Lately, the economic climate is beginning to feel a bit unsatisfactory. We’ve lived through and survived economic downturns before if that’s what this is. Marketing in a downturn is never fun. Budgets get cut and tougher questions get asked. Inadequate answers abound. Suddenly, the marketing wunderkind down the hall has lost the hop in her step.
Solid advertising works, even in a downturn, because it’s built on solid fundamentals, not on style alone. Real practitioners know the difference between insight driven creativity and the sugared-up confections of transactional engagement.
If yours is the only budget getting cut, the first to go, it’s a sure sign that your management has no idea or faith in success of your advertising and marketing. Real success is measurable and the time to start asking the hard questions is when the sun is still shining.
Patience and Fortitude in tough times.
During the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the lions that sit astride the entrance to the NY Public Library, Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.
Patience and fortitude are two qualities that should be cultivated in every discussion of advertising and marketing. True brand growth takes time and a steady, unwavering commitment to the brand idea. It’s been my experience during tough economic times that not only do budgets get cut, but clients will begin to chase sales through tactics that do not align with the brand. This erodes the brand idea and results in the pursuit of ever more transactional tactics to boost sales.
It’s a race to the bottom.
While in New York City, I took the opportunity to visit some old haunts. I hadn’t had the chance to step inside the renovated Hotel Chelsea, so off we went. I’m not claiming I was a denizen of this much celebrated bastion of creativity in residence. I wasn’t. In the late 70’s as an art student in NY, it was one of those places we’d occasionally end up. A very real New York experience. The Chelsea remains a place for creativity, in fact, while my wife and I were visiting, as if on cue, a small film crew was packing up.
The renovation is spectacular in its thoughtfulness and restraint. Honoring its past and fully embracing its future, a ready canvas for new stories. It’s spot-on-brand and reveals its treasures to the curious. See it for yourself if you can. It’s a powerful example of brand stewardship. As an experience brand, pictures alone will do not do it justice. The warm inviting tones of the piano room, for instance, are enough to make you want to book a room, a shoot, an event, dinner at El Quijote or all four. Experience brands grow through word of mouth and the shared positive experience of its users. Here you have it. The piano room inspired this curious portrait of my better half.
By stark contrast, a short distance away is Hudson Yards, a modern spectacle. Cathedrals of glass that skyrocket while playing with light. Monuments to the moment, bold statements of power and daring and, I’ll add, a bit cold. It’s a different city. It could be anywhere in the modern world. It’s difficult to imagine it will gain the legend and lovely patina of the Chelsea.
The Chelsea remains a testament to itself, the perseverance and resurrection at the hands of its new owners deserves a round of applause. The Hotel Chelsea is part of the fabric of old New York. The richness of its character perhaps never more appreciable than after a day of wandering this ever-changing city, to stand at its lovely bar drinking in its history.
Disrupting your creative team is a detriment to their productivity. You may not want to believe it, but it’s true. The agency ecosystem is rife with meetings, some days are spent almost entirely in meetings. Meetings are not the only black hole. There are the armies of account service personnel, project managers and producers who pop in and ask; Got a minute?
It’s rarely a minute and when you add them all up, along with the frequency, you end up with a creative team that is utterly distracted and not able to focus on the ideas.
It’s true that it is essential that the creative team be kept in the loop, but it is equally essential that they be left alone. No fly zones need to be created, respected, and enforced.
When developing creative ideas, it is not only important to generate lots of ideas, but also just as important to separate the wheat from the chaff and this takes time and hard thinking. Analyzing an idea from multiple directions, turning it over, mulling it, challenging its integrity, finding the weak spots, and shoring them up if possible, or relegating it to the dust bin is serious work.
Every interruption that pulls minds from creative thought is a derailment of progress. This is not just my opinion; it has been well studied. The constant interruptions are one reason creative teams tend to work late into the night, it is one of the rare moments when there is peace in the house.
Protected thinking time does not automatically trigger clever work, but it does mean that you understand and respect the process. Creative workers who feel their time is respected will work more effectively and will work even harder to solve the day’s challenge.
I love light in all its many variations. I’ve walked into walls studying light as it falls on some object or person. It’s an infatuation, an obsession and capturing light is at the root of my love for image making.
