The Productive Disruptor’s Playbook for Digital Transformation

Todd Unger has led digital-change initiatives at AOL, Time Inc. and the Daily Racing Form. Now he’s taking that expertise to the American Medical Association. Here’s the approach that’s become his playbook for igniting digital transformation in any organization.

by Guerrero Howe

One of the most pressing challenges for companies today is that customers aren’t just comparing them to others in their industry; the bar is set by digital goliaths like Amazon, Apple, and Google. These companies operate as platforms: they have harnessed the power of digital technology to create a cohesive ecosystem for their consumers across touchpoints. Their rise is in part why Todd Unger calls our current era the Age of Experience. “When a customer picks up your app, uses your site, or interacts with your customer service, you’re being compared to the best in the business,” Unger says. “Expectations have risen dramatically.”

Todd Unger, Chief Experience Officer and Senior VP of Physician Engagement of the American Medical Association. Photo: Caleb Fox.

Unger is the chief experience officer and senior vice president of physician engagement for the American Medical Association (AMA), but unofficially, he considers himself a “productive disruptor,” a term coined by Russell Reynolds to encompass the rise of a new crop of digital executives “who transform companies not simply be generating bold strategies but also be engaging people in the hard work of transformation.”

The need of digital transformation is widely understood, but when it comes to enacting such change, there’s still a capability gap in many companies—which is why they’re turning to digital leaders like Unger to help make it happen. These leaders work at the nexus of several disciplines: technology, marketing, content, design, analytics, product development, and customer service. And most important, they have to craft a vision then get to work making it a reality. “We’re down to brass tacks now,” Unger says. “We’ve got enough experience in the digital space that people need to come in, look at the potential of a platform, and actually get some stuff done.”

Which begs the questions, where does one begin? Unger recently shared his thoughts on the matter and revealed a step-by-step approach to bringing digital transformation forward at a company. Consider this the The Productive Disruptor’s Digital Playbook:

Step 1: Create and Sell Your Vision Fast

There’s often a grace period when a leader joins a new company—ninety days to go on a listening tour and feel the place out—but a productive disruptor has no such luxury. “If the Age of Experience is short on anything, it’s time and patience,” Unger says.

Organizations now expect speed and movement, and the first task is to deliver on this with a vision of what’s possible. “The vision is iterative, just like digital is iterative,” Unger says. “You do need to get in there and learn very quickly about how the organization works, what makes it tick, what are the metrics, and how you can make a difference for both customers and internal stakeholders.”

When Unger joined the AMA, he gave his first presentation to senior leadership within two weeks, sharing his initial impressions of what was and wasn’t working. A lot of his efforts centered around education—helping create a shared language and understanding of things like the marketing funnel, packaging content, and the need to create programs, not products. By month six, Unger scaled this learning tour to the entire organization. He hosted a digital summit with key leaders and brought in digital pioneers and thought leaders to help contextualize the pace and change needed.

But even as a productive disruptor’s vision gains traction throughout an organization, Unger acknowledges that you need quick wins to demonstrate success and momentum. For example. Unger identified a huge opportunity around email marketing in his first week at the AMA, and his team reduced the time to get an email approved and sent from more than a month to less than a day. Quick wins like that both illustrate what’s possible for the immediate team and provide the vision with a foundation of success.

Step 2: Bring Fellow Productive Disruptors Together

Unger’s second step in approaching a digital transformation is to find those people who are ready and excited to jump in and try something new—whether or not they have extensive digital chops. Unger often finds these fellow productive disruptors in those individuals who have a passion for the organization but feel held down and dissatisfied with the status quo.

Andy Matkovich is one such individual. When Unger first met his team at the AMA, prior to officially starting, Matkovich stayed after and was full of questions. Unger knew he had found a fellow productive disruptor. But in Unger’s first week, Matkovich let him know he had been looking for new positions and was ready to accept another job. “even though it was my first week at the AMA, I knew I had to retain this bright bulb,” says Unger of Matkovich, who now leads UX for the organization. “And I was able to do that, one by one, with all the other members of the team.”

Another element of this step is to organize the team around the workflow. In many organizations, the players that make up a digital team live in separate departments: IT, marketing, operations, etc. But to move fast, Unger advocates for bringing these disciplines together.

