"We Need A Fundamentally Different Way To Create A Brand": An Agency CEO Sums Up The State Of Advertising

Andrew Keller, CEO of agency CP+B, recently sent an email screed to all staff, intended as a call-to-action of sorts—for the agency and for the industry. In it, he outlined, at length, the state of the brand world and his forecast for where things were headed, talking about brands and agencies changing culture, about social media as a behavior rather than a medium, about content creation, and just generally creating a brand that was fit for the modern era. An edited version of the email appears here.

WARNING: this is very long and dense. I don’t expect you to memorize it or even internalize it, hell you might not even read all of it. But I wanted to start a conversation with everyone by throwing the whole kitchen sink at you.

I say this because it’s important that we all take a breath, look down and realize that the clay is in our hands. We can make it what we want. Not just the work, but our future. I’ve been thinking a lot about where we are headed as an agency, where the industry is headed and where culture is headed. And I want to share some of that with you so that it’s all in our brains as we do this game changing work. It’s important that we step back to see the big picture and make sure we are working to change culture to benefit our brands and change our brands to benefit culture.

We live to challenge the status quo and redefine categories. And redefine our industry. We live to make an impact on-culture, pop culture, business, products, financial results. We love to make change—to see the effect of what we do. It starts with the belief that culture wants to change. So we do our part and give it a good nudge.

We don’t do "art"—what we do is not about beauty or reflecting life as it is. It’s about challenging the conventions of culture, the accepted beliefs of our time and our clients’ categories to put a spotlight on what makes them special and has always made them special. We use tension to illuminate their transcendent meaning and make it relevant for today.

A lot has changed in the last decade. People are even more hyper-connected now. We all carry phones with cameras and video cameras in our pockets that are perpetually connected to the Internet. People are the chief content creators. People are the chief content distributors. The entire Internet has been re-architected around people and people-systems. Social media has pervaded our life and in the process its created a new social contract for people and brands.

This new condition has changed the expectations for how consumers experience brands. The expectation of the relationship has become far more intimate. Brands, especially big brands, have the opportunity and expectation to become as intimate with a consumer as a small local business or even a friend.

Because of this, the expectations for honesty, ideals and meaning are high and represent huge opportunities. Brands have to be multidimensional, more human. Brands have stood for simple things in the past: A better mousetrap, the highest quality widget. These things are what they make. But these days people also want to know "why." This has fundamentally changed branding and it’s been accelerated by a digital and social ethos. It’s not enough to be great at something or to be an expert in your field. The world is buying your bigger mission, in many cases, first. This has to pervade and drive a brand’s messaging and actions no matter what the "media."

There has been a lot of talk about social media. It’s fascinating and powerful. But its most profound impact isn’t the literal silo of "social media" as we think of it today. The important part is how it’s changing our brains and the way we interact with brands and our expectations of these brands. So as we move forward, we’re going to be talking more and more about moving social to the core of what we do. And, we don’t mean a different media approach. We need a fundamentally different way to create a brand: the way it talks, behaves and thinks and the way to leverage ALL touch points—especially those beyond the obvious "social" touch points like TV. The opportunity is to build a brand that is relevant and explosive within the world’s new social contract and to socialize old media points, uncover/activate new touch points and bring it all together to create a system that connects people to a brand.

It starts with strategy.

Our strategy more and more each day sits at the intersection of the cogs (cognitive anthropologists, planners), UX and media. When you consider the things that this evolving marketing viewpoint brings with it—24/7 communications, a perceived intimacy and real time transparency—a brand needs to know who it is more now than ever. And what it stands for. What we may think of as liabilities have to be turned into opportunities. Silence creates suspicion now. There has never been so much simultaneous demand and opportunity for brands to communicate their values. Jim Stengel talks about the power of this in (his book) Grow—the fact that brands with strong, known values outperform the S&P 500. And when you intersect this value-centric brand opportunity with our social world, the stakes are raised or, better put, the opportunity is enhanced ten-fold for those that leverage it.

Domino’s is an excellent example of this. We know what we stand for, we know who we are. And we did what we thought was right and it’s changed everything. And we’ve done it from TV to apps to online retail ordering and tracking to recruiting. It’s a full circle that your consumer wants to get on the inside of. And it starts with a brand’s "why" because without it you can’t have a real conversation. And there are so many conversations you need to have. So many touch points and people and perspectives need to be addressed, engaged and inspired. So we start with who a brand is, what the target mindset is and what are the shared values between them and then how does the brand’s ecosystem and the consumers’ user journey collide in fortuitous ways to create action, conversation and conversion that cements them to the brand.

The next step is content creation.

Every touch point is an opportunity to prove who you are. To do this requires creation of assets that can help literally and philosophically tell the story. Icons, characters, employees: Best Buy blueshirts, Domino’s employees, tangible assets etc. All of these inventions can help a brand talk and relate where a product or logo can’t.

