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21 Sep, 2013 – one comment

here’s to the brand team

A look back at the one year anniversary of

Here’s to our clients: the brand team. Also known as the planners. The worriers. The stress eaters. The scapegoats. The keepers of the brand. The ones expected to best last year’s sales with less time and fewer dollars. You can blame them, berate them, scoff at them, or label them but they sell what they’re given. They wrangle retailers, contain creatives, and forge financial plans. They’re not fond of social media uprisings. Or management’s shifting focus. But they deliver. Quarter after harrowing quarter, committee after mind numbing committee, they endure.

In a world gone digital, with technology empowering consumers, reshaping industries, and disrupting just about everything …

why hasn’t the brand team’s job gotten any easier?

Classically, the marketing department’s role within the larger organization has been to spread value. To distribute a product and message across geographical boundaries and into the hearts and minds of a consumer. Today, of course, it’s not so simple:

  • In almost every category, brand teams face what Rob Walker calls “the pretty good problem.” There’s no such thing as a bad potato chip or a bad automobile. As consumers, things are great. As marketers, it’s never been harder to differentiate our products.
  • Competing for attention is a contact sport. In a world where everyone has access to 900 channels, 500 friends, five screens filled with apps, and 9 million cat videos, big audiences are expensive to buy and almost impossible to effectively engage.

In short, brands have less to say and more barriers to saying it. So what’s the answer?(hint: it’s not coupons)

The brand team comes to the rescue.
In the face of these mounting challenges, what’s the brand team to do? Well, for many clients, the answer has been to tackle the problem head-on.

What began as a marshaling of research capabilities in-house over two decades ago has become full service creative today. One study found that 58% of brands now have an in-house agency of their own. Brands like Red Bull, Chipotle, and Apple have excelled with in-house services, whose offerings go far beyond strategy. In-house agencies today are planning and buying media, managing in-store marketing, running social accounts, devising and implementing digital campaigns, and operating digital platforms.

But not every client is ready to go in-house and even when they do, there are tradeoffs. The same study found two growing concerns from CMOs and brand teams with in-house capabilities: 1) the ability to stay on top of trends and 2) a lack of creative innovation.

The first is a universal problem. The lifespan of a trend has simply gotten shorter. Creative agencies, too, scramble to strike while the cultural iron is hot (and make fools of themselves when they fail). Agencies might have the advantage, but only because we tend to hire younger, hipper, and more culturally conscious people. The best clients have already stolen this page from our playbook.

Creative innovation, on the other hand, is more complicated …

How do brand teams manage to find time, money, and ability to innovate while juggling even greater responsibilities?

“The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”
― Charles Dubois, Naturalist

Very few organizations are capable of disrupting themselves. As organizations grow, disciplines become silo’d and separated as management looks for ways to increase efficiency and reduce waste. Process, by design, is an error-reduction strategy. Therefore most organizations are optimized to serve today’s business model at the cost of tomorrow’s. And while the average brand team is measured by last year’s sales, if not same-day-sales, the risk of failure inherent to innovation is often too much for an organization to stomach.

With that level of risk aversion, is it any surprise that a Nielsen study found that new product innovation enjoyed 80% higher revenues if management had little to do with its conception or realization. Distance, both literal and figurative, is one of the best predictors of creative innovation’s success.

“You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday.”
― George Buckley, CEO, 3M

There are many activities that clients can ultimately bring in-house, but creative innovation will always benefit from outside help. And as attention spans decline, categories become disrupted, and new competitors emerge – creative innovation, the ability to reach consumers in novel ways with novel messages, is more important than ever before.

One year ago this month, we created a new service offering at Deutsch LA dedicated to creative innovation. We dubbed it Invention and we built it with the brand team in mind. That means we designed it first and foremost to be fast and accessible. In only 5 days, for as little as $10,000, our team will define the problem at hand, concept solutions, and test ideas with real users. The result is an immediately-actionable set of creative innovations designed not only to earn their own attention but to solve real brand and business objectives. From there, we work hand-in-hand with the 170-person digital department at Deutsch LA to bring ideas to life as prototypes and, finally, as fully formed products. We also sell our know-how, holding one day collaborative sessions with our brand teams in order to emerge with multiple ideas to flesh out in code.

It’s a completely new model for creativity. One that has challenged us as an agency and has transformed us as creatives. We hire, staff, work, and think differently. But we still speak client. Creative innovation is critical, but so are the other 99 things on the brand team’s to-do list.

Since our inception, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with and learn from smart brand team partners at Target, Esurance, Diamond Foods, Volkswagen, and the New York MTA.

We’ve launched the first quantified self app for driving designed to make driving more fun. We solved one of humanity’s greatest problems – burnt popcorn – with a simple yet fun utility. We helped a small brand out compete a big brand with a digital strategy centered around innovation that punched like a campaign with three-times its budget. In our down time, we built the world’s first real-life Like sign, launched a net-worth guessing game, kept a running tally of our favorite creative innovations, and published two years of startup trends.

And yet, only a year old, we’re just getting started. If our projects in the pipeline aren’t cooler than what we’ve already launched, we’re doing it wrong. This post is dedicated to our clients because without them, we’d still be a bunch of misfit toys without an island to call home.

Finally, for those clients and agencies experimenting with creative innovation …

we humbly submit these learnings from Year One of Invention.

What agencies need from clients:

  • Holistic Objectives: Here’s an exercise. Put someone from each layer of your company’s hierarchy in a room together. Write down your company’s mission statement. Next to it, write down each person’s stated quarterly objectives and what their compensation is tied to. After that, write down the tagline of your current ad campaign. Spend the next 90 days (to infinity) dealing with the confusion and conflict you just made sorely visible.
  • Dedicated Budgets: The typical marketing budget is a game of whack-a-mole. Use it before you lose it, or before the CMO restructures it. Creative innovation requires a dedicated and predictable budget. We typically instruct our clients to put aside 10% of their marketing budget toward innovation.
  • Leadership: If innovation requires distance, organizational flexibility, and endurance, agencies need an internal innovation sponsor to navigate the political waters.

