WE DON 'T NEED CREATIVITY
Except when we need it.
The moment someone starts taking pictures of posts for Instagram of their small business on the phone, and even before that, when that someone sits down and thinks about what their Facebook page will be called – some creative work happens. I say “it happens” because, really, maybe even the one who is in the middle of it all is not aware of the fact that they are creating. Maybe they’re just instinctively doing things that seem to make sense. And that’s just fine. However, this has nothing to do with creativity and the concept of “creative” as marketers know it.
In this long text, I will try to explain what creation looks like from the angle of a marketing agency. As we see the services we sell, their purpose, but also the greatest value that brands and businesses can get from us, if we all do our job the best we can. I tried to be very precise in the text, as all the concepts I deal with are perilously blurry. My fellow editors say that this has led to the text being too serious. Hence this disclaimer, my humble attempt to justify the stiffness in the continuation of the writing. If it helps, try to read it in a hard Užice dialect, nasally. I wrote it that way.
Dealing with creativity is taking responsibility for creativity.
An example with the Instagram profile of a small business is not accidental. Small businesses often do things harshly, without procedures and bureaucracy, often do not have a brand book or guidelines for the visual language they use (e.g. the type of illustration or photo they apply to posts), and the tone of address is probably the tone of whoever is currently the admin of the profiles. This randomness works, sometimes even very well, but it is very different from the way big brands establish their presence.
If small businesses, as an example of instinctive engagement in social networks, invest 90% of their energy in posting and community management, and only 10% in planning, brands do exactly the opposite – the vast majority of time and resources are invested in defining the abstract setting of communication, guideline and standard books, establishing basic principles and ideas from which they will derive everything, from TV commercials to the smallest possible Instagram story. The reason for this is control and responsibility – the idea that once we know exactly what we want to do as a brand, we no longer leave anything to chance and we can be sure that everything we communicate on all channels will make a consistent, meaningful and convincing whole. Or as we sometimes say, we try to make it happen that whenever we speak anywhere, we always and only tell the brand story.
But how exactly do we do that? What are our tools to ensure that the story is told responsibly? Well… most often via PowerPoint presentations. I know, it’s hell. And while we’re organizing how we’re going to put together these PowerPoint presentations (we sometimes call them ‘’decks”), we start with what they are. And then we draw one of four expressions to describe their scope, their momentum, their ambition, their vibe, the angle from which they solve the matter. And once someone says one of these four magic words, everyone nods in understanding and the work can begin. Suddenly, we know what we’re making. Without further ado, these are the four things:
- Brand Architecture
- Communication strategy
- Activation / Activity
It represents dealing with the brand at the most abstract and long-term level, or dealing with the communication core from which everything comes. It is actually a reflection on the brand’s visual identity, the language used by the brand, the so-called “tone of voice”, dealing with the brand’s values, symbols, colors and sensory aspects. “Our brand stands for the common man, grounded, concrete” and similar formulations, you will hear at this stage of the work.
A good example is an IT company that has gone through a major transformation and a team of leaders who feel that the name they have used since its inception no longer reflects what they do, nor the company culture. In short, they need a new name as well, but a new name is never just that. It carries with it some sounding but also meaning, and if it is adequately implemented, it will leave a mark on visual identity, tone of speech, visualization.
A simpler example would be redesigning the logo or establishing the visual identity of the business for the first time. Writing a manifesto or some kind of internal document that tries to bind the values and principles of business into one meaningful whole. Determining the brand archetype, if this methodology is useful and dealing with the interpretation of this particular archetype in the context of industry, the market, the company itself.
As can be concluded, this is largely an area of unstructured problems, open and free, and therefore confusing, from the point of view of management. To make matters more complex, all the shifts in this “layer” of communication, even the smallest, have an impact on all other brand activities. For this reason, changes in brand architecture are not common and are always carried out with great care. In translation, imagine a version of the game “floor is lava”, in which there are also a lot of traps scattered around the furniture.
We are often contacted by companies that have an online presence and activities on the site, social networks (in translation, they already do things), but they feel that all their efforts are ad hoc, that there is no “something that connects them”, something that makes it so that always when they communicate, they know exactly what they are doing and what it is for. “So you have no strategy?” we ask. “Well, no, we need more of a document to explain what we’re communicating, where, on which channels, how we sponsor it, what numbers we’re tracking, that sort of thing.” “Strategy, then?” we try again.
