Friday, May 13, 2011

Death to Digital Strategy, long live Creative Planning

When I hear advertising people call themselves as "digital natives" or "digital/analogue hybrids", it makes me throw up in my mouth a bit. It represents a douchy and belittling attempt to create a new breed of ad men. The reason it annoys me is that the term assumes that the only thing that we need to change is the people, not the tasks. As if by magic, if you happen to have a "digital native" as a account planner or copy-writer, you're stuff is instantly relevant and better.

I don't believe this is true.

It is more important to define new tasks than new skills in an integrated analogue / digital world. I'd rather have mediocre people fulfilling smart tasks, than smart people fulfilling mediocre tasks.

When it comes to my own role, I think "Digital Strategist" sounds cheesy as it only looks at one aspect of any brand problem. Personally I like "Creative Planning" as a modern descriptor for the integrated discipline better. It nods to the roots of planning but elevates it into a creative endeavor. Planning is all about possibilities, and in the digital universe possibilities are virtually endless. There are a million different ways you could do something, but it's the creative part that helps you pick the right one. Creativity is all about taste and understanding of nuances.

Let me give you an example:

You are looking for a place to host videos for your campaign somewhere. Let's say you could use Vimeo or YouTube, in your campaign and you weigh in all of the relevant factors to choose one or the other. Perhaps YouTube would get more organic traffic, but for your campaign Vimeo could perhaps produce a better brand fit and therefore higher quality traffic. It comes down to having the relevant information to make an informed creative decision. One of the decisions would undoubtably yield better business results, but which one? Stereotypically a digital strategist would pick the one with higher traffic and a brand planner would pick the one that is a closer match with the brand manifesto.

So what does one need to make a choice of this nature? What makes a Creative Planner?

1. You need to understand the architecture of your campaign: The design and blueprint of your campaign that links all your media, not only digital, as a coherent ecosystem. This helps answer questions like "What are you trying to do?", "How many visits will you get?" and "What do you want them to do there?" 

2. You need to understand the nature of the channels themselves: You need to be educated enough on the technical capabilities, user behavior and best case examples of each channel. You need to know the in's-and-outs of the YouTubes, Facebooks, blogging platforms and what-not. Even a little experience in coding helps here. Also experience with terms of services and other battle-scars are valuable.

3. You need to understand research: Being comfortable digesting quantitative and qualitative information is a must. You need to understand the human behaviors and motivations of the people your trying to affect. Numbers are one thing, but the hard thing is to get a real read on an insight. I think this is rarer than most marketers would like to believe. 

4. You need to get the brand: It's tough to describe a brand in a way that would truly capture it's essence. Most brands know what they think they want to be, not what they really are or aught to be. Talking to executives, customers and suppliers - and finding a lens to evaluate all that your doing is imperative. 

5. You need to be able to help the creatives: Let's face it. Most creative directors are big babys. Working with them in a cooperative fashion, in tandem, within the creative process is crucial. The old sequential way of working is not only suboptimal and slow, but it results if crappier work. After all, you are designing a brand ecosystem, not a singleminded brand "carwash" where eyeballs come in one end and happy customers come out the other. A small shift in the way people interact with the brand or the creative idea can make it blow up in a massive way and constitute significant changes in an other part of the campaign. The creatives will just have to get used to you hovering around, inspiring them, pitching in suggestions and keeping an eye on the big picture.

If you can perform those afore mentioned tasks, I'm sure you can strategize the hell out of any modern brand challenge. And yes, I know its hard to find one individual that embodies all those qualities. Maybe the baby step forward is planning teams or couples that compliment each other. But my point is: define the right task and the people will grow into it.

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To summarize in a tweet:

Creative planner = Campaign architect + brand champion + technical savvy + scientific mind + creative collaborator

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Consumer Centric Advertising Brief

Most advertising briefs are brand centric. They aim to solve brands problems. One could argue that that's what they are supposed to do, but that's like saying the only function of a movie script is to make money. I think in order to find great disruptive ideas your briefs have to be written from the point of view of the consumer. Brands have often been said to be tone-deaf and rude shouters that don't really care what you think, just as long as they get to deliver their message. That's probably not a symptom of bad creative. It's just a bad brief.

