Tag Archives: brands

On snobbery about content marketing and the John Lewis ad

Every so often there’s a backlash against ‘content’. It’s kind of boring because it’s not content’s fault.

Content is just content, it’s what fills the space.

It’s up to strategists, creatives, writers, film-makers to make it good.  And then of course, ‘good’ is subjective.

In the last couple of weeks, a new backlash has been gathering apace.

For example, Brent Smart of Saatchi in NYC said in the Drum

I hate the word ‘content’. It’s an excuse to make any old crap that we think the world needs, but in most cases the world doesn’t need more content. Just because you could make it doesn’t mean you should make it.

Most content is pollution. It’s a waste of people’s time; it’s interruption. And even though we have said we have moved from the interruption model, we are still trying to attract people, we’re just interrupting them in new and cunning ways. It’s still interrupting. It’s not stuff that is worthy of people’s time. Great content is, but most of it is shit.

P&G is not competing with Unilever, General Mills is not competing with Kellogg’s, and Wallmart is not competing with Target. We are competing with culture for people’s time and most of the stuff in culture is way more entertaining and useful than advertising. Advertising at its best can get into culture in many forms but at its worst it’s not even close. I hate that word!

And Richard Huntington also likened it to guano, saying:

And then all of a sudden, though I’m not entirely sure when, people started to use the word ‘content’ to mean something entirely different. They actually started to use it as a synonym for culture, for film and music and art and literature and photography and poetry. Anything that could be rendered in digital form, whatever its original name, now became content, just plain content. Even the BBC started to talk about cutting edge comedy, first run British drama or moments of sporting genius as mere ‘content’. In a staggering act of philistinism the infinite universe of culture was reduced to a limp and lifeless two-syllable label.

And then marketing got in on the act and clients decided that what they really wanted was ‘content’ and agencies started thinking that its would be a good idea to make it for them. Particularly those agencies that had been alienated by the quality standards implied by the monikers of film, drama, comedy and general awesomeness. If everything was simply content, to be ordered up by the yard or pound and in which quality was of no consequence then anyone could turn their hand to cranking out the stuff.

This is all true.  You can’t call Blackadder, Das Kapital or Match of the Day content. It’s sacreligious.  These things are not the same as the content we develop for marketing purposes.

There is a lot of crap content out there.   It’s written, repurposed, used as a filler.  Someone in the marketing team says, we need a page on our site about hammocks because our competitor has one, so one gets hurriedly written.  Someone in the digital marketing team says, we need more keywords in here, render this article dull please.  Someone at the agency says it would be good to make a video series.  Because they want to make a video series.

The crap is so voluminous, it’s giving good content – sorry Richard – good articles, films, podcasts, tools, quizzes, lists (I like lists) – it’s giving all the good stuff a bad name.  This is Huntington’s point.  I wholeheartedly agree.  And I feel dead inside when you hear ‘content’ in everyday parlance, when the BBC refers to it, when my mum says she’s trying to define what will be the most effective content of a get well soon card.  Actually she doesn’t do that.

The trouble is that many of us are engaged in developing content strategies and content marketing strategies because the good ones work.  And there can’t not be content (sorry, articles, films, podcasts, tools, lists, etc.)  When they are well planned, joined up stories across different channels, on and offline, they really do engage audiences and build brands, drive consumers towards conversion points and build links and so on.

So everyone’s in violent agreement that there’s a lot of dross out there on the internet, but there are good articles, films etc etc.  So what is the problem, really?

I think (and you can shoot me down, argue with me, diss me, whatever) that there’s a lot of snobbery around ‘marketing’.

I’ve come across this a few times.  Marketing is a dirty word.  It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s exploitative, it’s invasive.  (As well as a backlash against content, there’s also a backlash against data.  I’ll write about that in my next installment.)

Marketing thinks it can compete with culture.  That there are cases where consumers will prefer marketing content to the stuff that they choose to read/watch/play/do.  I say bullshit, there’s marketing content out there that serves a useful or entertaining purpose, but the rest of it is there to do its job.  And marketing should get over itself.

There are marketers out there who don’t think they are marketers.  They believe they have a higher purpose, they believe they are changing lives, improving lives.  With their films, their widgets, their tools, their whatevers.  I’m not sure how they would label themselves but if they have a target of any kind, they are marketers, whether they like it or not.

Someone said recently that you couldn’t call the new John Lewis ad ‘content’.  It is too high quality a film, a form of storytelling.  It makes people cry.  This is a form of marketing that is held up so high that there have been rhapsodies written about it all over the industry, particularly since it is linked to the Age UK charity.  Alternatively, you could see it as the cynical commodification of loneliness to sell more stuff.

Everyone who watches it on YouTube – 11 million views so far, wow, will watch it once or twice and then forget about it, move on to the next thing. Does this change culture or does this make other advertising agencies jealous?  Is it even content, or is it just an ad?

