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Digital Agency Census: the most innovative creative work puts people before platforms

By Brian Williamson | Senior social strategist

May 10, 2022 | 6 min read

Agency creatives strive to stay on top of new creative mediums and platforms. But AMV BBDO’s Brian Williamson argues that it’s more important to stay in touch with the human element of advertising.

cat eyes sheba

A still from AMV’s recent campaign for Sheba / AMV BBDO

How wonderful that the most innovative work in the industry is taking inspiration from real people again these last two years. It’s been good for our own award prospects, as The Drum’s Digital UK Agency Census shows, but it’s also a very good sign for the future of effective creativity, and for everyone working in the creative industry.

AMV BBDO has always been almost obsessively empathetic about the people we create work for. We get real. It’s how our most creative and effective work gets made, and it’s probably not something we could change at this point, even if we wanted to. Our way isn’t the only way to make great work, of course, but we are fortunate that it seems to be what’s needed at this moment. There is a subtle but powerful shift happening in what interests audiences and succeeds for clients.

The best work of the next few years will once again be empathetic, putting audiences ahead of platforms and treating them like real people.

For about a decade, it was fashionable to look to the rapidly-changing technology platforms behind communications media as the source of inspiration, rather than the people using it. Consider how recently it was normal for strategies or briefs to be named for tech platforms instead of the people they were trying to reach. The real work of understanding and affecting people became a secondary consideration, overshadowed by platform growth-hacking tricks and obsessively optimizing for short-term objectives.

The irony is that platform partners such as Facebook and Google were among the first to warn against this kind of thinking. The best work on their platforms has always been made by people with a deep empathy for audiences. They learn best practices like a pro, so they can break them like an artist.

That’s what Sheba ’4 AM Stories’ did last year, with a five-hour brand film for YouTube designed to put cat owners to sleep. When we learned that cat owners were frequently awakened in the early hours of the morning by their cats, we served them a dynamic video campaign on YouTube that linked them to a soothing five-hour film to return them to sleep. With 8m views across campaign assets and 20,000 hours watched, it achieved 100% recall lift and multiplied branded search lift by six times.

When it comes to attention, people aren’t goldfish. In fact, neuroplasticity is a superpower that makes them extremely good at avoiding attempts to manipulate their attention rather than earn it. The only sustainable attention hack is to follow the audience. Libresse/Bodyform’s ’Womb Stories’ is famous in the industry for having real conversations about topics people want to pay attention to, but wasn’t the only campaign to do this successfully. Maltesers ’Massive Overshare’ was also incredibly successful last year at creating cultural fame in the UK by partnering with Comic Relief to facilitate a conversation about maternal mental health. In the process, it generated huge earned media and social conversation lift, resulting in large brand and sales lift effects – soon to be published in an upcoming effectiveness paper.

The less important real people became in the creative process in the 2010s, the less effective the work became, which probably contributed to the crisis in creative effectiveness identified by the IPA in 2019. Treating people like rats in a Skinner box isn’t sustainable. When we take the time to understand their world and their real concerns, behavior change is something we do together.

AddressPollution.org for the Central Office of Public Interest did this brilliantly by linking air quality to property values, transforming a long-term public issue into a short-term personal one for Londoners. Projection out-of-home (OOH) revealed that high-value Westminster properties were among the worst for air quality in London, earning 36m reach. The most personal aspect of the campaign, however, was the integration of the AddressPollution API into property hunting through estate agents Zoopla and Search Smartly, resulting in 465,467 air quality reports generated for individual London households.

The haze of tactical obsession with novelty tech seems to be clearing. As marketers hit the limits of digital CPA optimization, more and more are looking for deeper strategic responses.

Perhaps it took a pandemic for us to get real again, or perhaps it’s a sign that the industry’s relationship with digital technology is finally beginning to mature. Either way, it’s no longer enough to know the platforms and stay ahead of new technology to do something innovative. Technical knowledge is becoming table stakes, and the field of competition for creative innovation will once again be real human understanding, backed by smart use of data. When we know what makes people tick, it’s easier to make them click.

Brian Williamson is senior social strategist at AMV BBDO.

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