Ran Craycraft of Wildebeest is one of the brains behind the Los Angeles design and software agency, helping brands and agencies take their businesses to a brighter future. In this interview with TechBullion, Managing Partner and co-founder Ran Craycraft will be telling us more about the digital agency and the unique services they provide.
Please tell us a little more about yourself and how you got your start in the digital marketing and product innovation space?
I’m Ran Craycraft, Managing Partner and co-founder of Wildebeest, a hands-on digital agency in LA that helps creative brands innovate and grow.
I got my big break with NBC as an intern in the promos department in New York City. Several folks were on vacation and our department head had an urgent need for an on-air promo, but he had no one to cut it. I raised my hand and after popping in my editing reel (which I carried in my back pocket on a DVD), they plopped me down in an editing bay and the rest was history.
My last and most interesting role was as a producer in the Digital Innovation department where I got to imagine and create complementary products for NBC properties like The Today Show, America’s Got Talent, Heroes, and more.
About five years later, I joined AOL and got to wear a lot of hats, including leading Product Development and General Manager of the Entertainment division where I oversaw the teams managing internet fossils like Moviefone, Sessions, and Winamp.
I left AOL to jump into advertising with a Swedish agency called North Kingdom that was ready to launch a US operation and focus on attracting entertainment clients. This was my bootcamp into advertising where I got to learn from some of the best and uncover opportunities from my brand days that were being under-utilized in the ad industry.
In 2014, I teamed up with my buddy, Kevin Ng, to launch Wildebeest as a more balanced approach to digital marketing–where creative, tech, and strategy are all equal parts of a big solution.
What is Wildebeest and what inspired you to start this business?
Wildebeest is a hands-on digital partner for brands and agencies. We work with our clients to understand their business challenges and then align design, technology, and strategy to give them an unfair industry advantage.
I was inspired to start Wildebeest and do something different when I saw how our entire industry valued creative concepts so much more than the underlying technology, execution, and frankly, the business repercussions. So much of digital marketing is focused on winning industry awards over revenue and other tangible business results. Wildebeest exists to give our clients the advantages they need to innovate and grow.
Could you give us a walkthrough of the services and solutions you provide at Wildebeest and how it differs from what other digital agencies offer?
For sure. Digital Agency is a pretty widely used term that describes a lot of different types of companies. Some digital agencies only produce content for social media. Other digital agencies exist just to buy media or ads for their clients. Some only handle digital design and then need a hand to build it. The most common form of digital agency are those that focus on strategy and concept and then farm out the production work to others to execute it.
We call ourselves a hands-on digital agency because we’re bringing the strategy and research to the table, but then we’re also the ones that design and build it. Large or small, it’s pretty rare these days to find a digital agency that’s delivering end-to-end solutions with the sophistication, proficiency, and polish of the Wildebeest team.
Tell us more about your experienced team of digital marketers, designers, and software developers. What makes you special?
In addition to being a hands-on digital agency, another unique facet of our team is that my business partner, Kevin, and I keep our company small enough so that we get to work on every project with our clients. Our quality control ensures that our most senior team members see each project through to completion, leaving our mark of exceptional quality on everything we do.
In our industry, it’s very common for larger agencies to resource a junior team on a new project, especially when it’s medium or low budget. In the past, we followed that model, too, but since the pandemic started and drove everyone to remote work, we’ve made some pretty significant changes in our processes, operations, and team makeup to ensure we’re best positioned to elevate our clients and their unique needs.
For example, we’ve added a ton of documentation and formalized our processes in Confluence so anyone onboarding in a new project has an understanding of exactly how and when to get to work. We’re using Airtable for data, Slack for chat, Jira for tracking, and Zapier for automations to ensure data gets captured and shared when and where we need it.
Has the current boom in digital transformation influenced your business at Wildebeest in any way? Tell us more about your target market and the level of demand for your services.
While some agencies specialize in specific industry vertical markets, we prefer to cast a wider net and keep it interesting for our team. We’ve partnered with automotive companies like GM and Toyota, consumer packaged goods like Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola, and tech giants like Microsoft and Google. We have kind of an unofficial rule that we never do the same project twice. When folks contact us asking for a deck showing all of the TikTok clones we’ve built, that’s probably a good indicator it’s not a project we’ll take on. Keeping our portfolio fresh and solving new problems with each engagement helps keep things exciting and innovative – it also helps us keep the best talent.
