I remember years ago, the first week I started work, as an account executive in advertising. I was sitting in a training room, attending a workshop about how to define an idea in the context of advertising. All the new account executives, copywriters and designers took notes diligently on the various aspects and dimensions that our trainer indicated, to define a valid advertising idea. Then we split into breakout sessions, in small teams, to brainstorm ideas for a TV commercial. I remember a young, talented copywriter in my team was very frustrated because he could not decide if some of the thoughts he had could qualify as an advertising idea.
“Is this an idea? I don’t think it fits into the criteria that we were just discussing,” he asked as he showed me an idea he’d had.
I said, “Of course this is an idea. It is a thought that solves the business problem in a smart way that people will remember, no?” I was puzzled.
“Yes it does, but it does not fit with criteria three. It is not ‘campaignable’. I cannot see what the next TVC looks like under the same concept.”
He put his head in his hands in frustration and with a little sadness.
“But it solves the problem and it is very interesting, “ I said.
“Yes it does, but it is still not an idea,” He insisted.
I replied, “Well you can argue that this idea can be improved upon, but this one is definitely an idea. Why does it have to be campaignable?”
He responded with – “Campaignable ideas are what drive consistency for various TVCs and are the only way a brand can be built. Weren’t you in the class just now?“
I don’t really remember how the somewhat heated discussion ended, as it was a long time ago! But I remember having many fond memories of us having similar philosophical discussions with various teams over different topics.
It felt, that as young professionals, we spent more time debating if it was right or wrong by definition, and not enough time on whether the idea should be better, more effective, more engaging, or more compelling. We definitely did not spend any time debating if it must live on TV, or whether that idea solved any real business problems, disrupted any industry infrastructures, or created any opportunity to expand the brand’s influence as a service or utility. This vocabulary for what we must deliver for our clients now, simply did not exist.
I’ve always wondered why.
I now realise there is a tendency of our industry to over-complicate the recipe for creative success, or its philosophical definitions. This is probably a necessary inspiration for people like us who always think we are driven by greater purposes, or when we are building teams across geographies that needs philosophical consistency, like what we need to bring our 42 markets in Isobar together. It is perfectly fine, until such deific discussions overpower the original intent of creatively solving a real problem. This then becomes a rock solid barrier for innovations to happen, or for young challengers to create a different environment for new, atypical solutions.
I code for food…or not
So, let’s fast forward a little, from my trainee account executive days to when I decided to conduct my own little experiment, setting up a small digital agency in my native Taiwan.
In the first few years, there were always people asking me if I wanted to go back to work in a ‘proper’ advertising agency, and have a ‘real’ career.
Here are some sound-bites to set the scene from an exchange ( the other speaker will remain anonymous) I had when I had opened my new agency:
“It must be really difficult for you to work in a business with such limited client spending. Everything in digital or online is free isn’t it? It is very difficult for you to charge the client properly, right?”
“You will always have to follow the advertising idea, defined by someone else. Won’t you want to go back to an advertising agency? You will have much more influence with your digital knowledge.”
I didn’t want to go back to the traditional ad agency world and wait for the link test results to tell me what to do and how to do it. I needed the exciting, real-time feedback in digital to tell me if I was right, wrong or likely to be effective. I spent a lot of time smiling diplomatically back then.
More sound-bites came:
“You don’t want to see real-time results – that would mean you’d have to change your creative work, just to adapt to short-term results? That feels extremely tactical and is not strategic.”
“Why do you waste your life doing those small ideas, like banners? You should go back to a proper agency, doing big TVC work again.”
“Oh I know you also do microsites, but hey they are just not in the mainstream. And there are so many details you have to attend to with any single project.”
We were already doing many interesting non-campaign stuff. We designed experiences throughout the customer journey and helped to facilitate people to have a pleasant brand experience, or to finish the tasks easily. We were, in fact, at that time, launching and designing a brand new online banking service for a major international bank. I was very enthusiastic about it, but back then it was very difficult to get my friends in advertising interested.
“ I understand, for survival, you need to do so many boring things that are not creating an impact. I saw this photo of a poor man standing on the street and said he codes for food. Come back to advertising dear, you have such a great opportunity in a real agency.”
She gave me a hug before she left.
I know we did not code for food. And I don’t think, I know that the exciting journey of customer experience and platform design, when it is done right, can create a seismic impact on the fortunes of a business. But back then, I didn’t know how to make her understand.
