Dennis Troyanos: We’re delighted to be here visiting with Mitch Caplan and Gene Lewis. Mitch and Gene are principals of the New York-based digital marketing firm, Digital Pulp. Mitch, Gene, welcome to the show. So here we are at Digital Pulp. What’s the genesis of the company, and why the name Digital Pulp?
Gene Lewis: In ’96 it was a bunch of guys in a room with some ethernet cable hanging from the ceiling and a couple of copies of Photoshop, Illustrator, and BBEdit. We started going down two paths – print, and digital – hence Digital Pulp. We also discovered along the way that digital pulp is actually the medical term for the tip of your finger, which is what you touch the world with. We went with that and suddenly found ourselves at the crest of the initial wave of the internet and became more of a digital agency.
DT: So what clients does Digital Pulp work with and what’s the ideal profile for a client?
Mitchell Caplan: We work with a variety of different clients in a variety of categories. It can run from companies that operate only in the online space to packaged goods companies like Bausch & Lomb. We work with Continental and with United; Continental is a long-time client of the firm and we’re working with them and with United in regard to their merger. Bausch & Lomb as you know is an eye-care company up in Rochester; the firm has worked with them for many years. H. Bloom, which is a large flower subscription company, and several other firms in a variety of categories. I think the perfect client for our firm is a company that wants to be innovative and do things differently. We have a core specialty in the digital world. One of our core competencies is in site development, but we do a lot of other things including brand identity and online marketing. Really, anything where technology touches the brand.
Norman Sherman: There are so many digital agencies out there at this point; you can probably draw a circle 300 yards around your building, here, and knock down ten of them. How do you position yourself in this very competitive marketplace? What is it that you tell prospects and potential employees about what makes you different?
GL: I think the single biggest differentiator is that regardless of the type of work that we’re doing – branding, site development, full campaign development – at the end of the day we really put the user first. What got us through the growth and the crash of the web bubble is accountability: making sure that at the end of the day, we were taking the people we were trying to reach as the core group that we were trying to serve. Whether that be in the messaging that we create, the positioning that we develop, or the actual interface work, making sure that we’re representing the people we’re trying to reach is one of the true differentiators that we’ve had.
NS: You mentioned both positioning and branding in your response just then. Very often digital shops are viewed as being very tactical, and positioning and branding is anything but tactical. Talk about that from your point of view about why that’s important to your business.
MC: There are a lot of digital marketing agencies in the country, and a lot of them are very competent in what they do. A lot of them are very competent in the development of digital tactics: the building of websites, the building of online assets, those types of things. One of the other things that makes us different at Digital Pulp is a very strong desire on our part to understand our client’s company, their brand, its positioning in the marketplace, and what experiences we may develop for that client that connect back to the brand promise. We have a very strong desire and process around digging deep into understanding the company, its culture, the brands that they have and represent, what those brands stand for in the marketplace before we even begin to think about tactics or ideas that go into the marketplace.
GL: At the end of the day if you just go down the tactics path, you can create a great app or a great functioning website. The spirit, the essence, getting some emotion going, getting those goose bumps and getting someone to really interact with the brand… if you don’t have that branding component you’re not actually delivering a great product.
DT: Mitch, I’ve known you for a long time and I’ve known you to be a pretty good storyteller. I think that part of the brand at Digital Pulp is that you’re very focused on telling stories in a digital format. Tell us what that’s about, and how does digital storytelling differ from storytelling through print or TV or radio for that matter?
MC: There are a couple of ways to answer that question. The first is: in order for us to really help our clients to be successful – and one of the things we talk about at Digital Pulp is that our whole objective is to make great things happen – and great things mean great outcomes for our clients in the development of the kind of solutions we come up with for them in order to help their brand and their companies grow in the marketplace. We have a very strong competency in the education space; we work with a lot of colleges and universities like Harvard and NYU. Those brands, in a very similar fashion to a Continental or a Bausch & Lomb or Mikimoto – which is the world’s leading manufacturer of jewelry that includes pearls – they have a story to tell. They have very unique propositions that make them different from other companies and universities and schools and online entities in their category. From the perspective of our being able to position and promote a brand properly, we have to find the right way to tell their story. From a strategic standpoint, we have to dig deep to have a real understanding of what it is about them that we can use to leverage and talk about them differently. If you go to the NYU Stern website, you’ll see “Possibilities,” is the story that we’re telling for them. It’s perfectly articulated in the way that we talk about NYU Stern and the experience that you have in going to the website. Storytelling is essential across the board because everything is digital now. No matter what a client is doing, everything touches technology or digital in some way, shape, or form, and the ability to tell those stories across all these different platforms is very important for us as brand marketers, at minimum. From an implementation and creative standpoint, the various different ways we go about telling those stories… I’ll let Gene say a little about that.