Perhaps there is no more beautiful expression than light illuminating human emotion. A face, an expression, an eye, a gesture, a form, and action that communicates the richness of human existence.
When walking into walls or what have you, it’s the intensity of my focus, the attention of my gaze that makes the rest of the world disappear. I’m locked on to the beauty. This astounding ability of the human mind to bring a very selective attention and clarity to complex visual and audio landscapes it what we do our best to emulate in film making.
Once the idea is defined and all the inessential parts removed what remains is ideally a powerful story. The cameras and lights and audio gear are manipulated to achieve, as close as possible, the selectivity of our innate human abilities.
In this context the camera is an editing tool. Protecting equally what is in the frame as well as protecting what is out of the frame. Framing the shot is essential in achieving the desired energy and emotion from any scene. It is both art, science and intuition combined. It is design in motion and a significant part of the visual language of film.
Documentary work is a great training ground for cinematographers and directors because the work commands the senses and hones the instincts of story. It quite literally keeps you on your toes. The camera in this context is often the most powerful actor in the scene, engaging with and framing the action.
This is camera work and it’s also editing in action.
There was a time when almost all media was inclusive. The old analogue days of 13 TV Channels, rooftop antennae, a handful of news programing and perhaps a few dozen major newspapers and magazines. There were some specialized publications, and radio stations were somewhat local, but they were the exceptions. Media was broadly casted by a limited number of producers, reaching millions of people.
Today almost all media is exclusive. Everyone is a specialist, if not due to content, then due to targeting. Even the national and international outlets cater to regional influence, and why not? Effective targeting is also about giving your audience what they want. Or what they think they want. Or what you think they want. Or what the AI predictive models think they want. It’s enough to make us toss our hands into the air and just default to something that feels safe for our brand. Something with hopefully broad appeal that we can run anywhere, hoping our audience will self-identify.
Our segmentation modeling is so divided, it’s become segmentation meddling. Exclusivity in media is a problematic reality if we stick to outdated norms of thinking. Let’s put aside the fact that it has created a platform for every nutjob with a computer and look at what it means for brands. A world of distractions in a distracted world.
Across the paid, owned and earned media landscape, there is now endless fractionalization of your audience which diminishes the reach of your brand. Not because the media is not reaching the target, but because the targets are polarized by the fragmentation.
This polarization is a buzzkill for what might otherwise be a campaign that would jump the chasm into popular culture.
What is popular culture when culture is now unpopular?
Cultural fragmentation may not impact too negatively on major legacy brands, assuming they stay out of harms way. But for newer, smaller brands, success means obsessively focusing on a minimal viable audience. Connecting with this audience and delivering real value to these customers will motivate them as culture ambassadors for your brand. These ambassadors will help the brand bridge to additional culture communities as they share their experience.
Bridging is the major action of digital media. It amplifies the power of word-of-mouth, of shared positive brand experience and helps drive brand growth.
Specificity should be a core part of your strategic and creative development. Create for one specific group of potential customers and build from the core.
In truth, this thinking is nothing new. Perhaps it’s been forgotten. Some brands have not forgotten. Patagonia is one example of a brand that has always been entirely specific in its audience goals and campaign platform. It puts its values of honoring and protecting nature into all it does and communicates. Its current market value is $3 Billion and recently the founder, Yvon Chouinard determined to give it all away to help save our planet.
Patagonia’s specificity of purpose, planning, action, and communication recently arrived in my mailbox in the form of a Patagonia publication, a magazine celebrating people and nature. This is no catalogue of merchandise but a catalog of beliefs and values, and it’s printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. It’s a home run in my opinion. I’m a nature fan boy and have, over the years, purchased Patagonia clothing. I still have most of it. It wears like iron. Built to last, not to be discarded. The user experience of the product aligns completely with the mission and values of the company.
This alignment includes Patagonia’s use of media: specific, focused, and effective. You may point out that they use the mail channel to reach me. Why not? It’s a great tactic when used correctly. The publication has value, will be passed on and then recycled. But there is a bit more to it. Within the pub, there are URL’s that lead us deeper into the stories. This publication is a well-integrated driver of brand engagement.
