CHIEF Turns 30: Brand & Technology in a BRAVE New World

CHIEF is celebrating 30 years of BRAVE work for our clients around the world. To mark the occasion, we sat down with Chief Creative Officer Chris Lester and Chief Technology Officer Clay Marshall to talk about how technology has transformed both our work and how brands engage with the world—and what the future holds for CHIEF.

Chris lester Clay marshall CHIEF

You’ve both been at CHIEF through some big changes—Clay, you’ve been here since nearly the beginning! And Chris, you’ve been here since 1997—through a lot of amazing growth for the agency. How have you seen technology change the work that we do?

Clay: At CHIEF, and before when we were Rock Creek, our approach and strength has always been adaptability and never shying away from the next challenge ahead of us.

As Scott and Margaret mentioned, when I first started at CHIEF, we were doing desktop publishing on a Macintosh and using two different floppy drives to run an application. Eventually, when new online tools for distributing content became available, we evolved into web development. We took it on ourselves to learn HTML and Flash to create interactive experiences for our clients—and this is at a time when people were not teaching this to us, so we just learned ourselves and figured it out!

We’ve always been focused on supporting our clients and their brand, but we’ve adopted the technology we use to do that.

Chris: I was always blown away by that—Scott would always show up with new equipment. There would be a new computer every six months. And same with Clay, he would figure out anything.

It’s tied to our motto—BE BRAVE— there’s a reason for all of this change, and we’ve always felt that way. There’s always going to be new ways to do what we do. But the reason that we’re 30 years into it is that throughout our history we weren’t afraid to move to the next thing—even if we had invested pretty heavily. At each point, Margaretand Scott were never afraid to change gears. The company was never afraid to invest in something new. The unknown was always one step in front of us and it would materialize quickly.

chris lester chief

How have you seen technology change the way people interact with brands over the past 30 years?

Chris: There are so many radical changes in the way we communicate with each other, but what I’ve seen is a different perspective and broader understanding of what a brand is. Twenty or 25 years ago, brand was really seen as a design function. But now organizations are understanding that their brand is critical to their success and is synonymous with business.

The broader change is that organizations have much less control over how their brand is going to work in the market. Much of that control is in the hands of their audiences and stakeholders. The audience feels that the brand has an obligation to them now that historically wasn’t there; they feel that the narrative is shared, and that ownership is shared.

That’s why what hasn’t changed is the importance of really understanding the promise, values, and characteristics of an organization, in a way that clearly defines their commitment—to their mission, to those they serve and to their customers. If that is clearly understood and is aligned with all of their their activities, that’s when organizations are able to be successful. We’ve always come from that perspective at CHIEF.

Clay: As digital resources gave people access to organizations, their message has now become controlled by their audiences. Brands are no longer able to control how they look to the world and only focus on how they present themselves—that’s gone now. Technology has created a world where your message is not only what you say to the world, but how you react to what you hear from feedback and how you respond to the changing world around you. Your brand is a living thing that is constantly in need of nurturing and caring to make sure that your message is being properly promoted to world.

chris lester clay marshall brand technology

It’s a BRAVE new world. How is CHIEF adapting to these changes?

Clay: At CHIEF, and in my new role as CTO, we’re making sure that all of the work that we’re doing across all our different practice areas is presenting our clients with a comprehensive digital strategy that supports the brand experience that users expect, and elevates the brand so that the organization can clearly express itself to the world.

Over the past 30 years, the technology just keeps expanding what we think a brand is, and how it’s presented. We’re focusing on managing the perceptions of the content we create no matter how it’s going to be used. That’s a different way of thinking—we’re reacting to external users and how they interpret the work that we’re creating and the message that we’re sharing. We want to make sure that the content, no matter what channel it’s on or how a user shares it, is presented in a way that’s clear, concise and represents the brand.

In the last year or two, this has become part of our testing: what is it like when I click share? Does it grab the right image, can a user define their own image, their own content? If someone shares this post, what’s it going to look like?

Chris: Everything should be approached from a brand perspective. Many communications activities in the past were semi-distinct, and we didn’t have the responsibility to connect it to the most fundamental purpose of the organization. But now we bring that as the first lens we’re going through. Whatever we’re doing, we ask how is that work directly supporting the core purpose of the organization? Even if the goals we’re trying to achieve are seemingly very distinct, there is an organizing principle that pulls everything together and gives everything integrity, and makes all of those seemingly disparate activities have greater effect.

How has this impacted CHIEF’s clients?

Chris: An interesting idea is letting the audience help define the value of the brand. Our client the National Parks Foundation had so much user-generated content in the form of thousands of photo submissions, so we built a platform for that content to be continuously updated and added to, and the results of that have been pretty incredible. Their objectives of supporting national parks through raising funds and getting more people involved has been multiplied dramatically as a result of making their audience part of their brand. Technology is key to that.

chief NPF

Clay: Because technology is giving people the ability to interact with any brand, organizations like our government clients, who have never really thought of themselves as having a brand, now have to start thinking about brand differently. They have to ask themselves: What is our perception from every aspect of the content we’re creating? Who is our audience, what are they looking for, how do we interact with them and how are we treating them?

What are some of the next big changes in how brands and technology interact—in the next few years, or even in the next 30 years?

Clay: We may get to a point where we don’t know what the platform is or what’s going to happen. So our goals now, from a technology point of view, are still focused on the brand. Content is going to come in some form—it could just be a voice-activated device telling you something. But we have to make sure that content is structured and that no matter what the use of it will be, it will fit into the brand of the client.

Chris: The way that we are experiencing the world is changing so fast. I think the reason that we’re still sitting here after 30 years, is that the human story is so critically important. That is what gives everything meaning. It doesn’t matter how it’s delivered. Technology might allow you to order things faster, you might be able to think and something will appear—and that’s not far-fetched anymore—so where are brands going to go?

Brands have to have a strong grasp on what really matters to people, what gives them purpose, what motivates them and be able to tie that to the organization or its work.

As a company working in technology, we’re going to have to learn, grow and hire new people. Clay is going to be in a challenging, rewarding and interesting role, because over the next five years, it’s all changing. And we are going to have to navigate all of these changes.

clay marshall chief technology

Fascinating! So what do you predict for CHIEF in the next 30 years?

Clay: In the past 30 years, we have continuously evolved. The reason that we’re still in business is because of our desire to evolve. And that’s why my role has been added—it’s just another step in that evolution. I’ve been added to make sure we continue to evolve no matter what happens across the technology landscape.

We’re going to make sure we do what’s best for our clients to make sure that they’re supported no matter how technology changes over the next five, 10 and 30 years.

Chris: If you looked back at a snapshot at these different periods of our history, we look wildly different each time. But there is a common thread that connects everything: we’ve always fought above our weight class, and we’ve been hungry for the challenges where we do not feel prepared, or we don’t feel like we have the experience or expertise, and we just go for it. We’ve done that over and over again.

“We’ve had moments where those successes have changed our agency, and it continues to happen—we’re evolving right now in big ways.”

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