An eye-opening yet inspirational discussion with Pete Sena, Founder & CEO of the experience design company Digital Surgeons, on how we grow brands, or don’t.
“Change is hard. Great people are difficult to find. Building an effective team and brand takes too long.”
And most important…
“It’s hard to trust an agency with the success of our business.”
It pains us to hear these every day from our clients and partners, but we know finding a great, trustworthy team to help drive growth for a business is a challenging and risky endeavor.
That’s why I interviewed our CEO Pete Sena to better understand not only how we can help them feel more confident about approaching their growth in this fast-moving, digital age, but also determine when they simply aren’t right for us — an uncommon approach in this industry, for sure!
Henry Crocker: Pete, getting right into it, we’re talking about trust in the industry, from all angles. How do you look to create a more trustworthy and dependable relationship between consumers and our brand partners?
Pete Sena: I think we all see that we live in an era now where trust between both businesses and agencies, and brands and consumers, is damaged and hard to earn.
That’s why I’m encouraging our team to try and help people understand how technology can elevate trust. I know how that sounds, especially these days, but well-crafted tech paired with human-centered design does actually build lasting trust with audiences.
Just look at Amazon. People are aware of the company’s ruthless, cut-throat business strategies, but Amazon is also the most trusted tech company around. How can that be? Because their focus is 110% on providing the best possible experiences to the those people who count on them, whether it’s buying, selling, or shipping. You can always build trust through digital if you’re human-centered
This is what we give priority to when crafting brands — not just which shiny device or platform is launching next month, or what buzzword is hot right now. Our team masters the tools as they come, sure, but when you get down to it, it’s not about platforms, it’s about people. They don’t care if they saw it on Snapchat or Reddit, they care about the message.
Henry Crocker: Don’t get me wrong, I’m with you, but you mentioned buzzwords. Isn’t human-centered just another mythical buzzword at the moment? I don’t think anyone would argue that this industry chases what wins awards, and right now that’s something along the lines of human-centered conversational commerce, AI-powered blockchain VR experiences that leverage eSports, right?
Pete Sena: Or some nonsense like that. But, yeah, I agree, there are a lot of trends and buzzwords out there right now. But, human-centered is more than a buzzword. To put it another way, we aim to partner with people who want to move past the buzzwords and the headlines on industry publications. We are helping them understand what these trends mean for their business, what they mean for the world at large, and how people can actually use them. We absorb what’s actually useful for our partners, and discard what’s just a passing fad.
The problems we’re solving are all about creating genuine connections and stories between brands and people. The partners we’re looking for are as sick of the constant onslaught of industry buzzwords as we are. They want to cut the noise and have meaningful interactions with real people.
Henry Crocker: And I think that takes us back to trust. One of the biggest challenges I hear from brand-side marketers is an inability to trust or rely on their agency partners. The relationships themselves, for whatever reason, don’t seem to be human-centered. It’s not a healthy way to work.
And, we can’t be effective in our work if the partnership isn’t healthy. It’s better to have an open line where you can email, call, message, or text at any time with any questions or random ideas you might have. But that doesn’t always seem to be the accepted practice. Have you experienced that?
Pete Sena: Definitely. Open communication between people encourages spontaneity, lowers inhibition, and drives creativity. That’s what grows iconic brands, and that’s where we thrive. Our focus is on working with real, authentic people and not necessarily following industry-standard protocols.
Henry Crocker: Exactly! It’s about the work, about growth, not about outdated agency-client etiquette.
Pete Sena: It takes trust in the partnership to build experiences that nurture trust in audiences. It’s a critical element to every positive experience. If brands and their teams don’t share that priority, power to them, but we’re not a fit to work together.
Henry Crocker: Hold on that. You said, “we’re not a fit to work together.” Explain that to me.
Pete Sena: Well, one of our customers recently asked what, to us, makes a great client. I went back through the past decade or so of our work, connected with some of the customers we’re closest with…
Henry Crocker: The most human-centered our of relationships.
Pete Sena: Right, yes.
And I distilled the patterns I saw. What I found, and this is important and unheard of in this industry, is, I admit, we’re not for everyone and knowing that is a good thing for both parties. They have to be able to trust us with their business because we’re not taking every business, but we also have to trust them with ours, so as an experience design company…
Henry Crocker: Not an old school agency.
Pete Sena: Exactly. We’re here to be partners; to help design demand, to solve business problems in creative ways. But, partnerships only work when all parties involved are aligned on the same goals and trust each other to accomplish those goals.
