Channel-less advertising

I didn’t start this blog to gather a massive swag of subscribers, I started it as a place to write down my thoughts on the digital space, and hopefully get some conversations going with a few of the very smart people I’m lucky enough to know. So I was immensely surprised (and just a little bit chuffed) to open my Google Reader last weekend and see marketing and brand guru Gavin Heaton on his Servant of Chaos blog talking about my “Why aren’t we creating great digital work?” post. If you haven’t read Gavin’s blog, go read it now (and subscribe to his feed while you’re there).

Gavin makes some great points and evolves some of the ideas in my original post into well considered, logical thoughts. My original post was actually written for an article in B&T that was a reaction to Harold Mitchell and others’ comments at Ad:Tech that Media is owning creative in the digital space. It’s also 4 months old, and to continue the conversation I thought I would revisit some of the ideas from my post and also pick up and run with some of Gavin’s comments.

Going back to basics first. Why do brands need agencies? I’m sure Bill Bernbach or David Ogilvie or Leo Burnett have some deep and insightful answer to this question, but to me brands need agencies because:

  1. We are experts in communicating clearly with consumers.
  2. They are experts at creating products.

This was a simple concept to grasp in the past. There was a clear delineation between the brand creating a product, and that product being marketed to the consumer. Advertising often bent the truth; ads appeared mostly in broadcast media; finite broadcast space meant there were a small number of brands that could be successful and recognisable globally; and the consumer had no way to talk back. It was a one-way street, one that we’ve now obviously done a sharp left from, to enter a multi-lane freeway.

So why don’t agencies seem to be getting it right now we’re off the one-way street? In my original article I talked about three things: lack of skills and knowledge within agencies, difficulty in convincing and educating clients, and a lack of an integrated process. These are still the key areas we need to improve on, however the final point could probably now be elevated to a more top-line idea. We need to rethink why a brand needs an advertising agency, and then we can start talking about integration and better process. The result of this, is that channels are no longer as relevant.

In his post, Gavin said we need to “…think about how best we can amplify, enable and transform the experiences that consumers have with brands“. This idea should be the starting point for any big agency that really wants to be integrated (and if anyone is reading this and thinking they are at a big integrated agency, trust me, you’re not).

Advertising has evolved beyond communicating product benefits to consumers in clever and memorable ways. We have become the custodians of the brands. And if we want to survive, we need to actually have the capabilities in place to achieve this. A brand extends out through myriad ways to reach the consumer. We used to work only in the channels of broadcast, DM, outdoor, print and in-store, in relatively short lived campaigns. If we want to become custodians of the brand we need to have a long-term brand strategy, and then take ownership of shaping that brand, particularly in the digital space.

Once we move beyond the campaign and channel mentality we can be going out and listening to consumers, responding to them, and working with our clients to actually respond to consumers and grow amazing brands. That does, admittedly, sound like marketing rhetoric, but the truth is that it is now possible for any brand to become amazing. Where before broadcast channels limited ‘amazing’ brands to the Marlboros, Cokes, Fords and Nikes, the digital world now means any brand can become a legend in their own market.

Responding at a channel-less level means we simply communicate in whatever the most effective method is. It still could be broadcast or print or DM, but at the same time it could be via blogs, social networks, or even integrating right into call centres. The end result is that channels are no longer so relevant, they are simply an output through which we communicate, and through the consumer is able to respond.

Postscript: To the marketers about to go mental about the suggestion that ad agencies could become the custodians of their brand, don’t think that this means you are irrelevant. Marketers are still the ones who should dictate and understand the brand, what the agencies should be doing is communicating that to the consumer, and then communicating back to you what consumers are saying. No one will ever understand your brand like you do, but the agencies will continue to be the ones who know how to talk to consumers about it.

- August 2008