Maybe You Shouldn't Hire a VP of Digital Strategy

Jeff Greene, partner, digital strategy lead, New Solutions Factory
Jeff Greene, partner, digital strategy lead, New Solutions Factory

A lot of healthcare agencies we know have job openings for a VP of digital strategy right now. Like, a lot. Some agencies have been looking for a year or more. A couple thought they had the perfect candidate, only to see the hire fail after a few months.

Why is this role so hard to fill? Agencies usually cite a lack of qualified candidates. That might be true: in a survey of global companies by Capgemini Research, 77% said a gap in employee skills was the key barrier to digital transformation. The digital strategists think otherwise. One agency's former VP of digital strategy told me his old shop wasn't ready to make the changes necessary to capitalize on digital thinking. That might also be true.

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Here's a more disruptive reason: agencies struggle to find VPs of digital strategy (or multichannel strategy or engagement strategy) because they don't really need one.

What? Did he really say that? It's controversial, yes. But it might be true. 

More often than you think, agencies decide an outside “savior” is needed to reposition the agency for digital success. This person is imagined to be a digital native, familiar with all emerging technologies, expert at social and search and web design, a savvy team leader and also a great pitchman. Voila! Sounds like a VP of digital strategy.

Yet this approach tackles the wrong side of the problem. Sharon Suchotliff, who is VP, director of engagement strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, likens the challenge to something out of Alice in Wonderland: ”As the wise Cheshire Cat once said, 'If you don't know where you are going, any road can take you there.'“ 

It's exactly why—before identifying who should lead digital—agencies need to define their actual opportunity, which is a task in itself that deserves careful self-reflection. From there, certain unmet needs will likely rise to the surface. Only then is the agency in position to figure out how to fill those needs.

When a VP of digital strategy doesn't make sense

To make the point clear, consider the healthcare agencies in these two hypothetical scenarios:

Scenario 1

Situation: The agency excels at content development for medical clients but is often “left out” of digital execution. New revenue could be captured if the agency were better able to bundle digital tactics and content together, something its account teams have struggled to do.

Possible unmet needs

- Digital sales and account expertise

- Clarity around digital offerings

- Case studies supporting the value of bundling content with execution

This agency is looking for a VP of digital strategy when it really needs a closer. A savvy account director with digital smarts and a solutions-oriented approach to selling could be a better hire. To help their new AD codify digital offerings, the agency could pair her with someone already on the digital team, like an articulate creative director or project lead. The partner could also come from the outside, such as a pitch consultant or freelance strategist who would join the team for a period of time. 

Key insight: Digital strategists can only go so far in supporting new business efforts; they certainly won't be successful doing it on their own. If your account teams aren't winning digital business, it may be time to shake them up. 

Scenario 2

Situation: The agency has a broad array of service offerings but its digital group struggles to deliver projects effectively. Account teams are voicing concerns that the shop's weak digital offering could put their more lucrative, non-digital business at risk. 

Possible unmet needs

- Digital project management expertise

- A better process and delivery infrastructure

- Team training on effectively scoping digital tactics

This agency hopes strategy will solve what is essentially an operational issue. But is building pharma websites—with their hundreds of screen captures, tricky data collection requirements and long paragraphs of fair balance—really where this agency will shine? If so, the right hire is a strong head of digital project management. His first order of business should be setting expectations for how long it takes to deliver quality work. On the other hand, perhaps this agency should instead focus on its creative product and find an outside partner to deal with the nitty-gritty details. 

Key insight: Many agencies aren't good at executing technical projects; digital strategists aren't good at that, either. If your digital group has an operational problem, you need to find people who can operate it better.

Making the right VP of digital strategy hire

For many agencies, of course, the VP of digital strategy is a crucial role. When placed in a position to succeed, a good digital strategy lead can spur highly successful client engagements. She'll elevate an agency's ability to impact real business and patient outcomes. That can inspire clients, staff, everyone.

If you determine a VP of digital strategy makes sense for your agency, keep these tips in mind as you seek out your candidate: 

- For starters, recognize that a digital strategy lead is going to be client-facing. Gene Fitzpatrick, SVP, multichannel marketing at Grey Healthcare Group, says agencies are still service businesses first: ”Digital strategists need to be passionate about what they do and also genuinely interested in how it can benefit a client. You can never underestimate client relationship skills,” he explains. Project how your new hire will interact with your agency's clients before making an offer.

- Next, understand that not all digital strategists have the same skill sets. Because “digital” is such a broad term, you can have two VPs of digital strategy with completely different professional experiences. I was surprised once to meet a digital strategy lead who couldn't tell his SEO from his SEM. But he had some brilliant ideas about user experience and how to approach multi-device web design. Look for a hire whose definition of “digital strategy” matches your own. 

- Finally, accept that the person you hire may be a little, well, strange. Digital strategists tend to be quirky, multi-disciplinary and hard to put into one box. Suchotliff notes that many are comfortable playing different roles. “They are part futurists, anticipating the next wave of digital disruptions, and part pragmatists, using their understanding to guide teams in how to execute,” he says. So keep an open mind when meeting with candidates. The ideal VP of digital strategy might not seem like a fit now, but once he challenges and evolves your agency, you'll wonder how you ever worked without him.

Jeff Greene (@Jeff_Greene) is partner, digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory.
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