Category Archives: Strategy

Unshackling the Beast

Any seasoned nineteenth century explorer would tell you that there’s a world of difference between encountering a fully grown West African lion on the savannah, and seeing one at Astley’s Circus from the front row of the London Hippodrome. In the interest of providing entertainment, the circus industry had utterly domesticated, commoditised and institutionalised the poor beasts, leaving them caged, toothless and timid; pale reflections of their raw, animalistic glory.

And so it is with advertising and the commoditisation of creativity.

Advertising creativity is the art of the thirty second spot. Making sure the talent holds the product just so. Telling a joke in between two shows someone cares enough to watch. Making the picture sexy enough, the copy witty enough or the music catchy enough that advertising is forgiven for the intrusion of it’s very existence. Keeping the tills ringing, keeping the agency lights on, and keeping the madmen of today cosy in their Aeron chairs.

The naked flame of creativity, on the other hand, burns with a brilliance and passion that pays little regard to the carrier or their personal wellbeing. Raw creativity is the regular bedfellow of insanity, substance abuse, rejection, and people setting fire to you. None of which looks too good on a LinkedIn profile. It’s no wonder that advertising, in its quest to be a good, sensible business that gets invited to play golf with the chairman settles for ‘domesticated creativity’. The kind that will dance for the crowd, and roar on cue. Can we do the roar a little throatier, more like the roars the kids are listening to these days? Of course we can.

So perhaps (spoiler alert) advertising isn’t really that creative. Why do we care? Why not continue sticking a couple of failed novelists and wanna-be film makers into the darkest corner of the office, chain them to Macs, and carry on churning out ‘creative’ work?

Because, like the virgin savannah and the London Hippodrome, the business landscape has changed. We live in a world where Google can become your biggest competitor overnight; where you go to lunch and come back to find that three teenagers in a garage have invalidated your business model; where you worry less and less about your competitors, because at least you know who they are.

There are different ways to succeed in this new world – but maintaining the same old approach to communication isn’t one of them. Marketers are looking for bigger and better ideas. For ways to challenge the status quo and get on the front foot. Solutions that go deeper than advertising, to product innovation, process change, or even business disruption. And well they might, for only with this level of dynamic, responsive change can businesses hope to continue to compete.

So it’s time to unshackle creativity. To let loose the beast, and consequences be damned. But not quite, because we still have a job to do. We don’t want pure creativity, we want applied creativity. Creativity in the yoke of our business problem – strategic creativity, if you will. To get here we will still have to journey to the constantly liminal space between order and chaos where creativity lives.

To unlock this wellspring of potential, businesses need to be aware of the risks in dealing with more extreme forms of creativity. Their unpredictability doesn’t rest easily on a balance sheet. However, expecting agencies to take on the risk of creativity is naïve in a world of hardball procurement and continual pitching. Advertisers will need some skin in this game.

For their part, agencies (or at least those who want to play in the deep end of the pool) need to figure out how to do two things. Firstly, to create spaces in time and place that sit at the edge of chaos, the powerful and generative origin of creativity. Such spaces are exciting yet dangerous – approaches like ‘skunkworks’ and ‘labs’ suggest the difficulty of embedding them comfortably within an organisation. Secondly, we need to build a dynamic, iterative engagement between this creativity and the strategic lens of the problem to be solved. At Naked we strive to do this through the diversity and flexibility of the people we employ, through agile teams and processes, and always through the constant challenge to do things differently and better.

Perhaps a third challenge facing agencies is to wrap this strategic creativity in a layer of account service and an accountable, attractive financial model. This is left as an exercise for the reader.


– Originally published in AdNews | October 31st, 2014.

Technological Innovation and How to Avoid It

Don’t innovate.

Seriously, if you can get away without any innovative technology in your marketing, by all means do so. Marketers should use it as a last resort. This may sounds like heresy when we hear so much about it, but no one acknowledges the dark underbelly of innovation.

To understand just how abhorrent innovation really is, you need to consider the two different ways you can do it – the easy way and the hard way.

With the easy way, you take something that exists somewhere else, and repurpose it for marketing.

There are two catches with this. First, you need to be looking well outside the usual ‘research sphere’ to find an emerging technology to repurpose. This means spending a lot of time hanging around bio-technology trade shows and digital art conferences.