When he arrived at the AMA, key staff were siloed in various departments. One of Unger’s first moves was to pull these individuals together to form a digital publishing team.

Within three months of his arrival at the AMA, Unger pulled together several members of IT, marketing, and U/X together to spin up a digital publishing team. Previously, these team members had been based in various departments of the AMA—and their ability to quickly experiment was hindered by this organizational structure. By coming together, the team was able to quickly define a cohesive mission, metrics, and strategy to move forward. The team has since been able to scale Unger’s education strategy and, conversely, start driving the mission of other groups within the organization.

Step 3: Know the Customer

The rise of the Silicon Valley tech elite marks a larger shift in companies slowly adopting a customer-focused approach and product mind-set. Despite this, knowing the customer is not traditionally the strength of digital organizations, Unger says, nor is it an inherent strength for many individuals.

Unger learned the importance of this lesson early on his career, through a project at Leo Burnett that featured, of all things, bags—sandwich bags, food storage bags, and freezer bags. His client thought about each product as a solution for an independent market. For example, freezer bags did well in the Northeast because they needed to keep things through the winter, but that didn’t feel right to Unger. Instead, he looked at where the customers for each type of bags overlapped. “It turned out, that when you looked at the people in the middle—what we called the ‘Multi-bag’ user—that the classic 80/20 rule emerged: 80 percent of the bags were used by 20 percent of the customers,” he says. “They were very different than everyone else—they were into food, they were reading magazines like Martha Stewart Living, and they were cooking a lot. All of a sudden we had this epiphany that we’d been targeting these people all wrong.”

Knowing the customer is all about attempting to get to this epiphany, and for Unger, a pivotal segmentation exercise has been the key to takeoff throughout his career. “Segmentation is now driven behaviorally—because we have the ability to measure activity—or attitudinally, with the goal of predicting future behaviors,” he says.

Step 4: Share the Goal Through Shared Metrics

At the end of the day, a digital transformation is a means to an end, helping drive an outcome for the organization at large. One of a productive disruptor’s primary directives is to help the organization clarify what these are and build the digital structure to support them. “Metrics are different for every organization,” Unger says. “You better know what you’re after because those are your North Star.”

It’s important to note that these metrics aren’t just for the digital team, but for the organization at large. A common hazard for a digital operation is to measure thousands of things—but to lead a digital transformation, Unger strives to tether the digital team’s work using the shared metrics as a driving compass.

A pair of metrics serve as the AMA’s True North: mission and members.

Step 5: Remember, the Product isn’t Everything

The myth of digital innovation is that its product centric—a few techies tinkering in a garage knowing that if they build it, people will come. But the reality is that ninety-nine percent of products amount to nothing until people are aware of their existence.

Rather than think of a digital product in isolation, Unger thinks of it as part of a sandwich—all the good stuff between the bread that is a solid marketing foundation; one slice is a great value proposition, and the other is the ability to get the message out.

At the Daily Racing Form, Unger stumbled upon what he calls the twenty-minute rule—customers need twenty minutes with your product before they understand it. “But how do you get 20 minutes with someone now?” Unger asks. “That’s hard. They’re all watching Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. You have to pry them away from that, and get them interested in your product.”

“How do you get 20 minutes with someone now? They’re all watching Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. You have to pry them away from that, and get them interested in your product.”

This is where knowing the customer pays off. If people are interested in something—whether it’s food or running or mergers and acquisitions—they’re going to pay more attention to that than anyone else. A productive disruptor’s job is about figuring out how to bring those people in. “That 20 minutes doesn’t come from one session,” Unger says. “It comes from repeated exposure—getting someone to land on your webpage, getting their email address, getting them to come back and watch a video, having them interact with your product, then finally making that decision to use or buy your product.”

Like Unger’s approach to digital transformation, The Productive Disruptor’s Digital Playbook is iterative, an experiment he’s always tweaking. And though he has the mandate at the AMA to move forward organization-wide, he encourages anyone interested in digital transformation to just try it. “Find others who display an appetite for change,” he says. “If you find someone who’s eager to work with you, then partner with them right away.”