But before we jump to the cure, lets look at the illness.

I’m proud to say that I’m a part of a continuum of pioneers of planning and the strategy discipline in advertising here at TBWA\Chiat\Day, as this was the essentially the birthplace of the "American flavor” of Account Planning. But I can't help but to feel that there is something stale in the way we implement strategy nowadays. Jay Chiat himself was of the opinion that planning was an endeavor of finding new things, not regurgitating the old. I concur. It's time to come up with something new.

One of my favorite presentations on "modern" planning is “The brief in the post digital age” by Gareth Kay, Director of Brand Strategy at formerly Ogilvy, nowadays at Goodby. Although two years old, this presentation still puts most briefs to shame. Kay has some very sharp observations and frames the problems perfectly. I would've loved to hear him present it. His presentation shows that the primary weapon of the planner – the creative brief – has not evolved at all during the past twenty odd years. It’s outdated. Broken.

Or is it?

Conculsions from Kay's presentation, a bit mushy in my view
The thing is, that if briefs were totally broken, we would’ve fixed them already. They kinda still work. Most of the great work in advertising is most likely created from fairly traditional briefs. If it ain’t broken, why fix it? The thing I least like about Kay’s presentation is the ending. His proposal for a “post digital” brief just isn’t sharp enough. He does a tremendous job gathering all the right ingredients, but the souffle doesn't rise. If I’ve learned anything about working with people with "creative" on their business card, it is that they need restraints to be great. Blue-sky-do-whatever –briefs are the worst. Most traditional briefs offer a tight sandbox, but the assignment is is always a message. Most new briefing formulas are too vague for my taste as the outputs and constraints are very fluffy.

If we seriously want to create a better brief, we need to find out what has changed. The easiest thing to point to would be technology, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Technology supercharged everything in marketing and made it easier to target marketing dollars, but those are measures of efficiency not a true change. The second claim I hear quite often is that “human behaviors” have changed. Sure, they’ve been modified somewhat, but we are still homo sapiens, driven by the same urges and wants as we were before Twitter. We are genetically cavemen. Social Media is not the answer either; Word-of-mouth, or conversations, existed before the “like”-button, it just wasn’t as efficient, measurable or accessible for marketers.

Touch-points of a modern vs. pre-digital camapaign
In my view the thing that has changed is the number of dimensions in a marketing ecosystem. The marketing environment of the television era was fairly one dimensional. It starts with a view and ends in the store. But marketers can't count on TV being the first touch-point. Consumers have multiple other ways of coming across your brand - from search to social.

Becoming a customer does not require opening any doors or footwork; it requires nothing more than a thought. Brands have naturally intuitively understood this. They’ve started to design ecosystems, which link nicely together. It shouldn’t matter what your vector into a brand is, you should always feel welcome. Search, a banner or a sample at the local super-market. The best brands understand what it is you’re after. They get you. And more and more this happens after they have your money – the ecosystem is their product offering. The easiest, albeit most worn-out, example is Nike+. It’s not running shoes. It’s the experience of owning running shoes.

With the risk of drifting off-topic, I want to also mention that the role of “social media” has been over-emphasized in my opinion in many current marketing briefs. Conversations should be at the heart of very few brands. I’m sorry, but even if I like Oreos, but I really don’t want to talk about it. Even less am I interested in seeing other people’s conversations about "their dunking habits". Social media is a great place to find the audience, but it shouldn’t mean you pester them. (More on my thought about social media can be found in my post about the ROI of likes).

Let’s get back on track. What is the best possible creative brief?

