As a cutting edge communicator, you need to know what is happening. You need to understand the changes. You need to see how they will impact on your own creative thinking process, because they will.
Strategies and briefs
The joke goes something like this: a copywriter and an account director were visiting a client in Paris. The copywriter asked the account director how to get to the client's office, and the account director handed him a map of Europe.
Too often, conventional agency methodologies produce strategies and briefs which are meaningless. Strategy is probably the most abused word in advertising.
A strategy is not a request to produce a campaign. It should be the blueprint for the campaign, the path through the mine field.
What is a strategy? Simply put, if the objective is to get to New York, the strategic options are (a) take a plane, (b) take a bus, (c) take a train, or (d) drive there. If the client, the account director, the planner and the creative director all agree that taking a bus would be the best way to achieve the objective, that is the strategy. If the writer and art director decide to take a plane instead, they are off-strategy.
The analogy is crude, perhaps, but it makes the point. And a lot of creative work has to happen before the actual creative work can begin.
Simon Sherwood defines a strategy as the single starting point for the creative process. "Good strategies are very liberating, as opposed to very constraining. They should have a very clearly framed proposition from which the advertising can leap and a very clear direction in which the advertising can move."
Providing that single starting point is a very distinct skill. The account director and planner, often in consultation with the client, must make a series of decisions before reaching a judgement about what the advertising has to say. All too frequently, their thinking process will have been governed by logic and the rules of the category. Unless there is room for intuitive thinking, and lateral thinking, chances are their strategy will be a cookie-cutter replica of everyone else in the category.
"The trouble with logic, process and analysis," explains Sherwood, is that everyone tends to end up in the same place. In the last ten years, our industry has been too concerned with things that can be measured. Too much value has been placed on research and getting consumer approval. People are frightened of making mistakes. With intuition goes risk." Sherwood hopes that clients and agencies can become less reliant on data, less reliant on analysis. "They must become more confident of their own ability to make judgements."
Intuitive, entrepreneurial judgements still drive the most successful marketing exercises, believes Ian Batey, from building an airline around a girl to something as bizarre as turning miners' boots into disco clogs. "We've got so much information at our fingertips, so much data, and we get driven along by it, that we forget that marketing and strategies are still esoteric things. Marketing is not a science, marketing is an art."
If the strategy is a mirror image of everyone else in the category, the creativity will suffer a similar fate.
If the strategy breaks new ground in the category, the creativity will, too.
As Ezra Pound said, "Make it new for me."
The ways brands are built, and the ways their personalities are defined and developed, are changing. In some quarters, the changes are radical; in other companies, imperceptible. Without question, though, their impact on creativity will be substantial.
According to conventional wisdom, companies used to work with a statement of the brand. It was carved in stone. This is what the brand is now. This is what it will be forever.
Some marketers would identify the single point of product difference. It, too, would be carved in stone. It would be the pillar on which all advertising was built. Now and forever, amen.
In recent years, the first cracks in the matrix appeared.
"It was amazingly constraining," argues Rod Wright of BDDP. "You cannot live on simple product differences in today's world. You cannot be so dogmatic about a brand and hope to stay relevant. As the consumer changes, how do you then shift your relationship?"
According to convention, the brand's personality is also carved in stone, and usually in an arbitrary way.
Stow has a horror of briefs which connect a list of adjectives to the brand personality. "They're meaningless," she says. The most commonly used include: Warm, Friendly, Innovative, Stylish, Caring, Contemporary, Dynamic. Pick any three or use them all.
"People are trying to establish a personality, but what they can't get their heads around is change." Stow draws an analogy with a human being. "You can't write down and fix in time that this person will always be X, Y and Z. A much more useful way of thinking about a brand is giving the sense of a living person, how they will grow and develop." She cites Tango as an example: "Tango can stay real-life, urban, young, streetwise, a bit of a lad. These quintessential characteristics can continue. The brand might dress slightly differently, and behave slightly differently, but fundamentally it will always be the young lad on the street."
Obviously a brand cannot keep changing, otherwise nothing will be built for the long term. It has to have some kind of structure. The question is, what kind?
"It should not be rigid. You have to build elasticity into a brand," Wright advocates. "You have to know what you can stretch with the consumer, and what is unstretchable."
As Wright points out, all successful companies and brands have core values. The task is to identify other values, other things, which the consumer would give you permission to change.
Wright likens the ideal consumer relationship to a rope. "Once, the convention was to build a rigid brand structure, with a rigid connection to the consumer. But in today's marketplace, the consumer is exposed to a constant stream of different stimuli. Their view will be moving. The brand will need to respond. So you have to allow for movement in the relationship. The consumer can move, the brand can move, but a rope keeps them connected."
Wright believes ropes are made when marketers communicate not so much what they make, but what they believe in. "Mercedes-Benz stands for brilliant product. Volvo says safety. What do other car makers stand for? There are blanks behind their brands. Brands should have points of view to which consumers are sympathetic."
Author Will Self once spoke of a coinage of sympathy: "I completely identify with that sentiment or that idea or that experience and I've never heard it articulated to me in exactly that way." By residing its brand in the soul of the athlete, Nike commanded such sympathies. When consumers discovered that sports shoes were allegedly made in offensive Asian sweatshops, the coinage was devalued.
Richard Kirshenbaum and Jonathan Bond describe brands as communities of users. Great brands, they argue, have a cultish quality, bonding consumers to the brand through a sense of belonging. A perfect example is Harley-Davidson, which has engendered a sense of community beyond its physical products, a virtual blood brotherhood where users are members.
Brand elasticity, ropes, communities of users, coinages of sympathy: dangerous talk indeed, and certainly not the way things are supposed to be. But if we reject the old brand building models, and all their conventional baggage, what lies ahead? More heresy?
What you will find is a return to the days when marketers trusted their innate intelligence. New brand building methodologies are pragmatic. Certainly, intuition and risk-taking are at their heart. But so, too, are the painful lessons derived from propping up antiquated brand structures.