GL: Very simply, to get across anything in this world, telling a story is probably the best delivery mechanism you can have. People love listening to stories; they have a high-grade emotional resonance for people. Every client we’ve ever had can have a story. What that story is and how to deliver it in the digital space is really the trick.
NS: Guys, you talked about focusing on the consumer, you talked about user experience, you talked about storytelling… when you talk about focusing on that consumer and making the experience a positive one, what do you think about? How do you go about doing that?
GL: The real core to our process is to understand – obviously research is a basis for everything at the start – who we’re talking to, what we’re trying to deliver, and how to shape that experience around those core essence needs of the consumer. There’s always a moment of a spark, and the spark is the simplest set of words that we can use to describe the overall strategy and message that’s going to reach our customers, our readers. Whatever the experience we’re developing is, we want to understand the essence of what that experience is going to be driven by. It helps our creative team, it helps our copywriters, it helps our engineers. Whatever you’re doing on a project, making sure that you keep that spark-essence in front of you as the guiding principle for the project is our driving force. It’s the evolution of the creative brief in the digital space.
GL: In the age of Apple, the user experience is no longer limited to just an interface. The experience of opening a package, of hearing a sound, of seeing the website, of being in a vehicle… whatever your experience of a brand might be, that user experience has broadened beyond what the traditional definition of it is. You could argue that on a big-picture level, we are designers of a user experience wherever that touchpoint might be, not just an interface.
DT: When you talk about creating this spark-essence, resonating with the consumer, connecting with the viewer or the listener… how do you do that? What is it that you do, and how did you learn how to do it so you could connect with people through this digital medium?
GL: I think it takes a lot of listening. Our process, even back in the more-traditional pure web development play, started with discovery. That discovery piece: listening to a client’s challenge, what they’re dealing with and what their essence with, that’s the start of the spark process for us. When we go through the process of developing that language, it’s first listening to clients, it’s them listening to the customers and the audiences that they’re trying to reach and finding out what the core challenges and what the solution brings. Our process is really built around building that essential message that’s going to get people to act.
DT: I’m going to push you a little further. We meet literally hundreds of agency executives who are really good listeners, but they come up with the wrong conclusion. Listening is only as good as the ability to come up with the right conclusion after listening. What do you do as an organization and as a professional that enables you to not only listen, but to come up with a conclusion that makes the cash-register ring?
GL: It’s challenging a status-quo that might exist for a lot of our clients. Clients come in with a presumption about who they are and what they’re trying to do and who they’re trying to reach. I think it’s our job to call them on all of their intrinsic assumptions about their brand, their language, and how they see themselves. I call us digital therapists at the end of the day. Not simply accepting the client’s answer, but pushing them further to consider what’s really at stake; not letting internal audiences drive the goal of the project. That workshop process has yielded, time and again, a high degree of clarity and brand engagement that, prior to working with us, wasn’t really there.
NS: My wife is a psychotherapist. She sometimes does sessions with people in China on Skype, and she gets off and refers to herself as a digital therapist. Not the same thing, right?
GL: Clients want to be heard, but they want to be challenged more than anything. Within an organization, you’re not going to get challenged by the people around you. Our job is to come in, look objectively, represent the people we’re trying to reach, and challenge: “Is what you’re saying to us really the essence of what you’re trying to deliver? Can we get through the clutter of what you’ve assumed to be true about yourselves?” That therapy session can often get heated, but at the end of it people come out feeling better and more clearly defined as a brand and as an organization.