Joking aside, of all the overused expressions of the corporate world, strategy is perhaps the most critical case of being worn-out and almost complete liberation of meaning. We all know it’s very important, we just… we don’t know exactly what it is. And from the point of view of being in this business (Žiška is engaged in the development of strategies), there are no two that are the same, as there are no two same companies or two same markets, but there are some rules that can be talked about.
Strategy is primarily concerned with establishing the basic objectives of communication. What are we trying to achieve with all our efforts? Should we hire the best programmers in Belgrade? To make our new product known to all biscuit lovers? To motivate people to start using our web service? Sometimes we call this ambition. We very rarely call this one of our biggest communication challenges.
A strategy can sometimes define multiple communication goals or ambitions, and within goals it can define multiple “avenues” of dealing with the same goal. The format and formulation of goals in this regard are not predefined, and different visualizations can be useful. These are the graphics in those PowerPoint presentations I mention above. Objectives are sometimes presented as some kind of pillars on which various initiatives will stand, or as centers from which some smaller goals will emerge in beams, and the main purpose of this is to come up with some document that people will be able to easily refer to, two months after establishing the strategy, while brainstorming a specific campaign or activity. We have our model that we call an egg, sunny side up, squared. Or at least that’s Goran’s pet name for it.
In addition to the objectives, the strategy deals in great detail with the market situation and the analysis of target groups or target publics. In this part of the strategy, research owned by the company, research by institutions or specialized companies or research specifically conducted for the purpose of developing the strategy is used. In layman’s terms, we need research to have more certainty about “where we are, where we stand,” and “who we’re even talking to.”
If we talk about the strategy of a company that already communicates or has an earlier document of similar purpose, which is now only being revised or supplemented, it will almost certainly contain a kind of audit, i.e. review of previous activities, along with conclusions that inform future decisions and the content of the strategy. In this sense, the strategy is also a kind of report, but only to the extent necessary to understand all the challenges of the implementation of the future strategy.
In further elaboration, the strategy at some level deals with topics that will be communicated, as well as communication channels. There are many ways to define and portray this, but most often it ranges from a set of possible topics – what are all the things we could theoretically talk about?; and then from a set of possible channels – what are all the places where we could theoretically start conversations? The idea is that in further work from the general and possible we reach the key and feasible, and to set in stone the content strands, content columns, content sets or whatever name seems to us the most meaningful for what is basically the listing and grouping of all the things we will talk about, as a company.
Once defined channels and topics allow us to define specific goals according to one or another criterion, and then to quantify those goals, establish measurement methods, reporting principles and KPIs. Basically, it allows us to go from a document that is basically quite abstract and descriptive, somehow to very practical guidelines that we will return to during the year, whenever we plan some activities, or when we report on it. Understanding media complexities is key here. For example, the fact that there is a “save” option on an Instagram post becomes the topic of the meeting.
Unlike brand architecture, which we don’t “poke at” too often, strategy can vary from perennial, to annual, with defined periods of analysis and revision. With the development of digital marketing, the annual strategy with six months of debits becomes a kind of industrial convention in our country. Certainly not the rule.
The strategy stops, and the campaign begins exactly where we no longer talk about internal decisions and knowledge that we will not share outside the company, and we start talking precisely about those things that will be seen by the public. It sounds clumsy, but this is actually a good way to separate these two concepts, which are very related and often create confusion.
So, a campaign is a very clearly separable brand initiative that has a duration, a name and a slogan, its visual identity and a key visual solution (which arises within the framework of the prescribed book of brand standards), a defined goal and some set of activities that make up the whole, or “tell the same story”, as we sometimes say. More important than that, it solves some defined and very clearly described problem, which we sometimes call a challenge or tension, so that we don’t get too scared of it. Let’s say: teenagers don’t experience that our brand is made for them, they don’t consider it when they organize their hangouts.
Before you close this text to organize your hangout, here’s a more detailed example.
Let’s imagine a brand of water that wants to attach itself to healthy life and well-being, as a broader concept. This is a strategic decision and as such, part of the strategy (Spirit.). The campaign that will deal with this specific aspect of the brand is actually about hydration and yoga, and its basis will be a short documentary film about Belgrade yoga instructors, as well as a series of local photos on this topic. The film will be called “Be Like Water” and will be released in March 2022. Okay, now I’m obviously rambling, but if we were to further parse this campaign, we would realize that in addition to the screening of the film, we are also planning a series of educational blog posts on the site, sponsoring events in May and a competition on TikTok. These are different activities (the next chapter of this text) within the campaign, which tell the same story to different target groups, on different channels. Once the “yoga and water” campaign is over, the next, winter campaign will begin, whose theme will be the importance of hydration in winter, which will be called “Thousands of snowflakes in a bottle”… I’ll stop here.
