The New Creative Sandbox
Consumer behaviors have changed drastically over the last five years. More so than in any other five-year period. But marketing strategy, from a commercial art standpoint, is struggling to redefine itself accordingly. When the digital space opened up as a legitimate marketing channel in the early 2000’s, agencies were quick to draw new models: from “360” to “integrated” to “multichannel,” the industry was motivated to adapt. Today, the same agencies are less bold about redefining their offering under the new demands of e-commerce driven marketing needs. As more companies add creative staff in-house or cherry pick out-of-house creators, the need to define the techniques by which one markets have dwindled. You just do it.
But as the old model struggles to define itself, a new model is evolving that is entirely built on today’s needs. I call it Non-Friction Marketing. And with it, a new breed of creative talent is emerging, too. I like to think that we, at Humans Are Social, are riding that wave, but the truth is, most of the creative work that’s driving new businesses forward right now are a kluge of disparate talents, in-house and out, essentially creating a new sandbox for creatives to work and play in that aren’t driven by the traditional agencies I cut my teeth in at all.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
Most of today’s larger agencies came up in a time of print and broadcast and when they added on digital services (how I began my career), they did it as an addendum to their staffing plans, where the budgets for digital marketing hovered in the 1–5% range of the total media spend. It was a relatively easy add for what amounted to “below the line” work, meaning that technical part of creative you accomplished with direct marketing messages and offers. People like me were brought on to cover off on the new business pitch needs, embodying an understanding of new media — and then asked to wait patiently for traditional creative teams to “crack the code” on a creative concept in order to then go do “tear down” executions; websites, viral videos and online media concepts that borrowed from the broadcast tropes, tonality, characters and visuals. Agencies today (both stand-alones and large networks, like IPG and Omnicom) still work in this “hand-off” mode, where the big idea is the first thing you figure out — partially because the TV script still garners the most attention and is the toughest to concept and produce. But also there’s a business quest for intellectual capital that sends agencies into wildly competitive and territorial mindsets. So, in this world, the sizzle reel and case study video reign supreme and dictate the process both internally and with clients — but while the great ideas made here mindset pushes toward showcase creative, regular people who buy stuff don’t care that much about it, spending the majority of their time on their smartphones watching media in an entirely different way than they used to; in smaller, ongoing feeds. This disconnect between what people care about in media and what media-driven agencies care about is at the heart of the wedge being driven between clients and agencies. And agencies and audiences.
But the divide isn’t only philosophical, it’s systemic — the agency model is based on a walled garden approach to business. They are incentivized to believe, or say, it happens better here than at other places and that cultivated talent under specific creative and strategic leadership creates an environment of better ideas and executions. Trying to create a secret sauce is expensive and “othering” to anyone who isn’t in the club. This creates competitive tension everywhere and is felt up and down the organization, throughout the industry and even between agencies and clients. Meanwhile, companies themselves are providing better work environments, more collaboration and using tools like Slack and others to stay constantly connected and intertwined. It’s exclusive versus inclusive — where do you think the creative talents of the world will gravitate toward?
The New Consumer
Today, people buy things all day the way they used to during late night impulse purchases on QVC or with a well-timed kitchen knife set ad featuring a phone number on the end slate. And those ads, too, were low production value, quickly-created, product-oriented spots designed to fulfill a spontaneous self-created “need.” What is referred to as Direct Marketing.
Today, direct marketing and brand marketing are merging into one thing. Not just in social media, but on TV, too. Take a look at the ads out there today — if you still watch network TV— and take note of how many prime time ads have direct marketing messages on them. Offers, prices and incentives drive even the biggest budget ads. What is “Geico could save you 15% or more on car insurance” if not a direct marketing ad? Taco Bell, during the World Series no less, ran ads that promoted “stealing a taco” whenever someone stole a base alongside ads for free delivery and a $5 double chalupa box. All offer-driven, all a form of a blended brand and direct marketing approach.
But in truth, if what you care about is direct and quantifiable marketing, then the far more justifiable solution is online. Especially if you don’t have Geico marketing dollars. So, most start-ups today brand as they go, establishing a voice in online media, search and social media content. Which is not to say it’s a simple solution, but you’re willing to play in the same space as your consumer and with their mindset, it’s not that hard either. The processes, networks and audiences are all in place.
There’s a world of people ready to spend, but you can’t assume they’ll remember anything about you after they put their phone down. The split second you wow them with your product or content you must also be ready to close the deal. This takes a new kind of prowess, new kinds of creative and, most-of-all, content creators with an ingrained knowledge of all parts of a business.
