How has the concept of ‘brand experience’ changed over the past decade?
If you cast your mind back ten years ago, the global economic crisis yielded a lot of strong questions over the role of the communications industry. When you put that in mind with waste and consumerism, it led to the question of, “why does the world need more advertising?” Examining the value that was being brought to the table, it became clear that brand experience was at the heart of a lot of the value that we needed to create. That was also driven by the shift from ‘brick and mortar’ retail to online. You can’t download a face-to-face experience, so retailers were really forced to embrace frictionless commerce, which is again, all about brand experience. Then more recently, and looking ahead to what the next five, ten or fifteen years of retail look like, the narrative continues to shift towards seamless integration between online and offline. I think the challenge with brand experience is that it can be viewed as very peripheral. A lot of people use the phrase in a one-dimensional way, speaking purely about the interaction that a customer has with the brand. But I think brand experience is much deeper and much more about organizational design and a company’s actual ability to deliver – as well as looking at what the customer experiences.
What kind of challenges have you seen it present within your own projects and organizations?
My career has been predominantly spent in agencies, across Sydney, New York and San Francisco. Prior to coming back to Sydney, my last experience of working in a small team was at Droga 5 in New York – I say ‘small team’, but I think they’re now an organization with over 800 staff. Droga 5 has always been a value-led organization. David Droga built the organization around adding value to the world with ideas that shaped society and culture, as well as generating profit. Here you had a profit-and-purpose led organization that was really trying to deliver new brand experiences to customers. Culturally influential work was really not where it is now, and I think Droga 5 were one of the first agencies to really embrace this. When I came back to Australia, I thought I was coming back to a highly integrated Asia-Pacific market, where you could create work and problem-solve whether you were in Melbourne, Sydney or Tokyo. But this really wasn’t the case. The Australian agency landscape was still quite traditional. I’ve been back in Sydney now for ten years and some of the challenges I’ve come up against have presented themselves very much like a ‘lipstick on a pig’ conundrum. The marketing-comms teams were so focused on the lipstick – on the appearance of the organization – that the actual health of the organization and their real ability to deliver on strategy could go into decline. Increasingly it became clear to me that the internal structure of these organizations was really something that needed more work. And the challenge from the agency perspective was that there was a lack of trust and they weren’t being given the mandate from clients to solve for bigger business problems. Now you see a lot more agencies really embracing a consultancy role and trying to deliver on value in new ways. What also changed is the needs of people – not of consumers – but of people. They’re no-longer just looking to ‘buy more crap’, which is why at Cannes, you now see so much more focus on purpose, social consequences, and sustainability.
Was there a turning point for you in your strategy career where you really recognised the change in how creative organizations could work and the responsibility of creative leaders to make this happen?
At the point when I really started to become disillusioned with the agency world – and this coincided with my decision to join the Berlin School – I was working at a media agency in which the buying team sat on one floor, strategy sat on another, and media was bought for brands six months out. I wondered what was the point in strategizing laterally about creative solutions when the media has been decided on six months ago – I may as well have been back working at a creative agency. Stepping back, I realised that as a leader I was not necessarily growing within the agency model, not with that level of structural frustration. I decided to take a fairly lonely decision to make that change for myself. Creative leadership is about empowering people to reach their potential and that was very rare within the agency landscape. But when I approached employers about financing my MBA and how much they would value my having that high calibre education, increasingly, the feedback that I got was that they would sooner hire someone asking for less. I realised that this correlated with the level of leadership across the board in the industry. People are disillusioned. People are lacking purpose and lacking clarity about their leaders. This is why movements such as #MeToo have been so important. In the last six to twelve months, the shift in accountability has been so fantastic. Number one, because it’s overdue that women should be paid more, that sexism in the market-place should be stamped out and those toxic men removed. And number two, because it’s giving everybody a voice in organizations. It’s giving people a chance to be open about whether they want to even work for this or that kind of organization, or increasingly to work freelance. The hierarchical structure of agencies is very different now to what it was this time last year and it will be very different moving forward.
How far-reaching is the potential effect of a strong brand in terms of influencing culture and social purpose?
You can see the impact that brands are making when they get it right, versus the massive slap in the face when a brand gets it wrong. When you see brands like Gucci, for instance, running campaigns featuring a woman walking with a tiger on a leash, there’s a huge lack of cultural awareness around the environment and the loss of habitation for tigers. But you now also see these brands being de-listed as a sign of cultural backlash. What’s positive there is that society and the marketplace are increasingly not allowing that kind of behaviour. On the flip side, there’s an emergence of social purpose-led work and there seems to be a huge trend towards profit-and-purpose led organizations, to the point that it’s almost becoming the norm. There seems to be a huge realignment of value-systems, where brands are choosing a potential loss of revenue in the short-term for a long-term gain. One big shift that we’ve seen here is that we can’t measure this kind of progress using short-term KPI’s. Looking long-term requires a whole new set of KPI’s. It means taking a relatively unknown leap, but the positive thing here is that brands are choosing this long-term goal of actually making society better. They’re looking at society beyond the point of transaction.
Are there particular brands you admire that have really owned this far-reaching influence effectively?
Some great examples of brands taking this leap are Muji, Johnson & Johnson’s, and CVS pharmacies. Muji are, on the one hand, increasing their business model and investing in hotels. But they’re also making huge investments in education. Jamie Oliver is on a crusade around the world, partnering with brands to revolutionise the way children approach nutrition. That shift towards social activism is becoming the new normal. Society is not sustainable in its current form and brands are realising their role in this. A great demonstration is veganism, where you once had a proportion people choosing to be vegan because they were anti-meat. You now have an increasing amount of people choosing this way of life because of the environmental impact. My whole career, I’ve wanted to do ‘profit and purpose’ led work. Now that we’ve reached a point where this is becoming the new normal and brands recognising are their civic responsibilities, the role of the creative leader – to empower people to not only do great work but to actually be better people – has never been more vital.