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Marketing Creativity in The Digital Age

2011 April 20

When I was a kid, I loved Tony the Tiger.  He told me that his Frosted Flakes were “Grrrrreat!” and I believed him, getting up early so that I could scarf some down before my brothers would eat them all.

The character was created by Leo Burnett, a man and an agency famous for positioning products through iconic characters, such as Tony, the Jolly Green Giant and The Marlboro man.  

Other famous campaigns, such as Volkswagen’s Think Small (DDB) and Nike’s “Just Do It” (Wieden and Kennedy), defined brands in the marketplace. While the principles that led to those legendary campaigns have lost none of their power, they are no longer sufficient.  Marketing creativity is breaking out of old confines and making new rules.

The Old Paradigm

In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson played a creative director who gained the ability to read women’s thoughts.  Armed with this new power, he became an advertising superhero, able to glean insights and compose brand messages that created meaning for the consumer.  It was an idealized version of the ad business, but not far off the mark.

Historically, the ad business has revolved around positioning and messaging. Positioning was the essence of marketing strategy and the message was what gave voice to the brand.  A strong marketing message was no less than the beating heart of a successful business and brands were crafted, revered and, most of all, tightly controlled.

In the “Mad Men” days of Don Draper, messages were broadcast on TV to a public that was fairly monolithic.  There were just a few channels, so you could be sure that once you were on air most of your consumers would hear what you had to say.  Very little thought went into how to reach them because they were so easy to get to.

Positioning and messaging are still important and probably just as important as they always were, but they no longer enough.  The marketplace has evolved and we simply need to do more.

Media Fragmentation and the Rise of Targeting

Things really changed in the 1980’s.  Cable penetration skyrocketed and viewing options increased exponentially.  While teenagers were glued to music videos, their parents could watch MASH re-runs.  Watching TV became less of a family affair and more a form of personal expression.  What you watched, in a certain sense, began to define who you were.

The phenomenon was somewhat reflexive as well.  As your interests defined your viewing habits, what you viewed influenced your interests.  Thematic channels, from MTV to ESPN to CNN affected how you saw the world and, in turn, how you wanted the world to see you.

Audiences fragmented and that changed how advertising campaigns were executed.  It became harder to reach everybody, so marketers spent a whole lot more time and energy deciding who to reach and targeting their message to specific consumers.

Web 2.0:  The Consumer Takes Over

While the rise of the Internet and the Web made big waves, not much changed in the 90’s.  There was some interactivity and some e-commerce, e-mail began to dominate correspondence and Internet penetration dramatically increased.  Nevertheless, the online experience was slow and not particularly exciting and therefore the impact was limited.

Web 2.0 changed all that.  The Internet got faster, of course, but what really changed was how new client side protocols began to enhance experience.  Technologies like Ajax and Flash video surreptitiously loaded content onto your computer without you noticing and then displayed it for you on screen, providing a seamless experience.

The improved capabilities enabled content sharing and not just professional content, but amateur content as well.  Social networks such as Youtube and Facebook became forums for ordinary people to not only make themselves heard, but to even compete with the messages broadcast by marketers.  Here’s one example:

The Kryptonite brand was positioned as unbreakable and their marketing messaging was focused on that “unique selling proposition.”  However, the video above showed how easily it was picked with a simple Bic pen and no amount of creativity could save the brand.

An even more famous example were the “Diet Coke and Mentos” videos

In both cases, brands were viewed millions of times, not as much as a typical TV campaign, but the videos were popular enough to get picked up by mainstream media and make an impact.  The genie was out of the bottle.  Brands were no longer owned solely by marketers, but also by consumers themselves.

The Evolution of Creative Teams

In the old days of positioning and messaging, a creative team was made up of primarily a copywriter and an art director.  Together, they would create what Leo Burnett called “the marriage of words and pictures that produces the fresh, the memorable and the believable effect.”  The campaign would then go on air and the job would be done.