Then, when you find some fantastic novelty, you need to engage non-advertising partners to make it happen. That means companies that often don’t understand the timelines of ad campaigns or the foibles of CMOs.

That may sound problematic, but it pales in comparison to the hard way. This is the real deal, where a truly new invention is born, within a piece of marketing.

Recent Australian examples would include Finch’s ‘Donation Glasses’ for the Pedigree Adoption Drive and Snepo’s ‘Fundawear’ for Durex. We saw something we’d never seen before, and we saw it in a piece of advertising. So just how bad is this ‘real’ innovation?

Think about it like this. First you have to invest significant resources well ahead of the curve. Second, this investment is high risk with no guarantee you’ll actually develop something viable. Third, there’s the struggle to protect your IP from knock-off happy competition. And finally, while most innovation pays off through scale, you’ll have difficulty getting much re-use out of your innovation in the novelty-obsessed world of advertising.

With all this doom and gloom is there ever a time when innovation is justified? Absolutely.

There are many reasons to push the limits of creative marketing through technological innovation. From invigorating a stale category to breaking through as a new entrant, from forcing brand re-evaluation to simply differentiating yourself in a cluttered market.

If you do find yourself going down this road, here’s three simple tips to minimise the pain:

  • Innovate the product, not the communication. Nike+ (and Nike Fuel) is a great example of a technology innovation that has created ongoing business value.
  • Make your agency do the hard work. Someone has to invest resources and  take on risk. Surely that’s the kind of reckless behaviour you pay your agency for?
  • Acknowledge that technology innovation isn’t the same as everyday marketing, nor is it the same as product development (unless you’re a technology company).

So getting it right probably means treating it differently – breaking with the traditional process to create Skunkworks-style operations where innovative magic can happen.

It can be done, the proof is there for all to see. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Fire Your Creatives. Hire Innovatives.

By and large, advertising is an industry of convention.  The creative teams at the core of many agencies have changed little since Bernbach put art director and copywriter together in the ‘50s. So it should give us pause to see the diversity of work being lauded as successful advertising at Cannes in recent years.

There is certainly still a core of ‘traditional’ work. Beautifully crafted, well-told stories and eloquently expressed ideas – from Nike’s ‘Find your greatness’ to ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ and the eloquently simple Coca-Cola ‘Hands’. This is the work we expect from a copywriter who is able to turn a phrase, working with an art director who can turn that phrase into something visually compelling.

There are other well-told stories that draw on reality in unexpected ways – from Dove’s ‘Real beauty sketches’ to the Macedonian ‘10 metres apart’. If our copywriter and art director are to create work like this they need to be able to dig deep into our psyche and behaviour, unearthing insights rather than expecting to be handed them. And this is exactly what the best creative teams bring to the table.

The last type of work is of a very different nature. It’s hard to categorise because of the diversity of shapes it takes. It can be a fitness platform built on a wearable product innovation (Nike+ FuelBand), a radio show that repels mosquitoes (Go Outside), or a LED-covered car that vanishes as it drives by (Mercedes ‘Invisible F-CELL’).

While very different, these share a common trait. In every case, creativity has been applied not just to the content of the work, but to its form or function. Each breaks with what is expected, by deploying technology in new and unusual ways. And while this work rarely comes from traditional agencies, increasingly clients are turning to those agencies to deliver it.

The problem is that this requires a very different set of skills. Rather than crafting beautiful stories in established formats, it needs a deeper understanding of how those formats and technologies actually work, to challenge conventions and create new ways of doing things. This is the difference between creativity and innovation.

If we are expecting our creative teams to deliver innovation, we need to make sure they have the necessary skills. That means less storytelling and more tinkering. Less deep craft and more curiosity about how things work.  If we want this kind of thinking in our creative teams – and that’s the place it needs to be, right at the core of our ideas process – we need to stop hiring traditional creatives and start hiring ‘innovatives’. Creative generalists who surprise us with how far their thinking stretches.

Unfortunately, these innovatives are unlikely to be able to create a witty, well-crafted TV spot or a powerful, moving long-copy ad. And unless you work for a very edgy agency, there’s still plenty of that to be done. So let’s not fire all of the creatives just yet.

Which leads to an interesting thought. What we haven’t seen much of at Cannes is work that uses the storytelling craft of our more traditional creatives in concert with the functional innovation of innovatives. Having a suitable balance of people will be hard, and building processes that get them working together will be harder still. But agencies that succeed are the ones we’ll be writing about a few years from now.