Good marketers – and alongside this the good forms of content – create good experiences for consumers.  They don’t clutter the experience with the unnecessary, they provide useful, beautiful, entertaining routes in to the things consumers are searching for, either actively or passively.

Good marketers – and good content (and IMO the John Lewis ad is way up there, cynical marketing ploy notwithstanding) – make the web a better place to hang out, to do business, to plan your life, to buy stuff.

Good marketers create content to build stories and experiences around insight, real human insight from a variety of sources.  Personally I prefer qual, talking to real people in real life and understanding their true motivations, what will move them emotionally.  Thinking about how to weave that emotion into the brand story.  But it’s always important to back that up with data, since we all have targets we need to meet.

I need to stop writing now.  Suffice to say, I will be happy when the content backlash calms down a bit, and we can all go back to planning necessary pages, articles, films, tools, widgets, and whatever for our clients, supporting their consumers as they navigate their way to the answers that suit them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

Don’t blame clients for the death of good advertising

I read this post on Medium last night, by a guy called Scott Morrison.  It’s a chapter excerpt from a book called Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation.

I haven’t read the book.  It sounds pretty interesting.  I’ve got a pile of partly-read industry books gathering dust on my bedside table.  I prefer to read chapter excerpts and articles.  Most business books seem to me to be extended articles that should have stayed being articles.  But there’s not much money to be made from that, is there?  I’m not really all that cynical, because if someone asked me to write a chapter in a business book I’d be stoked.

Anyway, back to the point of this post.

This article, in short, bemoans the death of advertising that people want to talk about.

The kind of advertising people used to say they liked better than the TV shows.  Watercooler conversation stuff.

The kind of advertising that had a great big idea behind it.

And the article argues that clients (and agencies) are to blame for the end of the great advert.

You know, Smash, Hamlet (still makes me laugh), McCains (the song’s bloody well got stuck in my head now), FCUK, KitKat (perhaps my absolute favourite advert of ALL TIME), all those great campaigns that crop up in the ‘100 best’ compilation shows.

I think I’d like to counter this article in the following few ways:

  1. Is the big idea really gone?  I can think of some really fun, effective advertising campaigns from the last few years which have powerful ideas behind them, well planned and rooted in insight.  The brands that spring to mind are Lidl, Aldi, John Lewis, Volvo (watch this one if you watch any of them – amazing!)  People aren’t talking about this round the watercooler but they are sharing it in social media – sometimes in their tens of millions.
  2. The weird thing about this article is that it doesn’t mention how consumers have changed over the last 20 years.  They’re more sophisticated, they second screen, TV shows are much more interesting than the adverts and during the adverts they’re tweeting about the programme or IMDB-ing the cast…  They’re not seeing the adverts in the same way as they did 20 years ago.
  3. Thirdly, the article doesn’t talk about the power of integration – it’s thinking about old-school advertising, not the full integrated campaign.  It’s in an integrated campaign that the power of the central idea really comes to life.  Nowadays you have to be useful as well as entertaining, and the benefit of your proposition has to come across in what you do, not just what you say.  So the brands that stand out now are the ones who aren’t run by unrealistic expectations of their expensive advertising agency, they’re the ones who get their agencies to work together to ensure that ideas work across all channels, and in the way they behave in real life and on the web.

You can’t expect a huge boost sales off the back of an advert any more. TV advertising has its place but it’ll never have the impact it had pre-broadband, pre-smartphone.

Life’s not that simple anymore.

The answer isn’t to look for a more creative boutique agency, it’s to look for the best integrated team.

The best work comes from a tight team – and by that I mean where all agencies (including digital and media) and the client have had an input into the big idea from the initial drawing board stages.  Where all the different understandings of the audience, their behaviour throughout the customer journey, their needs, wants, goals, beliefs, prejudices, cultural ties, etc etc all come together and the best insight can be revealed and crafted.

So yes, it is down to clients to jump in and encourage their agencies to work together, to stop seeing the ad agency as the lead creative agency, to understand that the big idea can come from anywhere, and to see the value in the lots of little ideas that make connections that build a big idea in the mind of the consumer.

Perhaps there is a divide between clients and agencies that understand the best way to do integrated, and the ones that don’t.  As agencies we should blame ourselves for not articulating this better and for not standing up for what we really believe will have the best outcome for our clients.

I know I’m being idealistic – unrealistic – but I hope one day I am proved wrong.

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

Mind the reality gap

I haven’t written in a while – I’ve been combining busy-ness with laziness for a few months.  But the article ‘Majority Report: Looking through the digital hype‘ by BBH’s Strategy Director Ed Booty, has jolted me into writing action.

