Just read a great post from Simon Veksner addressing a major misconception on the role of entertainment in advertising:
“It’s often said that ads need to be entertaining because the entertainment allows us to ‘smuggle in’ a product benefit – the bit that is the commercially effective part of the ad.
I agree with the smuggling theory, but I actually think it works the other way round.”
Simon’s point isn’t just about making life more fun for creatives. It’s also in line with an increasing amount of research showing that emotive advertising is significantly more effective than ads that seek to communicate a rational product benefit (I’ve written more on this here).
The myth that creativity is just a vehicle for communicating a product message still seems to go largely unchallenged by clients, but it has major implications for how we brief and evaluate work. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend Paul Feldwick’s excellent paper ‘Exploding The Message Myth’ – probably the most illuminating piece I’ve read about how advertising really works.
I finished reading Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron’s ‘Cultural Strategy’ on the MTR this morning. Thanks to Maria for putting me onto it while we were working together in Sydney. I have to admit I was intrigued but a little sceptical at the time so I’m probably a little late on this. Here’s the blurb:
“How do we explain the breakthrough market success of businesses like Nike, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, and Jack Daniel’s? Conventional models of strategy and innovation simply don’t work. The most influential ideas on innovation are shaped by the worldview of engineers and economists – build a better mousetrap and the world will take notice. Holt and Cameron challenge this conventional wisdom and take an entirely different approach: champion a better ideology and the world will take notice as well.”
I wrongly assumed it was going to be one of those tedious ‘old model is dead’ books about how all brands need to start a movement and turn their customers into crazy evangelical brand zealots.
In fact, the authors recognise that the success of brands like Starbucks and Patagonia happened when they stopped preaching to the choir and found a way to appeal to the silent majority.
Innovation is overrated
What really resonated with me was their central point that brand success has much more to do with perception than product innovation (what they call ‘better mousetraps’) or redefining the category you play in (so-called ‘blue ocean strategy’). Similarly the role of advertising is not to communicate a literal message or stake out ownership of a abstract emotional territory, rather it’s about context and associations. This aspect fits nicely with Paul Feldwick’s excellent paper ‘Exploding The Message Myth’, which refutes the idea that creative is simply a wrapper to help communicate a literal message.
Implications for planners
While ‘Cultural Strategy’ isn’t terribly complimentary about the contribution of planners in some of the featured case studies, it does raise some good points about the strategic process. Namely that if the executional expression of a strategy has such a big impact on effectiveness then our job can’t just be about defining an abstract strategy statement or single-minded proposition. Rather, we need to foster a more nuanced consensus among the team around the cultural context in which our brand operates and think more about tone and nuance. And this means a less linear process – get the creatives involved before you write the brief, and be there to ensure that the all-important cultural nuance doesn’t get completely watered down by the time the work hits the market. There’s quite a lot of blog chat about this type of thing at the moment, Northern Planner suggests that perhaps our role is as shapers rather than planners.
A good example of this approach (not included in the book) is the way W+K articulated the original brand strategy for Honda. Rather than take the reductionist approach of a brand onion or pyramid, they instead created a visual manifesto that conveyed the idiosyncrasies of tone that would have otherwise been lost. Check out Russell Davies’ APG Entry for more on this.
The other aspect of ‘Cultural Strategy’ that I really liked was the emphasis the authors put on seeking to understand the category orthodoxy and use this as a competitive advantage. Regardless of whether you buy into the cultural strategy approach as a whole, knowing the category cliches is essential and can often a fertile source of ideas – sometimes it’s easier to start by defining what you aren’t than what you are.
You knew there’d be some criticisms
Where I don’t necessarily agree with Holt and Cameron (and their thinking departs from Feldwick’s) is in their assertion that a cultural approach based on ideology is always the ‘right’ way to build a successful brand or advertising. Evidence for the prosecution includes Cadbury’s Gorilla or Sony Bravia’s Balls, unsurprisingly neither of which are referenced in the book. From my understanding their effectiveness was not the result of a cultural ideology so much as a simple rejection of crap messaging in favour of a beautifully executed, emotive piece of advertising.
In addition, it sometimes feels like the authors have retrospectively applied a rather tenuous cultural explanation when the reality was a lot more complex. In most cases they fail to properly acknowledge the role of other factors, particularly luck, which as we know from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, is often a much bigger factor than we like to admit.
Despite these reservations, in general the book helps to move the conversation about brands along in the right direction. A cultural approach may not be right for every brief but it’s certainly worth a read.
Good news for aspiring planners – we’re looking for a Junior Planner here in Hong Kong to work on Razorfish and Digitas regional clients across Asia Pacific.
You might have a couple of years’ experience in a digital or ATL agency, either as a planner or someone who’s keen to become one. Either way, attitude is more important than experience. As this is a regional role, an international outlook is important – the Junior Planner should have an opinion on brands, marketing and culture across APAC. You also need to understand how and why people use digital technology, but not necessarily the technical details.
Ideally you have a good foundation in research (desk research, qual and quant, web analytics, social media monitoring etc). However, more important is the desire to apply this, to separate the interesting from the irrelevant, inspire compelling creative ideas and practical strategies.
The output of our work is mainly digital, however, it’s not about how many social networks you’re on or using the latest buzzwords (in fact the latter is actively discouraged). We want someone who thinks about people first, technology second – you need to be able to cut through the industry hype.
As it’s a Junior role, we don’t expect you to have all the answers on day one but fluent spoken and written English is essential. Cantonese, Mandarin or another Asian language is also highly valued so we’re especially keen to hear from local candidates.
Razorfish and Digitas are two of Publicis Groupe’s biggest digital agencies and our APAC team is still growing so there’s plenty of opportunity to develop. We also believe the best ideas happen when you enjoy what you do so hopefully you’ll have a bit of fun along the way.
If you’re interested drop me your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org, tell us a bit about yourself as well as brief explanation of a campaign or piece of work you particularly like and why. Ta.