Google “the future of advertising” and you’ll likely get a plethora of articles on the death of the AOR (or why the AOR model will never die), ad-blocking, cord cutting, the rise of crowdsourcing content, ego killed the advertising star/creative director, or how traditional agencies have reconciled (on paper at least) with crowdsourced content providers and other programmatic / content-at-scale platforms - among other things. Private conversations with ex-agency types who have jumped the fence and come over to the client/brand side (and current agency friends in confidence) have all told me a similar story: the brand advertising model is changing (fast) and not all big box agencies (or clients) are ready/willing to embrace the change...to their own demise.
As I wrote in my last post, from the client/brand perspective, external macro & micro factors are applying unrelenting pressure on P&Ls, forcing brands to heavily scrutinize advertising budgets while concurrently increasing share of voice, content, and reach across a multitude of platforms in real time (i.e. mobile, always on, immediate, targeted). This brand-advertising disruption often puts clients and advertisers at odds. And like all disruptions, the us versus them relationship has to go through the familiar phases of denial, denigration, distinction, and then finally partnership. Some forward-thinking agencies embrace the disruptions and are making adjustments, partnering with crowdsourcing platforms and more “agile” (probably the most over-used word in 2015) vendors to develop creative, content, and commercialization tactics at scale. From the client/brand side we similarly have to challenge ourselves to embrace higher degrees of risk and uncertainty; challenge ourselves to build flexible frameworks where experimentation is institutionalized, measured, and financially supported in the quarterly marketing & business planning process.
Institutionalization not Bureaucratization
If you believe that execution is the only strategy/innovation consumers see then I proffer that only through iterative experimentation can you illuminate consumers' desires in real time. But how does a CPG brand institutionalize media/advertising experimentation in an industry that does not explicitly place a value on experimentation? A symbiotic industry where upfronts, risk avoidance and predictable quarterly earnings growth are paramount? A measured approach toward systematic experimentation, I believe, is the key. We measure innovation with metrics like Return on Investment and Return on Innovation; is there now a need for Return on Experimentation (RoEX)?
There’s plenty of case studies on how higher levels of empowerment lead to higher levels of employee engagement. I’m suggesting that a measure like RoEX can similarly lead to higher levels of engagement while also providing a repeatable, measurable rubric for downsizing risk into quick-turn snackable experiments. No need to eat the brand-disruption-risk-elephant in one bite.
“Inspiration without allocation is meaningless” - B. Bonin Bough
The good news is that some large scale traditional companies are investing in start up Labs, Incubators, Innovation Centers, and Foundries within their company walls with the goal of experimenting outside their internal processes to unlock value and deliver breakthrough “digital” or “shopper” innovation. There’s even a whole crop of players that specialize in developing brand accelerator programs within traditional CPG companies; promote intrapreneurism if you will.
The challenge then is how do these internal accelerator / incubators not fall prey to the same old corporate bureaucratization that led to their development in the first place? How does the work of the internal accelerator link back to the day-to-day grind of selling cases? Said differently, how can experimentation be institutionalized on a daily basis versus being the sole proprietorship of these accelerators / incubators? As a recovered corporate financial analyst, I can tell you that unless it’s built into the annual / quarterly business planning cycle, experimentation doesn’t get noticed or prioritized.
Net, whether through an internal incubator or through quarterly marketing planning (ideally both), regular, snackable (read “fast”), and funded experiments are the key; RoEX can be the measure of success.
Next: The changing nature of a CPG brand.
Last month, I had the honor of being named to Brand Innovators 40 under 40 (Midwest) alongside some fantastic digital "thought" and "do" leaders. As part of our selection, we were asked "to look ahead and identify top trends – things that will influence the market and impact the quest to connect to the ever-elusive consumer." I highly recommend taking a look at all the Brand Innovators' proposed trends as I found the insights illuminating in that they are at once unique yet thematically similar, even across the years that Brand Innovators has been tracking. For this particular post, however, I’ll be speaking only about my submission.