However, as should be abundantly clear by now, the world has become significantly more complex.  Campaigns don’t end when they go “off air” any more.  They live on as consumers praise them, trash them, mash them up and discuss them online.  Control, if it ever really existed, has become a dangerous illusion.

Nowadays, creativity needs to go beyond messages and include mechanisms for interaction.  In addition to copywriters and art directors, there are web developers, event specialists, social media experts and on and on.  The “big idea” has been replaced by a network of ideas that develop in real time as consumers themselves co-create brands.

This new reality requires different competencies than the old one.  A vast array of skill sets need to be integrated.  Operational interfaces and standards are not well established and working principles need to be built on the fly.  World War II style marketing warfare has been replaced by the equivalent of counterinsurgency tactics.

Boldly Into The Future

I, for one, am excited by the new marketing landscape. While many have nostalgia for the “big idea” type creativity of the old Don Draper days, I see much greater possibility in the networked marketplace.

While the new face of marketing creativity has yet to fully emerge from the shadows, it’s clear that the successful marketers of the future will need to accomplish these four things:

Stimulate Emotions: As I wrote in an earlier post, emotions are like a little yellow highlighter in our brains. They’re powerful because they bypass the rational center in our forebrains and go straight to embedding themselves in our consciousness.

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions helped us remember what was important.  When we saw a rustle in the bushes and our best friend got eaten by a lion, it was essential to be able to remember the incident without repetition.

In much the same way, advertising that excites the senses creates instant and memorable brand associations.  That’s one reason why TV is still so strong.

Tell a Story: The first time I heard about the concept of brands as stories was in John Grant’s New Marketing Manifesto.  Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson’s The Hero and The Outlaw also broke new ground by suggesting brands be multifaceted archetypes rather than simple trademarks.  More recently, Peter Gruber’s Tell to Win describes stories as “emotional transport.”

Clearly, the notion of brands as occupying a static positioning has outlived it’s usefulness.  Brands today must not only capture consumers attention, but keep it.  That means they need to evolve in the marketplace while staying true to core values.

We don’t “build” brands anymore.  They become organisms that take on lives of their own.  Stories allow consumers to identify with these strange new life forms.  Without a story, all you’ve got left is a bunch of ads.

Enable Peer to Peer Interaction: While broadcasting messages will continue to play a central part, consumers themselves are sharing brands as well.  While they can’t be controlled, they can be encouraged.

Creative directors native to digital know this instinctively.  Mechanisms of interaction need to be designed to empower consumers, but care must be taken not to intrude or offend.  This is still an emerging area and we still have a lot to learn.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here’s 4 ways to utilize social networks for marketing.

Perpetual Beta: Probably the biggest paradigm shift that marketers need to make is the transition from campaigns to perpetual beta.  We can no longer think in terms of marketing programs with a distinct start and finish.  They are ongoing.

Interactivity needs to be rethought as well.  We’re used to thinking in term of “dialogues,” but dialogues are events.  The new interactivity is recursive.  Brands track consumers that are following the brands that are following them and on and on, co-creating experiences.

Strategy can no longer pick out one point on the continuum, but needs to develop and adapt in real-time.  Most of all, the new creativity will no longer revolve around one “big idea,” but hinge on the combined talents of diverse network of teams.

Without disparaging the great accomplishments of the past, or the genius of those form whom they sprung, I think it’s fair to say that the future of marketing creativity will be more rich, nuanced and immersive than anything we’ve seen before.

– Greg

20 Responses leave one →
  1. April 20, 2011

    Great post!

    I find it interesting that the year I graduated (2005) corresponds with the point in our digital history where the world became infinitely more complex. As my career grew with the revolution + as I am carved my niche on my own via On The Vine Creative, I have noticed a giant ‘generational chasm’ between myself + designers/marketers/creative thinkers who are only 5+ years further in the field.

    Many are largely stuck in the ‘old way’… it’s now very clear why.