Demand has been incredibly high over the last couple of years. We’ve been very fortunate to keep a backlog of projects booking weeks and sometimes months out, but during the pandemic, inquiries have certainly multiplied. The biggest trend I’ve noticed is that the big brands slowed down and entrepreneurs warmed up. We’ve been contacted by a lot of aspiring founders looking for a boost getting to market.
Why is it important for businesses and brands today to have a good online presence?
Consumers’ standards have been raised. There’s a whole powerful generation out there now that are digital natives and expect to be able to do more online with a business than they can in person. Older generations have also gotten a lot more sophisticated on the Web since the pandemic began, using more streaming services and even getting more comfortable with online purchases. Now that the market is becoming web-first, more businesses are picking a Shopify theme before they’re signing a long-term lease.
What does a startup need to pay attention to when planning for software development, web design, or digital marketing?
It’s important to first understand what you can do yourself and what you need to outsource. Depending on your unique business, you might want to bootstrap and duct tape your idea together using off-the-shelf, low or no-code software like Shopify, Square, Airtable, Zapier, and Google Workspace. Then when it’s time to scale, you have a better understanding of what’s working and what’s not–meanwhile, keeping the stakes very low.
When it’s time to start scaling, you need to decide if you should hire in-house or outsource. Our rule of thumb when advising our clients on this is if the function is critical to your business operation, then you need to own that role in-house. If you’re a pizza company, you need to make your pizzas in-house. If you’re a plumbing company, your plumbers need to be on payroll. However, a pizza company should probably not design or develop its software in-house; instead, leave it to the pros.
A very important facet of hiring an agency is to know what you can afford. On behalf of agencies around the world, don’t ask us to assemble a pitch to work with you without telling us your budget. I assure you, your project is not going to be the one that allows us to retire comfortably. We’re out here scoping projects and delivering them with our reputation on the line. When it’s time to hire an agency, have a budget range, share it with your invited agencies, and then leave it up to them to give you the best proposal for your needs. Now you will have an apples-to-apples comparison of agencies given the same information and resources to help solve your unique challenges.
What are the processes involved in working with Wildebeest on a digital project from start to finish? Any success stories you would like to share with us?
While each project requires unique adjustments, generally, each engagement starts with a Discovery phase. This is where we better understand the requirements and opportunities, followed by the strategic narrowing and planning in Definition. The Design phase covers user experience and user interface design. Development builds out the custom software and ensures quality assurance, and the Deployment phase makes our products accessible to users on the platforms for which they were designed. The last piece is Delivery, where we work with our clients to ensure they’re ready to take the reins.
Going remote in 2020 had a lot of challenges for our team. Despite already having a semi-flexible work-from-home policy, we found that losing out on water cooler conversations and being in physical proximity just changed things. It took us several months to figure out what was missing, but eventually, we realized that the processes that worked in an office didn’t exactly translate 1:1 when working remotely. The biggest takeaways I can share when going remote are that we benefited by scaling up our seniority and creating processes for everything – I mean, everything.
Where do you see the digital marketing industry headed, and how does Wildebeest fit into that future?
It’s been a goal of many agencies to move away from campaign work for years and transition into building products and platforms for their clients, but that dream is flawed. Campaigns can be tough for agency teams, they often have a fast turnaround, and – the worst part of all – once the campaign ends, the site or app is relegated to a lonely PDF case study. The only hope of validation is winning an industry award. Products and platforms, on the other hand, are evergreen and can live as long as users want them around. These are a lot tougher to build, much more expensive, and require a unique skill set that probably isn’t the same as the talented team who assembled a clever campaign.
I anticipate that interactive marketing will shift just like we’ve seen with video. Television commercials have a lot in common with digital campaigns–we all know a brand’s behind it and we all know what they want you to do. And it’s getting harder and harder not to ignore them. So what should digital marketers do who don’t want their interactive campaigns ignored? Consider what we’ve seen with video and the interactive equivalent to the rise of branded content. Just like you’re seeing Red Bull create content people WANT to watch and share, imagine what your brand could do if you created branded interactive products that consumers WANTED to engage with and share?
Over the years, our team has become an industry leader in machine learning, artificial intelligence, automotive interfaces, simplified user experiences, and custom software. We believe Wildebeest is very well positioned in a world where consumers and brands alike want more substantial innovative, thoughtful, and scalable products instead of one-and-done campaigns.
Is Wildebeest open for investors, partnerships, or job opportunities? What are the benefits involved?
We’re always on the lookout for fascinating projects with creative brands. We also team up with other agencies from time to time when they’re in need of the skills we provide. However, because we’re a hands-on agency, we don’t outsource our projects to other teams.
For more information, visit the website: Wildebee.st