Brand Experience: Modern comms demands blurring the lines
by Mike Silver (@stretchmike) I’m sitting in too many agency creative reverts at the moment having an existential crisis, as executions are proposed way out of our traditional comfort zones.
Up until very recently, agencies were grouped together in neat little acronym boxes; namely BTL (below the line), ATL (above the line) or TTL (through the line). This invisible line played a similar role to that of a nation’s territorial border. While not as restrictive as the North and South Korean borders, agencies would generally toe the line: above, below or through it. With the birth of the experience economy, though, and later the rise of all things digital, those sacred lines have begun to blur like never before.
Knew their boundaries
Back in the ‘days of Mad Men’, agencies knew their boundaries. The big ATL boys saw it as their duty to always lead the pack. Non-traditional agency outfits produced often grudge-purchase afterthoughts. It was all about the grand 30-second TV ad. All the other work (PR, events, CRM etc) was literally seen to be below a lot of these creatives. This was all to change in the mid ’90s.
Two academics with massive glasses cottoned on to something long before the cool advertising kids did, writing a little paper called the “The Experience Economy”. In brief, they argued that consumers had entered the ‘experience age’, where real-life experiences carried value in a similar way to the price tags on the items in your cupboards, wallets or garages.
But did big agencies notice? Unless your client was an evil tobacco brand that could no longer show beautiful toxin-free models diving into deep blue oceans, you probably didn’t think beyond the confines of the TV screen. It would take until the mid-noughties (around the time a guy called Mark put ‘Faces on Books’ and little blue tweety birds started to take digital flight) before the idea of venturing out the box became more intriguing (and necessary) to all agencies.
A lot more interesting
Why were brand experiences more relevant than ever before? Going back to the experience economy, consumers’ lives became a lot more interesting now that they could share and talk about these experiences. As such, social media become a stock exchange for comparing human experiences.
Now your creatives were intrigued. Like millions of other consumers, they were already using social media to share and observe their own experiences. But their clients were asking for staged TV ads with ridiculously good-looking models talking to other ridiculously good-look models while driving cars they couldn’t afford and winning awards they didn’t work for. No surprise they felt like fleeing over the border!
Fast-forward to today and we all know how the digital story is currently unfolding. The only lines that seem to matter are the ones around our smartphone screens. The race is on and whoever produces the best content appears to cross over the finish line first. Clients and agencies alike are trying to come to terms with this new reality that is far more fluid and flexible. Naturally, boundaries become far harder to enforce and toes can’t avoid being stepped upon. Ultimately, specialisation still exists, albeit within a different framework; if integration and content creation are not in the agency’s DNA, they will struggle for relevance.
The next frontier
What does the next frontier look like? For starters, no one is certain as it’s happening so quickly (we’re arguably already in it!). I suspect, though, that clients will wise up that soon engaging and amazing content will be the status quo for brands and, as such, their communication will return to a cluttered, yet prettier, universe.
The next frontier must surely be an ironic 360-degree return to the world of commerce and measurement. Not measurement as in “wow, your campaign received 4m impressions but I have no idea what that gets you”, but measurement in terms of real and actionable changes in consumer (or employee) behaviour. To achieve this, you have to question how content becomes currency. It’s not inconceivable to see agencies crossing over into the business consulting, innovation and NPD space on behalf of their clients (Accenture and Deloitte crossed over into communications a while back!).
Perhaps, finally, there will be no lines, other than the bottom line, of course — the one that both client and agency have a vested interest in.
Mike Silver (@stretchmike) is managing director of Stretch Experiential Marketing (www.stretchexp.com). He established Stretch — a communications agency specialising in developing strategies and concepts for integrated brand-experience campaigns — after working in sponsorship consultancy and experiential marketing in the UK. He contributes the regular “Brand Experience” column, focusing upon broader integrated ‘brand experiences’, to MarkLives.