POV: Interview with Dan Khabie, CEO and Co-Founder of Digitaria

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Tell us about Digitaria and what differentiates it from other agencies.

We’re genuinely a full-service digital agency. Well, we do use a WPP media agency for buying, but we do pretty much everything else in-house. That’s rare. But, what has really set us apart is that our tech team and our creative team are equally strong. If we come up with the idea for something, we can build it. We can physically make what we create in our mind. Few agencies have the capacity to do that.

A year ago Digitaria acquired JWT’s digital office in the Midwest. What culture challenges did you run into during the transition and what advice can you give to other agencies going through similar transitions?

Midwesterners are very humble people — very low-key, not a lot of bluster. Our SoCal headquarters is also laid-back; there’s not a lot of ego there either, but it’s a different kind of personality altogether. There was a lot of entrenched thinking and ways of doing things. But I think you need to be patient, and you need to listen. Even if you do things that aren’t very popular at first, you’ve got to listen and hear people out. You can’t be totalitarian; you’ve got to make them realize this is a collaborative effort for everyone. Often, you’ll hear a perspective you hadn’t thought about. We’ve changed the Minneapolis office, but the Minneapolis office has changed us, too — both for the better.

How are you using big data to influence campaign and client projects?

As far as brands are concerned, big data is making all of us the stars of our own little private “Truman Show,” like the prescient Jim Carrey film from more than a decade ago. Digitaria, for example, has designed multi-channel campaigns to collect and store data to develop research methodologies that uncover best practices to drive awareness, brand favorability, customer action and behavioral change. Based on these research methodologies, — attribution models, correlation analysis, behavioral segments, social media-based focus groups, etc. — we create hypotheses and test what we learn by launching new marketing activities, tracking results and consolidating what we learn. This knowledge is then shared through best practice guides tailored to our clients on what works/doesn't work.

Do you think agencies need to “make things" in order to remain relevant in a tech-focused environment?

Yes. It might not be completely essential yet, but we’re heading in that direction.

How is the relationship between a brand and its customer evolving?

The playing field has been leveled. Marketing messages are no longer a one-way conversation. If you engage with people with respect, you will be rewarded. And it’s much, much tougher to hide and wait for things to blow over. Brands can be destroyed — destroyed! — if they take the wrong step. Look what happened to the Susan B. Komen foundation or Disney’s remake of “The Lone Ranger.” They were massacred on Twitter.

What have been some of your favorite projects produced by Digitaria? Tell us about the thought and strategy behind these campaigns.

crisis-trackerCertainly the LRA Crisis Tracker for our non-profit client Invisible Children is the greatest thing we’ve ever done. It’s saved lives. How many companies of any kind can say that? The Crisis Tracker was a piece of technology we created to aggregate reports from villages in remote Central Africa that would give the whereabouts of war criminal Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, which was killing men, raping women and kidnapping children as conscripts for his army — the worst kind of evil person. Because of the LRA Crisis Tracker, Kony’s attacks have diminished. It’s been acknowledged by the U.S. State Department.

Everything else pales in comparison to that. How could it not? Recently, however, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done for Rolex. Some of our banner ads were arresting enough that the client made them into print ads as well. I’m also proud of our Web work that’s bringing Qualcomm into China; it’s beautiful and eye-catching.

What marketing/advertising trends do you find most fascinating?

That the little phone you carry in your pocket is more powerful than any billboard you drive by. I still find it amazing how the speed of mobile has changed our behavior. I can't imagine living without it, and I believe the real future of mobile remains ahead of us.

One reason you love what you do: I am obsessed with brands and people. I love spending time with global companies and learning what makes them great, and I equally love spending time with talented people and learning what makes them want to do and make great things.

Favorite ad: You mean like a TV spot? I love that car commercial with the underdog kid who rounds up a bunch of other kids to help beat a team of bullies at football. Though, to be honest, I had to Google it to remember it’s a Hyundai ad.

Must-read book: Because I love advertising and communications, I highly recommend “Adland” by James Othmer. It really helps capture the same kind of love I have for what I do and also does a great job of describing how the major holding companies came to be.

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