Thank Gregg and New Denver ad club for invitation to talk. Really happy to be hear. Judged Denver50 this year so know the quality and diversity of work coming from here and it’s great to be finally able to visit. Also, I guess being somewhere in the middle of the country tonight is a fitting place for me as I’m currently between jobs and coasts. Spent last 6 years at M! in Boston as head of planning, introducing and building planning into the agency. On Monday, I begin a new chapter in my career as director of digital strategy at GSP. I’m going to talk for the next 45 minutes to an hour about the stuff that’s on my mind at the moment. I guess it’s an evolution of my usual shtick, one that I think I’ll retire after tonight. But hopefully it’s got some provocative quality as I want to spark some debate, and better still some action, afterwards
So this is the big thing that keeps me up at night Our belief that we understand what makes a great idea. A big part of the reason I’m moving from being a head of planning to be director of digital strategy at GSP is that my interest in digital over the last few years has led me to observe and think about the transformative impact digital is having on culture, and to a lesser degree business. And how little impact it really has had on the business we are all in whether an ad agency, web shop, media company, design shop - commercial creativity - the way we think about stuff and the stuff we make. We are truly pretty poor at walking our talk about innovation and progress. I’m going to talk a bit about the reality we operate in at the moment, why I believe that exists and what we can do to overcome it. Along the way I’ll show some work, some advertising, some not. And given I’m between jobs and I’m feeling a little homesick missing the Ashes at the moment a lot of these will come from the UK. Hopefully, there’ll also be a bit more likely to be new to you
So why do I believe we need to have some new ideas about the stuff we make? Well, as I’m a planner at an ad agency let’s start with some backyard introspection All the evidence suggests that, more often than not, advertising isn’t working.
This is some data over time from the UK and a nationwide survey called TGI, the UK equivalent of MRI or SImmons Now it used to be the case that nearly 1 in 3 people enjoyed ads as much as the TV programs. Not great but not bad. That has now dropped to 1 in 5. So at a very simple less people enjoy what we make.
Now, the cynical may have used to have been able to argue that enjoyment doesn’t matter. We can buy attention and force effectiveness. Clearly this isn’t the case now in the age of the DVR, a piece of technology in 1 in 3 US homes
And let’s face it this is not a new challenge. The on/off button has existed for a long time as have other distractions. This is a house ad from the British agency Howell Henry from the late 80s. The truth is the content we make isn’t culturally competitive anymore.
So, couple this inability to buy attention on TV with the explosion of media channels and we are in a difficult place. This chart shows the explosion of media channels from the 1700s to present day. Cultural consumption, and with it media consumption, has fragmented dramatically. It used to be the case that in the 1960s you could reach over 80% of the audience by running one spot on the three TV networks, CBS NBC and ABC. Nowadays you would have to run it on over 100 networks.
I think our biggest problem was our reaction. Rather than trying to make more compelling, culturally relevant content - and that starts with better products - we simply tried to interrupt more people in more places.
This, unsurprisingly, has led to a backlash
This end result of this lack of cultural and human savviness is probably best captured in this cartoon by Hugh Macleod
That’s just advertising, one tool at the disposal of business. But the same issue is true across all marketing
Only 4% of brands saw market share increase by 6%+ in a six year period - South Bank University
So, what’s the problem. I think it’s a fairly simple one, one that we as humans have a habit of repeating. We’re using a bad map, one based on assumptions and past realities, and one that does a pretty lousy job at the describing the landscape we are trying to navigate of contemporary culture. It’s a little like we’re trying to travel round the globe using a map of a flat earth I want to examine three big assumptions that lie at the heart of the way we think and do that I believe are totally culturally irrelevant today
The first is our obsession with the big idea. And by this I mean our usual use of the phrase as the big advertising executional idea rather than a rich and generous strategic idea.
As an industry we tend to celebrate spectacle. Now clearly spectacle has been for a long time an intrinsic part of human culture as David Rockwell’s book quite brilliantly shows. It also has the added benefit, real or imaginary, of making their creator famous
Look at the work that we tend to celebrate in awards show, be it in film, print, or even more scarily, digital, and most is all based on the creation of spectacle. Now spectacle has it’s place for some tasks but we seem to use it as our default end goal. And this feels increasingly out of place in a culture that is more about intimacy, incremental change and invisibility.
When we think about the stuff we as everyday people really appreciate often it’s brilliant because it’s intent is invisible be it product design, UI design or marketing. It’s a bit like going out for a meal - the best service is the service you don’t notice.