Exclusive media means exclusive opportunities to Head For The Heart.
As some of you may be aware, I’m currently teaching at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Management and Business. Being a place of higher education and a fine one at that, there are weekly guest lectures given by thought leaders from both inside and outside academia.
For the most part, these are highly intellectual and interesting discussions. I prefer to think of them as discussions because the Q&A that follow is often more interesting than the lecture itself. Students and faculty engage the speaker with challenging questions. The freewheeling endings, if Skidmore students are a barometer, gives me hope for the future of our country.
A recent discussion led by an extremely well-studied thought leader, presented years of data that pointed to a significant insight in the world of business. I’m not going to try to unpack the topic, my point of writing this post is the use of data.
The data was significant and overwhelmingly clear in what it implied and what could be inferred.
During the Q&A a student asked the million-dollar question. If the data is so clear why is nothing changing…why are the trend lines continuing as they were?
The speakers answer: The data is not enough.
The world has become overly reliant on data as an end point. Data alone is not enough. If it was, no one would ever smoke, Hillary Clinton may have gotten elected and maybe (if this applies to you) more people would buy your brand.
Compelling ideas move people. Ideas that slap folks in the face, stun them into awareness and seep into their hearts, turn ideas into action.
This is the work of creativity. Let’s get busy.
I recently came across this wonderful quote attributed to Ann Richards, commenting on the talents of the famed dancer Ginger Rogers.
“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
The phrase “backwards and in high heels” struck a chord with me. It reminds me of camera work. Especially the hand-held or shoulder mount variety. I love this type of work, particularly in a less scripted context like a documentary project.
It gives the feeling of doing a dance with the subject and the subject matter, following the lead of the story. The work of following the action, framing, pulling focus is very much performance art. It hones the instincts and sharpens the senses. It also places me in the heart of the story, not observing from a distance but observing from the inside.
The intimacy of the viewfinder and anonymity of the camera are a strange and lovely paradox.
When I’m hired to produce a story, it is authenticity we are after. This is what is so powerful about documentary work. It’s an act of bravery. For people who have a story they want to tell, it’s essential that our relationship is anchored in trust and mutual appreciation. It’s all part of the dance that shows up on the screen.
As partner to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was certainly his equal, if not superior, in every way.
Their combined talents achieve something more than either could do alone.
To the untrained observer, walking a tightrope seems like a high-risk activity. To the well-trained acrobatic artist, the tightrope is a platform for their creativity. The risks are well-calculated and the practice so refined, that confidence brings buoyancy to their work.
In the world of ideas, clients and agencies must come to a mutual understanding of well-calculated risk. The goal is break-through creative that challenges norms, animates the brand and motivates the audience.
For many clients, there’s also an additional objective; “not to do any worse than the past brand manager or campaign.” There’s nothing wrong with a good dose of self-preservation.
To the unprepared client, work that appears as if on a tightrope is going to incite fear of doing worse. To the agency, it’s the platform from which to demonstrate their hard-won skills and highly developed talents.
It takes a trusting client-agency relationship to explore boundaries and push the limits of creativity. The goal is to see the tightrope not as a high-risk activity, but as a well-calculated and desirable achievement that will deliver growth for their brand.
Confidence is the glue that binds us to big ideas.
The world will never be less chaotic than it is right now. That is so say, the complexity of life will continue to challenge us. In the presence of ever-expanding complexity, how do we get our story through the noise? How best to communicate our ideas?
A singularity of vision with a concise understanding of the problem solved is essential. The story must be equally comprehensible and told with economy.
The creativity is then free to become inventive. Creativity is the liberator of strategy.
Creativity has an obligation to deliver the idea fully rendered in the heart and mind of the audience. Clarity is actionable.
Complexity defeats clarity in the execution. The best creative talents understand this and labor to create clarity in their ideas and executions.
Visual clarity and written clarity combined to create conceptual clarity. The dual compliment.
Over written, over directed, over acted, over designed executions are warning signs. Perhaps the idea is weak and there is an attempt to prop it up. Or the creative team is letting their egos get in the way.
Maybe they lack the experience to know better.
Simplicity is recompense for years of effort.