MC: The other part of it is a cultural thing for us as an organization and how it informs how we work, which is that we have a very collaborative, transparent culture in which everyone has an equal voice. We spend an awful lot of time talking about our clients’ business. It becomes apparent early on that we’re not going to be successful unless we are conducting ourselves as a therapist for the brand and the business and really interrogating the critical things that are important to determine what’s going to be a positive outcome for the brand and for the organization. If we nail the brand but the business outcome isn’t strong, then one side isn’t feeding the other. It’s very important for us, up front, that we feel that we have a client that… what happens typically is that you get briefed, you run off, you develop a whole bunch of things, they get implemented, they get done, as opposed to an ongoing level of collaboration, transparency, conversation, pushback, disagreement, agreement, so that we’re absolutely positive – before we build anything or develop anything – that we have an understanding of the company’s goals both from a business perspective and from a brand perspective so that the user experience informs all of that. There’s this great saying in the digital world, especially when it comes to site development: “Don’t build it, they won’t come.” We feel very strongly about having clients that agree to and buy into our philosophy of: “We’re going to come to you with what we think is absolutely right, whether or not it’s what you came to us for.” We want to ensure that the solutions that we come up with are going to drive your business and drive your brand. That’s going to take a lot of collaboration, a lot of conversation, a lot of transparency, so that we’re sure that we are developing solutions that are going to drive those positive values.
NS: Do you find that your clients are often willing to let you into their business enough that what you do can be evaluated against business objectives as opposed to merely communications objectives?
GL: Typically we require it. When we first meet a client in the pitching process we talk about needing this as part of our key elements of success. What I love the most about my job is the fact that I get to experience and learn about businesses and organizations that run the gamut: Airlines, luxury goods, nonprofits, higher learning institutions. I can tell you more about lens-care and what it’s like to get accepted into Harvard law school than most people you know. It’s because we live and breathe not just the brand but how a business actually functions. Questions you would never normally think to be part of the digital process are part of ours. At the end of the day, finding success goes beyond number of click-throughs or number of visits; it’s what’s going to make your business successful and how does it work in other areas of the company. I think that’s probably the essential part, and if people don’t do that in doing what we do it’s inevitably going to be a bit out of touch and disconnected.
DT: One of the things we hear from people who know your work is that there is a level of digital beauty to what you guys do. When you look at your design elements, what is the key to having that design really reflect the brand, communicate in an easy and appetizing way to the consumer? Do design elements have a fashion and a trend to them? Is good design timeless?
GL: Good design in some ways is timeless, but not because of a specific aesthetic, but because of consistency and simplicity of what you’re trying to deliver. We used to be a little bit more of an agency where you could look at a design and say “That’s a Digital Pulp design.” It was very elemental in its interface; it was focused around the simplicity of beautiful shapes and the organization was light and open. In the past few year’s we’ve matured into embracing different types of visual executions, whether it be something as luxurious as Mikimoto or H. Bloom or something as people-oriented as NYU Stern. These types of sites all have different elements. What makes our design shine is that it is focused on keeping that user experience that goes beyond the interface. Taking a client’s image and colors and tones and bringing it to life in a way that feels simple, focused, and musical is really the essence of how we design.
NS: Not too long ago, design was viewed as visual elements that you can see. Design seems to have taken on a much greater definition of design principles, thinking, and developing innovative approaches to things. When you talk about design, how would you define it?
GL: I think the user interface is now becoming art. What made the iPhone great was not that it had a beautiful form factor, or it looked cool, or that it had certain capabilities and features. That’s what you’re now seeing other companies try to reproduce: that basic surface element. What made it great was that the interface was a piece of art. It was something that boiled it down to something so intuitive that a two year old could use it. What we’re doing now is that we’re finding that with digital technology progressing the way it is, we can take that interface and make it not just a subset of the experience, but the experience itself. The interface can be part of the brand. H. Bloom is an example of that: the experience of actually selecting flowers and subscribing to the service is an elevated one; it’s so simple and so intuitive that anyone can do it. That becomes part of the brand. Apple, along with several other companies and evolving start-ups in the industry, has turned what was previously the almost-bureaucracy of the digital experience into part of the brand itself. Things do not have to be complicated. You look at a company like Jet Blue. You approach the kiosk: the interface elements are big and bright and simple, they look friendly, and the language is inviting. What previously was considered to be utilitarian and process-oriented is now part of the experience of being welcomed into that airport and onto that plane. That’s where we try to live now.
NS: I would think that this philosophy of yours is really advantageous as you move into the mobile world where digital development is more challenging because the space you have to live in is much more confined. Is that an accurate assessment?
GL: That’s absolutely true; I think we’re finding it easier to migrate into digital experiences for exactly that reason. The mobile screen, the experience, and the interface options you have are very limited and the space you have to work in is confined. Boiling it down to those essentials, we often call the mobile experience an abridged experience, but the reality is that it’s less about being abridged than about being focused. That has intuitively been something we’ve embraced pretty heavily.