So, as an industry I think we need as the comic writer Warren Ellis put it in Wired last month
We need to create and celebrate more work like Bakertweet. Explain it. Talk about poke philosophy small simple smart and social
We need to embrace that little ideas today become big, and big strategic ideas need to become little
Hand in hand with the big idea comes the belief of keep it simple stupid. We have briefs that talk about the single idea, research methodologies based around the single most compelling idea people take away all of which makes the stuff we produce culturally thin. Russell Davies I think expressed this best when he said nobody comes out of a movie saying that was a really good film. I really enjoyed it. It was really clear. Yet that is exactly how we still tend to evaluate ideas. Not is it interesting, but is it clear. I think clarity is overrated.
Steven Johnson wrote a great book called ‘Everything XXXX In it he shows how culture has become richer, more nuanced and has more depth. Here’s a diagram showing the evolution of storylines in the archetypal crime programs of the last 50 years. That stuff is really complex and nuanced now, yet, more often than not, we keep making Dragnet
The second big thing we need to break is our belief that it’s what we do that matters. It isn’t. It’s what people do with and to what you do that matters. Think about the language we use - all this military stuff of campaigns, targets. It’s all about what we do to people.
This is really evident when it comes to our approach, more often than not, to technology. We get obsessed by the thing, the technology, not what people do with it. That’s what is important. Talk through quotes and add other Clay Shirky thought - these tools don’t become socially interesting until they get technically boring
What’s interesting about Nike+ isn’t the technology that lets your shoe talk to your iPod. What’s interesting is
Most of the stuff we make in the app space - be it on the iPhone, other devices or the internet - forgets this. We obsess and get excited about the thing or the clever technology, not what the behavior is around the thing, what it is making people do. We get blinded by the new and as a result fall victim to Amara‘s law - we invariably overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies while underestimating their long-term effects”.
Thank the lord for stuff like Whopper Sacrifice, an idea born just down the road. Yes, it’s technologically clever (in fact, too clever for Mark Zuckerberg) but it’s genius is it is born from an understanding of how people use and behave around Facebook
This isn’t just a problem in the digital channel. It’s a problem when we make anything even film, still what I believe is a very powerful weapon of communication. We are now using the wrong reference points. We reference movies but we rarely reference video games. Yet more people play video games than go to movies. 2 out of 3 have played a game in last 6 months vs 1 in 2 going to movies
We’re designing for the pre-digital era making self-contained product
The truth is, again, it’s not the technology that’s important it is the underlying cultural behavior. The behavior of participation.
As an industry we haven’t made very many participatory ideas. They are more likely to come from people with a video game background or the music industry. Or in the case of Nine Inch Nail’s Year Zero both. T shirts, mysterious usbs in gig toilets, about a hundred websites, even the CD itself. all part of a massive game and experience
Now leaving in blanks and participation is something we should think about when we do film. Phillips carousel hot buttons, etc as an interactive ad
Also something grasped by Sony with their follow up to Balls They involved people in the process by getting them to the shoot and they uploaded photos and spread the word. The content was interesting enough for it to spread through the network of blogs, and interesting enough for people to remix and post on youtube. It’s an example of a TV ad or piece of film that is as much about slipiness as it is stickiness
Finally, I think we have got our grammar wrong
We live in two worlds, one of ‘social exchanges’ and one of ‘market exchanges’ Historically, we’ve focused on introducing commercial grammar into social world (rather awkward, like offering your friend’s mum $10 for cooking you dinner). The desires of commerce and desires of the social world are an inherent paradox
And that’s why I hate the term social media. Not just because arguably outdoor is the original social media, but because it implies a channel rather than content issue. It implies we can act like companies normally do when nothing could be further from the truth. To be successful, and accepted by culture, we need to think first and foremost about the ideas and the stuff we create. That the content itself is inherently social.
And that sociability I believe leads to a very different type of idea.
I want to talk a bit about my favorite brand in the world howies. They make clothing and stuff, primarily for people who cycle or do lots of stuff outdoors. They’re based in Cardigan Bay in Wales and, co-incidentally, were founded by two disgruntled advertising people Dave and Claire Hieatt. They’ve grown dramatically and they plan to launch in the US imminently. But they’re not in business to make clothing or turn a profit, first and foremost. They have a social mission at their heart.
This is their catalogue showing off some of their sloganeering T shirts
Spread on philosophy
This is their first retail store that they opened in Carnaby Street, one of London’s fashion meccas. Interestingly only 45% of space has stuff for sale; more than half is there to help people think about the world around them. From a tap to refil water bottles to an honor library.
