Digitas Exec Finds Inspiration in Move to Serve Non-profits at Mindshare

After seven years as SVP at large interactive shop Digitas, Huard G. Smith has taken a decidedly less prominent position at a much smaller interactive consulting firm serving non-profits, institutions and industry trade groups. Smith began his role as executive vice president at Mindshare Interactive Campaigns in mid-May, and is already seeing big differences between servicing commercial clients for one of the biggest digital agencies, and working for a far smaller firm and clients with far smaller budgets.

“At companies like Digitas, a small client has a $2 million a year budget,” said Smith. Many of the clients at Mindshare, on the other hand, “don’t have a lot of money to spend.” Besides conducting public affairs and investor relations efforts for corporate entities like Hewlett-Packard and Ebay, Mindshare works with non-profit organizations such as U.S. Fund for UNICEF and American Rivers.

Despite some clients’ limited online marketing budgets, continued Smith, “We still want to achieve the kind of quality…that you might expect on a big name for a big agency.”

The career shift could also have an effect on Smith’s personal budget. “This is a change for me personally, and also somewhat on an immediacy cash flow basis,” he told ClickZ News. “But I’m willing to make that change because I think there’s a huge upside here.”

While at Digitas, Smith led strategy teams for clients including the InterContinental Hotels Group, The Home Depot and Turner Broadcasting, as well as the AARP, perhaps the only client he worked with while at the agency with a full-fledged advocacy arm. Agency holding company Publicis Groupe acquired Digitas in December 2006 for $1.3 billion.

That deal “wasn’t something that factored into the decision,” said Smith, referring to his choice to leave Digitas. “This was never a big giant behemoth vs. a little Internet company” decision, he explained.

While, according to Smith, Digitas has around 1,500 employees, Mindshare has about 75, a group number more akin to the client teams he grew accustomed to working with at Digitas. “The job of communications is much easier” at a smaller outfit like Mindshare, he added.

Many issue-based organizations may be behind commercial entities when it comes to incorporating digital media into their overall operations and marketing efforts, but they’re learning, Smith said. “Just like it’s happening in the commercial sector…the same thing is starting to happen and will happen even more and more in the not-for-profit space.”

Smith expects to translate the knowledge he’s gathered in the commercial sphere to Mindshare’s clients. For instance, he explained, commercial clients’ focus on “closing the loop” from building brand awareness to driving consumer purchases to campaign measurement and optimization can be applied to advocacy groups. In that non-commercial world, it’s about building an emotional bond, urging people to take action, and then measuring the results.

“The clients that Mindshare works for are emotionally appealing….There is a satisfaction you get from helping these groups build their case online,” said Smith. “It’s a different professional and personal gratification you get than when you’re selling soap online,” he added.

In his new role, Smith has been traveling between Mindshare’s Boston location and its Washington, D.C. office, and plans to visit other offices in Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles and Charlottesville on a regular basis to get to know clients. He expects to help Mindshare organize its operations and oversee its client services people, as well as refine the 10-year-old firm’s client base and relationships.

“At this point [Mindshare] needs to think through what makes the most sense,” he said, noting it might be beneficial for the company to establish longer-term, more integrated relationships with clients. “They get less value by having us do one little thing and leave,” he said.

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