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23.02.16 / Architects of Next: Social influencer, content and data evolution / Vikki Chowney, H+K Strategies

“Unicorn” is an overused word in the digital sphere these days. Now applied to startups passing the $BN valuation mark, it used to be reserved for people with special combinations of talents, who were near mythical in their breadth of skills. People like Vikki Chowney.

Vikki’s career has spanned journalism, blogging, PR, community management and content strategy. It’s rare to meet someone who gets words, numbers and people. Now she’s driving content strategies across Hill+Knowlton’s sectors and clients, and evangelising a different organisational model globally. That alone is a sign of someone who’s an Architect of Next, but it’s the sparkle when enthusiastically discussing the year ahead which is the giveaway of someone focussed on progress in the digital landscape.

When it comes to 2016, she’s clear on what’s getting her attention, and excitement: “Firstly, changing influencer relationships have been part of my career for twelve years now, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve evolved. They started very much as a PR thing, with the dynamic of ‘send them this, invite them to that event’ and hope they write about it. That has evolved into something so much broader, because of the huge amount of reach they’re gathering. In the last 12 months we’ve seen Google putting its YouTube superstars onto the sides of buses, brands realising that ‘we have to be smarter and do things differently’ and influencers saying ‘we don’t want to be told what to do by brands, we want to do things which allow us to change the world and chase our dreams’. It’s been fascinating. As such, brands are changing the model to look at how they can fund, in a complementary way, these partnerships.

“Secondly, the way data is being used more appropriately is a big focus. Big data has been a buzzword for some time – but it has been used sparingly by comms professionals, largely because of the technical skills needed to analyse it. Now though, data is more easily accessible even to smaller brands and agencies. Usability has improved in the backend of social platforms, and tools like GWI and Brandwatch have made it easier for us to access better information on audience behaviours in a way that’s straightforward to digest.”

“Thirdly, the switch in management of media spend is exciting. It’s been said for a long time that ‘anyone can own the idea’, but now we’re really seeing assessment of ideas based on whether they’re good or not, not who comes up with it. Brands are now starting to say: “I’m not using the traditional model, we’re going to award work to agencies who come up with the best ideas’.  For me, that means comms professionals are getting more control over publisher platforms – like Buzzfeed, or Conde Nast globally – beyond the classic media relations perspective. We’re now looking at how to build something experiential or data-led, with proper budget, not just classic advertorial campaigns.”

But if all this sounds wonderful, Vikki does see some related challenges: “From an influencer perspective, it’s about the fact people are lazy (cue laughter, not least from the rather sleep-deprived interviewer kept awake by a baby)!

“It’s really easy to assess influencers based on whether you know them, have worked with them before, or have a lot of followers. Even the biggest brands and agencies are doing this, and there remains some reeducation needed. The stakes are higher and the impact you can have by working this area is great, but it can be wasted if you continually chase after big numbers and low ROI figures based on potential eyeballs alone.

“Equally, ensuring that you can actually access the right data in the first place is still a challenge. If you can’t get hold of it; you can’t measure.

“Then there’s supporting clients to be braver, but doing it in the right way. If they’re redistributing a portion of budget from one agency to another, this doesn’t have to mean moving the entire pot and destroying inter-agency relationships. My favourite phrase is ‘ring fencing’. So you direct and advise where spend may be placed, but not always manage it.

“Lastly there’s the skills challenge. Finding people with data experience, analysis or strong multimedia content creation skills is hard, but when you then have to find those that can also handle the agency environment – account management, awareness that there’s not always a right way to do ‘it’, client pressure, constant change – then that’s really tough.”

We close out our conversation by assessing what would make 2016 really great, for Vikki: “I hope that we see virtual reality come to fruition in a way which takes advantage of what it could be. Facebook is in a phenomenal position to do this, and just imaging the applications for sports, media, and entertainment gives me goosebumps. If Facebook do it right…”

This is the fourth in our#architectsofnext series, which profiles the people on the frontline of building what comes next, through social media.

If you want to get ahead, read/do:

  • Top Twitter follow: @psfk – still the best source of new ideas
  • Top Instagram follow: @thenigelslater for full on foodporn on a daily basis
  • Top blog: Seth Godin – the original and still the best
  • Productive habit: maintaining both inbox zero and Evernote; I have spent years trying to work out how to capture my to-do lists properly; and this is the absolute best combination for me
  • Unproductive habit: Agreeing to too many meetings and then having to cancel them. It’s a terrible habit that drives people crazy
  • Favourite brand: I have much love and respect for Pret. They are a brand with purpose, which exists with quality and design that makes you feel warm inside – and excellent digital comms. Can’t beat that combination in my eyes

This is our #ArchitectsOfNext series, where we aim to inspire others with firsthand insight into how people shaping innovative digital engagement models think and deliver their work.

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