Magnani President Justin Daab Talks About the Digital Industry

Magnani President, Justin Daab, shifts the emphasis of how/where they practiced their craft—from empowering brands to exert greater market influence to helping brands better empower their customers.

Chicago-based Magnani’s President, Justin Daab, answered our questions on his thoughts about the digital industry.

Q1: You’ve been working at Magnani since 1993. How has the industry and agency evolved since you started?

Short answer: Everything has changed. It continues to change. And that change is accelerating.

Longer answer: The power of the digital landscape we have access to today would have seemed the equivalent to flying cars and time travel to my mid-1990s self. For perspective, at the time, we were also convinced the Motorola StarTAC was undeniably futuristic and Robert Downey Jr.’s career was over.

Even as these incredible technologies kept emerging and changing, it was still pretty clear that the foundations of human nature remained intact. As such, in everything we were seeing, the connecting threads among the most successful technologies tied to some common themes: access, control and personalization.

As these trends progressed, we found that to best help our clients grow, we had to shift the emphasis of how/where we practised our craft—from empowering brands to exert greater market influence (advertising, collateral, graphic design, etc) to help brands better empower their customers (design thinking, product innovation, customer journey mapping, CX, UX, service design, etc.).

Q2: Which challenges were the hardest? How did you overcome them?

I think the hardest challenges any creative agencies face today (including ours) is that traditional marketing is evolving to be a purely data-driven discipline. I just read an article about JP Morgan Chase turning over the creative reigns of its direct response marketing to an AI tech firm that uses machine learning to generate and optimize all of its messaging and digital display advertising. And all signs show that partnership is delivering substantial improvements in click-through rates and conversions. It’s tough to argue with success.

As I mentioned earlier, our response has been to double down on helping our clients better understand the customer narrative outside of that single moment of exposure to a single ad and solve more complex business challenges surrounding the customer journey. Machine learning, as of now, is really great at optimizing single points of the journey—generating a headline that inspires the next click—but it’s not great at empathizing with people to understand if there is a greater competitive opportunity in re-imagining the customer journey/UX/product/service model in its entirety.


Q3: Could you tell us about a typical working day as the President of the agency?

I wake up at 4 a.m. every weekday, and most days, hop on a Divvy by 4:30 and ride into the office. The first part of the morning, from 5 am to about 6:30, is my time to think and create. That might mean composing (I have a pretty decent personal studio set up at the office), editing the latest podcast episode, writing content, editing the latest draft of my book (“Innovate. Activate. Accelerate.” coming soon!) or building or customizing a guitar.

From about 6:30 until people start coming in, I am dealing with emails, and engaging in a few hours of uninterrupted deep work. Because I have taken time to concentrate and centre early, by the time people get into the office, I can be more available to focus and problem solve.

The remainder of the day, my job is as much, or more, to work on the business itself as it is to work in the business. That, of course, means meeting new potential clients and learning about their challenges, as well as overseeing all of the management processes that ensure the trains run on time, so to speak, and people are feeling like they have what they need to make themselves and our clients more successful.

But I still think it’s important, that besides business development and day-to-day management, I still do some actual client work myself. Whether that occasionally writing copy, crafting a persona narrative or participating in an ideation session for an innovation project. I am, at my core, a maker.

Q4: What are some useful digital marketing tools that help you and your team accomplish your everyday goals?

There are too many to list. We use Slack for real-time interactions between employees. We use Google Docs, Sheets, Slides etc. for basic document collaboration. We are currently in the process of evaluating and switching project management platforms, so I won’t endorse any specific tool in this category. And of course, the full Adobe creative suite. It’s amazing how they keep expanding the toolset.

But I want to point out, some of the most powerful tools we use aren’t digital. Some days, it feels like we run the strategy, design thinking and UX practices almost entirely on a system of post-it notes, whiteboards and caffeine.

Q5: What would you say will be the next big trend in the UI and UX design in the upcoming years?

 Well, at the risk of succumbing to the cliché that the best way to be wrong is to try and predict the future, I am going to look out more than a couple of years and say I think the biggest long-term impacts on the profession will fall under three basic categories: AR/xR, voice UI, and what I’ll call NoUI.

AR/xR (Augmented reality and extended reality) really are a perfect solution waiting for the technology to come of age. Right now, the technology is at the 19’ colour TV stage compared to the inevitable 75” 4K future state. Where today, we deliver personalized experiences on smartphone screens, with advanced AR/xR we will be able to personalize how people experience the physical world.

Voice UI is definitely more near-term. But the challenges for marketers to create a differentiated experience are actually more acute. What we experience currently is something akin to a choose your own adventure book. Limited decision trees and stock responses. But as we see more complex AI and machine learning backend solutions, designers should be able to craft something far more variable and engaging. And until we get that, voice-driven UI will remain somewhat niche.

I just made up the term NoUI. But extending from the Voice AI point made above, I think, we will see an increase in the use of APIs and service layers, powered by AI as a means for companies to connect with the market. The customer’s interface, whether it’s voice, visual, haptic, etc. will reach out to grab whatever data it needs from the provider, repackage that data to suit whatever the user’s personal UI of choice might be. But the presentation of that information will be determined by the client side of the equation, no UI, per se, being developed or presented by the provider of that data or transaction.



 Q6: You have been leading the development of B2B & B2C brand/marketing strategies, digital experiences and branding platforms for a variety of companies such as Marriott and Siemens. How do you ensure that your agency is appealing to so many brands and industries? 

Different industries may have their individual intricacies and idiosyncrasies, but getting to understand and find opportunities for that industry follows a common process.

Q7: We’ve discovered that you own an independent company named DaabApps, which is focused on music education apps for kids. Can you tell us a bit more about your musical side? 

“Owned” is more correct.  DaabApps was a hobby business of mine for a while. I have always enjoyed coding and when the iPad was introduced, I was fascinated by it. I designed and developed iOS apps that mimicked physical musical instruments, hoping anyone (my two daughters specifically) could pick them up and intuitively make music and, hopefully, learn some basic music theory along the way. I made guitar apps, a basic synthesizer, a number of drum and percussion instruments, even a simple primary-coloured xylophone for toddlers. It was fun. I did all of the UX and UI design, and illustration myself, as well as the Objective-C code. But the paid app market is pretty lean these days, and I decided constantly keeping the code of my dozen or so apps up to date became more burdensome than profitable or fun. So, that hobby business has ended.

Q8: Do you have any advice for those starting a career in digital marketing?

Keep an open mind. Measure everything. Learn to love data. Embrace constant change as an opportunity, not a threat. If you’re passionate, and always keep your clients’ interests at the forefront of what you’re trying to accomplish, the rest will work itself out.

Q9: How does being a DAN member contribute to Magnani’s success?

DAN is one of the top the referring sites to This helps to spread the word about our firm and grow our business.

About Magnani
Magnani is an experienced design and strategy firm. Crafting digital experiences and brands people love at the intersection of human-centered design and business strategy.

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