Thursday, September 23, 2010

All change please

Plan Phoenix had a little r’n’r over the summer, while I’ve been too engrossed in projects to look up long enough to reflect. Ah well. A moment of calm descends.

Every time recently when I talk to others in the marketing services industry, I’m struck by how much has changed in the last 2 years. Tighter budgets have made budget holders think deeply about what constitutes effectiveness (hallelujah!). And I see a lot of evidence of changing priorities. We shouldn’t be fooled by profit growth at WPP into thinking that “traditional” advertising is on the way back. I suspect the headline disguises a number of factors. For a start, the services delivered by the big agencies are changing, and anyway, the growth of consumer markets in Asia means there will be room for the traditional advertising industry to grow in size even as it declines in importance. (Presumably the global market in desktop computers will continue to grow for ages. Yet the future is mobile. This isn’t a contradiction, just a reflection of an expanding universe of consumers.)

Its 8 years since Al Ries published The fall of advertising and the rise of PR. It’s still a good read – though it was never compelling. One problem is that we use “advertising” to mean both creative content and interruption based executions (the TVC, for example). And while TVCs are palpably in retreat, we’ll continue to need more, and better, creative ideas. Another problem has proved to be that PR doesn’t seem to provide the structure or discipline to actually drive marketing plans. Inviting the PR agency to the top table is one thing, asking them to lead the whole programme is quite another. But anyway, I wouldn't be the first to announce the “death of advertising”. Google that and you’ll find articles dating back decades!

Of all the changes in play, two stand out to me:

1) Experience.
In a multi-channel, fragmented world, where the cacophony of offers gets ever louder, passive communications no longer cut through. The TVC is dead if it isn’t part of something richer, touchable, immersible. Ideally, that richer experience has some relevance to the brand – I’m no fan at all of sponsorships which simply plaster brand logos on things. Barclays Premiership is just a form of – probably overpriced – media buying. But at the same time, the experience won’t get far off the ground if it’s only about the product. The advertising campaign for Pantene, encouraging women to share your swish makes me laugh. But not for the right reasons. The better path is to find or create a property which bridges both the brand’s distinctive experience and the consumer’s existing interests. If you build your activity (advertising included) round that, you’re on the right track.
We used to argue about whether to brief creative first, then channel planning or the other way round. Answer? Media before creative (of course). But crucially, it was the wrong question. The real answer? Experience before media before creative. I shared a platform at a conference a while back with one of the marketing team at O2. I continue to admire their use of music as a platform. It’s a great way to reach consumers through something they care about. And they are able to create content – from downloads to ticket purchasing and VIP exclusives – tightly integrating the activity back to their product. There’s no earthly reason that I can see why most brands – even at the commoditised end of fmcg (yes, even shampoo) – can’t build relationships this rich with consumers. We just need to start from the right place in order to find the right connection.

2) Interaction.
The second thought builds on the first (because it’s difficult to interact without an experience). But this is a major adjustment in mindset for those of us trained in command and control marketing. We can no longer (could we ever?) dictate how brands are portrayed – just look at any social media website. I’ve worked with brands grappling to overcome negative associations, and it’s not easy. The answer, I think, is to relax a little. Brands exist in consumers minds. We may direct, manage and guide them but we cannot control them (the consumers that is, or the brands). We can continue to fight reality – encapsulating our message in a single-minded one-way campaign which we then inflict mercilessly on consumers, bringing in the lawyers when things get out of control (remember the MasterCard “Priceless” send-ups?). Or we can change our way of thinking – creating content with the intent that the audience manipulate it, and being prepared to go on a journey with them. It requires bravery because it involves real-time judgements and because it’s difficult to “sign off the brand plan” when you don’t know where it’s going. But I’m certain brands that embrace this philosophy own the future.

Well, that's the basis on which I'm planning my business. And you?