Rogering your Agency

Good work comes from the marriage of a client, an agency, and a brand.

While a certain degree of friction can be productive, it’s important that the union also has plenty of common ground. Is it a Tom Jones and romantic dinners kind of marriage? Or more German techno and leather underwear?

One of the big factors to consider in searching for the perfect match is how innovative you want to be – both in your general approach to marketing, and to technology specifically.

The easiest way to think about this as a marketer is by placing yourself, your brand, and the agencies you work with on the well-known Rogers’ diffusion of innovation curve – from innovators through to laggards.

When deciding where you and your brand fall on the curve, it’s important to remember that there is no single ‘right’ answer. Not every brand should be at the bleeding edge.

There are opportunities (and challenges) at every stage on the curve. What you need to be sure of is that your agencies are comfortable playing in your part of the curve – otherwise the marriage is headed for confusion.

It’s also important to realise that your position is not permanent. Brands like Old Spice and Volkswagen have shown that a concerted effort can dramatically reposition a ‘tired’ brand through innovation.

Conversely, it’s not unusual to watch previously ‘edgy’ brands become mainstream, often in the search for larger markets.

If you see yourself toward the innovative end of the curve when it comes to marketing your brand, you need to consider whether you place yourself before or after what Moore described as the ‘chasm’ separating ‘visionaries’ from ‘pragmatists’. On one side are innovative visionaries like Red Bull and Burger King, venturing into unchartered territory and risking failure.

On the other side are progressive pragmatists like McDonalds and Nike, who may never be the first, but will strive constantly to be the best.

The way many agencies approach problems tends to situate them in a particular part of the curve. There are hype-chasing ‘pre-chasm’ agencies, constantly pushing the limits and creating new possibilities. There are strategic, progressive ‘post-chasm’ agencies adopting leading innovative best practice. And there are agencies who deploy tried and tested approaches and advertising technologies – including those that make some of the best and most effective (traditional) advertising in the world.

A good match is one between a client, an agency and a brand that is based on a shared point of view on innovation.

Get it right and you can build powerful brand communication. Get it wrong and you can end up looking like a grandmother wearing hot pants, arguing about Justin Bieber.

Why I’m still pro KONY2012

I don’t know enough about African politics to know how great an evil Joseph Kony is.
I don’t know enough about charity financials to critique Invisible Children’s accounts.
But I do believe the KONY2012 campaign was an important moment, and indeed a force for good.

We are supposed to live in a democracy, for the most part. That doesn’t just mean we get to put a ballot in a box once every few years. It means that we, as the people, get to contribute to the way our society operates. And an important part of any democracy is the people understanding the mechanism through which they can exercise that power, and believing that power is real.

Once, we believed that we truly exercised that power through voting. In its purest form democracy is driven by the popular vote and our elected officials. And that still plays an important role. But last century many lost faith in government and we saw the emergence of protest movements. A new generation found power through new means – the march, the sit-in, the hunger strike… the tools of the protest generation.

The anti-war protests during the Howard years were a clear demonstration that the protest era – the time of ‘people power’ in that sense – was past. Social movements that wished to contest the actions of their government had to find new ways to do so. When groups of citizens decide to act on their beliefs and try and change things for the better, they draw on a ‘repertoire of contention’ – a set of tools and techniques for bringing about change. This repertoire is constantly evolving – we see new types of organisations, and new ways of contesting power. The protest march was an 19th century European innovation in response to particular situations that then diffused around the world to be deployed by many groups in many contexts.

I believe the KONY2012 campaign is significant not because of the impact it had around a particular issue, but because of the way it expanded the repertoire of contention. It showed us how affordable, accessible skills can be more successfully deployed to engage people and work toward change. It pulled aside the arcane black curtain of marketing a little, to democratise some of the techniques and strategy previously reserved for corporate advertisers.

The largest impact of KONY2012 will not be the swelling of Invisible Children’s coffers. It won’t be the additional international pressure on Joseph Kony. It won’t even be the dramatic increase in engaged popular discourse around Uganda, and Africa more broadly. The largest impact of the campaign will be the way it influences the next Amnesty campaign. The elements that find their way into the next World Vision campaign. The communications thinking that starts to inform the work of local action groups and special interest lobbies.