And it often comes down to the little things we say. With MINI we wrote and crafted the legal lines on ads. Those are opportunities to show the lights are on. That someone is home. The personality, the story is in the details. And there are so many details. We’ve always loved the small but huge "media" opportunities that most agencies overlook. These define a brand. I’ve always believed that if you are nice most of the time but you show a dark side once, people believe they’ve gotten a sneak peak into the REAL you. We are wired to read between the lines. It’s what a politician says when he’s off mic that we find more compelling—especially when they think they are off mic and they aren’t. That becomes the brand truth. So we have to embrace that. The details, the hidden opportunities, the 140 characters will tell this new world who your brand really is.

This philosophy has to find ways to spread to every touch point. Even in the realm of TV. There is interactive TV (Whopper Lust), there is the opportunity to build apps and leverage social networks to enhance the TV/movie experience (Best Buy movie mode, Old Navy Shazam), but also the approach to the content just needs to evolve as well. We’ve always worked with press releases to develop ideas. It’s not about getting press for the sake of press, it’s about understanding the expectation of impact within an idea as you concept it, vet it and create it. It’s about understanding what will drive the conversation and illuminate the message in a spectacular way. That’s what we live for. But also, don’t underestimate the fact that a simple, well written, brilliantly executed big idea can still change the world by simply challenging the way we think. Our Ikea "Lamp" spot did this. The Windows phone launch work did this. 30 seconds of culture changing words and images.

Now in the life of a brand there is a continuous stream of actions every day and they all can’t try to create a huge news day for a brand. We also need to create snackable content, bits and bites—shareable, playable, postable quips that maintain our strong relationship and give the world something to talk about. In these spaces our press release technique begins to evolve into tweets-the more intimate version of a press release. Where the result can be called social currency.

And, not surprisingly, sometimes people would rather talk about themselves than our brand. So how does our brand become a vehicle or conduit for THEIR story? Our brand has to know and communicate our story but it has to also be able to tell the consumer’s story, literally. Understanding this potential for contribution is key because this may be more valuable to them than the product or service itself. That’s the future of word of mouth. Ultimately when it all comes together, real magic happens. It’s way more than an integrated campaign. It’s literally a new way to go to market, to create and grow a brand that drives powerful results.

The third key element in this is production, development and operational touch point integration. Digital production and invention is not an afterthought or output. As a social approach to all marketing and a social ecosystem starts to come to life for a brand we know that values and voice are key to delivering that brand. And we know the old corporate identity elements of color, sound, logo, type still work to connect a brand. But more and more importantly the interactions themselves and the opportunity to connect and share with the brand-the literal functionality-becomes a key branded element. The interaction itself must feel right and repeatable and ownable. Also as mobile and tablet become the first screen, we can’t just piggy back on what exists; future experiences are ours to create. It’s about way more than watching and announcing and each one of these consumption and action opportunities can be branded from start to finish. And it has to be. That’s why we are so deeply involved with this work for our clients. The pieces of the ecosystem have to come from one place, share a voice, a flow and a functionality that literally IS the brand. Also, brands have more and more technology and data lying around that can be leveraged more visibly to tell their story. Pizza Tracker is this. An operational, internal checks and balances system that has become a confidence builder for mom, a game for her kids, a business accelerator for Domino’s and a new communications platform with the consumer.

So whatever you want to call it—marketing, advertising, Hollywood meets Silicon Valley, branding, inventing—it’s never been more exciting. But brands will need to be made ready for this world, this new social contract, and then activated. So, are you awakening to the cultural shifts in consumer/brand relationships that should be impacting everything you do today? Is your brand ready? What can you do now to make sure it is? Are you leveraging every touch point opportunity? How will you build a brand that the world can believe in, that matters?

Andrew Keller is CEO of Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

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43 Comments

  • JAN ZLOTNICK

    There's an instructive wisdom to the manic mantra of the child: "Why?"

    What if the agency plays the court jester wise enough to play the "fool" -- and helps the client answer the biggest, most foolish question of all: Why does this brand exist?

    And with every answer, the fool asks again and again, "Why?" Based on the experiences of your communications BEFORE I purchase, why will I feel something different, something worth recalling, something worth asking more about, something worth sharing, buying, sharing some more, and buying again?

    "Give us an example, fool." 

    Ok, so, I'm in the market for a car, right? Which car has answered my own Why questions:

    "Why should I trust you?"

    "Why should I think you care about me beyond the purchase of this car and your commission, etc?"

    "Why should I tell my friends and family and Google circles about you?"

    In other words, if a car company answers the big "Value" questions: Why the Brand Exists, Why I Should Care...won't it have a better shot at a pre-purchase relationship, making the sale and gaining a social networking advocate? (Any fool knows the answer: Yes!)

