Why brands are learning to be oblique to connect with their audiences

Leo Rayman, chief executive officer at Grey London and chairman of the IPA Strategy Group, looks at the secrets behind the successes of the brands making a real dent on culture.

Earlier this year, Real Life magazine launched online exploring living with technology (with the emphasis on living).

Its editor-in-chief Nathan Jurgenson is a social media theorist, contributing editor at the New Inquiry and a researcher at Snapchat. This isn’t a fast-news pop-tech site, the writing is thoughtful, personal and intelligent. Its writers hail from the New York Times, the Guardian and the Atlantic amongst others and are accompanied by a raft of academics, professors and authors.

The content is good. Really good. But what surprised me was a sentence buried right at the bottom of the site: "Real Life is made possible by funding from Snapchat, and we operate with editorial independence and without ads." On further investigation, "funding from" translates as "owned by" Snapchat. Why would one of the hottest, fastest growing and most valuable startups launch a magazine whose content is not aimed at its core audience? Why wouldn’t it launch it as part of its core offering?

The September issue of Havard Business Review contains a lengthy article entitled 'Building an Insight Engine'. The premise of which is that operational proficiency (leaner manufacturing or quality of product) has given way to customer centricity as the new source of competitive advantage. The Insight Engine powers your customer insight. The article is worth reading even if, as some people noted, the inputs discussed were lacking in cultural context that could be found with a more user experience or design thinking lens.

The authors identify 10 characteristics key to an insights engine. However, the most important of them all was independence. Snapchat has given Real Life editorial independence so that it is free to explore the world away from brand guidelines with a journalistic or literary point of view. Perhaps more importantly, most of these writers wouldn’t consider writing for Snapchat’s blog but a new magazine given editorial independence is another matter. These articles provide cultural reconnaissance from some of the most eloquent and inquisitive minds and this all feeds directly back into the Snapchat machine.

Kanye West recently wrote a poem about his love of McDonald's. It was featured in a magazine, alongside shots of Kanye driving through a drive-thru in his Lamborghini, that was published for the launch of Frank Ocean’s latest album Blonde (stylised as Blond). The magazine also featured work by Wolfgang Tillmans, Tyrone Lebon, Viviane Sassen and Tom Sachs amongst others. Not only did it give Ocean a way to let fans into his creative process and expand on themes explored in the album, but it gave him a platform from which he could work with people he admired. The 'zine gave him the independence to experiment outside of the confines of an album. A reason to get Kanye or Wolfgang on the phone and chat about ideas. A way to tell a richer story.

In his 2004 book Obliquity, John Kay discussed the theory that in complex systems objectives are best achieved indirectly. There are few more complex systems than that of the human mind. Customer insights require exploring and understanding patterns of behaviour, our goals and how we form them and increasingly our relationships to each other and our technology. Perhaps the best insight engine is an oblique one. Perhaps it’s even a poem about McDonald's.

Leo Rayman is chief executive of Grey London

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