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“Campaigns need to have a diversified team working together”

New York, June 12th, 2018

With offices in New York, Gent and Antwerp, The Reference is a cutting-edge digital agency, operating at the intersection of marketing and technology. The agency is known for their result-oriented approach, reflected in their motto, “It’s more than digital, it’s your business.”

Since it opened its doors in 1993, the agency has seen a big expansion, now working with more than 160 multidisciplinary experts that turn objectives into success stories, integrating various areas of expertise to accelerate the digital transformation of international customers.

Olivier Deneef has been a large part of that expansion, filling the role of Chief Commercial Officer at The Reference. In an interview with TIA, Deneef gives us a look at the agency’s daily work, describing its hiring process, content creation and communication style, among other issues.

Can you describe your agency in a few words?

The Reference is a digital agency, operating at the intersection of marketing and technology. We create digital experiences that drive growth for our customers. Originated in 1993 in Europe, we now have offices in New York City (since 2012), Ghent and Antwerp. All combined we employ over 160 digital experts. An integrated approach is key within our full-service offering. We have the pleasure to work for companies such as Kodak, Alaris, Cohn Reznick, DealerTrack, Ikea, Le Pain Quotidien, Starwood and many others.

How did you get started in the industry?

I started my career at big data companies, who do predictive modelling and data analysis for large corporations. At the time, focus was shifting from offline to online data and targeting, exploring the full potential of digital platforms. It was a natural evolution for me to continue my career at The Reference, who was one of the first digital agencies and pioneer in all digital aspects.

Provide us the ingredients to create a successful digital campaign

It is key for campaigns to create a diversified team that works close together. Creatives should be best friends with data scientists, online marketers and even developers.

Often, companies focus too much on one specific element such as creative, branding, analytics or channel approach. All these elements are important, but it is only by combining them in an integrated approach that you will achieve the best results. In the end, what is a fantastic creative campaign communicated through the wrong channel? (Or the other way around)? At The Reference, we defined an approach that we call IMUNA; Initiate, Measure, Understand and Act.

How much time do you spend with customers?

As much as possible. It is only by working together with our customers, sometimes on-site, that we understand the companies’ DNA and ambitions. The more knowledge our teams have about our customers, the better the solutions we build for them.

What is your communication style with your team?

At The Reference, we have a flat organizational structure. We only work with senior and mid-career employees, which means that most of them are able to work independently and even coach each other. We have a pragmatic, no nonsense culture within the company, which pays off. Some of our employees are with the company for over 15 years, which is unknown in the agency world. As our CEO likes to say it: ‘We take our customers and their business very serious, ourselves a little bit less’.

Could you describe your hiring process?

We are always looking for the best talent in the market. We never make an evaluation only on hard skills, soft skills are as important (if not even more). Over the years, we were able to create a fantastic company culture, with a variety of very different profiles working together. We need to ensure that every new employee fits perfectly within our company culture and contributes to it. For this reason, multiple people with different expertise’s take part in job interviews.

Name a challenge your team is currently facing

Many of our global US customers have concerns about the Global Data Protection Regulation (known as GDPR). Not surprising, when you look at the amount of attention it received over the last months. Often ominous (or even incorrect) news. Luckily, we have 2 offices in Europe, with extensive expertise in this matter. Europe has always been stricter when it comes down to data protection. We shared this knowledge from day one with our US office. This puts us now in the perfect position to guide our US customers towards GDPR compliancy.

What do you like doing in your free time?

I am a big art, design and fashion enthusiast. Always on the lookout for new artists and works that inspire me. On Sundays, you can find me at the museum or browsing design and fashion stores. It is fascinating to see how they influence past and current culture.

Which cities outside where you live interest you creatively?

I live both in NYC as in Brussels, which are two fantastic cities. Outside of those, Antwerp, Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam are definitely my favorite ones.

What piece of advice would you give a recent grad looking to work in digital?

Digital has such a broad meaning these days, that I would not accept it anymore when a recent graduate would state that he or she wants to work in ‘digital’. I would advise to think upfront about the elements within digital that interest you. Whether it is strategic work, online marketing, development or project management.

If you are not sure: accept an internship that shows you all the different aspects, so you can make a choice. We appreciate it when an applicant has a clear vision. Both on the desired career path as on why he or she believes they can make a difference in our industry. The current graduate generation is the most digitized one we have ever seen. Use that as an advantage.

Thanks Olivier!

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