DT: Gene, part of the issue of mobile communications is one that has had us focus on the future of where communications is moving. Are there any factors you can pinpoint that make one kind of mobile communications different, as a medium, from others? For example, an iPhone versus an iPad: do folks use those communications devices differently? Are they a different medium, or are they the same medium only smaller or larger?
GL: There’s a big debate as to whether an iPad is a mobile device. I could argue that a laptop is a mobile device: I can carry it around with me. There are two ways of looking at it: What’s portable, and what are you using in your portable life? When you’re walking around the city or around your office, what are you carrying with you that you interface with? That’s one definition of mobile, and the other is form factor. For us, form factor is a key element of what the design and the experience will actually be. How you use it and what you use it on are the two factors in mobile. From our standpoint, the mobile device that is ultra-portable, like a handheld, that is about convenience, speed, and efficiency. That’s about using space in a very effective way; it’s about creating shortcuts wherever possible and using the full suite of technologies they give you. In a semi-portable way and a lifestyle way, an iPad is a somewhat more unique experience, and if you make a site iPad-friendly with swiping, it’s a very different mentality using a mouse than a finger. That experience can be driven very much by the form factor of the mobile device, not the mobile factor.
DT: Some of our research is showing that the bloom may be off the rose a bit on downloading applications. Users are not using applications to the degree that they used to, and fewer and fewer are being downloaded. Assuming that your research shows the same thing, what’s the next generation of thing to do with the user experience in mobile marketing?
GL: I don’t know if that’s true across all categories with apps. What’s happening now is that mobile sites themselves are getting better, so people are learning that they can interface with their favorite brands and companies and products without having to download the app. As far as the next in mobile marketing is concerned, it’s going to be interesting to see. A lot of it is going to be through the portals we already use, the Facebooks of the world, the Linked-in for the professional community, evolving platforms like Interest, evolving situations like Flipboard. I would expect that a lot of marketing we’re going to see evolving – as a lot of these companies turning to their monetary-generation phases – are going to be based around advertising in those areas where people live and breathe the digital experience in the mobile world. Judging from past performances, mobile advertising and marketing has been something that has never seen one golden solution; it has seen evolution throughout the last few years and to see where it’s going to go is going to be very interesting.
NS: I’d like to move this conversation to the discussion of talent. In the agency world, you might have nice offices but if you don’t have talent you’re not going to be very successful. What do you look for in the kind of people who will be successful here at Digital Pulp?
GL: Generally speaking I look for someone who has an interest in being part of something where they can affect change in a significant way. I don’t want anyone to come into work thinking I’m working from 9-6 or whenever; I don’t want someone coming into the office thinking “I’m just checking in for a job.” I want someone with a mission and purpose. Beyond just creating beautiful work, I want people to feel connected to the clients that they’re working for. For me, someone who is not interested in the big agency world, or who has been in the big agency world and comes to Digital Pulp with an interest in a smaller-tier environment is one of the first characteristics I look for. Beyond that, I want someone who going to be is as talented as I can possibly find. For me, visual talent, writing talent, the ability to manage people… you can find talent in every way, shape, or form and it’s not easy to find that. Talent in this competitive marketplace is a rare find, but they are the gems of the organization.
DT: What we’d like to do is conclude with a discussion of what’s in the future for Digital Pulp. If we were sitting here six months, a year, or two years from now, what would we be seeing in terms of changes in the agency and the direction of the firm?
MC: From a direction of the firm standpoint, we’re moving towards putting ourselves in a position where we are able to engage clients more and more on marketing issues, not just digital issues. The reality, we believe, is everything is digital; everything should – and needs to – touch technology, and it needs to be taken into consideration. As we move forward, we are aligning ourselves more around talent and our ability to engage clients around marketing strategies and how those get implemented flawlessly into the marketplace. We have a very particular culture; we like to think that it’s a fantastic place to work. Gene’s one of the founders, and you don’t stick around for sixteen years unless you’ve built a great culture. We want to track the kind of talent that wants to engage clients around marketing issues and then deliver simple, beautiful, highly productive solutions for our clients. At the end of the day if we’re not doing that, then nothing else matters.
GL: I think we want to be the kind of agency that takes advantage of the evolution of the perception of marketing. No longer is digital an add-on; it is now more the hub and the center of the experience. We want to be the agency that helps serve that new reality.