'The scary fact is it's never going to be this slow again' – Unilever, Marks & Spencer and Barclays debate real-time marketing

It is one of the most exciting spaces in modern marketing, but for every real-time success story there are some epic fails. The spoils on offer are too tempting for brands to ignore however, so how can they make sure they stand a chance of reaping real-time rewards? At The Drum Live, marketers from Unilever, Barclays and Marks & Spencer, explained how they’re keeping up in this world of constant content.

In those good old days of marketing – you remember, about four or five years ago – there wasn’t an awful lot marketers could do in a day.

They had a comfortable routine. Pitch, brief, air, repeat. Campaigns and media plans were, by and large, the products of months of considered preparation and shaped to fit their own schedule and agenda. Marketers had a busy job, but their work was seldom rushed.

And then Oreo ‘dunked in the dark’ – and that changed everything.

Oreo didn’t invent real-time marketing, of course, but few would deny that its inspired tweet when the lights went out at Super Bowl 2013 opened the floodgates for legions of imitators lured by the possibility of reaching a mass audience without paying prohibitive media costs.

By the time this summer’s World Cup came around, real-time had reached saturation point. Be it Luis Suarez’s bite or Brazil’s pummelling, there were few social conversations that brands weren’t getting themselves involved – and sometimes embroiled – in, no matter whether they were appropriate or not.

So what better place to discuss this speed of change than at The Drum Live, where we assembled Unilever global head of media Jay Altschuler, Barclays head of marketing Sara Bennison and Marks & Spencer brand and marketing manager Ira Dubinsky to see how they’re keeping up in this world of constant content.

“I think we all feel the pressure these days to respond,” admits Altschuler. “We’re living through exponential times – this pace of change is staggering. But the scarier fact is that it’s never going to be this slow again.”

But for all of the appeal of the new, the fundamental principles of reaching the right audience with the right message at the right time ought to remain constant. “The more things change the more they stay the same,” says Dubinsky. “You need to have a really clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve. Getting the basics of a comms brief right before you even start thinking about a creative idea is really critical. I think we often forget that. Who are we trying to reach? Why? What are the metrics that we need to meet? We should be doing that before we do anything else.”

There are too many examples to list here of brands failing to grasp these basics before careering into choppy waters on Twitter or Facebook. As Bennison is at pains to stress, the key consideration before any communication has to be relevance. She offers a funny, self-deprecating example: “We wouldn’t be responding to Brazil’s difficulty [their 7-1 World Cup humbling at the hands of Germany the night before] because we haven’t got anything to say – other than we know what it’s like to be a brand in crisis.”

As Dubinsky acknowledges, it’s easy to get “carried away” with the “incredible reach” social media offers: “If you look at the Suarez incident, there were 20 or 30 different brands trying to get in on this story that everyone was talking about on Twitter. Some of them made a lot of sense, and are great and hilarious, and go with the brand’s point of view and purpose, and some of them just leave you scratching your head.”

Given how ‘spur of the moment’ social media appears on the surface, it is illuminating to hear these brands talk about how much preparation is involved to get it right and how drastic an impact it is having on their business structures. “One of the biggest myths that’s difficult to deal with, from a client perspective, is that your CEO thinks social is free,” says Bennison, who now runs a weekly ‘editorial panel’ with Barclays’ agencies. “And of course it isn’t, because aside from the application you need to get something moving, you need more people because you’re creating an awful lot more stuff and they need more skills, because you’re having to trust them at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

This shift has had a profound effect at Unilever,according Altschuler: “Five years ago, we could work with one agency, create a great television spot, ship it out to 180 countries, get it on air the next day and know with reasonable confidence what that would do for the brand. Today you’re in fast forward with mobile, social and search. We need 20 different agencies to create probably 20 or 30 different versions of that concept.

"There are questions around approval, consistency, whether we use our core agencies or a different set. We have crisis management about handling Facebook pages. It completely changes the dynamics of our organisation. The push back from us – and we want to get the industry galvanised around this – is to find a way to make things simpler. It’s great that we have all these choices but ultimately it’s paralysing us as an organisation and as an industry. If we can’t figure out seamless ways to get our communication out in a way that’s cost-effective I think this could actually end up slowing down the progress we’ve been making and put us behind consumer demand.”

It might seem at odds with real-time’s immediacy, but all the panellists agree that planning is key to success. “It’s not sexy but having clear guidelines our agencies the freedom to move very quickly,” says Altschuler. “It takes a lot of the guesswork out of it.”

Dubinsky advocates a “less is more approach” and Bennison distils it into one, crucial sentence, that all brands should ask themselves: “What’s the point of doing this?”

Unless you can answer that, step away from the keyboard. You’re just not ready.

The fast ads challenge

In keeping with The Drum Live theme of ‘things you can achieve in a day’, after their panel discussion Bennison and Altschuler challenged the audience to participate in two live creative briefs for Barclays and Unilever brand Persil that day.

You can see how the teams from Gasp, Somo and Seven responded to the Unilever brief in our video above.

This feature is published in The Drum Live issue out today (23 July), available for subscribers to download.

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