Last week’s evisceration of Faris Yakob, a self-described Digital Ninja at MDC, by an angry mob of agency creatives, struck a familiar chord with me.  I don’t know Faris.  I have never worked with him.  Never even met him.  But, after ten years of owning my own Digital agency, I am not surprised that this tension between creatives and Digital planners is finally coming to a head and it’s pulled me out of a blogging hiatus to add my opinion to the clutter.

For those of you out of the chatter loop, Digital Ninja is increasingly popular title referring to a career which has emerged in the past few of years with the explosion of social media.  The title may also be known as the social media expert, social media guru and many other self-anointed titles.  Most of the people obviously embrace social tools and utilities.  If 5 minutes goes by between tweets, it’s a slow day.

What do they tweet about?  Usually it’s stuff that they think is interesting, insightful or useful.  For most of these Ninjas, believe it or not, surfing the web or spending time on Facebook or Twitter, is actually their job.  They surf the web, follow interesting people and tweet (and re-tweet) the stuff they find.  The theory is that they spread knowledge, insight and inspiration around the companies that they work for.  But spending all your time in social media doesn’t leave a lot of time to actually do, or make, anything.  This is the tension that inspired the flaming of Faris.  To add fuel to the flaming, the venue that Faris was speaking at was a Boulder Digital Works workshop called “Making Digital Work.”

For the small percentage of agencies and people who are creating original content, Digital Ninjas fall somewhere between thieves and con artists.  They will tell you that making something from nothing; inventing new ways to use media; and creating content that connects with consumers in new and interesting ways is what drives our industry.  Watching from the bleachers and voicing your commentary isn’t.

The fact that Ninjas are confused with planners or strategists is probably the biggest mistake that agencies make and it’s one that we have made at EVB in the past.  This is always where the tension is the greatest.  I have sat in a number of meetings where a Ninja is briefing a creative team.  The briefing usually consists of the Ninja walking the creative team through a series of links to work/articles that they have compiled in an effort to inspire and inform the creative team of what great work is being done in the category.

The problem is that this isn’t a strategy.  It gives the creative team an idea of the landscape, but doesn’t uncover any consumer insight or shed light on any unexpected behavior.  The creative teams’ collective response is usually something like, “yeah, I know how to get to the FWA website, now give me something I can use.”  To which, the Digital Ninja categorically discredits the creative team by playing the “you don’t get it” card.  Unfortunately for the industry I love dearly and have called home for fifteen years, last week’s public outing of this behavior was painful to watch.

What further irks the creative community is that there actually seems to be more glory in commentating about work and innovation than there is in making it happen.  Award juries, conferences, articles, blogs, etc seem to be dominated by people who, albeit articulate and knowledgeable, sit nowhere close to the creative, development or production process.  Granted, most of this chatter never leaves a very small circle, but still, for teams of people who spend their careers with the nose to the grindstone, it is difficult to accept.

Interestingly, the more traditional the shop, the more likely it will have “Digital Ninjas.”  Agencies that were born Digital don’t need people like this.  These shops run lean and efficient and everyone at their shop already has the knowledge and skills to deliver.  I know from experience that Ninjas are outed quickly in this type of environment.  Traditional agencies have hired these people in an effort to have an opinion, or voice, in the Digital Age.  They are a bridge that is helping to make the agency “more Digital” and make no mistake, for most agencies this role has been vital and necessary.  Hopefully, however, the role will be obsolete within a few years, once these agencies have either gained the right experience or turned over their staff to the point that every knows as much, if not more, than the Ninja.

So, what role, if any, should these guys play in the future of our industry?

After years of watching this industry grow and evolve, I have learned to stop being critical of the Digital Ninja and to embrace him as a part of the advertising ecosystem.  The Ninja isn’t the problem.  The legacy agency model that falls in place  around him is the problem.  Traditional agencies have force-fit these characters into traditional strategy and planning roles, which is not where they belong.  It is not their fault.  Faris and is almighty team of tweeters and bloggers are victims of an antiquated system.

These guys are masters of self-promotion.  Most of them are more famous, or infamous, than the agencies that they work for. They have huge Twitter followings and are amazing at amplifying ideas.  They are academic and can create incredible context around what they see and report.  They have an engaged audience, ample time and the driving desire to be the first-to-know.  They should be viewed and be treated as agency marketing and promotion, not advertising strategists.

Gone are the days when an agency publicist circulates a press release to announce a new campaign or agency direction.  Almost everything is now done in social media. These guys are their own media networks.  They can single-handedly launch, generate buzz and sustain momentum around an idea or campaign.  They can answer questions in real time, create a two-way dialog and engage a community or entire industry around a campaign idea.  They can frame an agencies position or direction and communicate it to the industry or the world.

Some of EVB’s greatest viral successes were made famous by the Digital Ninja community.  We consider this group among the first line of defense in promoting our Digital content.   Between them, they have hundreds of thousands of global.  They will be the first ones to tweet and re-tweet links, apps and videos.  It’s a symbiotic relationship.  We need them and they need us.  Ninjas feed their audiences and their own egos by being on the inner circle and being the first to tweet and be re-tweeted.

This is especially true for the creative community.   Granted you may look at a lot of these guys as douchebags because they cannot do what you do.  Even worse, they criticize what you do; provide expert commentary about what you do; and take credit for what you do.   I get it.  It’s hopelessly irritating and frustrating.  Very few people can do what you do and it sucks that you are not getting recognition for what you create and these guys are getting featured in the ad trades and at conferences every week.  But the sooner you get past it, the sooner you’ll figure out a way to use these guys to help amplify your work.  They have an audience and they have influence.  That’s not going away.  As old media models die, influence in social media is a cornerstone for the future of our industry.  Stop fighting it and figure out a way to use it to your advantage.

Every great musician has a promoter.  Every great actor has an agent.  Every great author has a publisher.  Perhaps every great advertising creative may need a Digital Ninja.

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