Frank Bauer
Oct 12, 2016

The message, the brand and the medium

When each brand is its own medium, the key question for agencies becomes what to focus on, with regards to their digital skill set.

Frank Bauer
Frank Bauer

Gone are the days of the stock phrase “the medium is the message”, which underscored the power of a smartly chosen medium to amplify the message.

Today digital technology enables brand owners to reach out to their customers directly with “mass direct” one-to-one initiatives using a growing array of big-data products designed to leverage their customer data base. The increasing automatization of digital ad-buys and placement is driving the personalization imperative from another angle, by spurring consumers to download ad-blockers. Creative agencies are finding fresh avenues to connect with consumers by positioning their clients’ brands as content platforms.

Media agencies have cottoned on, and are expanding their focus from media buying to data analytics and predictive media-consumption mapping for brands. Forget digital: data is the new battleground and a host of agencies now clash regularly in front of their clients as they seek to carve new ground in this space.

CMOs need their creative agencies to refocus on what they do best across the consumer journey: (re-) defining, building and nurturing brands, and developing brand ideas.

Digital technologies give so many opportunities to do real campaigning, moving away from the practice of isolated on-and-off mass media communication approach, which hinged on a “big idea”, to always-on brand platforms with one strong brand idea at the heart, and a constant content-flow of flexible creative expressions derived from the brand idea.

Hence, brands themselves will turn into genuine content providers by developing, producing and delivering it via owned (and earned) online assets.

Jeff Rosenblum’s article in AdAge (10th of Feb, 2016, “Why brands need content agency of record”) hit it bullseye and I’d take it one step further: brands will become their own publishers, and in a way, their own media. Consider Pepsi’s new “Creators League” in-house content studio, which aims to take a page out of Red Bull’s Media House and transform the brand into a media brand itself.

If we accept this inevitable cue, then we in the creative agency world have a clear path—because clients need creativity in today’s hyper-transparent world more than ever. The only difference is that they need agencies to apply their creativity to come up with brand ideas, rather than “big idea” campaigns. And this is far more complex, because it is more inclusive of all communication disciplines, digital skills and geographies; it’s mid-to long term focused; and requires a whole new level of collaboration with a brand’s expanded partner-universe.

The key question for agencies becomes what to focus on, with regards to their digital skill set. Yes, it’s a fat word, but with agencies on the top of the Brand Idea and brand management, the digital skills will follow. Now, is it advisable to follow more ‘popular’ capabilities, like social, mobile or front-end design, or is it better to work on more fundamental digital skills, like programming and content development? I think the right thing to do is to make sure you integrate fundamental digital skills and combine them with your traditional brand building expertise. Fast.

Building strategic digital skills that help brands to evolve into content platforms is key. Skills like platform development (across devices), content development (to live on those platforms) and delivery/management (including maintenance and content refresh) should be the focus areas.

Integration of tech platform experts and content producers into agency’s client teams is key. From the very beginning the disciplines who develop the community identity for the brand need to think “brand Idea” and brand content, first. By integrating brand programmers who can build the right digital platforms and brand content producers who actually produce relevant and consistent content that lives on exactly those platforms plus the experts to maintain, you really create a fully integrated brand (content) team. Hence, all experiences you create when consumers touch your brand are consistent and all add up to the brand’s core message.

Agencies’ digital strategy will be basically to understand, use and apply content-related technology as a cohesive extension of a brand promise into any kind of owned digital experience. The medium is no longer the message; now, the brand is the medium.

Frank Bauer is global business director at J. Walter Thompson Worldwide

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