An Environmental Imperative for Advertisers: Protect Our Fragile Social Network Ecosystems

It's Not Just a Social Network: It's A Natural Habitat    

It’s Not Just a Social Network: It’s A Natural Habitat

I don’t know Alan Schulman, the Chairman/Chief Creative Officer of U.DIG > The Digital Innovations Group.  In fact rather oddly, I couldn’t even find a website for U.DIG.  That said, I did find tons of leads into Alan because he’s one socially networked animal: LinkedIn, iMedia–he’s all over it. His considerable digital credentials and creative background nicely inform this incredibly insightful piece he posted today for Video Insider.  Alan takes our industry’s current fascination with social networks and makes one very simple, incredibly salient point: people don’t want advertisers mucking up their social networks with banners ads, contextual messages, and all sort of other sales pitches.

Analytics and insights? Fine.  Blog scrapings?  Sure.  But actually intruding on these conversations with our brand messages?  That’s like paving the Serengeti: it’s entirely possible, but you’d ruin it.  Sure, brands have created a couple of clever little distractions and pages here and there in FaceBook.  Advertisers have also leveraged YouTube and Flickr in a few interesting ways.  But the best of those creative platforms have been opt in–not forced viewings.  Buttons, banners and pop ups started polluting the MySpace platform years ago and now they’re creeping into Facebook.

Quite rightly, Alan identifies social network communities as fragile creations–easily spooked herds that our very presence threatens to destroy.

Given this, the best social networking strategy for brands and agencies is fact-finding.  Social networks provide unfiltered, real-world, twenty-four/seven activity for smart planners and research analysts to mine.  If we protect these habitats, we can listen and learn about authentic opinions and values in ways that will inform our selling efforts in other, more selling-appropriate environments.  After all, social networking activity makes for a lousy sales aperture: people just aren’t in a buying mindset at those times in those places; they are talking with friends, trading information with colleagues, playing and bonding and sharing. Intruding on their personal relationships with our brands and messages will only alienate them…and marketers tend to agree that alienating your audience is a pretty lousy idea.

Instead, much like a nature photographer who stalks big game in a wildlife preserve with her camera, we should limit our hunting in these rich human ecosystems to listening, note taking, clipping and cutting and pasting.  Let’s consider a social network a resource, not a platform. Compared to the hapless artificiality of the tired old focus group, social networks contain natural conversations between like-minded people.  These are organizations built solely on shared interests or common values where members freely share opinions, ideas, and simple conversation.  Adopting a ‘leave no trace‘ approach by advertisers guarantees our social networks will remain incredibly valuable.

And naturally sustainable.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Where's The Conflict In Your Brand Story?

A few weeks back I mentioned I was re-reading Robert McKee’s tome “Story” in hopes of finding some fresh insights to tap into as we wrap our minds around the notion of Brand Stories.  Happily, two smart guys–Doug and George–posted thoughtful comments that helped sharpen my thinking…

First, Doug cited how Brand Stories rarely have a beginning, middle and end.  In the one-way world of the old push advertising model, that was not a problem–we told stories as closed loops.  But today’s social storytelling has no set story entry point nor any guidelines to keep stories consistent.  Doug also mentioned ‘listening’ as critical to making the story human and authentic–our ultimate goal for Brand Stories.

George was a bit more pointed–he wondered if I ever actually did plow through McKee’s voluminous tome.  Truth be told?  Nope, not this time.  In the end, McKee focuses too heavily on screenwriting for my purposes.  Still, he makes some salient points, most regarding the critical aspects of motivation and character: issues our industry all too often ignores.

Something Tells Me There's More To This Story Conflict Too

Something Tells Me There's More To This Story Conflict Too

So I dug deeper into my closet, checking out old writing books and eventually turning up a copy of Linda Seger’s Making A Good Script Great.   Her book has two advantages: it’s shorter and it’s paperback. Plus, it focuses on conflict–the key element to any story.

Linda wants her students to find the conflict in their stories, and to do so, she helpfully breaks them down into five types: inner, relational, social, situational, and cosmic.

Practically speaking, I didn’t get a lot out of her list–aside from thinking that ‘Cosmic Conflict’ would make a pretty cool band name.  Still, I like her challenge to identify your story conflict, and so I started applying it to some of our clients.  Not surprisingly, the client brands that consistently inspire our best work have easily-identified conflicts.  For Harris Bank, the source of conflict would be impersonal, disengaged banks.  For Cricket Wireless, the conflict is a cellular version of “The Man”–uncaring, disdainful, gouging to our customers.  And for Amway–a company that had never really advertised and became an all-too-easy punchline–the conflict is misperception.  These conflicts underpin each brand’s respective tagline: “We’re Here to Help,” “Respekt for You,” and “Now You Know.”

