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There’s been a reflective mood in the industry of late. A recurring theme in many end of year roundups was the need to stop, to look inwards, to step away from the perpetual motion of the stream. I was relieved in many ways to read it, to realise that I wasn’t alone in finding that the noise was increasingly drowning out the signal.
Like many others, I was struck powerfully by Alexis Madrgial’s post: “The Year the Stream Crested”, where he laments the rise of “newness” as the sole organizing principle for the web:
“The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on newness.”
It’s a fascinating read, that touches on any number of interesting themes, from the polarisation of our attention span (from 7 second Vine videos to “bingeing” on House of Cards) to the pursuit of disposability as a response to surveillance culture.
In response both to this post, and to an overall sense that enough is enough, lots of clever folk- from Mel Exon to Andy Whitlock to Toby Barnes-have come up with their recommendations for stepping back, for finding islands in the stream. I wonder though if there’s more at play here than simply feed fatigue. If the problem isn’t just the stream but the same-ness.
Like many of these commentators, I found myself feeling that what seemed exhilarating and dynamic just a short while ago was feeling not just overwhelming, but somehow stale-dulled by sheer volume and ubiquity. It was harder to get excited not only about the next post or list but about the next big acquisition or the next social sharing app-and I say that as someone who is deeply passionate about the power of technology to transform.
So what lies behind this broader sense of ennui?
I think there are two factors in play:
1. The revolution has paused
2. We have created a new consensus
1. The revolution has paused
In the last decade, two huge developments have enabled change on an unprecedented scale: the rise of the social web and the invention of the smartphone.
These structural changes-enabling ever more connected consumers and ever more connected devices-set the stage for almost every trend that has consumed us in recent years, from crowdsourcing to wearables, location to the sharing economy, big data to crowdfunding to social activism to mobile commerce.
There have of course been important developments which have fuelled these macro trends-peer to peer payments, ubiquitous WiFi and 3G access-but a third great structural leap forward has been slow to emerge.
Which means rather than having a world of brand new possibilities to evangelise, we have some now familiar technologies to perfect and mature, which is nowhere near as easy to do.
The promise of the social web in particular feels slow to come to fruition as the major players wrestle with monetisation challenges and become ever more like broadcast channels and less like the transformative forces for change they first appeared. Yet it’s important to remember that the social web is more than the social networks-that the gift of those networks is a web of data and connections that creates an infrastructure we can build all manner of services on top of-inspiring and delightful services built on the power of peer to peer sharing, from Waze to Ushahidi to Kickstarter to AirBNB.
Our challenge is to remember it’s still early morning in the evolution of these channels. That much of the hard work of the last few years has been groundwork. That we will get things wrong, go down some cul de sacs, feel disenchanted and start again. That when we do build products and services that are genuinely social-social in that they empower users to share their data, their wisdom, and their property-we make a difference. That as familiar and ubiquitous as these technologies now are, that is the very thing that makes them so extraordinarily powerful. As Kevin Kelly puts it:
2. We have created a new consensus
Much of the fire and energy that has ignited the blogosphere in recent years has been about rejecting older truths. The spirit of challenge and iconoclasm has been rife. In the process we have created new orthodoxies together:
• That brands are now built as much by what they do as by what they say (From Big Ideas to Big Actions)
• That we live in the age of a vocal, connected consumer where peer to peer influence-ever powerful-is now powerful at scale
• That ideas are used, shared and propagated in networks, not solely in agencies
• That consumers are telling us, in real time, more about what they need and want than ever before and that we can and must respond to this in real time
We have been distracted, at times, by some flawed assumptions:
• That a mass of consumers want to actively participate with brands-they don’t
• That the campaign was dead, long live the platform-it isn’t
• That it would be easy to mine and integrate social, location and brand data-in practice, it can be extraordinarily difficult
And we have remembered that some old truths should not be forgotten:
• That brands grow, in the main, though scale not depth
• That most consumers, most of the time, don’t care very much about brands
• That they care, enormously, about the things they have always cared about-connecting with their loved ones, building social capital, connecting around their passions, improving themselves and their communities. Old motivations, new techniques
Along the way, some amazing brains have created some of the Ur-texts of this new consensus-Gareth Kay, John Willshire, Mel Exon, Edward Boches, Martin Weigel, Mark Earls, Mike Arauz, the brothers Malbon to name but a few- all big thinkers and always worth a read. Some of these new orthodoxies will be challenged and upended, some will stick-but for now, we hold many of these truths to be self-evident. (Which is enough, in itself, to make an iconoclast twitchy).
So despite stream fatigue and perhaps even some innovation fatigue, we live in extraordinary times, with amazing new infrastructures and exciting new brand imperatives. So what do we do in this new environment?