Firstly lets examine what makes the current standard brief work, so we know what to keep:
  • It’s short, usually fits on a page. If it doesn’t, cockpunch your planning director and tell him to try again.
  • It’s trying to be based on human truths. This is the toughest nut to crack. Finding one thing that is always true to be your true north. That’s why the directors get the big bucks. 
  • It’s single minded. The benefit is the thing to communicate. Does the campaign do it? Yes, success. No, failure. 
  • It specifies the business problem
  • It describes the brands attributes or characteristics
In essence; it’s tight. There’s no way you could write an off-brief print ad, if you have even a mediocre planner helping you. Where it breaks down is when you try to force the same dimension on the whole marketing ecosystem. This brief format is focused on the dimension of telling. It assumes you have the undivided attention of the consumer. As media gets more and more fragmented, this is becoming a fringe case. Getting someone’s total attention is a rare luxury. Briefs should include other dimensions as well.

My new multi-dimensional brief tries to incorporate what it good about the good old Bill Berbach –style, laser focused briefs, and applies it to a world where information and opinions move at the speed of light (or at least the speed of AT&T). Notice the emphasis on the consumer, not the brand. This doesn't mean you don't need to do your homework on defining the brand, by this point you should've actually already have done it. Also, do yourself, the client and the customer a favor: use simple language. Don't use douchy consultant terms. The focus is on the using your imagination to create great stories.

A consumer centric briefing template:
  1. Let's get introduced: Brand meet consumer, consumer meet brand. Describe the characteristics of both as they were individuals. Force yourself to humanize both, the less mushy the definitions are, the sharper the focus.
  2. What's your problem?: What is the brand trying to do? What problem are you solving? Sales? Love? Both? Be specific. For example, “awareness” is not a goal, it’s a measure. What problem does the brand solve in the consumers life; again be very literal.
  3. It said to me: What's your brands: "OH REALLY?" -message? What do you tell the consumer, irrespective of the channel when you have her whole undivided attention? No bullet points, please. You have to be able to say it in a sentence.
  4. This is what I told a friend about it: When the consumer walks away, what is the thing she can’t wait to tell her best friend? And why would she tell anyone?
  5. When I looked for something like it: What is the selection process of a brand in your category like? Think Google, think retail, think flea market. Whatever works. How could you revolutionize the brand here? Bringing classical CD’s to Victoria’s Secret made sales explode. 
  6. That looks interesting: What are the brands peacock feathers it uses to lure people to come closer? Think fifty yards or a banner ad. Why would I care? 
  7. I heard them talking: It’s rude to eavesdrop, but what if the consumer heard you talking to an existing or prospect buyer… what would she hear? 
  8. It said to us: Social media is not really a conversation… it’s more like standing on a soap box on a crowded market. What did your brand tell the crowd? What stops our consumer on her tracks and makes her care?
  9. I want it now: What if it's It’s 4AM on a Sunday morning and the consumer wants to buy your brand right now. What if your consumer is at the mall on a Tuesday night? What is the shopping experience like? What else can you do for them than just sell them your product? They have their wallet out… it’s the best time to find something else they like also.
  10. I just bought it: Then what? What’s the first thing the consumer gets after purchase? What about tomorrow? What about next week? 
  11. I love owning it because: Imagine talking to our lovely consumer six months after purchase. What makes her use and love the product every day? For her running shoes it could be Nike+. What is the Nike+ of Shampoo? What is the Nike+ of accounting software? What is the Nike+ of a whiskey? 
  12. I’m getting a new one: After years of use the product is finally worn out and breaks. Describe how easy it is for our consumer to get a new one. 
The first creative output of this type of brief is a bunch of stories. Love stories - between the consumer and the brand. And the way to get there is through interaction between planners, creatives, account people... hell, sometimes the finance guy could crack it. But the whole point is that the creatives should be able to tell you and (the client) all the funny, wonderful, interesting things that happen in the life of our consumer and how she found this amazing brand - and how they both thrive because of it.

Things like technology choices, media budgets, timelines, legal approvals and what-not are easier to accomplish when everyone around the table falls in love with vision, the ideal ecosystem, for a brand. Yes, you will have to comp up the print ads, write the tv-script and code the website at some point, but that’s craftsmanship – you should know how to do that, now that you know what you’re doing.

At the end of the day, it’s not about digital. It’s not only social. It’s not about being integrated or matching luggage either. It’s just about being relevant.