You can have great variety among the brand stories you and your audience generate, as long as you have a well-defined conflict rooting them to a similar theme.  And if you know the conflict, it really doesn’t matter where people enter along your story path–if the conflict stays consistent, story beginnings, middles and ends don’t really matter.

The conflict for the advertising industry’s story right now is convergence.  Interestingly, that’s also the answer.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Maybe We Should Leave Copernicus Out of Advertising

Just Your Typical 16th Century Heliocentric Mad Man...

Just Your Typical 16th Century Heliocentric Mad Man...

Ten to fifteen years ago, some very smart leaders in the advertising industry drove a Copernican shift; a conscious move away from a well-established mindset that put client brands at the center, to one that put the consumer at the center.

The thinking was that brand efforts should revolve around the consumer, with their needs as paramount to all brand decision-making.

It made a lot of sense.  And with regard to many aspects of advertising, it still does.  For instance channel and media planning must put the consumer at the center of all of their efforts, insuring our messages reach their chosen audiences.  Similarly, R&D and new product innovation works far more effectively when serving a strategic intent.

But yesterday, I was discussing the relative merits and challenges of converting the agency to a position centered around brand stories with Lance Hill, one of our creative planners.  In the midst of our conversation, he suddenly stopped, cocked his head the way a German Shepherd might when it catches an intriguing scent, then mused “If we commit to brand stories, then we can’t put the consumer at the center–the center must be the brand if we want our stories to be authentic.”

That’s heresy!  Outrageous!  And of course, entirely correct; brands that pretend to be something they are not in hopes of tapping into some perceived zeitgeist are the equivalent of politicians who swing through the Southern states and suddenly add “y’all” to their vocabulary.  It is dishonest, over-reaching and false.

The best brand stories are authentic: deeply so, with all the idiosyncracies and quirks of the people behind them.  So in honor of Lance, who coincidentally celebrates a birthday this weekend, let me direct you to one of his favorite brand stories: the Adidas/Run DMC story told by Reverend Run himself.  Fascinating, profane, illegal…and unflinchingly honest.  It’s far from my story, but four pairs later, this is my brand.  Enjoy.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Whole New (Planning) Mind…or…Fun With Context

The best planners demonstrate what Daniel Pink coined “A Whole New Mind”; they pull together seemingly disparate ideas to reveal something new and imminently useful. Sure, planners still turn to old standbys like syndicated research, but the most inspiring and creative ones comb all sorts of digital sources for insights. (On a separate note: can we finally please kill focus groups?  That methodology is sooo over…)

Not Actual Size

Not Actual Size

The vast amounts of user generated content on the web provide easy entry into the personal lives, interests and values of various people.  Sites like Flickr and YouTube hold a wealth of visual information, much of it within innocuous background detail, letting us inspect homes, offices, desks–even purses.  Since few people activate their security settings, Facebook and MySpace provide detailed troves of personal opinions, such as which TV shows they like, and which they claim to be ‘fans’ of. Comb www.search.twitter.com and you quickly learn who mentions you, plus what else they are twittering about, who they follow, and in turn, who those people follow.  Even something like Pandora can be illuminating: anyone who has ever shared a dorm room knows musical tastes reveal inordinate amounts of deeply personal information.

Handled clumsily, this is all merely deck-clogging data.  Considered creatively however, an insightful planner can extrapolate meaningful human truths to shore up one very critical aspect of every brand story: the context.  When planners draw fresh personal insights from these unfiltered sources, they guide creatives and insure the brand stories they craft will be deeply relevant and meaningful to their audiences…that they will gibe harmoniously with their lives.

After all, while most people like stories, everybody loves stories about themselves.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Flawed Characters, Authentic Brands and Tom Waits' Perfectly Imperfect Voice

Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young: most reasonable people would accept the argument that the three of them together don’t add up to a single great vocalist.  And yet as rock singers, each reigns sublime in their own right.  How is that?

As noted by critic Daniel Durchholz

Said by critic Daniel Durchholz...as praise.

We respond to their idiosyncracy, their remarkability, their singularity. We respond to them much like we respond to characters in a story; if they were perfect, we wouldn’t care because they wouldn’t feel realistic, but a flawed hero gets us every time. The imperfections, the shortcomings, the blatant failings draw us in, make us relate, and flesh out these characters as believable people. Like us.

As we create brand stories instead of mere campaigns, we need to tap into this sense of what makes a hero human and tie that to our products or services. The challenge lies in convincing a client that admitting, or even touting imperfections will actually increase relatability; with marketing dollars at a premium, few want to invest the time, money and effort in anything short of high-gloss perfection.  After all, manufacturers value perfection.  Their assembly lines eliminate inconsistencies and hone tolerances to microns.  Yet when deep rows of exactitude crowd shelf after shelf in our superstores, the imperfect product creates the most interest.  This  fuels the rise of the handmade movement and outfits like etsy.com but that’s probably fodder for another post.