    Many thanks for the insight. More posts like this one, please:)

  2. April 20, 2011

    Thx Stephie

    …Although…speaking for us old fellas, we still got some life in us. While some things are much easier for digital natives to grasp, there’s still a lot of accumulated wisdom out there that’s not only worthwhile, but as relevant today as it always was.

    Storytelling is as old as campfires and those who can craft evocative, emotional messages remain invaluable, even with our walkers and metamucil:-P

    – Greg

  3. April 21, 2011

    On the money as usual Greg. I recommend you check out our colleagues Mike Bonifer (GameChangers – – he’s written a book of the same title). We’re developing work together (our platform is CAP – Community As Product – blog post coming soon) and he’s the only person I know who is talking about the “improvised brand narrative” and speaking to exactly what you are discussing here. We did an interview on him in ’08. Check it out when you get a moment –

    As alwasy brotha…keep it the good stuff comin! 😉

  4. April 21, 2011

    Thanks Rasul. I’ll give it a look.

    – Greg

  5. April 22, 2011

    Greg, It’s no brainer to see that social media is here to stay for good. Given vast variety of the existing channels to choose and stick with, it’s time for such a hot space to enter into a new category. There is a need for a portal to provide a quick and intelligent decision for both the consumer and the enterprise about their online connections.

    A Platform to Help us to Distinguish Our Quality vs. Quantity Friends, Fans, Followers, and Companies

    Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, Flickr and others have been doing a decent job of providing additional marketing exposure and even in some cases, additional revenue. However, as more and more social networking sites pop up, how do you manage your brand across all these channels? Maybe more importantly, which one of these sites should you select as the one that will help you best reach your target audience? The proliferation of the social media avenues is becoming overwhelming.

    This glut of information reminds me of the early 90’s when WWW was adopted broadly by the general public. Every company rushed to have a presence, to the point it became literally impossible to find the right information on the Web. That’s when a better generation of search engines – at first the Yahoo! and then Google – entered the market and helped us find the most relevant information by just typing simple keywords in their search box. If you had asked before Google launched, if there was a need for another search engine – most would have said no, we already have those….

    Then came Web 1.0 & 2.0 – Youtube, Flickr, myspace, Facebook, Twitter and countless others have turned everyday people into content producers, influencers and experts. We basically tripled down on the information overload How do you know which channels to select for deploying your social media strategy? How do you know which one is the right channel to let your fans and followers to find you, your products, and services? Most importantly, who is Joe Smith that is recommending that person, that company, that product?

    I hope my can accomplish such a mission. The site is not another social networking platform. Yet the portal to all your existing social media channels. The platform helps you, your fans, your potential clients to make an intelligent decision as to which company to connect to or follow via which social media channels and why? It’s free!

    CEO & Founder

  6. Jose Espinosa permalink
    April 22, 2011

    Great post Greg. I know your not an expert in digital, but you are very knowledgable! *wink nudge*. You’ve hit on some very good points. To sum it up online we no longer market 1 to many, but 1 to 1 and as such we have to make it relevant to the individual. It’s the interaction/engagement that digital allows us that makes the medium special. Of course the dirty secret of digital is that it’s really just direct marketing…. online.

    As for the old-skoolers vs. the new skoolers – I beg to differ. It’s the really great creatives who easily grasp digital. Some of the best stuff i have seen is from a person almost 10 years my senior. Not wanting to go to far down the Mad Men Cliché, but Im going to anyway…. There is the one scene in season one when Don is asked if he had seen the latest blockbuster movie and Don answers “I see everything”. It’s those creatives that keep track of what people are doing and watching and being a part of that create the cool stuff.

  7. April 22, 2011


    Thx. I agree that many “old timers” can do great digital work. However, it’s important to understand that there is a transition and it’s difficult. I’ve trained print editors to transition to digital and some catch on and beome great. Others never do. There is a chasm to be crossed.

    To be honest, I never really bought the “one-to-one” concept. If you’re going to make an impact, you need to reach tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. Obviously one-to-one has its place, but unless you can communicate to mass numbers of people very quickly and efficiently, you’re going to have trouble making an impact.

