SoDA Series Live is a collaboration between Adobe and the Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA). Each month we host candid, in-depth discussions with agency founders and creative leaders from all around the world. To kick-off 2021 and help lay the foundation for the year ahead Tom Beck, executive director of SoDA spoke with Wesley ter Haar, founder of MediaMonks and executive director at S4. Wesley reflected on the past 20 years of MediaMonks, the ways in which S4 is building the future agency model, a new wave of innovation in digital content and experiences and what it takes to build a creative, data-driven culture.

Here are some of the highlights:

On the founding of MediaMonks

We’re getting very very close to the official 20-year date – a week and a half away… When we started MediaMonks, I was a flash developer; we were doing it as a hobby. It was such a long and winding sort of process, and if you would run the algorithm a million times I don’t think we would ever get to the same spot because so much of the outcome was dependent on the talent and the teams joining along the way. The luck, the randomness, the good and bad choices.

On merging with S4 Capital

… with S4 we were able to find a spot that celebrates our team and what we enjoy. It allows us to start with scale, while still foundationally creating something that’s new. That is the most exciting, energizing thing I could possibly imagine from an entrepreneurial perspective. We’re working in very different ways. There are data people and media people and content people that are all part of the same teams. There’s production that’s part of ideation… there’s just a very different vibe to it. It’s more hands on, it’s more integrated, its teams are more collaborative and more partnership focused… When it comes to innovation and change, we have an opportunity to be quite a disruptive player for a long time to come.

A group of people, dressed in casual clothing, sit on a tan couch. Behind this is a blue wall, with colorful gold designs on it.
S4Capital leadership

On the second reawakening of digital

… digital has gone in waves, from the initial celebratory, very joyous wave of the 2010s where content was really tactile, exploratory and fun. Creators focused on things like storytelling and story doing, and then put that narrative on digital channels to create some form of consumer experience, but at that time we didn’t have any meaningful way to show value against that… We’re  now at the point of maturity in the industry where we can go, hey, it’s not just cool, it’s delivering impact, business impact. It’s allowing us to create a fair exchange of value so people willingly share data, instead of us sort of shortcutting to relevance… There’s a celebration of digital beyond just being a channel for direct response. We truly believe doing amazing things in digital helps build brands and helps drive business.

On blending creativity and analytics

Today creatives get briefed constantly with data – strategic insights, often based on personas that are mostly based on a few interviews and a few research pieces. It would be much more valuable for them to have the real data from the real people interacting with the product. Actual analytics provides the opportunity to fight for the idea that didn’t make it through that process because they can now see how actual people in the wild are interacting with it. Meaningful data gives creatives the opportunity to get more diverse work out of the market because they can lobby for change based on testing with real.

On making digital personalization better

If I look at it from our perspective, we build everything into what we call the data spine… there is a foundational understanding that we collect as much meaningful data on our platforms as we can to create a better personalized experience for the consumer.

We like personalization in the real world, I call it the “Cheers” effect – you go somewhere and everybody knows your name. Normally that’s a good thing.  But online we’ve turned it into the sort of personal panic moment, “is my phone listening to me?”. There needs to be a fair exchange of analytics and data used to optimize the experience.  The goal is to deeply understand what type of creative and messaging is influencing the performance: is there a reason behind this performance that can actually provide some type of understanding of what resonates with our consumers in that channel? That’s where everything we’re doing is moving. And if it’s done in the right way, it’s very fun and empowering for creatives.

On a pink background, a grey, black, red, and blue Air Jordan shoe is shown. To its left, the shoe is shown on a mobile phone and on a computer screen.
Air Jordan AR app.

On building a data-driven, creative culture

I think the simplest part is the people; if I look at the data and creative teams, they were just happy to finally start looking at things more broadly. It can be very frustrating if you’re stuck on one side of the business – you either feel limited by your lack of access to meaningful information or ability to influence. At the people level, everybody was very enthusiastic about the idea of removing these silos. For us, it was less about technology and more about process: how to find the right cadences and how those cadences align to client expectations and deadlines.

Still, we realize our want and willingness to remove these silos isn’t necessarily reflected in how we can work with the client. That’s just part of the journey. We’re seeing more and more of our clients following our lead as we prove the value. The easiest path we’ve seen for clients is the moment they have a good understanding at the data level of what their work is doing, where it’s going and how it’s impacting. It opens up the next level where we can actually start experimenting with our messaging and content and we can start seeing what the difference is between one message and 1,000 messages.

On content as a reflection of your brand

Content, when made well,  can still have both a conversion and a campaign influence – it can still build brands. A lot of digital native companies have been very smart about that. They’re aware that the level of detail they put into all of the parts of their digital ecosystem translates back to the broader understanding of who they are as a brand. But a lot of the traditional companies still view campaign content and conversion content separately. We need to try and get people out of that headspace. Everything you make is a reflection of your brand evolution.

On augmented reality

There is a logical use when it comes to maker brands, when it comes to fashion brands – the virtualization of the product experience. It’s about making the product easier to buy through virtualization of trying it on, fitting it, putting it in your room. There is a next evolution now around food, driven by COVID, quite literally a virtual window.

Ultimately AR is about bringing the subject a bit closer, making the barrier to buying a little lower. But the real unlock is when, at scale, we are able to connect AR to image recognition. The idea of being able to get people at scale to understand they can use their camera to look at something and that triggers an interactive component. That to me is the big scale moment. We’re just waiting for a cohesive roadmap around image recognition and then for a way to put AR at scale against that. We’re still maybe two to three years out.

In the foreground, a mobile phone displays the scene of a man backflipping through the air, with another man standing on the ground to his right. In the background, this same image is seen, but blurred out.
Intel Studios: Soul & Science Volumetric AR app.

On finding talent

It’s very top of mind. We don’t have a problem of finding talent, but our issue is keeping the company open for good energy and a new mindset – we want people that are going to bring a different point of view. Sometimes it can be easy to be too elitist in your hiring – focusing on people needing so many years of experience, a stellar portfolio. It’s important to keep the door very, very open to make sure you’re not just hiring the same bubble. Some of my best hires were the people who I knew were just going to go get it. They take initiative. Sure they have a baseline of talent and understanding, but when I think about hiring people – energy, initiative, those are the qualities that tend to work really well in our organization.

You can watch the complete recorded interview on Adobe Creative Cloud LinkedIn.

About Wesley:

Founding Monk of MediaMonks and board member of S4, Martin Sorrell’s new era, new age services company. Co-founded MediaMonks in 2001 to wage war on mediocre digital production, working tirelessly to grow MediaMonks into a creative production powerhouse with global reach and recognition.

Former COO and lifeline for deadlines, SoDA board member, served as the inaugural president of Cannes Lions’ Digital Craft jury in 2016, inducted into the ADCN Hall of Fame in 2018 and named an AdAge creative All Star and part of the Adweek50 executives leading the way in transforming the industry.

Drinker of tea, giver of high-fives.

About MediaMonks/S4:

S4Capital plc is the tech-led, new age, new era, digital advertising and marketing services company, established by Sir Martin Sorrell in May 2018. Its strategy is to build a purely digital advertising and marketing services business for global, multinational, regional, local clients and millennial-driven influencer brands. It is integrating leading businesses in three practice areas: first-party data, digital content, digital media planning and buying, along with an emphasis on “faster, better, cheaper” executions in an always-on consumer-led environment, with a unitary structure. S4Capital combined with MediaMonks, led by Victor Knaap and Wesley ter Haar, in July 2018, and with MightyHive, led by Peter Kim and Christopher S. Martin, in December 2018.