‘Tis the season (for familial life updates).

With the winter holidays (or, if you’re reading this at some other time, an inevitable family reunion or wedding) just around the corner, the stress of reuniting with your family is looming. Many of us are dreading outdated traditions, contrarian uncles, and a fight or two. But if you work at an agency that specializes in digital technologies, you’re likely dreading answering one simple question:

“What do you do?”

Note: We get compounding confusion when you consider the variety of organization identifiers agencies use today (digital experience agencies, digital transformation agencies – the list goes on). For the purposes of this article, when I refer to a digital agency, I’m referring to any firm or group that specializes in using digital and web technologies to solve business problems.

Most of us can’t comprehend what a modern digital agency does, and no one’s at fault. It’s confusing to all ages, but it’s particularly confusing to those Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who aren’t digital natives or veterans of tech companies.

Digital agencies are new. Like, this millenia new. They were born out of the information age. Suddenly, business’s customers and users lived online. They needed solutions in the form of code and pixels.


Still, for companies that specialize in digital transformation, there isn’t consensus around what it means.

Even Google gave a narrow description:

“A digital marketing agency is different from your traditional marketing agency in that they are typically focused on results-based marketing in the digital world. Measurable marketing and ROI is the name of the game.”

Taking ISL as an example, marketing is a massive part of our business, but it’s not all of our business. And “results-based marketing” implies digital results only – like clicks, eCommerce buys, and online engagement. On top of this, my mother doesn’t know what ROI is, so if she were to Google, “What is a digital agency,” she’d be met with foreign acronyms, shrug, and move on.  

This got me thinking: what if I did a little user testing around what parents think a digital agency does. What do they understand? What’s confusing? Could I craft a brief description of what we do in plain language – based on insights from a parent – so we never struggle to describe what we do professionally ever again?


So I called my mom.

Let’s meet her:


I asked my mom to describe what digital agencies do. She had a solid idea…


…but ultimately fell a little short.


She said our reel was a helpful visual reference in understanding what we produce, but with so much work appearing sequentially and without context, it was more confusing than descriptive.


She dropped the names of our clients several times, indicating she understands who we work with, but not the work we do.


She doesn’t quite understand what we do now, but she knows we’ve evolved from the advertising agencies of the mid to late 20th century, and serve a similar purpose to businesses.


After a whopping 7 minutes of interviewing, I had my marching orders.


So that’s what I’m going to do – provide a visual reference (what we made), name a familiar client (who we made it for), and what business purpose it served (why we made it), all in plain, simple, human language. This, I believe, will create an effective resource for everyone else out there struggling to explain what a digital agency does, and what “digital transformation” means.

But first: a digital agency in 7 words.

In the event you don’t have this article handy, it’s important you be able to describe it quickly if, say, your uncles got bad breath or your elderly grandparents do better with shorter sentences or your young nieces and nephews also do better with shorter sentences.

So, here it is:

“We help businesses adapt to the internet.”

Short, sweet, and just the right amount of vague.

Now, when one of them inevitably asks “well, what does that mean?” send them this article or pull it up for them.

What does a Digital Transformation Look Like: A Bunch of Examples

As you know, not every digital agency is exactly the same, just like not every tech company or law firm is the same. There are specialties and nuanced differences, but we largely provide a lot of the same services. Below are several examples of those services. For convenience, I’ve used ISL’s work to showcase this.

Mobile AppsSettle_in_gif

Who (who’s the client)? The International Rescue Committee. More specifically, their CORE (Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange) program.

What (what did we make)? A mobile application called SettleIn (that works on iPhones and Android devices) designed to help refugees resettle as they migrate to the United States, and increase comprehension around core cultural transition information.

Why (why utilize “digital transformation”)? A key tenet of IRC’s cultural orientation program for refugees is self-sufficiency— but given the stress, complexities, and information overload that go along with the resettlement process, that vital information can be difficult to process and retain over time. Using a device most refugees have (a smart phone) and designing an educational experience based on “learn at your own pace” methods, a digitized experience made sense (and ultimately worked)!


Mobile Websites


Who? Doritos (via Frito Lay North America).

What? A mobile website to promote the launch of a new flavor: Blaze. Note: a mobile app is something you download from an app store. A mobile website is accessed through your mobile browser (e.g. Chrome, Safari, etc). The Blaze Experience was a digital sweepstakes. It allowed customers to scan specially marked bags using their phone cameras and enter to win prizes.