Be your own inspiration
In this new world order, we need to be our own inspiration. To work harder to add value, not simply have a presence. To develop social applications and services that harness the power of sharing to disrupt, empower and enable. To develop mobile applications that genuinely transform a brand’s availability, distribution channel or service model.
Make less, but better
Despite the wealth of new work springing into our feeds everyday, there are perhaps a handful of pieces of work we look to again and again for inspiration-gems like the aforementioned Waze and Ushahidi alongside Nike Plus, We Feel Fine, Aaron Koblin’s experiments in data and crowd-creation.
What pulls these pieces of work apart is that they are labours of love, perfected over time. There are executed beautifully, not fetishing design for design’s sake but with care and reverence for the user experience, motivation and reward.
They make leaps forward in what is considered possible. They invent. They avoid becoming what Tim Malbon describes as “digital landfill”.
Think invention, not (just) innovation
A culture of innovation as important. Whatever strategies we put in place to help navigate the stream (and we certainly need them), it is important of course to remain connected to the new. But it is equally important to remember that trends are tools, not ends. More important is a culture of invention, of making things that never existed before. Creating our own inspiration.
Or as the late, great Seamus Heaney put it:
“Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
A version of this article first appeared in Campaign magazine on September 5th
In recent years, the “Big Idea” has often seemed to epitomise everything wrong and backward looking about our industry. As Joseph Jaffe, author of “Flip the Funnel”, put it:
“I’m sick and tired of this notion that there is a singular BIG IDEA out there…Big ideas are equated to expensive ideas…hence the word Big. Big ideas are similarly, full of hot air, fluff, inflated with self-importance, exaggeration and hyperbole”
How much more compelling the lean manifesto or the Agile movement have seemed – trim and nimble versus the bloated “Big” idea. We have been encouraged to develop minimal viable products, to test, optimise and iterate – all extraordinarily useful approaches when it comes to making things.
The danger is that we apply this approach to our thinking – that we start to think small. There is huge benefit to making small. The challenge is to think big while making small.
Thinking big remains critically important for a number of reasons:
We have big problems – and bigger opportunities: The web is not impacting our clients in small ways. Margins are squeezed, cost of entry is plummeting, transparency is no longer a choice and entire industries are disappearing.
But the web can also impact our clients in incredibly exciting ways. Our ambition should be to fundamentally transform our clients’ businesses in a way that simply wasn’t possible in an analog world-to open up new distribution opportunities, to create new products and new paths to purchase. That calls for big, audacious thinking-the kind of thinking seen on the smallest screens of all at Cannes, where Mobile Lion winners had the audacity to imagine turning every smartphone user into a volunteer in the hunt for missing children.
We need scale to grow: An oft-forgotten truth, as Martin Weigel of Wieden + Kennedy has pointed out lately, is that most brands, in most categories, grow by increasing penetration (scale) not frequency or fandom. In a fragmented media landscape reach will be less and less easy to buy – so we need to create ideas with reach.
We like to share: Precision targeting has been another strike against the blunt instrument that is the big idea. Why use a sledgehammer when you use a scalpel to target individuals with surgical precision? Again, while precision marketing is an extraordinarily useful tool, we must remember the power of shared experiences. The dual screen phenomenon (27,000 tweets in 90 seconds during the X Factor) highlights our overwhelming desire to connect with others. While we are watching more TV on demand, overwhelmingly we are using it to catch up on what our peers have seen rather than discover the new and esoteric.
Yet while big ideas remain critically important, the nature of the big idea has changed.
From Big Ideas to Big Actions – the end of metaphor:
Once upon a time, our big ideas were fantasies. We imagined powerful roles for our brands in consumers’ lives-roles where they connected communities or imbued their users with superhuman powers. We strove to “own” profound emotional territories like Generosity, Joy and Freedom, to convey product truth through ever more visually arresting metaphors. We dreamed of explosions of colour and giant, CGI fish roaming our cities.
We dreamed of buying the world a Coke, teaching the world to sing, giving every child the right to play.
Today, if we can dream it, we can do it – the metaphor is no more.
As Google demonstrated so powerfully with its Project Re: Brief, if we want to buy the world a Coke, we can. If we want to teach the world to sing, or perhaps to read, we can do it through Skype and the awesome force of the “Granny Cloud”. If we want to connect communities, or to give individuals the power to glide through cities, we can create social, crowdsourced traffic applications like Waze.