As advertisers, we can serve this simple truth best by bringing humanity to our brand stories in terms of authenticity: not perfection, not idealization, but authenticity.

For a great example of that, go to the iTunes store, punch up Tom Waits and just listen to the sample for his song “Gun Street Girl.”  Listen to the hard-edged experience limning his gravelly growl and you tell me this isn’t a man who knows a thing or two about dying his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco or getting liquored up on roadhouse corn.  Bless him…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

JK Rowling? Seven Books. JK Rowling Fans? 74,996 Stories–And That's Only Counting Three Websites…

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City     

Quebec City’s Lovely Chateau Frontenac

Think about that for a moment…  In addition to the 300 million copies of her books, the five movies and DVD’s, the action figurescollector’s edition wands, costumes, boardgames, trading cards and the rest of the commemorative junk heap our pop culture creates for consumers to buy, Harry Potter fans so adore Joanne Kathleen Rowling’s stories and characters that they generate additional stories of their own…a LOT of them.  A mere three websites–here, here, and here–accounted for seventy-five thousand fan-generated stories about Harry, Hermione and the rest of the Hogwarts gang.  And that is far from a comprehensive number; it doesn’t begin to include fan-generated artwork, websites, videos or the other 3.37 million Google results returned for “Harry Potter Fan Fiction.”

Today’s technology empowers a participatory social culture.  If we want our clients’ brands to thrive in today’s 24/7, show and tell world, we need to create brand stories consumers not only relate to and enjoy, but also want to share and customize.  Just a few years ago, corporate lawyers would have pounced to squelch this type of activity; today smart brands try to foster its growth positively, and ideally profitably.

That’s where the magic lies.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Better Brands Tell Better Stories

Who doesn’t love a good story?  Something that makes you laugh, that surprises you or fascinates you.  In very real ways, good stories change the way you perceive the world around you.  They always have.   Our ancestors shared their stories, huddled in small groups around their long-lost antediluvian firepits.  And so it continues today, as we gather virtually around the flickering light of cathode ray, CRT or LCD screens, still swapping tales and thoughts and anecdotes.  Stories distinguish the human race from all other life on Earth.  They humanize us.

Grab a S'more and Lemme Tell You About My Brand...

Grab a S'more and Lemme Tell You About My Brand...

In a socially-networked world, stories humanize brands as well.  Today’s advertising agencies must recognize this truth and fashion brand communications in ways that make them easy to share and extend.  Because what are planning insights but a means to create powerful context for brand stories?  What is creative but a means to insure your brand story sticks in listeners’ minds and encourages repetition and pass along?  Intuitively, we’ve been telling brand stories for years, but today when so many buying decisions are influenced by the stories and endorsements of our friends and neighbors—those we choose to bring into our circle—honing those stories to increase the likelihood of passing them along powers real brand success.

All of which means that  in this two-way world of recommendation and consumer participation, simply telling those stories does not go far enough.  Today, whether or not we actively propagate narratives about our brands, brand stories develop and expand on their own, and not always in ways we like.  When that happens, when brand stories wander too far away from the core brand truth we hope to seed, agencies must intervene and redirect them.  This intervention and redirection requires fast-acting and influential word-of-mouth outreach.  By directly engaging in consumer conversations, savvy agencies can correct or at least improve brand perceptions far more quickly and effectively.

At Element 79, we have been very fortunate to partner on some of our brands with Paul Rand’s band of WOM experts at Zocalo Group.  And our client stories are far better for it; more actively tended, more actively encouraged, more personally engaged.  While many tools exist to measure brand conversations online, we need to go further and try to influence and encourage them.  To reconfigure an analogy Seth Godin made in his book Tribes, this is the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat: one measures, but the other actually creates change.

So…heard any good brand stories lately?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Do You Have A Traditional Agency or Just Traditional Expectations?

“Traditional agencies are dead.  Blah, blah, blah…”  Yeah, I get it.  But just like yesterday’s tired cliche of the misinformed: “Big Agencies are dead”, I don’t buy this notion either, because upon review, I can’t name a single ‘traditional’ agency.  These days, everyone plays in the digital space, everyone has some experience with online or event or email platforms.  So anyone who hires organizations to develop ideas for them shouldn’t be surprised when those organizations think beyond TV, radio and print.tradition1

And yet that attitude persists.  Clients have been so deeply schooled in the need for specialists that the concept that anyone might imagine outside their own particular box seems remarkable, even revolutionary.

