The origin of SoDA is much like that of any new venture – nothing more than an idea that was given life by a group of brave people with the will to make to it happen. That, and plenty of sweat, tears, laughs, bumps and good fortune along the way.

In our case, it was the loose affiliation of 13 digital agency founders (early pioneers in this business) who agreed to meet up in Miami Beach in 2007 to talk about, “the state of the industry.” What began as a vaguely planned weekend junket, quickly turned real as these founders opened up to one another about the challenges of running their agencies, the promise that fueled their personal investments in a digital future, and why they felt that “digital experience design” still lacked an adequate peer group in the industry. A few days later, they left Miami Beach full of sunshine, mojitos and a buzz to start something new. SoDA was born.

Thirteen years later, SoDA is a global, member-based community for digital agency founders, creative visionaries and technology disruptors. With 100 member companies across 20 countries, we exist to support, challenge, provoke and inspire one another to create digital design studios with a powerful impact on our teams, our clients and our communities.

Neon sign in red lights that spells out the acronym SODA

Leadership, innovation and experimentation

Why is this relevant for XD Ideas– a platform devoted to, “unique insights and authentic points of view on the practice, business and impact of design”? In many ways, the evolution of SoDA and the eclectic mix of our members mirrors the textured landscape of our industry today. Since the beginning, digital design has been a unique beast– an amalgamation of disparate influences (brand marketing, product design, digital art, software development, cinema, technology innovation, storytelling, human behavior and more), and yet a thing that is entirely all its own. It’s one of the reasons that great digital design is so hard to define and, increasingly, so hard to find. 

On the work front, SoDA members represent the vanguard of digital design and share a common DNA as digital experience makers with a serious commitment to craft, innovation and creative excellence. This work cuts across everything from voice-technology to AR/VR/Mixed Reality, digital product design, film, content innovation, experiential, ambient computing, digital transformation and every “next new thing” you can imagine.

In the past year alone, SoDA member projects were honored nearly 120 times with a total of 26 wins at the annual Webby Awards, otherwise known as the, “Oscars of the Internet.” And, in a new report released by Forrester Research in November (SuperchargeYour Marketing With Creatively Focused Digital Agencies – Ten Digital Agencies We’re Watching), 8 of the 10 agencies highlighted are SoDA members. There’s no doubt that this community gives us a unique perch from which to listen in on the ideas, experiences, perspectives and challenges of leadership teams at some of the world’s most creative, innovative and respected digital agencies and design studios.

a man and woman from the soda design network discuss emerging trends in tech
The SoDA community discusses and debates emerging trends in AR, VR and Mixed Reality at B-Reel Studios in Venice Beach. Image credit Tom Beck.

On the business side, SoDA members apply equal doses of creative energy and innovation to their own agency cultures. Just a few of the many inspiring examples include: the progressive gender-pay equity program at Red Badger in London; the ambitious human development ethos at Instrument in Portland; the raw, honest and empathetic approach to diversity and inclusion at ueno in San Francisco; the 4-day work week at voice experience design pioneers VERSA in Melbourne, the courageous mental health advocacy from the Made of Millions Foundation and Ready Set Rocket in New York; the design ethics and deeply rooted sense of global responsibility at Hello Monday in Copenhagen; the fearless global expansion of MediaMonks in Amsterdam; the two decades of industry leadership (from the ones who literally wrote the case study on the evolving digital agency model) at Big Spaceship in Brooklyn. And this is just a tiny slice of the global diversity, evolution and experimentation bubbling within our community. 

Media monks founding partners share the story of their growth at a summit in Lisbon.
Wesley ter Haar and Victor Knaap, founding partners at Media Monks in Amsterdam, share the story of their founding and growth at SoDA’s Global Summit in Lisbon.

A global conversation on the impact of design

Much like you, our members are wrestling with tectonic shifts and the big questions posed by emerging technology and our role as creators. How do we embrace the rapid pace of change but still find enough focus to succeed? How can we cultivate work environments that are collaborative and empowering– places that embrace diversity, inclusion and equality as a positive force for tackling the world’s most challenging problems and unlocking the greatest creative potential in our teams?  What is our ethical responsibility in designing products, services and experiences that can help (or harm), engage (or distract), inform (or deceive), persuade (or manipulate), uplift (or tear down), invent new ways of being (or perpetuate broken models)? Can we stand for the best (and noblest) possibilities of these new technologies and still build lasting and profitable businesses? These are incredibly difficult and complex questions. It’s almost hard to imagine that when we started these businesses 20 years ago, we just wanted to make cool Flash websites!

What began in a petri dish as a single cell life form has, in just a blink of time, permeated every molecule of business, culture and society. In fact, talking about “the Internet” or “Digital” today is like talking about air… almost uninteresting because it’s everywhere. Or, more to the point, so essential that it’s impossible to separate from any meaningful consideration regarding commerce, the things we create, the communities we build and the people we become.

Despite all of the change (and our growing importance, influence and responsibility as designers and creators), there is grain of eternal wisdom that transcends any technology… whether it’s an 8-bit, single color rendering of the game Pong, or an AI-fueled air-quality sensor that allocates carbon-credits via cryptocurrency and spawns a 4D gamified AR-layer designed to improve the environment… and that is the deeply empathetic, socially expansive and fundamentally human lens we can apply to any problem.

Ultimately, the greatest advantage will come from a laser focus on what people need and want, and keeping apace with technology. Putting people at the center means deeply understanding them as individuals and in the endless configurations at our disposal for reaching them. Adding something positive, useful or meaningful to their lives is what it’s all about.

Michael Lebowitz, one of SoDA’s founding members and leader of Big Spaceship.

Curiosity, collaboration and community

With that as the backdrop, the SoDA community is eager to contribute to XD Ideas and the important conversations (and connections) that Adobe is fostering.

In an age of information and innovation that’s perpetually stuck in hyperdrive, it’s easy to be swayed by the latest claims of “thought leadership” and the sooth sayers (sometimes charlatans) that promise a glimpse of the future. At SoDA, our view is much more modest. We believe in “thought stewardship” and the careful, conscientious and thoughtful tending of ideas, perspectives, principles and practices that can help us grow. Any good conversation is a process, not a declaration, and nobody knows what the future will hold. But with curiosity, collaboration and community, we can be ready for anything that comes our way. It all starts with ideas, and a group of people brave enough to make them happen.

Follow The SoDA Series on XD Ideas and check back monthly for new perspectives on leadership, emerging trends, culture and social impact.