My Brand Innovators 40 under 40 trends:
I’m arguing that it will, it has to. The business/economic world is replete with examples of seemingly non-disruptable, deeply entrenched, and embattled with high fixed cost industries that were, of course, disrupted (music, print, phone, cable, taxi cabs readily come to mind); so why not the agency-advertiser model?
Consumer attention spans are fleeting (and getting flightier); advertisements are being ignored; CPG brand budgets - even the “big dogs” that big agencies typically anchor their contracts to - are tighter and being scrutinized for every penny (nevermind every dollar); retailers are prioritizing store brands and mimicking traditional brands’ go-to-market strategies; mobile, mobile, mobile…this is what is happening now. So while I’m not arguing for the outright dismantling of the traditional AOR model (yet), we need an evolution now (or an accelerated timeline at the very least) to meet the demands of a changed landscape for brand managers. I, for one, don’t want my brand(s) to fade away into the world of obsolescence.
Next: How to accelerate the timeline.
[This piece was inspired by & co-written with my BBF (big brain friend) Keith Knapp - @kknapp.]
Picture waves, currents, and boats. Some waves/currents are big and some boats are big; commensurately, some waves/currents are small and some boats are also small. The big boats navigate the small waves & minor currents relatively easy – and stay the course – while the smaller boats may feel the water as choppy and are forced to make changes in direction more often. When the water isn't too choppy, and the undercurrents are minimal or known, the larger boats can usually get from Point A to Point B more efficiently, while the smaller boats may have to expend more energy as they travel with the changing currents. Conversely, as major undercurrents begin to change the larger boats have a more difficult time tracking those changes until those changes are physically impacting their ability to sail smoothly; whereas the smaller boats, which by design are closer to the undercurrents, can feel or “sense” the major changes in direction sooner and can make adjustments sooner. Therefore, travel from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner is highly dependent on the size of the vessel and the environment in which it operates.
Now the big question: Is the big ship considered innovative when it starts to use a new tool that allows it to track the changes in the undercurrents sooner? Consider this before answering:
The bottom line is that we feel that the term innovation is being overused; whether it is during strategy sessions or within goal documents, the fact is that innovation, real innovation is very, very hard. Organizations should instead be shifting the thinking away from lofty innovation goals and spend more energy toward delivering incremental, achievable - a.k.a. evolutionary - changes in their business models. To be clear we’re not advocating that organizations should stop pursuing BHAGs; we’re saying that huge, game-changing ideas should be pursued but not at the expense of quickly adopting market-driven evolutions.
While our proposal may seem like semantics - given that sometimes the “best” innovation is often described in terms of being linear and iterative - changing the dialogue from “go innovate” to “go evolve”, while subtle, can represent a very powerful mindshift.
1. “Think like Zuck” by E.Walter
Other thought nuggets:
Is imitation a form of innovation? Can it be? I think so.
In less than 16 months (started counting Sep 2009) I witnessed three different frozen yogurt bars pop up in Greensboro, NC: Feeney’s, Frozato, and Taste. Now there’s a grand total of four frozen yogurt bars (Red Mango, the fourth, may have been here before I noticed the proliferation) to serve the ~260K residents of Greensboro. Each seems to have staked out a particular location - well away from each other - and the corresponding demographic.
How can / will each bar differentiate itself? Do they have to? Can all four be successful? Will there be a fifth? I’ll have to check back in a few years and see.
The point is that when my students were tasked to brainstorm new ideas, they would get frustrated because they often couldn’t invent something never-before-seen new. I kept reminding them that you may not have to come up with the new idea first, just be better at executing it. After all, Google didn’t invent search - whether or not they’ve perfected it is an oft debated matter of opinion. L. didn't invent the condom but they sure are making headlines with their approach. There are countless others, but the result is the same: it may not always be a matter of invent, but re-invent, differentiation via the execution.
Now off to get some yogurt!
So, what else?
During my brief stint as an adjunct professor many years ago, I recall that half of my students had dreams of one day starting their own business. One of my favorite parts of the teaching night was when I presented a random idea and asked the students to put on the brainstorm lens - "what else could you do with this...". Most of the time we would end up in the realm of the zany. Sometimes, however, we would actually land on something achievable and plant the seed. This is an homage to ideas - zany or otherwise.