    – Greg

  8. April 22, 2011

    Thanks Elias. Good luck with !

    – Greg

  9. April 22, 2011

    Thx Greg, Feel free to set up your personal and company pages on it .before anyone else grab ur URLs. Best of luck with u too. Cheers

  10. Jose Espinosa permalink
    April 22, 2011

    Going to have to respectfully disagree… this blog post and your interaction with commenters is a perfect example where 1:1 marketing works, and works great.

  11. April 22, 2011

    Seems like a conversation to continue over a beer:-)

    Have a great weekend!

    – Greg

  12. April 24, 2011

    Your posts always get me thinking – thanks for this one Greg. One point that stuck with me was this quote:

    “The “big idea” has been replaced by a network of ideas that develop in real time as consumers themselves co-create brands”.

    In addition to a core set of competencies then, would you agree that what is also important is a humble ego – one that doesn’t mind sharing the glory and / or letting go of control, both of the process and the idea?

    – James

  13. April 24, 2011

    Absolutely! Too often people become enamored by the myth of the “lone genius.”

    Additionally, I think it’s important to maintain curiosity. If you’re interested in what’s going on outside your domain, you’ll be more productive playing your part in your chosen field.

    – Greg

  14. April 24, 2011

    Your blog always offers a better perspective of media. I also like ur choice of words to explain things. Its true, today consumers are co-owners of brands n its a perpetual beta process. I believe social media is not an objective but a perpetual process. I would love to hear your views on how to educate brands about this. Brands in emerging mkts most often seek instant results n have no patience. Only few have matured.

  15. April 24, 2011


    Innovation in emerging markets is tough because often they are driven by dictates from the center which may or may not be appropriate locally. They see case studies in other markets and then assume that the same thing done the same way will work in theirs. It rarely does, if ever.

    The only way that I’ve come up with to overcome it is to build strong relationships. If they trust you, you can work out together how to best overcome the issue, both local and international.

    – Greg

  16. April 24, 2011

    Very true, thanks Greg. Markets worldwide are dominated by ‘reactive’ forces, fair enough. Its all about relationships n trust end of the day. Thnx again Greg. Lookin forward to more insights fm ya, Tc 🙂

  17. John permalink
    April 26, 2011


    I attempted to explain this to you two years ago but you had no interest in looking at a model I developed called Adovation. Change is hard for people to accept and the advertising industry is, in my opinion, the hardest industry to think outside the box! Interestingly enough, they all consider themselves to be forward thinking & creative types. Glad to see you and some industry pundits are starting to catch on.
    Advertising by definition is ‘intended to persuade an audience to purchase or take some action,’ because it was invented and later perfected in a technological box. Since it’s inception, advertising has been confined to a linear transmission and therefore limited in effectiveness. Now, with the advent of the Internet it’s a whole new game and it needs a new name other than advertising. The vehicles changed but it’s the same old model T mentality. It’s time the “experts” get passed SEO, click-thru rates and the feeble attempts to engage on Social Media.
    Now that you are starting to get it, focus on it and keep writing about the potential that exists in front of us. Maybe you’ll be more effective converting the crowd than I’ve been but the fact that your coming around and writing about it makes all my effort to date, worth it! Thank you.

    Best Regards

  18. April 26, 2011

    Thanks for your input.

    – Greg

  19. June 18, 2011

    Great post Greg. I think you’ve hit on the biggest challenge we face today in marketing, and that is accepting the fact that the “big idea has been replaced by a network of ideas that develop in real time as consumers themselves co-create brands”. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still need big ideas. I think we actually need them more than ever, given the marketing environment you describe here as more fragmented than ever. The key is finding a way to translate and present the “big idea” in more than one way/medium/format. And to keep it simple enough that it can be carried forward by others who are involved in the co-creation of your brand whether you like it or not.

  20. June 18, 2011

    Very true!

    Thanks, Don.

    – Greg

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