How Non-Friction Marketing Works
Today, with my own creative-driven company, I do work for smaller brands, individuals and non-profits with work that is basically guaranteed to be effective. The reason I can say this confidently is because for the people and companies I work with, I’m an insider and I see the numbers directly. I’m deeply tied to their distribution and sales teams. I know intimately, or have even personally helped create, their commerce-driven Shopify sites and I create the content for their social channels that ultimately get lifted up into social media ads. I know who they are targeting to and I get to test as many messages as I want until the new media networks of Facebook and Google let me know which messages are working best and automatically heavy up on those units. From this, my next round of work is inherently more informed and again the next time, and on and on until I’m not just an outside creative waiting for a strategist or account team to tell me what will work — I‘m on the front lines of that feedback, as knowledgable as anyone about click-through rates and cost of acquisition.
And the irony is that, as a creative, while this kind of direct, offer-driven, highly-accountable creative realm was once the pariah of marketing, today it is actually the more creative place to play.
Running with this level of working knowledge allows me to create freely. I can be immediately responsive to any new event or potential driver of sales and have it up and running as soon as I can create it. And what’s more, as an invested creative, I’m not always waiting for a brief, either. I’m passionately engaged with the brands I work with and, like a lot of new creatives, I work inside a studio. If I suddenly have an idea and need an image or video, I turn around and make it and show it to the CEO that day. If he thinks it has potential, we get on Slack, talk to our media person and run it as a test. In this way, there is no friction in the creative process and, in turn, we remove friction with our audiences. We’re actively seeing what our audiences are seeing and offering timely creative within the platform they are viewing it on. And we can interact and see how they like it and where in the process they drop off or lose interest. And then come up with ideas that help solve those issues or elevate the work.
But even more creatively, the formats I’m working in are identical to the favored media channels of today’s audiences, all of which are advancing at the speed of ideas. Which means cooler effects built into platforms like Instagram, more usage of new tools like AR, 360 video and drone footage and more opportunity for interesting editing techniques, CGI and on-trend insights and executions.
The realm of the Creative has always been that we have taste but also an understanding of what is cool and contemporary. Today, all the most creative advancements are happening on the phone and with things the phone can control. In the Non-Friction Marketing playbook, creative gets to wander among the masses, rather than toss ideas over the garden wall of an agency or sit holed away in an edit bay while the world moves on.
The natural question is, so where does this leave branding? The pride and owned-territory of the agency world was that they owned the brand. But as many an ex-agency account exec or strategic planner will tell you, this is being defined internally, not externally. And from what I hear from CMOs today, their brands are conveyed not through their ads, specifically, but through their actions — which can then be promoted through ads. Apple recently released a campaign all about privacy. That’s a glorified PR announcement, well-timed with today’s needs and concerns. When Nike released “Dream Crazy,” standing behind Colin Kaepernick, what we saw much more than the art direction or copywriting was the decision and stance. We come to understand the brand of the NBA by how they deal with protests in China. WalMart by their decisions to stop selling tobacco or allowing open carry of guns in their stores.
But smaller brands don’t have the stage that the NBA and WalMart do, so how can they convey brand values through actions that actually get recognized? They do it at point-of-sale. On their websites and in their brick-and-mortars, more and more companies are giving would-be consumers confidence to buy by touting their values at the same time they introduce themselves. I call this Confirmation Branding as it comes during the purchase cycle rather than way ahead of it, as it traditionally has.
The typical purchase process happens like this:
I’m scrolling Instagram and see a paid placement of some product that, now that I’ve witnessed it, I feel like I must have in my life. I hit the Shop/Learn More button and this pops up a scrollable brochure for this product. Maybe I watch a nice video from the CEO, or perhaps I am impressed with the sustainable materials used. I dig deeper on the details, look at some more photos and videos… okay, I’m sold. I add it to my cart and see how much I’m in for. Then I either purchase now or send the purchase page to myself to complete later. This is every layer of the purchase funnel at once — from awareness to intent to purchase. Branding, in this kind of world, is baked in.
What’s it like to do creative in this faster-paced, less precious, smaller lead time, more engaged world? It’s work. Creative has always been hard, but what most people don’t realize is that creative minds are also capable of being strategic and savvy with business, too. If I needed to choose one favorite thing about the new demands of Non-Friction Marketing, it would be that it seems to be getting more out of creative people and tapping a fuller potential. And when I look at the new school of talent emerging today, with far deeper understanding of media behavior, marketing techniques as well as an understanding of the applications of creation, I’m excited by where it’s going and what lies ahead for creativity.
Josh S. Rose is Founder of Humans Are Social, a professional photographer and Top Writer on Medium in Creativity and Photography.