Henry Crocker: So then how will you determine if we are right for a business, or if they are right for us? How can we be sure trust will be coming from both directions?
Pete Sena: Right now, I’m looking at three factors...
One: are they willing to change and try new ways of working and delivering solutions?
Two: is their leadership willing to invest in making this change a reality, both financially and emotionally? We know change is hard, and taking a chance by cutting a check is even harder.
And three: can digital channels and design-driven innovation be a catalyst for their growth, truly?
Henry Crocker: Ok, that’s your way of measuring a business or brand, but how might they measure us differently, compared to someone else, or a typical agency? What factors should they be grading us on?
Pete Sena: That’s a great question and one I’ve had a great deal of time to think about. I believe the best way to measure us as a partner starts with cutting the bullshit and getting real with each other. Some call this radical candor. I just call it being real. If we’re all clear about the stakes and the objectives, we’re going to naturally double down on how we’re thinking about and approaching the challenge at hand. It’s common for me and our people to literally be dreaming about their business problems and sending them notes and ideas around the clock when we are vested in helping the people succeed. This is where I say business is personal.
Henry Crocker: I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, but for the sake of this, explain getting personal to me.
Pete Sena: Our ability to deliver time and time again doesn’t come down to our talents or smarts, but rather our grit and resilience. It’s this level of commitment to the customer that differentiates the mighty from the meak in this always-on world, I like to say.
I’ve been to my clients’ kids’ birthday parties, helped them navigate a new promotion or even a lay off. When we know what they are fighting for, like a promotion or market share, for example, we give them our all, we come together to stack the deck in their favor. The “big” agencies don’t operate this way; they simply aren’t designed or incentivized to do so. It’s different for us. So That’s a long way of me saying they should measure us on our conviction, commitment, and desire to drive demand for their business.
Henry Crocker: Something one of our creative directors said that really stuck with me was that after working at big agencies he found what they discover about their partners in six months, we discover in six days, and that means we can solve problems faster.
Pete Sena: Totally. You have to though. You have to ask tough questions on Day 1. You have to dive in and get to work or you’re wasting their money. That’s a reason for lack of trust. We make sure the relationship gets personal, because if they’re like us, and they probably agree, their brand is personal. It’s not just a business transaction here. That’s also why we made the WHY DS video, so people could hear our clients speak to it directly, straight from their mouths.
Henry Crocker: So we agree that growing a brand is not always easy, but it’s made easier with a healthy relationship, but how do you take it further? How do you make it personal for consumers?
Pete Sena: I can summarize it in a question. It’s “What does your customer say about you when you aren’t in the room?”
We ask ourselves that constantly, and we help partners figure out the answer, whether it’s good, surprising, or unpleasant. Then we help them improve it.
Henry Crocker: Break it down for me from there. How do you go about improving it? How do you grow the brand based on a customer point of view?
Pete Sena: I think we can agree there are a finite number of ways to grow a brand today, in relation to the customer.
Selling more to your existing customers
Selling new things to your existing customers
Losing less customers
And discovering and finding new customers with a new product, service or experience
New user acquisition is one of the most straightforward ways to grow. Understanding as much as we can about customer behavior is essential, and no one knows their customers better than the customers themselves and the brands they engage with everyday. That’s why we seek input from both our partners and their audiences throughout our process.
Helping them to really understand what their customer acquisition costs are and what their customer lifetime value is augments their brand’s change. We help them understand retention — where and why they’re keeping their loyal users. Understanding what users already love about the brand’s experience gives us a platform to build on.
Understanding where and why brands lose customers, and knowing if it’s cost effective to continue targeting certain segments, is a harder pill to swallow. No one likes to hear that the branding strategy they’ve been following for three years isn’t working. And some of the insights we uncover can be difficult to hear. Change is hard, but it’s downright impossible if you don’t seek out the ugly and work to make it beautiful. If the partnership is healthy and open, the results of this necessary task speak for themselves.
Henry Crocker: They have two choices: stay the course or raise the bar.
Pete Sena: Yes! But, it’s all about getting lean. Not lean in terms of lean startups or agile or any other buzzword. Lean in terms of being able to dial in the right amount to plan what you do, create it, and measure and learn from the efforts. It’s about moving quickly and having maximum impact for the objective at hand.
We meet them wherever their business is in maturity and help them design the bridge to their future. It takes more than advice and overpaid consultants to deliver results. It takes action. It takes people who live for the experiences they create. We exist to design demand, it’s what we do.
Henry Crocker: That’s a perfect line to wrap this up. Thanks for the mic drop moment, Pete.
Pete Sena: Anytime.