I worked for many years on the iconic Levi’s brand. In the last few years of my tenure, we developed a big idea: New from the Original. It was a big thought, rooted in a product truth-that every Levi’s product is inspired, in some way, by Levi’s unparalleled archive of vintage denim. We brought it to life in a beautiful film, one that picked up lots of awards and one I’m enormously proud of. Today, though, we could move that idea beyond metaphor to reality. Today, or sometime soon, I could, with the power of 3D printing “print “new clothing direct from the archival originals.
So we still need big, audacious, spine-tingling ideas, but those ideas will be, at their heart, active. As Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism labs says:
“The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are.”
Big Ideas are not (necessarily) big executions
As I mentioned upfront, it’s entirely possible to think big and make small. Big ideas no longer mean 90” TV spots or beautiful, immersive websites. They may do-there is still a powerful role in the industry for craft and for wonder-but they may actually be quite small and simple in execution -and therein may lie the magic.
An example of this “think big, build small” approach is the #SKYREC initiative developed by AgenciaClick Isobar with the SKY TV operator in Brazil. The service synchs users’ SKY accounts with their twitter feeds, enabling them to record a programme with a tweet. A big, business changing idea that in the hands of the user feels simple and delightful.
Perhaps the most current example of the “think big, build small” approach is the Cannes Mobile Grand Prix Winner-TXTBKS from DDB Manila. A big idea to solve a big problem-decreasing use of textbooks in a country where most families cannot afford tablets or e-readers-executed with the simplicity of a text.
Big Ideas are made of people
These effortless user experiences are particularly important in developing today’s big ideas because in an ever more connected world, big ideas are made of people. As we move from metaphors to actions, we move towards ideas that demand interaction, that live, as Mark Earls puts it in “the spaces between individuals”.
Big ideas will increasingly be built in these spaces-in the millions of tiny interactions that make an idea live and spread. They will demand that we think less about individuals and more about networks, that we treat our consumers less as fans and more as actors.
This is an inexact science today. It will become more rigorous. We will see the rise of social experience designers and of network prediction models with ingenious algorithms calibrating the epidemiology of an idea.
This is incredibly important. Agencies that take it seriously and invest in tools and talent will triumph over those who hope “it will go viral”. It doesn’t mean, however, that we should start by thinking granular. Once again, we may think big and build small.
Long live the Big Idea:
The Big Idea is alive and well. It is more important than ever at a time when it is desperately easy to be consumed by minutiae and when our clients have ever bigger problems to solve.
But today’s big ideas are different from yesterday’s. Today’s Big Ideas are not metaphors, but actions. They may not always feel big in execution – we may think big and make deceptively small. They will live in the interactions between people.
The agencies that succeed will be those who can develop big, audacious, business changing ideas and use technology to move those ideas beyond metaphor and into reality, beyond ideas and into actions.
For good or ill, most campaigns today want consumers to participate with them in some way-even if that participative act is as a simple as a like, a share or a vote.
We may well debate the commercial merits of the participative approach as a solution to every problem. Martin Weigel makes an excellent point in his post “The Participation Paradox” about our preoccupation with fandom versus the realities of a market where a majority of consumers purchase infrequently and disloyally, and a majority of brands grow by increasing penetration, not frequency.
It’s an excellent-and timely-point but for me it means we need to think about our consumers less as fans (with the relatively passive admiration that implies) and more as actors: collaborators, salesforces, promoters and co-creators.
Likewise, the demands some participative campaigns can make on the consumer are beyond all sense or reason, as Brian, the “target demographic” reminds us.
Taking these excellent points on board, however, the fact is that more and more of us are participating with content in some way – social media, and Facebook in particular-has disrupted the traditional 1: 9: 90 rule beloved of those observing participation inequalities towards a model where more and more of us are commenting, liking and sharing. Some 33% of consumers fall into Forrester’s “Conversationalists” segment-those who regularly update social media profiles. Recent research from the BBC further bears this out, identifying 77% of consumers as participating online in some way.
Moreover, more and more of the content we consume is content that has been filtered by our friends’ participation. According to Trendstream’s Global Web Index, 28.8% of users have viewed an on-line video on the basis of a friend’s recommendation, while 17% have read a news article on that basis. These numbers are only likely to grow-so if we want our content to be visible at all through what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble” we’re going to need some level of participation.
Most importantly, however, participation disrupts business models. The ability of millions of our customers to share, promote, surface, create and sell has disrupted industries at the most profound level. Participation has disrupted supply models (think Air BNB), pricing models (think Lucky Counter or Pay with a tweet) and distribution models (think ASOS marketplace, Kiosked or Shopinterest). Our task is to ensure participation disrupts our clients’ businesses in the right way.
So how do we get better at briefing for participation? (Remember Brian….)