You might not agree with what all these groups are working to achieve, but their ability to draw on tools that provide access to power is what breathes life into democracy. In a time when people are increasingly disaffected with party politics, as we explore new ways of shaping tomorrow, we are best served the broadest repertoire of contention possible .

Who knows, you may need it one day too.

Creativity, domain specificity, and sandpaper

Some time ago, I bought a copy of Hoopla, a wonderful book produced by Crispin, Porter + Bogutsky – arguably one of the most creative agencies on the planet. When it arrived I was delighted and disgusted to find it sleeved in fine grained sand paper. This made handling the book an unsettling experience, and resulted in an awareness and engagement I have seen with few books before or since. I think that most people whohave encountered the book will probably have enjoyed similarly strong reactions, and probably discussed it with others. Consensus is that it is another creative idea from CP+B.

I was then, a little surprised to read in Kale Lasn's equally stunning tome Design Anarchy, that "[Guy] Debord had his book Memoires bound in heavy sandpaper so that when it was placed on the shelves of libraries, it woudl destroy other books." My initial reaction was a mixture of delight in Debord's somewhat twisted plan, and disappointment that perhaps CP+B had not been as creative as I thought. Which got me to thinking…

We value originality as a key part of creativity, but is 'domain originality' sufficient for creativity? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that creativity is "any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain". Based on this, as long as we believe that Debord's work (a critical theory tract) and CP+B (an ad industry coffee table book) reside in different domains, then CP+B are 'being creative', even if they do so by transplanting an idea from another domain. in truth, it is through this cross-pollination of ideas across domain boundaries that much interesting creative work is done – but always with the question of 'real originality' hanging over it.

What makes creativity and originality in the end, and are the two the same? Is creativity an observed consequence, in the eye of the beholder, or is it an absolute on which creatives can be judged?

PS. It should be pointed out that since Hoopla is effectively a 'memoir' of the first few years of CP+B's work (which has been a collection of what can only be described as 'spectacle'), and as such borrowing a technique from a work by the author of 'Society of the Spectacle' constitutes a very obscure form of inter-textual reference. Does this make CP+B less guilty of 'idea theft', if such a concept is even relevant? Can they have their high-brow cake and eat it too? Yet again, the bastards demonstrate truly deviously creative depth, damn them!

Harnessing social media flash-fads

Kate @ Stickywood recently invited me to write a guest post for her blog, talking about branded content. Unable to resist any soapbox opportunity (thanks Kate ;), I thought it might be fun to think about the opportunity that transitory digital 'micro-fads' present to brands…

Alright, who's old enough to remember 'All Your Base Are Belong to Us'? Back in 2001, AYBABTU was one of the first 'internet memes', fads based on creating, sharing and remixing content around a specific idea or theme. Since then we've seen everything from dancing hamsters and leet-speaking cats to Diet Coke+Mentos cocktails and the comeback of the most exciting and dynamic musical genius of recent times.
Digital media and the internet have provided us with easy means to make our own digital content and remix content from other sources. The advent of online communities and social networks has dramatically increased the ease with which we can share this material.

These technological facilities have fuelled our passion for participative fads. Driven by the desire to share rituals, to have a sense of belonging and purpose (however transitory and apparently superficial), we seek out new social content and forms of social play. The speed with which we can discover and exploit novelty has increased with each new form of social technology, compressing the adoption curve until we now move from inception through cool to lame in a matter of weeks if not days.

The integration of creative facility with social connection in digital platforms like facebook, MySpace and flickr allows anyone to spark a social fad that might be picked up and spread to social circles far beyond their own. Some time back it became all the rage to tag inanimate objects as your friends in facebook. More recently flickr and facebook have become home to a plethora of fake album covers created based on a simple random process. If you feel the urge to share a little something of yourself, you might alternately like to upload a photo of the books you keep beside the bed.

The important thing about each of these flash-fads is that not only are they interesting to participate in passively (are people actually still reading Nicholas Negroponte, at bedtime no less?), they are almost as easy to participate in actively. Perhaps the most challenging thing is to identify those things that have not yet climbed to the dizzying heights of fad-dom, and predict which have the qualities that will capture the imaginations of thousands of followers. In a recent glimpse into a facebook profile (hi Greer!), I stumbled across a remixed Mr Men graphic where you can tag each character as one of your friends… I'd never seen it before, but watch this space.