Why? Doritos Blaze was unveiled at Super Bowl 52 with a national TV spot. The only thing left to do was prove customers were buying them (and continuing to engage with the brand). Because it was a digital, mobile application, it was accessed by over half a million customers across 900+ device types. It also allowed Doritos stakeholders to say with certainty that brand awareness and product purchases were on pace, since customers were literally snapping photos with the product!


Digital Video

digital video dannon

Who? Dannon (more specifically, Oikos brand Greek yogurt).

What? A digital video packaged for social media, with messages from Cam Newton and Misty Copeland asking Internet users (not television viewers), “why do you protein?” The video was shot and produced by a number of agencies including ISL. You may be wondering, “what’s the difference between a ‘digital’ video and a TV commercial?” Attention spans, demographics, and video format all change once you start placing videos on phones and computer screens. From scripting and concepting to post-production, the video was made to be seen on Facebook and Instagram, not Monday Night Football.

Why? Audiences are generally younger on digital platforms and social media sites, and they idolize young athletes. Packing 5-second, 15-second, and 30-second spots for Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram made sense strategically. This campaign was part of a larger social editorial engagement we had with Dannon.


Digitally-Enhanced Live Experiences


Who? Procter & Gamble (the creators of products like Tide, Gillette, Dawn, Pampers, and way way more).

What? For P&G’s booth at a sustainability conference, we created “The Innovation Box” – a 15′ x 15′ walled-off space that allowed users to pick up a model of a product (for example, a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo) and trigger a short video that explained how P&G was responsibly producing, selling, and recycling the product. We used three projectors for the three walls surrounding users, which meant each short sustainability video felt immersive, as it was happening all around attendees.

Why? It’s difficult to tell six stories in such a small space, while making the whole thing interactive. This was only possible using digitally-enhanced technologies like 3D printing (how we made each model), projection mapping (how we displayed immersive videos), and plenty more (RFID readers, internet-connected LED lights, digital animation, etc).


Social Media Campaigns

genius-gif-social campaign

Who? National Geographic (more specifically, Season 2 of their hit series “Genius”).

What? There are really two things happening here. The first is Antonio Banderas as Picasso painting the word Genius with light – this was just one of sixty pieces of social content (i.e. short videos of the cast, show, and custom title sequences edited to promote the show on social media). The second is part of our “Framing Genius” activation. We placed massive picture frames in major cities across the US, and used social media to encourage users to find the frames. If they did, they’d win a trip to Picasso’s hometown. We also worked with social media influencers and world-class illustrators to create their own frames to promote the series, sweepstakes, and brand. This is just two parts of a larger social campaign.

Why? Again, social media promotions allow flexibility in content type (we leveraged videos, GIFs, and bots) and interactivity (dropping hints about the frames’ whereabouts and responding to general comments). Digital platforms also allow brands to broadcast further for less money.


AI-Driven Digital Promotions


Who? Again, National Geographic’s “Genius” series.

What? On Facebook messenger, users answered a few questions about their favorite Picasso styles and their mood (e.g. “I’m feeling sad”), then uploaded a photo. We trained a machine on Picasso’s greatest work, which is basically just telling a computer to memorize a bunch of information about Picasso paintings, and – using image manipulation – the bot would return your portrait as “painted” by Picasso.

Why? Machine learning and artificial intelligence (the technologies we used to “train” a machine on Picasso’s work) are digital services. And Facebook messenger is a widely used digital communications platform with bot frameworks developed and ready for digital agencies to leverage.


Web Applications

Who? Service Year Alliance (a non-profit organization that connects motivated young people with non-profit organizations to do a year of service).

What? We created an online marketplace (on web, mobile, and tablet) for users to connect with non-profits, manage their programs, track progress, and add new opportunities. Complete with organization and corps member profiles, robust search capabilities, and custom dashboard interfaces, it’s a lot like a social network, but for service! Note: ServiceYear.org is a web application, which is just like a computer program, but accessed over the web (for example, Excel is a computer program, while Google Sheets is a web application).

Why? Without modern web technologies, it’d be difficult to reach a critical volume of Americans who want to serve, and then connect them directly to non-profit organizations. Now, every member – serving or hosting an opportunity – has a single place to track everything, right at the tips of their fingers.


And Plenty More

There’s standalone digital products, social listening tools, group and solo VR experiences, and data visualizations. With digital tech, (almost) anything is possible. Questions? Augmentations? Edits? HMU: js@isl.co