Don’t Forget About the Tactics

The biggest frustration I have with planning is actually how we use the creative brief to solve every problem. It’s like using a hammer to fix everything around the house. I understand that more progressive planners customize the content and delivery of the creative brief to address a specific problem, the issue is that no matter the format, the intent is always to deliver a single strategic idea. And a single strategic idea can only get us to the creative concept. It has no implications for how the concept is executed.

That is a problem for me because execution is the part of the idea that people interact with. They don’t see the strategy or the concept, but they see the content on the page, the feel of the experience and the usability of platform. It’s the visceral, tangible parts of the experience that forms the opinion about the brand. So why are we so dismissive of it as strategists?

I worked on the “Summit on the Summit” campaign from HP a while ago. I thought it was a pretty cool idea and very well produced. One of the big challenges on the project was that we spent a lot of money on creating content (commercials, viral films, websites) and had very little money for scaling our audience. That’s not atypical. But what I realized was that there were tons of opportunities in that campaign to build organic scale had we taken a moment to think it through.

One of the coolest pieces of the campaign was the website ( It was billed the “tallest website” because it could scroll the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The website would have a fact relating to each foot you scrolled up – that’s over 14,000 facts. We used Mechanical Turk to source the facts. The missed opportunity wasn’t the costs incurred. It was the fact that we didn’t give people a chance to volunteer to do it for free. We failed to use the production of the website as an opportunity to get people engaged and give them ownership of the campaign. That wasn’t covered in the creative brief. It also wasn’t mentioned in the creative concept.

One of the most liberating things about working in this business is how much we value being able to think about the big picture. But I think there’s an opportunity for us to see the big picture through to the end. While I only have one example with my limited experience, I believe that there are similar stories of opportunities left on the table because we overlooked the importance of tactics.


Strategies that Cut to the Chase

For one reason or another, I’ve been keeping closer-than-usual tabs on the news lately. Some of the most appalling things I’ve been reading about are the strategies and tactics large companies and governments are using to turn the situation in their favor. This is what I mean:

Fast Company revealed how Republican congressmen led efforts nationwide to create laws that make it harder for young people to vote. Those laws center around requiring proof-of-residence documents such as driver licenses and restricting last minute registration. It seems reasonable until the article points out that the states where these laws are being debated are key states that the Republican lost during the last elections because of the youth vote.

Another example comes from the HB Gary debacle with Anonymous. Part of the leaks revealed that companies are investing in “persona management” software that allows a small team of people to manage a ton of personas. The goal is to use those personas to influence conversations online.

And the latest example is in Wisconsin where Forbes revealed that Governor Walker’s efforts to kill public unions are actually driven by the Koch Brothers; the sibling duo that manages Koch industries, a conglomerate with companies such as: Brawny, Dixie, Vanity Fair and many others. Unions are bad for business so the Koch Brothers found ways to fund the politician that would kill them on their behalf.

My initial reaction to these cases was shock, due to the blatant evilness of their intentions. Then it shifted to pity as those ideas are ham-fisted and fly in the face of the authenticity and transparency trends that seem so important these days. But now, I’m very impressed.

There is something about their ability to pinpoint the exact spot they need to target. It’s like finding that one Jenga piece that will cause the whole tower to fall. I think I do something similar where I want to find that single thought that can spring a strategy. But the difference is that I don’t think I’ve ever thought to frame a problem as a tower that I’m trying to take down with a single stroke. I think the key here is to understand the interconnectedness of the situation at hand. Then you’ll understand the structure of the tower and the weakest point to attack.

The second thing that’s very interesting is the actual tactic they’ve taken to solve the problem. It comes in all shapes and sizes and does different things. I realize that in our business we try to encourage the same things as well, but I’d argue all the ideas we produce end up trying to persuade or convince the customer to believe or do something. What these examples opened my eyes to is that an idea doesn’t have to address the customer or end user at all and it might be more effective to target a part of their environment using tactics such as interference, confusion, sabotage and others.

This is interesting to me because I work at a place where we believe that brands are more effective when they do things, rather than communicating things. So far, we’ve focused on helping brands do things with or for their customers to solve business problems. What these case studies are starting to open up for me is the idea of a brand doing things in the market to solve business problems with or without the customers.

An example of this can be found in this month’s HBR. There’s an interview with A.G. Lafley where he described how P&G tried to get into the bleach business and wanted to do a test market in Maine to avoid getting noticed by their rivals at Clorox. Well, Clorox found out and flooded the test market with free samples and it effectively put an end to P&G’s expansion. Problem solved.

I certainly don’t know whether I have something or not. But, what it is doing for me is opening up my mind a little about strategy being more tactical. The way I’m doing it now (and I’m assuming how most brand strategist do it) is still very conceptual, meaning we think about strategies as frameworks and ideas that may imply tactics but are not tactics themselves. The reason why this type of thinking is attractive to me is that it cuts to the chase. Conceptually-driven strategies feels like a very roundabout way to achieve what you want. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance when creating and then unveiling the solution, hoping that customers will get involved and play along with your marketing scheme. Tactically driven strategies have a sense of focus that seems to be much more efficient.

