Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and Contagious?
I feel inherently connected to The Berlin School, because I worked for Michael Conrad at Leo Burnett for four years, when he was worldwide creative director. He persuaded me – in a beachside restaurant in Cannes - to leave my job as editor of at Shots Magazine in London and move my family over to Chicago to help him run the agency’s Global Product Committee, inheriting the great Donald Gunn’s role as worldwide director of Creative Resources. It was a very easy decision. Michael was a wonderful mentor and inspirational leader. The role and the freedom he gave me taught me all about agency life, brought me into contact with senior marketers and took me to cities all over the world, championing the cause of creativity.
Six years later, in 2004, I felt the urge to build something for myself. I could sense that the advertising industry was about to get sucked into a vortex of change wrought by emerging technologies, unpredictable consumer behaviours, the rise of mobile and disruptive new business models. I reunited with Gee Thomson, my former boss at Shots, to launch Contagious – a navigation guide for the future of marketing. We wanted to create an instruction manual for change; to inspire and equip brands and agencies to meet the challenges of 21st century marketing head on. One of the key lessons I’d learned at Leo Burnett was to concentrate on the correlation between creativity and effectiveness in the marketplace. That’s why, as well as publishing a quarterly intelligence journal focusing on the immediate future of the ad business, we also created an accompanying DVD (remember them?) that contained a painstakingly curated selection of world-class case studies, structured in a Challenge/Solution/Results format. We made it our mission to prove that superior creativity is the last remaining legal way of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.
Thirteen years later, Contagious now has (modest) offices in New York, Sao Paulo and Singapore. We have an advisory unit that works with brands such as Booking.com, Bacardi, Coty, Disney, Google, Heineken, LVMH, Mondelez, Nike, Puig and Spotify to benchmark new forms of creativity and to get to innovative ideas faster. We run a series of conferences and events throughout the year, the pinnacle of which is our annual Most Contagious conference (www.mostcontagious.com). But the brain of Contagious – the main part of our business – is Contagious I/O; a collaborative online intelligence platform – described as a ‘secret weapon’ or ‘rocket fuel’ - that provides agencies, media owners and marketers with strategic insights, creative inspiration and advice on innovation.
In one of the ten Contagious commandments, you talked about weaponizing your audience. Could you expand on that?
There’s a certain irony behind the phrasing of this commandment. When we launched Contagious, our original mantra for marketing was: ‘Be Useful, Relevant, Entertaining’. It sounds obvious now, but at the time such an approach required a fundamental reboot of the traditional marketing monologue, which was still dominated by intrusive TV commercials and characterized by military terms like target, bombard, campaign, collateral and guerrilla. We tried to use the term ‘people’ rather than ‘consumers’ and Contagious called for a more collaborative, consultative dynamic where the interaction between brands and their believers could generate compound interest. The question we asked was: if someone consistently invests time, money and energy into the content, services and experiences your brand offers, is what you’re giving back of increased value?
When it comes to the principle of ‘Weaponize Your Audience’ the difference between 2017 and 2004 is that the balance of power has, thankfully, shifted in favour of the audience. The conversation now runs two ways. Get your content and platforms right – like brands such as Lego, GoPro, Marriott and KLM have done – and you can turn people into media, willing to spontaneously spread your brand’s gospel far and wide. Provide them with a platform to participate in your products and services – like Coca-Cola managed with its personalized Share A Coke initiative – and you have the chance to embed people directly into the narrative or fabric of your brand. Adidas refer to influencer marketing as a new kind of ‘eye-to-eye relationship’ – meaning they build a marketing concept based on audience insights, and then hand the responsibility of spreading the product over to our audience. They did this recently with the launch of the Glitch football boot. They took an open-source approach, by seeding the boots exclusively to 30 influencers within the football space – including young, up and coming professional players, knowing that these people would use their social media channels to promote the new product. The only people who could then buy the Glitch boot at first, were a limited number of followers who were give special codes by the influencers. This built up a grassroots buzz, which inevitably seeps into the mainstream.
You also discussed the rise of consultancies aggressively seizing large chunks of markets. Could you talk a little bit about this new development?