It’s a good, thought-provoking piece on whether the so-called ‘digital revolution’ has really changed the way we live now.  Ed, a former St Luke’s colleague of mine, argues that although it’s very exciting witnessing the massive changes taking place in technology, people’s lives and needs aren’t really changing all that much.

While essentially this is true, I think the article misses out a lot of the subtleties that the ‘digital revolution’ in general and improvements in internet possibilities have brought us. I think that needs are being met by new technologies. They’re things that people adopt and take for granted.

Less than 10% of people may be using Twitter but there are a hell of a lot more people using technology to do ordinary stuff online like shopping, that they didn’t do before. As many as 80% of readers purchase books from Amazon for example.

Working as I do on both user experience and campaign strategy, the latter hasn’t really changed – you still frequently need a ‘big idea’, in effect you just have more channels to choose from.  However, a lot has changed.  When we talk about what’s possible now we can talk about creating wholly personalised online experiences for individuals.  The potential for tools for purchasing, selecting, comparing and understanding has improved so unbelievably radically in the last few years, the last couple of years…

People of ten years ago would not recognise the way we do retail or account management online.  They would be blown away by being able to browse Amazon on a touch-screen mobile or by the sheer number of applications that are now available, cheaply. They would be stunned that a mobile instant messaging service was being accused of bringing rioters together in real time. They would not believe that e-book readers were one of the biggest hits of Christmas 2011. I’ve gone from thinking iPads are a bit posey and not as good as laptops to thinking my life really won’t be complete until I have one.

So while we still watch the same shite on TV and drive the same stupid cars, we are doing quite a lot of things differently. The commenter on Ed’s article was correct when he said brands need to get about it now, understand how it works, occupy the space. Fail fast and become experts in everything. You have to keep up or you’ll not know what’s become so normal we take it for granted.

I hope I haven’t missed the point here. I’d be interested to know what people think about this.

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

Are propositions still important for digital strategy?

Preparing a training session on creative briefs, I came across this ancient piece of wisdom from 1993.  It’s a document about propositions.  Propositions are the single most important thing you want to say in a communications activity, and also known as the thing that will be carried into the ad (because we were always told that it was the only thing the creative would bother looking at.)

When I was learning to be a planner propositions were absolutely the most important thing we had to be good at.  Propositions are the distillation of the strategy, and should be based on an amazing insight.  (Insights are also apparently out of fashion these days.  That’s a topic for another blog post.)  When I was learning to be a planner a good proposition was a sexy, beautiful thing.  They’re really hard to do well.

Because a lot of digital stuff needs to say more than one thing (and perhaps because propositions are hard to write well) the proposition has dropped off the radar a bit.  Creative briefs have become less tied to insights and propositions and are often about the medium, and the creative discussion is more about the potential for technology.

This is good in some ways because it’s freed up the creative process, made it more fluid and collaborative and exciting.  The strategy is all about the objective, what we want from the activity, rather than the steps taken to get there.

It’s not so good because I feel like we’re moving away from thinking really hard about who we’re designing and creating for.  We need to think about what motivates our consumers, ensure we’re not creating for technology and creativity’s sake. Insights do bring us closer to our consumers’ needs, wants and goals, and help us to connect them to our clients.

It might be that the nature of insights and propositions have to change for the digital age, but I think we can learn from the past in terms of ensuring we keep thinking hard about what we are doing and why, be lateral and creative with insights, and work with our creatives to produce briefs that motivate them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

Why I am tired of the big idea debate

You’ve heard it before.  ‘The big idea is dead.’  ‘It’s all about lots of little ideas now.’

I just read yet another article about it and felt that it was time to say something again.

I am of the impression that we work from ‘brand platforms’ – sets of values and messages which they use to connect with their audiences, and that we can use these platforms as means of creating work based around ideas of all different sizes.  (Whatever ‘size’ means.  I think it means that a big idea can do lots of things, whereas a smaller one doesn’t go as far.)

However, the debate about the big idea still goes on.  I believe that this is because there is a wee backlash going on.  This is based on traditional planning vs the new planning.  People like me who have made the transition from making above the line campaigns in agencies where TV was the pinnacle, to digitally led agencies where we can do whatever is best for our clients because we have every channel at our disposal.

Because planning in digital seems so different, we feel the need to redefine what we do.  However, after doing this myself for a while, I now feel it is a complete waste of time.  What I do now is essentially the same as it has always been:

  • understand the audience
  • identify insights
  • agree what we want people to understand about the brand
  • agree what we want people to do with the brand
  • come up with good ideas about how we can make that happen

I’ve been criticised on the blog for this in the past.  And that criticism was fair, so I had a go at trying to explain why I wasn’t totally old school about it.

Big ideas are sexy.  They take ages to come up with.  Wouldn’t we all like to come up with one now and again?  On the other hand, lots of little ideas can be greater than the sum of its parts.  Horses for courses.  It’s up to us to work with our clients to do what is best for their brand.