I think the next step is to keep an eye out for things that are happening out in the marketing world that are more tactically driven and perhaps looking for opportunities to test this thinking out. The latter is a little tricky since branding is an inherently conceptual exercise. But if we believe that modern brands achieve more by doing rather than saying, then it’s worth a shot to consider the possibilities.

Better Research Experience = Better Insights?

I’m hearing that some of my friends have received their stickers for Project Like. Some people sounded pretty excited to figure out what to “like.” I’m happy that this will be a fun experience for people.

One of the things I’m trying to figure out is a way to make market research interesting for the participants. I’ve been in too many awkward one-on-ones, strained focus groups and painful man-on-the-street interviews to know that there has to be a better way. It’s not like the insights are bad, but can we get even better ones when people are having fun?

My thinking is inspired by a breakout session from a Planningness conference. It was run by the guy who helped create an ARG about life without oil. Among the many interesting things he talked about, the most interesting one was how uninhibited people are when they are in play mode. Strangers become very animated and expressive; they shout at each other and laugh.

I think being in play mode creates some sense of trust and familiarity that allows people to open up. Secondly, being in play mode can potentially allow people to express themselves in different ways. We know we all communicate differently, but a lot of our market research is generally geared toward collecting spoken and written evidence. In play mode, behaviors can reveal intentions that are often times unspoken. I don’t have any evidence for this, it’s more of a hypothesis that I hope to be answered.

That being said, hopefully something I can take away from this experiment is how to design an interesting experience for people that can yield rich insights. I’m thinking of coming up with a cool phrase for it, maybe something like: research as an experience? Progressive research? Experience-based research?

Modern Capitalism Based on Shared Values

Goddamn that Alex Bogusky is inspiring.

I finally had a chance to watch his presentation for the newest project from Fearless – the open source brand called “Common” for socially minded businesses (for lack of a better term). One of the biggest hypocrisies of my life is the fact that I work in brand strategy consulting while maintaining a very cynical view of big businesses and capitalism in general. My friend affectionately calls me a corporate whore and there’s nothing I can do but resignedly sigh in agreement.

Part of me feels like the concept has always existed, but it wasn’t of an interest until big businesses figured out how to make money from it. The HBR podcast titled “How to save capitalism” makes a compelling point about how current CSR programs are a huge waste of money. They’re essentially giving money away to random third parties who aren’t even part of the stakeholders group. Sure, it looks generous but it’s also horribly neglectful. It’s like buying dinner for someone else instead of your family. Smart CSR programs would try to evenly distribute value between all the stakeholders to promote mutual success.

My friend mentioned that idea is reaching it’s tipping point because it’s gotten so much heat lately. I’d say it’s a pretty cutting edge idea because if a business wants to implement the model, they’re going to have to defy business logic. But I realized that I’m probably too cynical about things for my own good.

I realized is a situation that represents this shared value concept is the Antoine Dodson story. If you’ve already forgotten, he’s the bed intruder guy. He got famous off of a song that someone else wrote about him. The creator of the song shared the proceeds of the iTunes sales with Dodson. Dodson also made money off of ringtones and TV appearances and was able to get himself and his family out of the projects. Under the old model of capitalism, Dodson wouldn’t have made a cent unless he sued. People would see that the value was created by the guy who wrote the song. But in this “shared value’ capitalism, Dodson would be seen has having contributed to the song and ultimately its success.

And to be fair, that’s one of those weird stories that happen on the internet were it’s all kind of a fairy tale (or nightmare depending on how your perspective). How does this work for a big business where it’s extremely tough to change course?

I was watching Stephen Colbert last night and saw the segment with Wal-Mart’s vice president talking about a program they created with the U.S. government to sell lower priced fruits and vegetables in their stores. That’s pretty amazing right? They are the largest retailer in the U.S. and are in the position to affect behaviors on a grand scale. And then you think about how they are buying their groceries from local farmers. They are forcing their supplies to adopt green practices (in the past they’ve also forced suppliers to adopt crazy inventory systems). They’ve switched to a fluorescent lighting to save energy.

For a big evil company, they’ve done a lot of good. And the good isn’t that stupid, wasteful-throw-money-at-a-random-cause good, it’s a sustainable action and an investment in their stakeholders. In this case, their stakeholders are their customers (the cheaper produce and vegetables, local and organic farmers) and the environment. And investing in both these stakeholders, Wal-Mart stands to gain big as well. Going green with the lights saved them tons of money. Offering organic and local foods allows them to strategically leap ahead of grocery stores (who are slowly figuring it out) to capture market share. This is assuming that they are betting that local/organic foods is the next evolution of grocery products.

I think there’s a little bit of greater awareness of how other parts of the system adds value, but I’d like to think that we’re slowly becoming nicer to each other and more mindful of how our actions affect others around us.

