Ever since Ford put Fiesta subcompacts in the hands of 100 social media savvy young people in its 2009 Fiesta Movement campaign, the automaker's marketing has been synonymous with digital experimentation.
Ford executives such as marketing boss Jim Farley, COO Mark Fields and Americas President Joe Hinrichs are driving that change, but it's the roughly 1,200 people working across the highway from headquarters at advertising agency Team Detroit who are executing Ford's advertising vision.
It's up to Team Detroit to find out which new social networking app will be the next Facebook, which online video service will be the next HBO on Demand and how best to use those platforms to carry Ford's advertising messages.
And increasingly, it's those digital channels that are guiding the agency's work, Team Detroit executives say. In terms of time spent with media every day, the average consumer spends the most time with media using digital means than through traditional ones such as TV, print publications or radio, Mark LaNeve, COO of Global Team Ford said, referencing data from eMarketer. That reality has affected the way ideas at the agency are hatched, pitched and executed.
The agency is "becoming digital-centric," LaNeve says. "It's not an initiative or program, but an evolution bordering on a transformation of the agency."
More than 50 percent of the agency's employees now work in digital, compared with about 25 percent five years ago, LaNeve says. Team Detroit is hiring employees with high-tech backgrounds -- mobile specialists, app developers, programmers, data analytics experts, digital media planners, IT staff and the like -- that 10 years ago were less of a priority.
For example, Team Detroit recently hired Kurt Unkel as its global chief digital officer, effective March 1. Unkel, who had nearly a decade of digital advertising experience working on accounts for General Motors and Ford, had been president at VivaKi, a digital-advertising technology firm owned by advertising holding company Publicis Groupe that was among the first to develop digital ad space exchanges, stock-market-like trading platforms in which advertisers buy online ad space from publishers to precisely target specific audiences.
For more proof of Team Detroit's digital shift, just follow the money. In 2011, Ford, Team Detroit's primary client, became the first automaker ranked in Advertising Age's annual 100 Leading National Advertisers list to spend more on unmeasured ad media -- search marketing, online video, social media and other digital channels -- than on traditional measured media such as TV, print and banner ads. That trend accelerated in 2012, as Ford spent $1.2 billion on unmeasured media, 15 percent more than on measured media, according to data from Advertising Age.
LaNeve likens the shift to past changes in the advertising world, such as when agencies shifted from radio and print ads to TV commercials in the 1950s and 1960s. The big differences: the pace of today's shift, and the seemingly endless stream of new digital outlets.
New digital analytics and big data have also made it easier for advertisers to zoom in on their target customers, says LaNeve -- who they are, what media they consume, what messages will resonate with them most. Ford and Team Detroit, he says, both have "huge" analytics departments for this.
Toby Barlow, Team Detroit's chief creative officer, says those analytics inform the "brand bibles" that the agency develops for each campaign that lay out a detailed portrait of a campaign's target customers, define how the vehicle or brand should be portrayed and spell out the tone of the campaign.
Barlow says media planners are now involved much earlier in the creative process than in the past, providing input on what new digital media are available online, or if there are advertising opportunities on emerging social media platforms, such as photo-based messaging app Snapchat or the Vine video-sharing app. Those discussions strongly influence how the creative teams craft Team Detroit's messages.
"It's a lot less of an ivory tower sort of an existence than it used to be," Barlow says. "It used to be, give the brief to the art director and copywriter and they'd go off into whatever strange corner of the agency they worked in and they'd come back with a jewel. Now, it still involves a lot of creative thinking but a lot of collaboration with the media team."
He adds: "I think that we are living in a time when it's the Marshall McLuhan era more than ever in terms of the media being the message."