Digital Darwinism: Where Do You Stand?

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Building relevance, revenue, and results for clients while meeting them where they are…

In a recent conversation over coffee, my friend Matt Cannell – a very talented digital marketer – nailed it. He said, “Business leaders only care about three things when it comes to digital marketing: relevance, revenue, and results.”

In deconstructing these three Rs, though, digital agencies must get deeply inside the personas of our clients – the leaders of companies who are being forced to adapt to digital change throughout their organizations.

Let’s explore the business leadership landscape from a digital perspective.

The Digital Dilemma

In a March 21, 2016 Harvard Business Review article, The Industries That Are Being Disrupted the Most by Digital, Rhys Grossman said, “Digital is no longer the shiny front end of the organization – it’s integrated into every aspect of today’s companies.”

And (to paraphrase Kermit the frog) it’s not easy being digital.

In the HBR article, these three stats jumped out to me:

  • 90% of media, telecom and consumer financial services organizations (the three industries most disrupted by digital) profess to having a digital strategy in place.


  • Just over 50% of respondents believed they had the right people in house to define their digital strategy.


  • Only 20% trusted that HR knew how to manage staffing to help transform their businesses into digital organizations.

According to Mr. Grossman, who co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Digital Transformation Practice and Consumer Digital and Media Practice:

“Digital should be built into the core strategy, systems, and processes of an organization. We see this in the recruitment of digital directors at the board level, which has risen steadily over recent years.

Now, 23% of the largest 300 companies in the world have at least one Digital Director.

Again, you can’t become a more digital company without the right people leading the charge.”

So even the largest organizations are challenged to get digital right.

Imagine the conversations in board meetings around the globe – as the C-Suite and their Directors strive to affect the change management needed to compete more effectively.

I’ve seen digital agencies shunning the “change management” phrase in what we do; but let’s face it – we are change agents – and if you believe the research, most businesses and their leaders are in deep need of change.

So how do we don (and embrace) our change agent capes and drive results?

Plotting Clients Across a Digital Maturity Framework

I’ve found, when being a change agent, it’s helpful to work within a codified framework that allows you to address client expectations based on their willingness to change.

That way, expectations will also be set as you drive for business results in each client’s unique ecosystem.

It takes time and effort to build trust, to educate and train your clients on digital business principles. Plot your clients along a framework. And plan your engagements accordingly – you can’t start early enough.

Even as you profile prospects and begin your discovery, your proposals should reflect the expectations for education and level of adaptability and digital maturity within the client’s leadership team.

The Altimeter Group (Altimeter @Prophet) recently released a report written by futurist Brian Solis and analyst Jaimy Szymanski on the Six Stages of Digital Transformation (the Race Against Digital Darwinism) in which they propose a digital maturity framework for business leaders to “advance technology roadmaps, business models, and processes to compete in the digital economy.”

Altimeter states: “Digital transformation is more than just digital; it’s about remodeling businesses to be agile, innovative, and customer-centric at their core.”

In other words (as my friend Matt said), this is the job of a digital agency today: to help businesses generate revenue and results by being incredibly relevant in their approach to marketing, sales, and customer success.

Let’s dig into the first two stages of Altimeter’s Six Stages of Digital Transformation, as I suspect that many of our clients – especially non-tech, SMB clients – would be classified in the first two stages.

Exploring Altimeter’s Digital Maturity Framework

Level 1 on the Digital Maturity Framework is “Business as Usual,” where an organization is described as having leaders who rebuff the need for change.

Business as Usual organizations:

  • Support a traditional funnel approach to the customer journey.
  • Departments are not collaborative in their work to manage customer experiences, contributing to a disjointed and dated customer journey.
  • Digital literacy and expertise exist in pockets of the organization but are not a prime concern at the executive level.
  • Minimal research has been done on digital and traditional customer behaviors, preferences, and path to purchase.
  • Organizations are still following technology-first, not customer-first, roadmaps and processes that are outdated.

Sound familiar?

Altimeter didn’t specify the percentage of businesses in each of their six models, but I suspect many agencies are still dealing with leaders of Business as Usual organizations, and this is a tough slog for digital agencies.

The opportunities for immediate results might be great; but the probability of frustration in dealing with Business as Usual clients is likely to be greater if you don’t recognize the signs of resistance before you engage with them.

If you do recognize those signs, here’s a three-step strategy to help you help your client:

  • Plan for lots of educational conversations and to support your point of contact with plenty of ammunition to deliver to the executive suite.
  • Build in those activities to your projects and ensure that your messages are reaching their targets.
  • Don’t assume your everyday point of contact is delivering your content to the right person at the right time. Plan regular program reviews. Early and often.

More likely, you’re dealing with businesses in Digital Maturity Level 2, or “Present and Active,” where there are change agents inside who recognize opportunities to experiment – pushing boundaries and acting in a “beg forgiveness” manner. And the customer is more in the forefront of programs.

In Present and Active organizations, according to Altimeter:

  • Early adopters recognize digital, mobile, and social, and all disruptive technologies introduce new opportunities to test and learn internally and externally.
  • Executives take notice, and alliances are formed to further promote “test and learn” programs.
  • Leaders develop proficiency in their department’s tool(s) but have little visibility into other technologies used across the company to gauge customer behaviors, engagement, and interactions.
  • New work creates internal buzz and concern around change, and pilots reveal need for customer experience (CX) leadership.
  • The need to prove the ROI of
 CX programs sparks conversations between departments that eventually lead to sharing and collaboration.


The challenge for agencies with Present and Active clients is to recognize that these change agents (your connections) are, indeed, disruptive.

And unless they (and you) deliver positive results – in revenue with a healthy ROI – it’s likely you’ll be seen as the problem if forgiveness isn’t easily earned.

Reporting is essential here. The more data you can provide to Present and Active leaders, the more you’ll be seen as positive change agents, helping them push departments to work together, collaborating for results.

I’ve found that – with my own Present and Active clients – communications between managers and their leaders is usually the difference between buzz and concern.

If leadership can’t see that your digital programs are delivering awareness, pipeline, revenue, and ROI – your programs aren’t working.

So spend the time to create executive dashboards for Marketing, Sales, and CX leadership (oftentimes the CEO in SMB) to ensure they see results. And make sure those dashboards are relevant not only to the C-Suite, but to board members as well.

  • Develop and deliver regular reports to your clients’ leadership teams – with data AND analysis – in order to train them to analyze themselves.
  • Coach your clients to report weekly to their leadership team members on accomplishments, roadblocks and results.
  • Find and nurture cross-functional relationships (starting with sales, but moving quickly to customer success and IT) that further align departments on providing customer value – whether attracting, nurturing, closing, or retaining them.

Digital Darwinism at Work 

Change is constant. And digital Darwinism works on clients and agencies in a very egalitarian manner.

Agencies who can map their clients along a digital maturity curve will very likely craft programs, reports and relationships that are relevant, and drive revenue and positive results. (For both parties.)

And those who don’t recognize the digital maturity of their clients are likely to spin wheels, frustrate clients (and your own team members), and end up as road kill – or worse yet, going extinct – as other agencies find ways to help clients (maybe even yours) move up the digital maturity framework.

Where does your agency stand?

Marketing agencies have a new role: one that must blend creative and content-focused services, customer-engagement savvy, long-term relationship management, digital-channel know-how, data-analysis capabilities, and technical expertise – all of which are enabled and supported by marketing automation. Download Act-On’s eBook, 9 Essentials to Grow Your Agency and Help Your Clients Succeed, to learn how to take full advantage of marketing automation’s power – and unlock the growth potential it offers your agency.