Institutionalize Happiness for Health

For as long as I’ve had the Internet, there has been a constant stream of research about happiness parading through my feed reader. The most impactful trigger of happiness seems to revolve around the quality of relationships that we cultivate with partners, families and friends. While that is just a scientific confirmation of age-old wisdom, the real interesting bits come from how happiness affects your health (stolen from WebMD):

• Get sick less often
• Less depression and substance abuse
• Lower blood pressure
• Less anxiety
• Natural pain control
• Better stress management
• Faster healing
• Live longer

Starting to see where I’m going with this?

I haven’t written anything in a while, so I may be totally off. But I do know that this is the New Normal. We have a generation of people who are growing up focusing on themselves, which means their sense of empathy isn’t as well developed as their grandparents or people in past generations. Without empathy, you can’t relate to other people. It’s not to say these people don’t want to build relationships, because who doesn’t? We are fundamentally the same as we were before; but how we act on those wants and needs are different today and we may need a little push.

A good friend of mine from Singapore told me about LoveByte, which is essentially a government run match making service for college graduates. On the surface, it seems no better than your mom doing it for you, but I believe its ambitions are grander than we think: people in relationships build families and families build communities. Those pieces form the strong support networks that bring the health benefits I mentioned above.

The sooner we get past the stigma of being lonely, the sooner we can think of loneliness as a disease that can be treated. I believe that it’s in the government’s best interest to be proactive about helping their citizens build these relationships. It can be a very compelling preventative care initiative for health care programs because of the impact to our emotional and physical well-being.

A Re-imagined Creative Brief

I don’t want to come off as a presumptuous know-it-all Internet planner jerk-off, but these are just my thoughts on creative briefs.

I was talking to a friend a while ago about a brief I’d like to write and a brief he’d like to work off of. The way I’d describe it would be problem/success. The planner would identify the business problem and what success would look like. And then the planner would be responsible for finding multiple insights (like 3-4) into how they could go from point A to point B. So maybe for example on Gatorade:

Problem: Losing market share to not only athletic drinks, but also other lifestyle drinks that have become popular.

Success: Gatorade increasing market share by x% while increasing brand awareness and perceptions.

Then the planner would go in and fill out the insights:

Sports and culture go hand in hand – the celebrities hang out with each other, fashion sense overlaps and the top guys in both groups share the same swagger about them. Maybe its time we give Gatorade a life outside of sports.

People drink Gatorade because they believe its the best drink to have while/after intense exercise. This is an undeniable truth and equity we’ve built into our brand. Don’t change it – change them. Is there a way to may people exercise more and stimulate demand for Gatorade?

I only have two here since its just an example. But the insights should have enough research and focus in them to be good strategic directions.

But overall I think those insights can work for creatives. It gives them multiple options (which implies that there’s more than one way to fix the problem – something a single-minded brief ignores) and focused on the same goal. If the insights are too thin, the planner can do a deep dive on each of them to provide more stimuli.

I also think that if you set it up like this, planners won’t pitch a fit about ideas being off brief. Because everyone knows if you’re off-brief, the ideas won’t get you to the success scenario you laid out.

So yeah, that’s what I’ve got on briefs – let me know what you think. It could be totally wrong and useless for all I know. But I tend to think that briefs are too limiting and that we should never forget that we are problem solvers first and foremost.

Readability Means Access

(This is a repost from when I published it last fall. It was an interesting thought that I wanted to have filed on this blog.)

Growing up, I’ve always thought it was strange that I was enrolled in AP English literature classes and was reading the classics with relative ease while I couldn’t read a mortgage contract to save my life. Initially, my reaction was to blame the education system for teaching me a skill – deciphering the metaphors and symbolisms of dead white men – that had no application to the modern world. But even after grad school, I still can’t figure out the differences between three health insurance plans.

Allison Arieff, a NY Times columnist, wrote an interesting piece calling for support of a national design policy. Part of her argument is that official documents like contracts, mortgages, credit card information are inherently hard to read for the average American – never mind a high school kid. The consequence of having a national design policy would be the liberation of information to the masses.

Whether it’s intentional or not, poor design has kept crucial information hidden from the people who need it the most. People who are buying their first home, getting their first credit card, or frantically filling out a form at the emergency room are all vulnerable to making mistakes while making these very important decisions.

Clear and understandable documents will allow us to better use the counsel of experts. I remember my parents spent hours with the realtor understanding the terms of the contract. What they should’ve been doing is strategizing the best way to tackle that huge mortgage. Good design has the ability to make the grunt work easier so you can spend more time on bigger things.

And lastly, good design is good customer service. Nothing is a bigger “fuck you” than 42 pages of legalese in 10-point font. When we think about how everything is a touch point for a brand experience, something that looks like a page from the dictionary is starting the relationship off on the wrong foot. It sets up a relationship that is not about the brand in service to the customer. It’s a relationship about the brand doing what it wants and the customer working around that to align with the brand.

That may be nuanced. But I think it adds to why we think governments, HMOs and mortgage companies are inaccessible bureaucratic monsters that we have to do battle with to get the things that they are supposed to be offering us. Readability means access. And these are the organizations that shouldn’t be holding things from us.