Ideas Without Limits… Always
So, to the present day and the future of our industry.
Now I know that in 2015, most people would agree with what I’ve said thus far:
Technology has forever changed people’s relationships with brands.
Technology has forever changed how people connect with each other, and how we connect with brands. Technology has also enabled brands to play different roles beyond their physical product and service.
Technology and accessibility to information have changed how people form perceptions and opinions – in fact how culture itself is nurtured.
The partnership of digital and technology has become the DNA that underpins all human interactions and experiences. The blurred lines between content and media have changed how people make decisions, shop, love or reject brands and brand experiences, or even how people become famous.
The main jobs of building brands and helping our clients ‘close the sale’ have never been in closer proximity, in human history. We live in a new era – the era of brand commerce, where we build brands considering the notorious “last mile everywhere” every time.
Digital and technology liberate creativity, helping us free our minds and so create possibilities that can actually be realised. We are empowered to not just think of ideas without limits but to make them happen. We have the freedom to conceive ideas and enable them through technology; it’s possible to create truly borderless thinking—borderless across geographies and across specialist disciplines; We have the freedom to create not only content, but spaces where content meets transactions and brand experience meets innovation; spaces where people are empowered, turning the role of consumer into producer and brands into publishers.
In this new world how we come up with creative solutions has to change. We must embrace interactive and non-linear messaging. Hand-held device and mobility means everywhere; stories need to be told seamlessly across screens. And business ideas need to be nurtured through creativity, innovation, and imagination. Broadcast advertising is not necessarily part of the creative solution anymore.
In this new world, the role of a contemporary creative agency has to change. Change will not just go away and wait its turn, just as the fabled legendary King Canute failed to turn back the tides.
Agencies cannot simply perceive the evolution of our industry, beyond traditional advertising, as a simple move from ads to ‘content’. Agencies have to choreograph every step in the customer journey, and curate brand assets while gently accepting the fact that your brand equity is co-created, in real time, with users who you cannot control.
In this new world, the structure of a classic Creative Department needs to change. Only two major roles exist in a contemporary creative team: the storyteller and the software developer. We have to get used to the fact that game-changing ideas, at times, come not from the storyteller but the software developer. This is the real, exciting and fast-moving world we live in every day, at Isobar. And we like it that way.
Let’s rewind back to my first week at work, years ago. I agreed that creating ‘campaignable’ ideas is a smart approach, in a TV-centric world– a world that revolves around 3+ frequencies. People have very different requirements today in our complex, multi-screen world where people simply do not start their brand journey from a TV screen.
A recent example I have for you to consider is Fiat Live Store, which Isobar Brazil created for what is now Chrysler Fiat, an idea that went on to win the 2014 Cannes Innovation Gold Lion.
The original client briefing was to look for ways to attract more prospects to visit showrooms and register test drives. Instead of making an ad designed to convince people to do just that, the solution we presented was to design the first point-of-view online showroom, powered by world class human technology and product design — to create a new store experience and in fact a whole new business model.
This mould-breaking idea was aimed at solving a serious business challenge (in fact we have changed the way people buy cars) and is not an ad. And it cannot be campaign-able. We have not just broken the mould, we have thrown it away.
If I knew then what I know now, what could I have said to the young copywriter I met on my first day at work who was so torn by the definition of valid, “campaignable” advertising ideas?
I would probably say to him that life is more than the accumulation of memorable campaigns, rather, the relevance of connected experiences. Influence is more powerful than advertising, and creativity is much bigger than a script that smoothly runs into the next season. The role of creativity is to create solutions that solve business problems and turn those challenges into positive human experiences. In a world of influence, you cannot control your “campaigns”, and therefore should not cloud your common sense by a narrow definition of your creative ideas.
Great ideas create immediate results, in real-time. Great ideas reinforce brand narratives that inspire, connect and empower people. Great ideas naturally embrace data and technology to make them part of the human experience. Great ideas that transform complex business challenges into meaningful experiences can change people, culture, behaviors, and elevate what matters most: our lives.
And most of the time, the right solution to the actual problem, will not be an ad.
Digital liberates creative thinkers, with or without screens. It’s time to join the renaissance of our marketing communication industry, if you haven’t done so.
As we say at Isobar, “Long live ideas without limits.”
Jean Lin’s essay is published in full online at Gunnreport.com and in The Gunn Report book, published early March.