Note: The following paragraph is full of dangerous generalizations.
Campaigns often, but not always, involve communication on a number of channels. They often have a video (TV commercial or YouTube video) at their center, which is the basic work from which all other solutions “come out” – it is often a dramatization of the basic idea or tension that caused the campaign in the first place. Very often, along with the video, there is a kind of visual solution to the campaign, the so-called CV. In addition, there is often a need for some kind of information hub of the campaign, or a place where interested public can find out very detailed information about the topic this initiative is dealing with. It could be a website or a publication. Social networks, in turn, serve to deepen the basic idea and explore it to reasonable limits, with the mandatory component of feedback from the community. These, of course, are just examples for better understanding, and each campaign is different. Some have a radio commercial at the heart, or a personality that the brand collaborates with, an event or experience.
It is precisely because of this separability of campaigns and because it is almost always clear to us when it starts and when it ends, and therefore how much it will cost and how we will handle it – us marketers most often deal with campaigns. And once we’ve resolved the campaigns, all that’s left is…
Activation or Activity
Activations! Or, as we sometimes call them, “small campaigns, teeny-tiny campaigns, just to get something going.” I’m joking, of course, but the observation is not accidental – activations are a very tricky thing! Although every campaign is essentially made up of a multitude of activities, we often find ourselves working on an activation that is “stand alone”, and as such, often loses the link to the strategic basis of the brand, or one of the campaigns. It simply exists because there is an “ad hoc” problem that we solve with it.
“We should share these cutting boards!; Let’s publish some series of posts to invite people to sign up for this action!; We could show our employees on Instagram a little more often! We have two tickets to Severina, it would be cool if someone got it.”
These are reasonable requirements, acute needs of brands and organizations that are solved by communication. What is agency instinct once a brief that “smells of activation” arrives is to ask ourselves if this is part of some broader initiative (campaign). Have we talked about this before, and if so, in what way? (strategy) Alternatively, if it is really something that we solve once and never again, a certain free interpretation of the brand angle in that matter is allowed, which means, work without strategy and campaign as the basis, but still in the tone of the brand’s address, and in a kind of visual consistency with other efforts.
The first association to activations is certainly photo contests. Photo contests have become a kind of Ramen noodle of the world of communication for years. When you don’t know what to do, and there’s nothing in the fridge – you put a pot on the stove and put that noodle in your favorite Snoopy bowl. Basically, we know that we have a product and we know that we want people to have some kind of interaction with it (ideally to try it), but we also need proof that it happened, which we can share with an even larger group of people. I got it! We’ll ask people to take pictures with the packaging and we’ll promise them something in return. Ummm, that sounds very basic, yes, but it does the job. For brands, not for people, it’s worth highlighting.
Good activation implies some experience for people (consumers is a really unfortunate term) that they actually want to experience and will enjoy. But everything needs to happen in a clear brand context, so that experience can be linked to the values or attributes of that brand. It would be convenient for it to be an experience one can talk about, which can easily be shared with others. You understand, it’s very, very difficult. Hence the note from the beginning of the paragraph – activations are difficult to solve because they reside on slippery terrain between “too small to deal with this in detail” and “big enough to make a mess”.
Like, say, the activity of a German supermarket to donate a budget of a few thousand euros to teenagers to go on a road trip. Which is the activation of the campaign that “Covid changed the way teenagers mature”, now that they cannot experience all those experiences that have been formative and important for decades, such as travel, country exploration, falling in love and disappointment… And all this on a strategy that the said supermarket deals with family and family tensions. Did you hear the “Click. Click. Click. It’s a good old-fashioned strategy-campaign-activity babushka.
What’s this now? Am I really going to add another paragraph at the end of too long a text, which is not even announced in the initial enumeration? Unforgivable.
Let this remain as a reminder that engaging in communication should never have become the devising of a post for Instagram, and that every time we come up with the concept of even the slightest hint of communication, we consciously or unconsciously engage with the brand, strategic goals, and operate within a campaign or activity. If we don’t have these concepts in our heads, we may even be creative (if the posts we come up with are good for us), but we don’t engage in creative work, in the true sense of the word, responsibly and with an understanding of all the implications of our work.
Illustrations: Milja Šijakinjić