before; they get to try things that nobody has yet implemented, and most of all, they get to expand their skill set and break out of the routine of daily tasks.
Our teams get to do something new and amazing for our clients and actually help them beat the competition.
Q. I noticed that The Sandpit seems to be focused exclusively on technologies for B2B marketing. How do these differ from consumer marketing-oriented tools? Could some of them go either way? Do you anticipate a second partnership for more B2C tools, or does your agency mostly do B2B marketing?
I hear these questions a lot. MMI has a large portfolio of B2B clients that could probably leverage a lot of the “products” The Sandpit has. But honestly, we see these existing products as a nice extra. What we care much more about is the underlying technology and flexibility that come with a startup.
Part of our panel’s job is to look at these technologies (and not the software) and think how could we leverage them to solve a problem. When we issue briefs, we bring these developers the problem the brand shared, we don’t bring the startup to the brand.
Nothing generates more excitement than bringing a brand’s challenge to 20 young Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg/Sergey Brin types and letting them use their technology to create a solution.
For example, one of our brands recently activated a campaign with us and wanted real-time coverage of all PR, social, news and blog activities. This type of real-time content listening had never been done before on that scale.
The Sandpit has a website crawler named DeepCrawl; its platform can scan thousands of Web pages a second. Within two days, the developers modified DeepCrawl to our specifications, and we were able to monitor brand mentions spread across the Web as they happened.