Creative Opinion The Agency Business

The elusive media neutral idea: What is it and how do brands achieve it?

By Marthinus Strydom, Executive creative director

Grey Group Singapore


Opinion article

May 3, 2018 | 8 min read

The thing we are always looking for when we start a big new project, is that illusive, award winning, and profit generating entity: The media neutral idea (MNI).


When we all go off in search of a new MNI, are we all looking for the same thing? Do we agree on what we’re looking for?

That’s what sells products, builds brands, fills awards cabinets, and enters pop culture. That’s what clients want from their agencies.

So what is a media neutral idea?

If we go by the name itself then it’s an idea that sits independently from any medium, and can theoretically be communicated via any medium due to its ‘neutrality.’

Dove. Campaign for real beauty.

Persil. Share the load.

Omo. Dirt is good.

These are media neutral ideas right? Or are they brand purposes?

What about Nike. Just do it

Or Johnnie Walker. Keep Walking.

They don’t feel like purposes.

Are they MNI’s?

Are they tag lines?

Is an MNI the tag line?

No right? Ok sometimes… like in Persil’s case… and Omo’s

The issue with all of this is that there’s a desperate need to categorise and define how to make great brand work, hence the endless brand pyramids, brand hearts and brand keys and the fluctuating jargon that goes with it.

When we all go off in search of a new MNI, are we all looking for the same thing? Do we agree on what we’re looking for? I’m not sure that is the case. We seem to spend a lot of time arguing about the meaning of our own jargon instead of working on solutions.

Let’s try and look at it more simply. Our industry is the intersection of art and commerce. We entertain people into buying stuff. Choosing one brand over another is often as much about how Brand A makes me ‘feel’ versus Brand B. It is not logical. It’s a popularity contest. And these are won in different ways. You can be cool and win (Nike). You can have integrity and win (Dove). You can be the class clown and win (Old Spice).

Art is not logical, and it does not play by any rules. Rule breaking is in many ways how new art is created. It allows a new perspective on a familiar subject.

So in our industry where commerce (a highly logical and regulated discipline) meets art (a highly irregular and random process) how can we define what is what? If we try to structure it too much, with our jargon and our rules it becomes ever so boring or as mentioned above, incoherent. Just look at the type of work that comes out of the scientific process called ‘research’. A production line of average.

So is an MNI the holy grail? An independent idea that can be communicated in any medium. It sounds impressive, but I think it’s a bit of a theoretical construct rather than a practical reality. It also doesn't help that MNI/brand purpose/tagline all seem to be interchangeable at times.

So where does the rubber hit the road? When the consumer sees the work. ‘Campaign for real beauty’ is certainly the MNI but Dove Sketches is a brilliant execution of that MNI.

There are two versions on Youtube, one at 6:36 length with about 8 million views and one at 3:01 at about 68 million views.

How many times have you been asked by a client what is the optimal length of an online video? How many times have you heard advice from Google/Facebook on how long your video should be? Here is the correct length for any online video: As long as it’s interesting. If anyone mandates a time length as optimal, they have missed the point about creativity.

Another insanely good execution was for Bing, by Droga5. Using Jay-Z’s impending biography and Bing’s map and search functions a campaign was created where pages of Jay-Z’s life story were printed in the places and on the objects described in the book. Pages were printed on cars, on basketball backboards, on plates in restaurants etc allowing people to literally walk through Jay-Z’s life story where it happened, in the context in which it happened.

How often have you worked on a campaign where the media was pre-booked and mandated?

How would that approach have worked for either of these two examples? The truth is that a great idea dictates its mediums and it’s lengths. Media remains neutral at first, the idea (and its execution) is everything. Media does not skew or create parameters in which to work. It remains silent and the idea itself defines the media channels (or creates them).

This is another way to define media neutral ideas.

An MNI is a great idea that dictates its mediums.

This is when art meets commerce and you have something great that could enter pop culture.

So how do these sorts of MNI’s get made?

Where do they come from?

They come from people who have a vision and from people who agree to pay for that vision.

Vision + Control. A formula for creating and executing great MNI’s.

If you have the vision, then you have something great, but if you don’t have control over implementation then the best you can hope for is a compromised vision, which is average.

If you have all the control, and this usually rests with clients, but the vision is compromised, you get the same result, except you’re not sure why.

So vision and control need to be concentrated into the people who embody these two aspects. And that is CREATIVE + CLIENT. VISION + CONTROL.

Creatives and clients need to spend a lot more time together, not be at opposite ends of a complicated process. They need to understand each other and they need to form a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. The notion of ‘the client doesn’t get it’ needs to be eradicated from creative departments. What clients don’t get is self-indulgent creativity that marginalises what they’re trying to sell in favour of a creative fame or just completely misses the mark due to incomplete information or misguidedness.

Likewise, creatives don’t need to be sheltered from clients because they’re somehow unpresentable or don’t understand that business stuff or will be bored by strategic talk. It’s crucial that they get this stuff if they have any hope of providing an accurate yet creative solution to a business need.

We need creatives that strive to understand a client’s business and brand and endeavour to do nothing but sell products and build brands in the most creative way possible, learning all the rules, and then systematically breaking them. Pop culture reinvents itself constantly, like fashion, and brands need to keep pace.

Clients likewise have to spend a lot of their time explaining what they need to creatives, getting involved in the process, and clearing a path internally for an MNI to come through unhindered.

It’s advertising lore at this point that Old Spice was reinvented as a brand after all the research shackles and brand equity of yesteryear were discarded and an MNI was put on a fast track, unhindered. It was the last chance saloon. Entertain us or die.

This holds true for every brand in every category. There are always other choices available to consumers, so in a popularity contest there is only one rule, entertain us or die. Create artful communication, not commercial art. The former delights and connects, the latter get’s ad blocked.

Marthinus Strydom is the executive creative director at Grey Group Singapore.

Creative Opinion The Agency Business

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