Sullivan Higdon and Sink Shows Guts in the Digital Arena


Don’t be a sheep

For those in the Wichita area involved in the fields of marketing, design and communications, this might not be the first time you’ve heard about Sullivan Higdon and Sink’s sheep phobia. What started off as a one to two year campaign became an integral part of SHS’s brand that has transformed into an unusual but successful means of making the ad agency “stand out from the flock.”

If you ever plan to work at SHS, you shall quickly learn the seven ways to exterminate sheep, or the “seven practices that set the stage for ideas that set [their] clients apart from the flock,” which are to be: collaborative, curious, odd, passionate, critical, smart, and pure of heart.

With this kind of branding, it’s no wonder SHS has become one of the most successful (and aspired) ad agencies in the area. But as our corporate culture shifts more and more into the digital realm, ad agencies like SHS have new sets of challenges. Not only must they continue their traditional branding strategies, but they must also be watchful of the continuous digital changes taking place and consider how to adapt.

Danielle Sacks in The Future of Advertising begins his article by clearly stating “advertising is on the cusp of its first creative revolution since the 1960s. But the ad industry might get left behind.” He elaborates on this idea by discussing the differences between old advertising and what he calls “use-vertising” and points out the challenges and opportunities digital advertising brings to ad agencies.

A recent panel discussion and presentation by SHS’s own vice president of brand reputation Lathi DeSilva, managing partner Tom Bertels, and manager of brand reputation Gred Standifer, offers insight into how SHS is effectively adapting to and developing digital strategies.

Using platforms purposefully

Keith Trivitt, in 11 Public Relations Trends for 2011, defines storytelling as an essential skill for PR professionals of today. He stresses that the Internet requires PR practitioners to have a good understanding of the different platforms available and be able to deliver good content through each of them.

This means going beyond using Facebook or Twitter simply because “everyone’s doing it” (aka following the flock) and looking into how each platform can be distinctly and purposefully utilized to sell a story.

SHS realizes this importance. They carry this notion of storytelling and platform strategizing into their work whenever the problem calls for a digital solution. One example of such work involves targeting a select group of reality TV fans online.

The challenge for the project was to get fans of Paul Jr., the American Chopper’s son, to show up for an event produced by the Coleman Company. After thorough research, SHS discovered that the most effective ways to reach these online-oriented fans was through the digital platforms they frequented including Twitter and Rather than copying and pasting the same message into these various platforms, the team crafted specific messages tailored to the strengths of each platform.

When discussing this topic, DeSliva advises agencies to avoid using the Internet as an information bucket and to instead practice careful consideration of platforms as poster boards on which to present authentic, relevant and personal content.

Using research to make excellent educated guesses

The teams at SHS also do their fair share of homework. With every project, SHS teams implement a 6-step strategic planning process to guide each project. To illustrate the care with which teams at SHS treat research, we’ll look at their solution to launching Meyer Natural Angus, a branded natural beef product, inside Super Targets nationwide.

Rather than design a typical series of print ads and TV commercials, as would be the case with any average ad agency, SHS realized they needed to delve deep into their audience and find the best possible channels to reach them.


After elaborate research, the team found that consumers interested in natural products are very likely to have smartphones and are also very brand-aware consumers. This knowledge allowed the team to develop a unique solution that involved creating a QR code to go on the actual meat cases. When scanned with a smartphone, this code directs you to a short video on Meyer’s meat products. Such ingenuity proved highly successful, not to mention it also provided valuable analytics of consumers who interact with the QR code.

Some may consider this a highly risky move. After all, QR codes on meat packages are an advertising strategy that hadn’t been done before. On this topic, Tom Bertels simply says “there may be risk, but it’s pretty calculated because of all the research.” So in the end it proves less risky than it appears thanks to this heavy research process.

In his article, Sacks states that digital media is creating new competition for agencies because new software now allows anyone to do what was previously given to experts. Not for SHS. The agency’s innovation and research-heavy tactics will always keep them above the competition. Their recent switch from hierarchical management to multi-discipline, client-focused teams further underscores this.

Managing relationships in the digital realm

Going digital does not mean sacrificing client relationships. In a world where the goal is still to maintain a balance between giving clients a solution they will like and producing work your agency can be proud of, digital media can sometimes make this balance hard to achieve.

SHS handles this problem with ease. They realize the importance of good management of client relationships and they go the extra step to make sure both parties are content.

One strategy that SHS employs to develop positive client relationships involves a process that establishes whether the client’s problem calls for a digital solution, a somewhat digital solution, or not at all digital. This demonstrates the agency’s ability to go beyond using digital because it’s a “hip place to be” and honing in on the needs of the problem at hand.

But whether a problem calls for a digital solution or not becomes irrelevant if the client isn’t convinced or interested in going digital. To make sure this isn’t an issue, DeSilva explains that teams then use client consultations to establish a client’s readiness in using digital platforms. This consultation specifically looks at the client’s ability to share control, update content, respond quickly and embrace authenticity.

In his article, Trivitt points out that this coming year will reveal an increasing trend in fostering good consumer relationships. SHS saw the need to go digital as necessary, but they also understood the importance of client relationships and created the above-mentioned steps, among others, to maintain good relationships with the people they work with.

Purposeful use of platforms, implementation of research and good management of client relationships were three of SHS’s strongest aspects in regards to their adaptation of new media. Based on the panel discussion, however, it seems there are a couple of areas in particular that they either didn’t mention or that they could focus on a little more.

Getting involved in corporate blogging

In 5 Predictions for the PR Industry in 2011, Leyl Master Black advices that one of the trends to watch for this year is an increase in “direct editorial.” Black expects to see more corporate blogging and executives contributing their own thoughts in articles.

Personally, I anticipate this foresight because it gives all of us learners an excellent way to hear from the best. I even have a list of blogs by design professionals that I like to follow. Squarespace’s blog is one excellent example of a corporate blog. The panel discussion at SHS was so interesting and educational, that I can just imagine how many followers SHS would have if they became involved in this “direct editorial” trend.

I follow SHS on Twitter, and also know some of their employees keep official SHS blogs, but after perusing them it seems to me they are just dipping their toes into this idea. The content is personal and entertaining, but perhaps it’s not a priority for them at the time.

I think great minds like that of Bertels, DeSilva and Standifer have much to offer in their field and their community, and blogging could become a great means by which to communicate their thoughts to others. I’m excited to see where SHS might take this idea in coming years.

Making good use of measurements

Based on the panel discussion, it didn’t seem that SHS engaged much with analytics and measurements. With many of their examples of projects, they defined the solution and stated they were successful, but there was no mentioning of the extent of that success.

Being about to measure and monitor performance is one of the great beauties of digital media. It actually seems highly unlikely that they wouldn’t use such information.

Trivitt also defines this as one of this year’s PR trends, saying that being able to measure engagement, relationships and brand awareness are now much easier and we should be taking full advantage of it.

Although I didn’t get a clear picture of how SHS uses analytics and measurement, I’d be interested in knowing exactly how much they focus on it, especially for such a research-conscious agency.

Being able to discuss issues on digital media like these with successful branding agencies like SHS was a great opportunity. Their solid grip on the subject as well as their success with it reiterate what our textbooks and assigned readings mention, but it’s great to be able to see it working in the real world.The digital realm will only continue to change in the next few years, and it will be great to see how agencies like SHS continue to adapt to this digital transformation.



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