These faddish spaces provide a rich, fertile territory that is reminiscent of Barthes' notion of a ‘writerly text’, constantly open to interpretation and engagement. It is little wonder, then, that they are so appealing to communications professionals looking for vectors through which to deliver brand meaning. Those who remember cherishing their Coke yoyo will appreciate how powerful a tool these trend-based vectors can be. But what role can (and should) a brand play, in this environment? Where are brands welcome (and even invited), and where will their involvement be perceived as intrusive and unwanted?

There are perhaps three different points that a brand can become involved in a flash-fad, determined by what point the fad is at when the brand engages. Asking which point a brand should become involved is an important question, as different brands have different appetites for innovation. As Grant McCracken discusses in ’Flock and Flow’, some brands thrive on the cutting edge of trends, others are more at home with the mass consumption of the late majority. Misunderstanding the nature of a brand, or leaping onto a flash-fad at the wrong point can be detrimental to the image of the brand and its relationship with consumers.

For most brands, the most obvious approach with flash-fads is 'jumping on the bandwagon', getting aboard a fad-in-progress, and riding the wave to mass popularity. The challenge here is timing and brand fit – if you can locate a suitable trend, the window of opportunity is often narrower than marketing departments need to deploy a campaign. More ambitious is creating your own fad, wading into the murky social waters and sparking your own outrageously successful participative trend. History does not record the many (many) failures, but examples like Burger King's Simpsonize Me show that it can be done.

An interestingly post-modern twist is the option of critically re-interpreting (or remixing) a trend that has already moved through the innovation cycle. Public imagination was captured by Improv Everywhere's mass performance happening Frozen Grand Central. The act was clearly the inspiration for the less-than-inspiring promotional stunt for the launch of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in Australia. That effort felt derivative, and in every way 'less' than the original. A much more engaging spin was T-Mobile's tongue-in-cheek dance commercial which remixed and responded to the original in an innovative and imaginative way.

With the creative and connective power of digital technology only likely to increase, it seems inevitable that flash-fads will become more common, faster, and more highly refined. The rewards for brand successfully engaging with these trends are real, but they are limited by the difficulty of meshing with unpredictable social mass behaviour, and ultimately by the speed with which such fads will fade from social consciousness.

How Much to Pay for Digital, Where to Spend it and Who to Get for the Job

I can'te believe it – I was in Marketing magazine last month and I didn't pick up a copy. My mother is going to be mortified! Interesting article with some interesting opinions – very broad overview of the digital agency space.

Here's an excerpt from the article, by Kylie Flavell (Marketing, March 2009, p.26)

Kylie Flavell: What types of things should a marketer be wary about and question from a digital agency?

Brett Rolfe: Everything. It’s sad, but the complex nature of the technology combined with the occasionally cowboy nature of the industry has meant that many clients feel they can’t be expected to understand what the agency is doing, and fear they will look foolish for asking and challenging. If that is the atmosphere an agency has created, you are working with the wrong agency. If you are struggling with an agency, bring in someone you trust – internal or external – to sense check what the agency is saying, to act as a digital translator. Sometimes the problem will simply be that many smaller digital agencies may not have the skills to explain things in marketing-centric language. Other times, the lack of communication may be more malicious.

KF: Marketers are faced with the option of going in-house, using boutique agencies, larger creative agencies, or even some 17-year-old freelancer who works from their bedroom. Are any of these options better or riskier than others?

BR: The difficulty is that it is often the niche agencies and 17-year-olds who can deliver the most innovative and surprising work. For that reason, many clients are exploring the idea of using agencies that can own the strategy and the big idea, but then bring in the best skills to fit any particular problem.

KF: In 2008 Online spend did not match eyeballs in the space – where do you see things heading in 2009?

BR: Eyeballs is a misleading term – it suggests that digital is a big broadcast channel just waiting for us to shove advertising into it. Eyeballs reading their emails, eyeballs playing video games, eyeballs reading their friends’ Facebook status – these aren’t the same as eyeballs sitting in front of primetime TV. One of the things holding back digital marketing is our insistence on viewing it through the lens of media that has gone before it, as Marshall McLuhan warned. Things are heading into ever-stranger territory – from social media and collaborative creativity to augmented reality and mobile gaming. Understanding how these technologies can be harnessed will require marketers and agencies to bring together diverse technical and cultural insight with sound communication strategy – but then, that’s the way it’s always been, really.