  • Miguel H. Gonzalez

    What we have here and how is an unholy Babel-logue. Everybody's using the same words, but nobody's connecting the meaning of what they're saying. 

    Old school ad people are holding fast to the supremacy of the simple idea. That's great. But what is a great idea these days? And who has the skill to identify and nurture the best? 

    Old school ad people champion the kinds of ideas they recognize as valuable. But the ones they value most are the ideas that no longer work. And the simple, smart and valuable ideas get killed on the conference room walls. 

    Meanwhile, the talent drains away from agencies every day. Every wonder why? 

    Who wants to sign up to see their best ideas get killed by clueless hacks with oversized egos and irrelevant agendas?!

  • Bob Jackson

    Same conversation for the past 25 years. Getting very hard to keep reading this over and over again. Of course, you get to use new words like Social Media now, but the basics have never changed. Do good work, get great results. This article is a long winded approach to saying the same old thing. Really, we have more tools, but the assignment is still the same, sell the product. I agree with Stephen, call it anything, but don't call it Branding. And all media is "Social Media", and that term is getting old as well. I really haven't seen the big earth-shaker idea out there lately. Cannes was diss appointing, but everybody looked cool. We preach, but don't listen. So, probably best to keep quiet and work harder.
    Bob Jackson

  • Focus On Business

     Absolutely agree with you about the basics, "do good work, get great results." I think a "big earth-shaker idea" might be the mobile platform in which we now receive our experience. A vital point underlying this article is not the ability to sell a product but the new approach as to how we sell a product. Yes reading the same conversation over and over again can become repetitive and preachy, but don't forget about the importance of re motivating the audience (every time we engage), A Major Factor That Can Make Or Break You In Today's Market.

  • Jenniferrunyun

    Results. Performance. That's what clients care about.

    This agency cares about ideas, publicity, and awards. Self serving cool ideas. Results dont drive their efforts. They had an analytics group, it's gone now. The list of ideas is long, but their known effects on the business is not.

  • Lynniecarter62

    Change the face and the words should follow. Or the other way around. We just want it to happen yesterday.

  • Barbara Mckinney

    "Brands have to be multidimensional, more human", I'm on this. In building brand we must not focus in one aspect only. We must see all through out all the comprising factors to build it in a stable state.

  • Stephen

    What a bunch of blah...blah...blah...blah...blah, blahblahblah.

    The bottom line in branding is that you are creating a visual, a message that represents a company and that the market can relate to, respond to. Nothing more nothing less.

    I think we should go back to calling it corporate identity. The concept of "branding" means so many things now that it doesn't seem to mean anything.

    How about returning to its original context....just take a red hot poker and sear the flesh with an indelible mark and call it a day.

    This is not rocket science...only pretty pictures and clever words.

  • Dennis Jenders

    In my opinion, it's a pretty big miss when all we do is create a message that represents the company. The product and brand need to also represent the consumer, and provide value to that consumer.

    We are no longer committed to a one-way dialogue with the consumer, but in-fact are having multi-dimensional conversations with our consumers.
    Branding has to be much more than a visual mark and a message, it has to be an ongoing relationship with the consumer. If not, you are missing out on the opportunity that exists with every touch point that exists, from packaging to customer service - the brand needs to be there, actualized, realized, and delivered.

  • Sean

    Great
    example of a bad print ad. Rehashed rubbish to a great extent.

    I'm a great
    believer in the power of brand. However if you say the work you do isn't art
    (which I agree) then you have to stop talking as if it is. Tell a good story?  Yes. Wax poetic through word and visual to
    showcase being different for difference sake? 
    No.

    Brands are
    not complex, they are simple.  They
    should be easily understood and made relevant to the person for whom they are intended.
    Clouding them in hyperbolic pap is why we see the crap that exists today. Let
    the brand be the hero and let the consumer fill in a few of the blanks for
    themselves.  You’re not shaping or
    impacting culture and sense of purpose through brand work.  Real books, film and extraordinary innovators
    do that.  You’re selling pizza, soap,
    cars and Snuggies. 

    So keep it
    simple and speak the language of regular people…..which by the way does not
    include “touch points”.

    Do that and
    memos to a staff of creative thinkers----comprised of 10% who truly are and 90%
    that simply believe they are---- won't ever be necessary.

  • Stephen

    Sean,

    That is the accurate antithesis of this article...the REAL state of branding...how it has been and likely always will. WELL SAID!

  • Stephen Stanley

    Here's an idea for creating a brand:  Make good products, offer them at a fair price and give great customer service.  A brand is not a thing you can make, invent or even worse, attempt to fake through advertising.  You might fool a customer once, then your brand is shot.  A brand is an emergent property of what you do, how you do it and the principles you uphold in doing so.  It can't be created from thin air, but it can be destroyed by it.