Even goes as far as shop window. Bizarre bylaw story
Another example of this social mission is the new Levi’s work from Wieden. It’s got a bigger point of view than its category but it’s tied authentically to the root of the brand
Second thing important thing, and this sounds incredibly obvious but it’s far too often, is to work back from what people are interested in and how you can add value rather than try and push your agenda down the throat of an uninterested public
A great example is Fallon London’s work for Cadbury Dairy Milk. A candy bar. Advertised by a gorilla playing drums. Great story in planners overthink sometimes but a great case in understanding what people want and you can offer.
A couple more examples from Fallon for the Tate Gallery. Attacks cliches of art gallery and museum advertising by working back from how a non-art expert might be in the gallery and what they are experiencing
How do you get young people to visit an art gallery? Align yourself with music. Note - a marketing idea that blurs the line between product and communication.
I think we are in the midst of an evolutionary battle, a battle between the peacock, a bird that attracts mates through the spectacle of its plumage
and the bowerbird, a bird that attracts mates by doing stuff. Building a bower to attract mates. I think the bowerbird’s time has come in the world of communications. It’s about what you do, far more than what you say or how you look
And this means the notion of the idea has to change from an advertising idea, to an idea than can be advertised.
Hyundai Assurance is a great example of this
As is Nike Ballers network
This is a great digital example of a brand that did something to make a fairly boring promotion - unlimited text messages - interesting. certainly a lot more engaging than a bunch of banner ads
And this is something we did at the start of the year at M! for the CTS-V 100k performance sedan Only sell a 1000, usually do it ridiculously through a TV sport arguing its a halo for a brand
Get people to eat more healthily in UK. Real problem is people think it’s tough to cook so do a member get member thing.
This means thinking about what ideas beyond advertising we can have. It’s about commercial creativity. Why didn’t a financial services company think of mint?
Name another industry where 90% of cost is distribution As RD points out the internet is bringing the cost of failure close to zero
“In most categories a brand’s market share is stationary”
4 out of 5 categories seen as increasingly homogeneous
Less than 1 in 10 ads seen as different
4% response rate successful in DM; 0.5% average click-thru rate for banners
3x $ spent on price cutting as on ‘brand building’ in packaged goods
Sources: Andrew Ehrenberg; Copernicus Consulting; McKinsey
I think we’re using the wrong map; a map that does a poor job at describing the reality of contemporary culture the wrong map; a map that does a poor job at describing the reality of contemporary culture
We celebrate ‘big‘ messages rather than rich or generous ideas
We celebrate ‘big‘ messages rather than rich or generous ideas We are obsessed by what things do, not what people do with them
Text “ Our focus should not be on emerging technologies but emerging cultural practices” “ A revolution doesn't happen when a society adopts new tools. it happens when society adopts new behaviors”
Our frame of cultural reference is movies. Yet more Americans played a video game in the last six months than went to the movies. Yet more Americans played a video game in the last six months than went to the movies. Yet more Americans played a video game in the last six months than went to the movies.
As agencies we are very good at producing finite, complete products. We’re not very good at creating an open process and designing for gaps. We’re not very good at creating an open process and designing for gaps. We’re not very good at creating an open process and designing for gaps.
It’s not digital that’s important. It’s participation. It’s participation. It’s participation.
“ Like any company we require a profit to stay in business. But it is not the reason we are in business. The thing that has not changed from day one is the desire to make people think about the world we live in. This is, and always will be, why we are in business.”
Have a point of view on the world, not a position in the category.
Understand what people are interested in and work back from there.
Great ideas today are different.
“ Nobody reads advertising. People read what they want to read and sometimes it's an ad .” Howard Gossage “ Often our biggest mistake as managers is believing that, in general, customers care a lot about your brand. They do not.” Patrick Barwise
Not sure a gorilla playing a Phil Collins drum solo wins us the Dairy Milk account A text message from Laurence Green to Richard Flintham
5 million views in 8 weeks Sales up 7%, 30% greater than industry average
Coherency not consistency. Source: John Grant, ‘The Brand Innovation Manifesto’ Provide an uplifting experience that enriches people’s lives language, eg ‘skinny’ specials eg frappucino habits formation range and options ordering system starbucks company barista culture ‘ my sister’ book africa 05 social responsibility used grounds for gardeners fair trade coffee cause publicity in store sofas and ambience hearmusic Xm burn your own cd music cd in store performance and art book reading starbucks salon akelah and the bee
It’s about understanding distributed identity. Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Google Search Google 411 Google Docs Google labs Google Shopping Google Scholar Google Books Google Maps Google sketch Google.Org Fossil fuel Challenge Youtube Chrome Browser Blogspot
High frequency. Low value. Semi-unpredictable rewards.
The only big idea today is not to forget the little ones along the way.