I’m going to answer this question by quoting from a project that we ran recently at Contagious, written by an anonymous author who used to be a creative director at various digital ad agencies but who now heads up a creative lab at one of the Top 5 global management consultancies. When talking about the difference between agencies and consultancies he claimed that, much to his initial surprise, he felt that consultancies were more ‘ninja’, more like pirates than agencies, who he decribed as feeling more like the Merchant Navy. Here’s how he qualified this: ‘Consultancies are fascinating and utterly different to agencies. In their structure, they are federated, staffed by super-smart consultants who are largely generalists and are incredibly adaptable, being able to swap roles and take on different clients almost at will. They can be super aggressive in their approach to business and opportunities and are constantly challenging the status quo using their scale and muscle to break into new markets and define new ways of working.
‘Agencies, on the other hand, are incredibly well organised around particular disciplines, they are specialists and respond fantastically to briefs and specific instruction. Agencies have resources geared to understand craft and communication and a deep understanding of their expertise.
‘Agencies are the Merchant Navy. Consultancies are the Pirate Army.’
He admitted that the reality is more nuanced. The entrepreneurial, adaptable mindset of the ‘Pirate’ lacks some of the deeper knowledge, teamwork, appreciation of craft and organising skills of the specialist ‘navy’ (agency).
For now, I think marketers (‘clients’) need the worlds of agency and consultancy to embrace and learn from each other, as they both bring distinct specialisms that brands can benefit from. But there’s certainly going to be a big shakeup in this space, and I expect to see agencies reconfiguring their offering, to embed a more robust defence against the likes of Accenture, Deloitte, McKinsey, etc. Creativity is going to be one of the biggest commodities in the immediate future.
Contagious has studied and dissected the advertising world which has resulted in a need for what you call ‘Agile Long Termism’. Could you explain this principal a little bit?
At Contagious, we’ve developed a theory that brands and agencies need to behave as agile long-termists to ensure that they thrive in a world where these issues are inescapable. Our managing editor, Emily Hare wrote an excellent article on this subject, where she said:
‘Agile long-termists focus on a long-term vision, but are able to introduce beneficial short-term ideas or rapidly adapt existing plans. Brands can do this by having their values clearly in place and then making decisions using those as a heuristic. Google’s founders’ 2004 IPO letter sums up both the motivation and the attitude: ‘Our business environment changes rapidly and needs long-term investment. We will not hesitate to place major bets on promising new opportunities.’
Agile long-termism follows the premise of Daniel Kahneman’s behavioural economics work, Thinking Fast and Slow. Your brain can only process a limited number of concentrated decisions, using System Two thinking. Those should be the business’ carefully considered long-term strategies and values. But businesses also need to function at speed, making a greater number of smaller decisions in quick succession, just as your brain doesn’t spend time processing walking, eating or breathing. These kinds of decisions are delegated to System One thinking: automatic, frequent, almost subconscious. Amazon’s approach exemplifies this. Its long-term strategy of a relentless focus on convenience for customers is brought to life at speed by taking advantage of innovations, such as Internet of Things buttons, drones and one-hour delivery. Jeff Bezos always focuses on shareholder value, created over the long term, but knows that in order to achieve this he needs to encourage a culture of high-quality, high-velocity decisions.
For brands, the challenge is to keep a long-term focus, despite the pressure to deliver short-term results. If they need any proof as to why this is important, they need look no further than the work done for the IPA in the UK by Les Binet and Peter Field. By analyzing IPA Effective winners in 2011, they found creative marketing – associated with long-term brand building – was 12 times more efficient at increasing a brand’s market share. However, by 2016, creative work had dropped to being only six times more efficient. A focus on short-term, digitally- based advertising can reduce efficiency in the long term. Agile Long Termism is the need to foster a blend of both behaviours; of broad, emotional reach and sales highly-targeted, information-rich sales activations.
Contagious has been at the forefront of anticipating trends and evolutions. What do you think the future holds?
In terms of the future; I think the marketing industry will continue to face a period of change and disruption; which is either terrifying or exciting, depending on how entrepreneurial your mindset is. Technology is creating increasingly high expectations for consumers; people are demanding more control and transactional power from their personal data, which will change their relationships with brands; loyalty has the potential to be rewarded via branded cryptocurrencies; management consultancies are muscling into the space traditionally occupied by creative agencies, so the whole industry feels like it’s experiencing a huge reset. This is fertile territory for Contagious, and injects a fresh impetus into our mission to help our members navigate the complexity of modern marketing.