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Brand Strategy TikTok Agency Leadership

What is your audience’s love language? Ad execs on social strategy for the TikTok age


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

June 14, 2023 | 8 min read

At a Drum Network meet-up at VaynerMedia’s Amsterdam HQ, social media experts shared an expansive view of social and cultural strategy and TikTok’s role in changing it.

Woman walking along lit-up street at night

Tommy Wigley of Ogilvy tells young leaders on social: prepare to look stupid, and trust your gut / Henri Pham

Recently, The Drum Network brought together a panel of social strategy masters at an exclusive leaders’ meet-up in Amsterdam. Here, we digest the organizing principles of these ad execs’ emerging social strategy, which boils down to nothing short of a recalibration of the relationship between social media and culture.

What’s your audience’s love language?

As Peter Chun, global head of partnerships and growth at VaynerX, puts it, “culture is your ability to speak the love languages of the audience that you're trying to connect with. They know whether you can speak it or not”.

The upshot, says Chun, is that “culture gains this element of being really in the dirt” – there’s simply no alternative to a genuine, authentic understanding of (and connection with) audiences in their specific niches. Chun's example: the ‘cosy gamers’ trend which, he says, is so much more than people wanting to be comfortable while they play games. “It’s an aesthetic; it’s a field-of-view on the camera; it’s the lighting; the clothing; and the tattoos you have on your body.”

“Once you can identify [with these groups], a person sees it and they’re like ‘holy shit, this brand understands who we are!’ and it becomes an interesting dialogue and relationship that you can build off. Now, there are hundreds, thousands of those moments happening – that, truly, is what culture is.”

What else is TikTok making us do?

It’s the above kind of social strategy, Chun says, that will “get you closest to relevance, which builds trust when your brand gets content in front of the consumer: the consumer will remember you more, and over time they will make the purchase decision to buy through you versus others. TikTok has spearheaded that.”

TikTok looms large in this conversation – as both a recent generator of change and as a future absorber or ever-greater media budgets. For Chun, the calculus of where those media budgets are headed comes down to two simple questions: “where’s the attention? And how under-priced is that attention?"”

Increasingly, says Chun, buyers will compare all channels, from TikTok to linear TV, on just a few simple metrics: cost per thousand impressions; cost-per-view; and return-on-investment/return-on-ad-spend. “The cost metrics are going to be stark,” says Chun, with the likes of TikTok achieving greater efficiencies: “it’s inevitable to say, ‘why am I investing in [TV] when I can get 10x the reach on this platform, when there’s a similar experience to the end consumer?’”

‘An amplification device for everything’

To say that the above signals a move to a social-first strategy is true, but a drastic oversimplification. “The idea of ‘social-first’ does not start and end on social,” says Tommy Wigley, Ogilvy Amsterdam’s head of social; and “it doesn’t mean we have to execute on social.”

The shift to social, says Wigley, is a far more expansive thing than one that can be satisfied by maximizing views on this or that social channel; “it’s an amplification device for everything – that doesn’t mean that we have to be the ones amplifying it.”

According to this way of thinking, social isn’t a list of apps or channels but, per Wigley, “an amplification device for everything – and that doesn’t mean that we have to be the ones amplifying it... If we walk down the street, and we see an advertisement outside, that's a social platform." He cites the famously-viral Marmatie Dynamite campaign: “that’s a social execution. That’s social first, even though it was an out-of-home execution.”

Speaking of out-of-home, that same expansive view of social is impacting social strategy at experiential agencies too. As Amplify’s head of strategy, Sophy Vanner Critoph puts it, smart experiential marketers are building executions under the principle “experienced by few, seen by many”: bold creative executions with cutting-edge tech integrations like haptics which, she says, “are only worthwhile if we tell people about it.” For these real-world marketers, social platforms become “where we can connect with people and experiences; somewhere where we bring people together. That can be offline, online, and in any number of different spaces.”

Or as Tobias Cummins, global senior vice-president and managing director at Dept, sums it up, “everything, every game, every experience that you have, could possibly be a media channel.”

The upshot for agencies? That technology and culture are indelibly linked, says Chris Adams, founder of Hey Honey. “Technology is a catalyst for change, but culture is the key factor that determines whether tech is successful or not. The greatest challenge for creative agencies is not how we use new platforms to solve client challenges or even use the latest technology in a campaign just because we can... Our greatest challenge as agency leaders is to make sure we understand the culture, its relevance to our clients, and then the application of platforms to amplify it. Culture is lived experience – it’s why the agency's role for clients is more important than ever.”

On ‘brand humility’ and looking stupid

In gaming in particular, this interplay between brands and communities is becoming well-established, and the rules of engagement are better understood by brands. This route ‘into culture’ has to assume a certain baseline point-of-view from the communities it engages, says Wigley: “show me that you get to be in my world; provide me value; then we can talk. Then I understand that this isn’t just a one-way transaction.”

This process will involve a certain amount of give-and-take, since (as Chun puts it), so often, “what the audience cares about, couldn’t be more different than what the brand hopes the audience will care about.”

While brand perception is important, so is humility. “I’m thinking more about how people are speaking about my brands on social, rather than solely using it as a vehicle to amplify my brand’s messages”, says Wigley. And getting it right might require a learning process that includes, just sometimes, getting it wrong. “Humility in business and social is so important. You have to be fine with playing and being like, ‘I’m not the smartest person in the room – and that’s fine’”. The upshot? “It’s OK to look stupid” when dealing with the vast complexity and changeability of real-life culture.

This convergence – of art and science, of tech and culture, of brands and communities – is the nexus of everything exciting in the ad industry, according to our panel. Here’s Critoph: “It’s the balance of the art and the science – the quant and the qual – and having a bit of budget for risk. That’s where it’s going to be more innovative. We’ve got experience, we’ve got data for all the things that tell us everything to be true. But what's a new perspective, or something interesting to jump on? The marrying of that together is where we see all the innovation happening. And that's where we have to keep pushing.”

Additional reporting by Laura Blackwell.

Brand Strategy TikTok Agency Leadership

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