I’d really like if the big idea debate could just die, rather than the big idea.

Rather than go on about it any more I’d suggest reading the following articles and making up your own mind.  (And then let me know what you think. Or don’t bother.  If you don’t reply I will assume you are getting on with having good ideas.)


The big idea is dead:

Think small

Why small matters

The big idea is dead

Rethinking the big idea

The elusive big idea

Simple ideas, well executed

Why it’s time to move away from the big idea


The big idea isn’t dead:

The big idea isn’t dead, it’s just smashed up into millions of pieces

Why size matters, big ideas aren’t dead, and ‘think small’ is dangerous advice

The big idea is alive and well

The big idea ain’t dead

Are big ideas dead?  Here’s one to watch out for


Leave a comment

Filed under Work

I re-wrote a post about brand strategy so hopefully it makes sense now

The story goes, a friend tweeted a link to this article about brand strategy.

In the article Adam Ferrier raises several important points, so I definitely recommend giving it some time.  He also commented on my previous post on the subject and he rightly pointed out that it was difficult to read through the rushed job to get to the points, and also had some further feedback which I’d like to explore.  So I have re-written, because I think the points raised in the article, and in his comments are worth it.

To sum up the last post, what I really wanted to say was this:

Business problems – in terms of solving these, what we are capable of in digitally-led agencies is huge – I’d like to say it’s practically infinite. Yet often we’re just expected to implement a particular thing rather than think about it first.  We’re often not asked to think about the big picture at all, or what it means for the brand more generally.

This isn’t really an ‘us and them’ mentality – I think that things are changing, but they’re not changing very fast.  Clients still think they should go to an ad agency for a ‘viral’ or a brand house for a brand strategy.  In my agency (and I expect most digital/integrated agencies of a particular size) we have the skills in house to do most of this.  I am of the opinion that no brand can survive without sizeable support in digital space.  Working with people who ‘get digital’ is essential.

However, this means that planners/strategists have to be ‘digital’ but they also have to be trained in the traditional skills

I go back to my point in an earlier post. Planning is planning, is planning/strategy.  Whatever you want to call it, it is still answering the questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve? (From a business and a comms point of view)
  • Who are we targeting and why? And what insight are we operating around?
  • What do we want people to say/think/feel/do?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • And then returning to the question what are we trying to achieve to check, ‘is this right’? And then going back to the beginning if it’s not (being fairly agile about it, innit.)

Adam Ferrier commented that these felt:

  • Old School
  • Us vs them
  • Consumer centric (vs business centric or NPD centric, or partnership centric)
  • Doesn’t take into account co-collaboration (consumer and producer)
  • Doesn’t take into account strategy through opportunity – rather than the other way around

I think they are old-school, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s important to remember to try to simplify difficult things by asking uncomplicated questions.  There are more questions than this but I do feel that these are the core ones, the ones to start with.  If you don’t have answers to these then you’re less likely to have an easy time of it.

These are the things I learnt as a planner in advertising agencies. I count them – as well as the mantra ‘in order to move products you’ve got to move people’ (thanks to Phil Teer for being my boss when I was at an impressionable age) as the foundations of everything I do.  So that’s possibly why I’m consumer-centric.  A business or a new product is nothing without consumers.  I am still the ‘voice of the consumer’ in the agency.

Outside of advertising agencies – and I should say that actually that means London advertising agencies – I have not had an easy time as a planner until recently.  In digital it is still being understood as a role and in Scotland it is not a very common thing to be.  So maybe that’s why I come across as ‘us and them’.

Digital agencies should be really clear about what their planners/strategists are for, why they are essential, and be much better at selling strategy.

Clients should be prepared to spend more on online brand planning time and research. They should involve their digital agency more in their brand strategies, invite us to the focus groups, and research debriefs.

But mostly it is up to us, as planners/strategists to demonstrate what we are able to do and the value we do add.

First of all, we need to agree that, as Adam says in his article,  that brand strategy needs to be taken more seriously in digital agencies.  This doesn’t really mean the role has to be re-defined, but we should collectively find consensus on it – at least agree what we call ourselves, what the core skillset is.  In my opinion it is the brand and the consumer that are the most important things – whatever we do is dependent on them.  Therefore, the decision on channel, activity, technology, whatever, comes second.

How did that sound?

1 Comment

Filed under Work

The best brand book I’ve ever seen

I know it’s fairly old – you’ve probably retweeted it already or posted it on your blog ages ago.  I mean, I got it from Eat the Big Fish and they put it up a month ago and I only just saw it now…

But I really really love the Skittles Brand Book.  Particularly their ‘average customer.’

They don’t need a tone of voice page, because the whole thing is their tone of voice.

Just goes to show it’s possible to do these things in a very engaging way.  Fab.


Filed under Work