By Gavin Jones, Co-Head of Strategy at Venables Bell + Partners
The traditional way the ad industry found mass audiences for our clients was simple—we paid a lot of money to a television network that forced all viewers to watch a commercial before getting to the entertainment they loved. This model has been eroding for decades with the advent of the internet, DVRs, and streaming services that allow people to bypass all ads (for a fee, of course).
The holy grail for advertisers now is the viral event, the TikTok meme that appears out of nowhere but has been seen by everybody and their grandmother by morning, the celebrity tweet which divides the Twitterverse in a trending minute, or the you-must-have-seen-it Tiger King sensation that became national water cooler talk despite the fact that we were all locked down away from our water coolers at the time.
I can’t tell you how many times in the last decade I’ve been asked by a client to make them one of these—just make a video that goes viral, they say. But that’s not how it works. Though these may seem like they arrived overnight, all of these mass cultural sensations are powered by a release of social energy at the right moment. Brands rarely create social energy, instead, they have to focus on tapping into and building on what’s already going.
Unfortunately, most agencies are still operating under outdated structures in which siloed teams spend months working on one campaign and wait months longer to see if it’s approved by agency leadership and the client.
It’s past time for us to shake this up. If we want to be agile enough to truly tap social energy, we have to start operating in cross-discipline teams with creatives, strategists, accounts, PR, and production working dynamically. At a minimum, we must:
- Stop overthinking and overengineering. While we sit in planning meetings after planning meeting bogged down in agency politics, TikTok and YouTube stars are creating their own fame, content, and healthy bank balances. Often a brand in-and-of-itself, they’re nimble, stay in touch with social, and turn out content quickly and inexpensively. The best of them make more content in a week than many of us produce in a year, and it’s often seen by far more people. Why? Because they don’t overthink and they don’t wait for approval, they just produce.
- Be more agile with campaigns and budgets. Ideas should never remain fixed, and budgets should be flexible, so you can put more money behind something that is starting to trend. Take Aviation Gin. The brand’s ad starring the much-maligned Peloton Girl, which was turned around in a mere 15 days, was a masterclass in grabbing social energy. Yes, it helps that Aviation Gin is led by mega-movie star Ryan Reynolds whose Deadpool snark packs its own social energy. But Reynolds has truly found that sweet spot of getting entertaining advertising content out there using earned media because he can turn on a dime.
- Develop a brand world in advance. Consider the culture(s) that the brand can authentically be part of and the tone the brand should adopt. SteakUmms, the frozen beef brand, decided it wanted to be a voice for “bringing the community together to interact and be productive.” As the Covid crisis emerged, social media managers watched the cultural conversation for places where this voice could be helpful. This led to a Twitter rant about the need for good data that was liked/retweeted almost 50,000 times by the next day. When the brand was trending on Twitter, it doubled down on exposure with a comical tweet, “you know the simulation is broken when frozen beef sheets are trending.”
- Watch for your moment. Brands need to watch the world and pick up on what people are worried about or laughing at right now. Moonpie, a company founded in 1917, launched MoonMate through Amazon’s Alexa to keep people company during social isolation. MoonMate is preprogrammed to carry on a conversation like a real roommate with topics such as avoiding dishes and complementing your wardrobe. This silliness was an extension of a voice the brand started years before and a calculated move to insert itself in the cultural conversation. In fact, this small brand schooled us all about capturing the moment in 2017 when it trolled snack giant Hostess for suggesting that its golden cupcake was the official snack of the solar eclipse (which is the rare moment when the moon blocks the sun). Moonpie’s tweet—which simply said “Lol ok,”—was viewed over one billion times.
Be Ready for Success. It’s always better to have something to double down on than to start from scratch so be ready with a plan to keep the social energy going if it starts. Popeyes’ underestimated how popular its new fried chicken sandwich would be, but the fast-food chain was able to turn that into an advantage and unleash an earned juggernaut of social energy by doubling down on the fact that the sandwich was sold out everywhere. It became the must-have item of the last sum (beforehand sanitizer stole that crown, of course). Other brands have turned older success into social energy. To add levity to lockdown, Budweiser brought back the Whassup crew (introduced in 1999) who like the rest of us were having a video conference. Building on a known quantity in this way will be far more memorable in the long term than the string of awkward, ‘In-These-Uncertain-Times’ work created from scratch at the beginning of the epidemic.
Our industry is at risk of becoming the taxi company eye-rolling at that new thing called Uber. We need to radically change how we work, charge for ideas, and create content. In doing so, we can have exponentially more cultural impact through earned efforts than paid media dollars alone would ever get us.