Octavian Mihai is a digital strategist, a consultant and an agent of transformation within and on behalf of major Madison Avenue advertising agencies. Over the course of his career he has created and sold agencies as well as worked as SVP at McCann Health. He joins us today from New York to discuss the role of the digital strategist as a transformation agent. You can hear our conversation in the podcast in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud or below now.
While digital transformation is certainly a popular current buzzword, it is consistently a challenge for organizations since as Octavian says, the senior stakeholders ‘see this change but many of (them) are not very fluent in digital…they realize they are losing market share and are not competitive against younger companies that are digital natives’. The key to successfully transforming is to effect organizational change, or as he puts it, ‘we don’t have to transform the business by adding digital capabilities..we have to change it from the top’.
This change is often easier for brands than for agencies since ‘clients are very conscious of the bottom line and are under market pressure and know they have to change’. By contrast, agencies are often not trying to change their business model, but are tinkering by simply trying to add more competencies.
Octavian’s role in this digital transformation is as an external consultant. While this distance means he don’t have ownership in the implementation and the projects, it allows him to be more strategic by giving him the space to be objective. This distance, coupled with the fact that he typically reports directly into the President or senior leadership means he is able to make recommendations on the business model, and this is often the component that is at the heart of the need for transformation. This is critical – in many cases digital transformation is approached by importing digital competencies and insulating the group within the agency. But ‘transformation doesn’t happen in a bubble…you need to open the digital doors and allow these people to be integrated into the agency’. This process involves a lot of politics and negotiation, which while challenging, is also extremely satisfying.
The key to success in this process is soft skills since it is very much a people focused task. This is an area where many consultants have difficulty and where digital strategists sometimes get their reputation for arrogance. You ‘can’t just tell everyone to get in line’. Rather, you have to understand how people communicate, what is important to them as individuals and what their personal goals and objectives are. You also have to take the time to understand the key stakeholders and who can help you achieve the objective; often this is not the person with the highest title. In understanding the people, it is also important to hear what was previously implemented, what didn’t work and why. All of this is important in achieving the objective since it is the groundwork necessary to ‘help them align themselves with the objectives’.
An interesting part of the role that Octavian plays, and often the entry point for his relationship with an agency is in putting out a fire in the business. While this is often a tactical role, he sees the way to make it strategic is to understand the root cause and address that so it doesn’t happen again. The root causes are often not the obvious ones, so the key is to look beyond the immediate project or account. Often, while there was a problem with the planning or technology choice these typically underline a systemic issue. The right way to tackle this is through structural change of the organization. An example of this is where there is a strategy department and a digital strategy department. In this instance it is probably better to have a digitally focused strategy chief to whom all these responsibilities roll up to.
Octavian’s advice to someone who is starting in the field today is to focus on understanding and evaluating the direct supervisor. This is important since the ‘direct supervisor is the core reason employees are going to leave or stay’. For example, is this someone who is focused on the future, that you can see yourself in their shoes down the line?
The key thing to look for in a direct supervisor is ‘are they nice’. While a lot is written about the importance of integrity, Octavian sees this as being a subset of being nice. It is critical to have a leader that takes care of you and challenges you in order to help you grow by putting you in uncomfortable situations. His advice is to align yourself with your leader since they put their neck on the line for you. Doing this is the way to get into aspirational roles or companies.
Next week on octopus, we will explore the role of gender in digital strategy with our next guest. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.