At a Spredfast customer event in Cologne last year the subject of agencies and their processes and output reared its head again. One of our speakers was Christina Keller from Facebook’s Creative Shop in Germany. Creative Shop are Facebook’s in-house creative resource which they make available to brands so they can improve the quality and performance of their creative on Facebook’s products. Christina’s presentation included some best practice examples of the kind of creative work that performs well on social, but also included observations of the challenges faced by brands in developing this work. Inevitably the panel discussion afterwards turned to the age-old question of how brands can organise to produce better social content.
In a room filled with some of Germany’s best-known brands the usual teardown took place: how inadequate the mainstream ad agencies are at creating content and advertising for the digital age and how the specialist social shops are not able to deliver big cut through ideas that work across different media. It struck me that in the almost 3 years since I have left the agency world, so very little has changed at agencies, while so much around it has changed radically.
Advertising is arguably one of the most conservative industries in the world. The ways of working, client relationships and remuneration have barely changed in almost a century. Throughout this same century however there has been a significant change in the media used to communicate messages and how these messages are consumed, shared and acted upon by the audience. While there are certainly some creative marketing businesses who have changed their operations and output in response to these changes, from what I have seen they are in the minority.
Since working in the agency world, I have had time to observe from the outside and to reflect on how things might be done differently. While I loved the immediacy, energy and imagination of working in an advertising agency there was also so much that seemed outdated and unsuitable.
Working in a software start-up has exposed me to new ways of working, which combined with some of the ways of working pioneered in digital agencies would seem to be useful adaptations for traditional agencies or in-house creative teams. By pure coincidence they all start with ’T’…
TGI: The most commonly used data sources in the advertising industry are those based on panels and surveys. These are usually an expensive multi-market subscription service based on regular surveys of mind numbed consumers who suffer from more sub-conscious biases than a therapist can identify. The other time-honoured research process is pre-testing with groups. More than enough has been written about the problems of gleaning insights from a group of people who have nothing better to do on a Tuesday night than to sit in an airless room for the promise of an amazon voucher or a stale sandwich and answer questions about soap powder.
TGI was launched in 1968. In the intervening 50 years and especially in the last ten there has been an explosion in data sources. Just for starters; web traffic and on-site search queries will tell us what an already brand aware audience is interested in getting from your brand. Social media can now also provide us with a wealth of real-time first person quant and qual data on a global scale that tells us what consumers think about your brand, product, category and competition.
During her talk Christina gave a great example of how German brand MyTaxi was able to create city specific ad executions based on what people in major German cities talked about when they discussed taxis and what they mean to them. Using Facebook’s targeting capabilities these ads were then exposed to incredibly specific audiences; playing back to them their topics of interest.
Facebook, YouTube and Google have all provided marketers with the opportunity to split test endless varieties of creative with very specific demographics. In another example Christina showed us how StainMaster in the US had trialled 3 different ad executions and by limiting their exposure to specific geographic regions they were able to track purchase uplift. The winning creative was then aired as a TVC having demonstrated its efficacy in the trial.
We are able to use Google search trends and Ad words to understand exactly what it is that specific audiences are interested in what John Battelle called the database of intentions
In 6 years of working in the planning departments of global advertising agencies I never saw insights from these data sources included on a communications brief. Not once.
Teams: The Creative Team is an art director and a copy writer. These hapless souls are typically paired like swans until their dying day. (Did someone say “confirmation bias”?) Invented over half a century by ago by Bill Bernbach, a partner at the venerable advertising agency known today as DDB, the creative team was was designed to produce print adverts featuring imagery as impactful as its copy. While that combination of communications is clearly still in demand, so are a few other skills such as UX, mobile, search, social, events and retail activation. At least. Most agencies now have access to these skillsets, but they are typically only permitted access to the brief once the Creative Team has developed The Big Idea. Specialists then have to reverse engineer their solutions to fit into a typically TV led concept. (My personal view is that in an age of almost frictionless intra and inter customer communications The Big Idea had better be the product, but that’s for a different post).
Until the skillsets of creative teams are widened at an individual level or are broadened by expanding their membership agencies will continue to produce the next problem; Templated Output.
Templated Output: Whilst the output is still an advert, it now sits on completely different platforms. Whereas all video adverts used to be made to sit on something that measured 42 inches diagonally they now also have to accommodate video players on laptops at 15.6 inches and on mobiles 4.7 inches on the latest iPhone X, iPad and Occuluus headset.
Despite this, the majority of digital ads are made like they are going on TV with no account for the change in screen size, or more significantly the change in viewing habits. TV ads used to be ignored by walking away to get a cup of tea, now they can be ignored by simply skipping the pre-roll or thumbing through the social feed. And that’s before we even start questioning the role of generating awareness through adverts in the first place. What about putting that effort into a better product, or service design or customer care…?
Titles: More hierarchical than the military, the roles and responsibilities of the creative team are highly regulated and regimented, as are those of the rest of the agency. Planners, suits, account execs, account directors, junior planners, data analysts and creative technologists all arrayed in their own hierarchies and sitting in their own departments. While these discrete elements on a production line would make Henry Ford proud they prevent the kinds of confluential, cross-pollinating, combinatorial thinking that so many other industries are reorganising to try and achieve. Steve Johnson has lots of interesting things to day about it here >
Timeline / process: Client brief, planning, insights, creative brief, lunch, briefing session, creative ideation time, brand immersion, lunch, creative review, budget negotiation, creative ideation again, beers at the pub, client presentation, client feedback, second round, third round, preview, groups, more beers, research…the equivalent of what Douglas Adams described the Hollywood moviemaking process as; “trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” I have actually seen this process take two years on one large FMCG brand.