This makes no sense.  Sure, we often engage specialty partners at our agency, and I’m usually very glad for their expertise and experience.  But as someone who dreams things up for a living, I have a problem with “agencies” that restrict themselves to tightly-defined boundaries like “digital” or “multi-cultural.”  At one time in our industry history, they were definitely necessary to drive change, but these days, convergence renders these sorts of agency delineations as increasingly dated.  A digital production house?  Sure, but a digital agency?  Why would a client want to hire a craftsman with just one wrench in their toolbox?  The leading digital agencies continue to staff up with traditionally-trained creatives to meet clients’ needs for TV and other ‘traditional’ media.  Today, any organization that delivers ideas can’t legitimately claim to think solely in one channel.   If so, then they limit their creativity to specific formats that serve their specialty instead of their brands.  

The conceit that only a viral agency can make viral videos is patently absurd: our “Ballgirl” film for Gatorade was last Summer’s biggest viral hit.  The conceit that content must come from a separate agency makes no sense: we created a seven episode online series that followed the US Soccer Women’s team on their successful quest for the Gold last year.  We developed games for clients big and small, we built video and flash based rich media banners, Facebook apps, MySpace programs, and Super Bowl events.  When we turn for production help from outside vendors, they are the same vendors outsourced by specialist firms.

A bubbling human imagination obeys no borders or limitations as it dreams up new possibilities.  If there still are any “traditional” agencies in America, they face imminent extinction.

That said, every evolving agency dealing with convergence and working to establish their reputation in new areas has one looming responsibility: selling themselves.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Access: The Untapped Advantage Agencies Should Leverage More Actively

“Big agencies are dead, blah, blah, blah…”  Yeah, I get it.  The dunning weight of overhead slows a big agency’s ability to innovate even as our world splits and multiplies into all sorts of constructs with the ferocious intensity of paramecium on fertility drugs.  Dozens of new ventures pop up every week in the form of micro-agencies, unbundled specialists, project freelancers, and that flexible catchall moniker—marketing consultants.  Nimble and quick, these new marketing offerings boast an obvious advantage in cost and flexibility.

But the hard truth in any idea business remains that innovation first flowers in individual minds.  And those individuals can work literally anywhere, from big agency structures to someone at her desk in the basement.

223The key difference separating those two individuals is access.  Thinkers in big agencies have a direct pipeline to the clients that buy and implement their ideas; freelancers stand outside the gates, working phones and email, hoping to gain an audience.  So while large agencies battle negative assumptions related to speed and innovation, their client access provides a clear leg up.

Which is where the ‘big agencies are dead’ diatribe comes up short: an idea without an audience may as well be a daydream.  Big agencies have more access and, to an ever-varying extent, the advantage of trust.  Or at least the occasional indulgence.

Obviously that access can disappear at any time; management changes, CMO’s come and go, acquisitions create redundancies.  To some degree, all of us have learned to adapt to this environmental volatility.

But for today we have access.  Today we have an open door.  And while we have it, we need to keep beating that door down with ideas.

Because sooner or later, one of those crazy new agency alternatives will crack it open and earn an audience.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

PS:  Of course, there is a post script regarding those instances when brand managers and CMO’s decide to throw open their doors and invite anyone in to pitch ideas.  And it relates to both the promise and the problem of this kind of crowdsourcing.  On one hand, you greatly enhance the sheer volume of creative ideas to consider.  But on the other, you assume responsibility for managing those ideas, providing cogent feedback, cajoling them into full development, and determining which will be best of the lot.  It’s a situation akin to sending personal notes to all of your friends on Facebook; it’s daunting, slow, and exhausting.  Why should you take on those headaches?  

That’s what you hire an agency for…

Wondering What The Future Might Hold For Your Agency? Read About Newspapers.

A good friend forwarded this link to a fascinating blog post by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody.  It is longish, but if you are at all interested in the changing agency landscape, Shirky’s insights on these waning days of newspapers provide a valuable analogy to the challenges advertising currently faces.  Or doesn’t.

Or We Might Want To Find Another Way Across

Or Perhaps We Should Find Another Way Across

Shirky posits that while newspapers clearly saw the internet coming well over a decade ago, they didn’t respond by rethinking and reinventing their product along new paths but rather tried to fabricate fanciful profit models rooted in the old habits, even though those old habits were already changing and would most likely accelerate.

Shirky makes many fascinating points (and reading the following excerpt does not excuse you from reading his original post) but I found this the most trenchant for our current situation:

“When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry.  Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse.  This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times.  One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.”

I won’t pretend I have the answer to the agency world’s challenges…yet.  But I think we can draw some pretty helpful analogies between the advertising and newspaper industries, and hopefully learn some lessons from their struggles. And so to prepare for advertising’s future, I will force myself to think some unthinkable thoughts.

And I do not think of myself as Chicken Little, because I don’t think the sky is falling.

Actually, it could be opening up…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79