I believe there are three key ways in which our briefs need to change:
1.A business problem is a behavioural change in disguise
2. Think about network insights, not (only) consumer insights
3. Move from “the single thing we want to say” to “the single thing we’re going to make or do”
1. A business problem is a behavioural change in disguise:
In the old world, a number of outside forces impacted on consumer behaviour-among them product, promotion, price and distribution. Creating increased demand could only impact a brand’s fortunes so far. Today, the effect of the social web is that this dynamic can be reversed. By changing consumer behaviour, enabled by technology, we can not only increase demand, we can increase supply, increase the number of distribution points a brand has, increase its salesforce or its capacity to deal with customer service queries. This transforms the potential role of agencies from impacting a relatively small lever within the mix (the best poster in the world can only really make more people buy the same product, at the same price, in the same place) to fundamentally impacting on our clients’ business. If the core problem is distribution, product relevance, pricing models or ability to surface relevant inventory we can address all these issues in a way advertising alone cannot.
To do that though, we need a clear, simple, granular articulation of their businesses problems:
-We need 1m light users to buy one more pack of butter a year
-Our rate of sale is spectacular but poor distribution is impacting our ability to grow
-Delivery costs are stripping the margin from our business
Then we need to understand the kind of participation we need to tackle those problems:
-We need each of our light users to take part in one more baking occasion a year
-We need our fans to become our distribution channel
-We need to incentivise users to pool their delivery slots
Fundamentally, we need to move from “nice” participation-share your story, share your pictures, share your videos-to what Clay Shirky describes as “jackhammer sharing”-sharing that breaks things.
So question 1 when briefing for participation would read: What do we need people to do (to break things)?
2. Think about network insights, not (only) consumer insights
I’ve written about this extensively before so I won’t labour the point, but: in a world where so much of the content we consume is consumed via our networks, treating our consumers as autonomous individuals exclusive of social context feels increasingly redundant. Of course we still need to know who we are targeting and how they feel about our brand or category, but equally importantly we need to know what kinds of networks they are in, what the dynamics of those networks are, what their motivations are to share, what and where they share. We need to understand what drives participation among their networks of choice-is it about the symmetry of the relationship or about the size of their audience?
We need to go beyond “they like Farmville and texting” to genuine insights-from the what to the why. If, for example, we know that teenage girls upload 21 photos each a month and that they account for 6% of Facebook’s UK audience but 44% of all page “likes” it tells us something about the importance of image, their need for validation, their willingness to use brands in the on-line space to construct their identity. And it tells us that if, as a brand, we asked them to show off their latest purchases to friends in exchange for a discount or for a role as a brand ambassador we might be pushing on an open door*.
These networks insights help us move from understanding what we need users to do, to answering the second fundamental question:
Why would they do it-what are their network motivations?
3. From the single thing we want to say to the single thing we’re going to make or do
So we know what we want people to do and we know something about why they might do it. The question then is what piece of stimulus will the brand provide to prompt them into action?
Typically, this is where the proposition or “the single thing we want to say” comes in. However, we’ve established that:
- Participation disrupts business models
- Consumers’ ability to partcipate has the power to impact our client’s businesses in more profound ways than ever before
- The solution to a much more diverse range of business problems than ever before lies in changes to consumer behaviour
So if we want to change behaviour, talking at consumers probably won’t have the desired effect. To put it another way, as Clay Shirky says:
“Behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity”
We know the behaviour we need to change-what we need people to do. We know what their motivations are. So what opportunity are we going to provide them with?
- What new distribution channels are we going to open up?
- What new services are we going to create?
- What new pricing models are we going to develop?
For me, that’s when our briefs become incredibly exciting and our work doesn’t have to plead for users to participate with it, or generate lots of participation but limited sales effect. That’s when participation lies at the heart of business performance. So, in summary, the three key questions at the heart of the modern brief are for me:
- What do we need people to do?
- Why would they do it?
- What are we going to make or do that will enable them to do it?
It’s news to no-one that on-line advertising is in a truly alarming state. Every quarter brings frightening statistics on the revenue shift from display to search and social and on the precipitous decline in click-through rates. (Currently less than 0.1%) MSNBC recently announced the removal of all banners from its site (although there’s some debate over the definition of a banner).
Prevailing wisdom in some quarters is that this doesn’t matter very much-that the demise of the display industry validates what so many of us have been saying for so long about the need for engagement versus interruption. That the demise of the banner heralds the rise of the platform; rich, useful and entertaining brand experiences.
I’m a passionate believer in the power of the platform. I think it’s essential that we start to move towards big, business changing digital ideas. The web can transform the way consumers interact with our brands, changing not simply brand perceptions but business models. The challenge is that there are any number of smart, engaging digital platforms out there that simply can’t get traction because no-one stopped at the outset to ask: how will people find us?