An alternative process, that I have used to draw on a range of skills and that can circumvent the unbelievable length of the typical creative process is a workshop. God, how Advertising Creative Directors hate these. Putting a range of skill sets in a room, a bar or on a boat, using a facilitator to ensure all voices are heard and being really tight around timings and output.
Christina made the observation that traditional ad agencies need to follow software development in the move from Waterfall to Agile development. Waterfall looks a lot like the traditional agency process; one part of the process must be completed before the next can be begun. Agile involves a constant iterative process where small parts of the software are designed, build, launched and optimised all at the same time. Which coincidentally is how many social agencies develop their content.
A few years ago I saw a presentation from the director of the emergency housing NGO Architecture Sans Frontiers in which he described their process of 3 : 3 : 3. Within 3 days of a calamity they decide if they are going to go into a disaster area. In 3 weeks they have to be on the ground and working with the local community. They then commit to being present for 3 years. It’s a useful combination of fast decision making with long term commitment; two things notably absent in most marketing campaign design.
Ta da!: The client approval process: The Big Reveal, The Pitch, even The Tissue, are all predicated on the element of surprise and the agency cast in the role of magician or creative genius like an artist or chef. “Just give me paint and canvas and leave me in my garret to produce a masterpiece”…ta da!
One of the most powerful aspects of agile software development is co-location. Either for the duration of a sprint (a time-boxed design and development phase for a specific feature) or for a set number of days per week across the project, the client is required to physically sit along side the development team so that concepts can be tested with them and ideas can be codeveloped without the extraordinary waste of scheduling, travelling, nattering and back and forth-ing.
I once discussed a role at a web development agency to be the Three Month Marriage Counsellor. The directors of the agency knew from experience that on each significant web development project there would be a breakdown in trust, communications or enthusiasm at about the three month mark. So instead of waiting for that to occur and then awkwardly stumbling towards a rapprochement they wanted to have the breakdown marked in the project plan and my role was to be the external marriage guidance counsellor who would come in an bring back marital bliss. I declined, but considering that role is a healthy acknowledgement that the creative process is more tension than ta-da.
The shoot: Agencies still make TVCs, print ads and radio ads in much the same way as they always have; in Soho production studios or on location, ideally on a beach or in a sexy city. If consideration is given to the content required to be distributed through social channels it’s by making a ‘behind the scenes’ video that the digital team is then asked to make ‘go viral’, because the media agency forgot to put any distribution budget into the social element. To expect anyone in the advertising industry to watch a 3 minute ‘how it was made’ video beggars belief, to think that a member of the public might watch it and then share it is just delusional.
The shoot or the process of making creative assets needs to be rethought to acknowledge the variety of assets now needed and their different technical and creative requirements. As an alternative to the reverse engineering that typically happens, the expensive location, set, talent and crew could be used to create content for a range of channels. I know. It seems so logical, and I’m sure some agencies and brands are doing it, but honestly from my observations and conversations with current clients it’s still a radical thought.
The marketing industry media has forever been obsessed with the next model for advertising agencies. I’m not pretending that what I am proposing is a new model and from what audience consumption data tells us there is still plenty of runway for the creation of traditional assets as per the current model. But it seems unforgivable that agencies (or indeed internal brand’s internal creative departments) don’t consider utilising some of the advances that have been made available with the advent of software development and the practices that have evolved from there.
For the past 20 years digital (and now social) has been a creative output that clients have been willing to pay cash money for and yet it remains, at best, an afterthought for traditional advertising agencies. In order to understand why agencies have resisted the drive to incorporate these changes into their processes for two decades I looked at Clay Christensen’s ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’. Looked at through Christensen’s lens, it’s logical: why would an agency making good money from creating television adverts bother with the complicated small beer of social and digital content? It’s not worth the investment in new skills and has nowhere near the same margin as making TV adverts. Meanwhile smaller more agile creative shops with different processes, people and costs bases have taken this work off the table. The result is that traditional agencies now find themselves unable to compete with the challengers and their relevance is threatened as clients look for different skills and output.
A recent piece in the FT Magazine by Tim Hartford dismissed Christensen’s approach as being too elegant, and instead put forward Rebecca Henderson’s theory on why it is hard to do new things in old organisations. What Hartford refers to as “architectural innovations”.
Hartford spoke to Henderson who explained; “An architectural innovation is an innovation that changes the relationship between the pieces of the problem. It can be hard to perceive, because many of the pieces remain the same. But they fit together differently.”
In other words; it’s just too hard.
From my experience and talking to others across the industry the truth seems to lie somewhere between the two; agencies and extremely well rewarded individuals inside those agencies are just making too much money doing what they have always done to worry too much about about doing things differently. And when clients start to demand they behave differently those well rewarded behaviours are just too hard to change or reorganise or reprioritise.
The result is status quo and stasis.