What clients need from agencies:

  • Diversity: Agencies need not only learn how to hire the heretics, but how to retain their passions, energy, and service on behalf of brands. Having former MIT alum sitting with Miami Ad School luminaries isn’t always harmonious, but it is creative.
  • Accessibility: Buying innovation is risky. Not buying it is riskier. But agencies have to have empathy for the day to day firefight of brand teams and the scant amount of available resources. The price of admission for innovation should be kept accessible.
  • Endurance: The typical creative partner tends to be like a child in the backseat of a road trip, moaning “Are we there yet?” Creative innovation requires patience and an attention span longer than a thirty-second script.

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
― Steve Jobs

Advertising as we know it is over 200 years old, and despite her faults, the old lady has aged remarkably well. Invention is merely the latest discipline to emerge in response to changing media, consumer behaviors, competitive responses, and overall expectations (we’re bullish on data strategy, too). And while we’ve seen a number of similar players crop up in the last six months (welcome to the club, Humanaut, Siberia, Makeable, and others), we think the trend is just getting warmed up. We humbly submit that our offering is different because we are part of the Deutsch LA creative department, not isolated from it. We have the resources not only to execute product work, but we have the storytellers to ensure it breaks through the noise and innovation fatigue in the market.

If you’re a brand team member looking for creative innovation help, consider dropping us a line. 

17 Sep, 2013 – one comment

advertising is the use of culture to influence commerce

Whether you’re borrowing it, creating it, or bucking it, advertising is all about the use of culture to influence commerce.

Which means …

Creatives need to live and breath big and small cultures, fast and slow, old and new, online and offline.

Clients need to demand work that earns its own attention and ignites communities to share the work on the brand’s behalf.

Agencies need to measure the work for both impact on sales and impact on networks.

This isn’t simple, but it should be our focus.

05 Sep, 2013 – leave a comment

don’t stop until you learn

I’ve seen it in startups and with agency teams in the midst of product work. You’re swimming along, working toward a creative vision, and suddenly the team stands back and questions the direction. Should we be doing this? What if we did that instead? Maybe we need more data? How about another competitive audit?

Here are the two most important things I’ve learned from my days in startups and my time building products:

  1. Learn from real users as fast as you can.
  2. Don’t stop until you learn.

What a three person startup (or team) has that a Fortune 100 company doesn’t have is energy and creative momentum. What the small team doesn’t have is time.

Trust the hunch that got you started … until real users call your bluff.

04 Sep, 2013 – leave a comment

cultural feedback loops and sxsw

For the last few years, I’ve been obsessed with connection.

How the world has become more connected and what that connectedness means for anyone trying to make a buck in culture.

The intended output of this obsession is a book. It’s not been easy. I try to remember what Ray Bradbury said, “You fail only if you stop writing.”

I just hit publish on a sample chapter. Very much a draft sample chapter.

It’s all about cultural feedback loops.

I didn’t hit publish on it for my health, though. I’m hoping it earns your vote. Consider it electioneering.

For SXSW Interactive, obviously.

I’d like to share my obsessive thoughts on connectedness and culture with others.

I could really use your vote. And a share or two, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Anyway, think it over. Marinate.

Sample chapter iFramed below:

09 Aug, 2013 – leave a comment


As cars get more efficient, engineers actually have to dream up novel ways to make engines sound like they used to. Some sounds are totally faked:

Some sounds in the car are completely artificial. The telltale clicking of a turn signal was once an artifact of the mechanical process that turned the light on and off. But that mechanism has long since been replaced by an electronic circuit that operates silently. Still, audible feedback is valuable so the car plays an MP3 file of a turn signal over the speakers.

“It could sound like anything,” says Gordon. “We asked, ‘What if we wanted it to sound like birds?’ They said no.”

Here’s a not too crazy prediction: Remember ring-tones? I bet in 5 years, we’ll have the ability to buy and sell new sounds for our car.

(Via Kottke)

28 Jul, 2013 – leave a comment

coming soon, dogvertising?

Ok, this is ridiculous of course, but I found myself bombarded by some pretty mind blowing links this morning on animal sentience.

First, someday in the not too distant future, we’ll have an app to talk to prairie dogs with:

He and his team conducted experiments where they paraded dogs of different colours and sizes and various humans wearing different clothes past the colony. They recorded the prairie dogs’ calls, analyzed them with a computer, and were astonished by the results. “In one 10th of a second, they say ‘Tall thin human wearing blue shirt walking slowly across the colony.’”

“We could potentially have something maybe the size of a cellphone in five to 10 years where a dog would say, ‘Woof’ and the device would say. ‘I want to eat chicken tonight” or a cat could say, ‘Meow,’ and the device would say, ‘My litterbox is filthy, please clean it.’”

Bonkers, right? Then there’s this article on dolphins using what we might call ‘names’ for one another:

 “Our results present the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication. In experimental work, parrots are also good at learning novel sounds and using them to label objects. Some parrots may also use these skills in their own communication. Thus, both dolphins and parrots present interesting avenues of research for understanding labeling or naming in the animal kingdom.”

Lastly, I think this interview with one of Britain’s most famous wildlife park owners sums it up best:

Damian Aspinall wants his own industry phased out over the next 20-30 years, saying it was wrong to keep sentient creatures as lifelong “prisoners without parole”.

“If you’re a true conservationist and you truly believe in nature, the ultimate goal is you don’t need zoos.

With neuroscience, we’re on the frontier of not only understanding how our own brains work but we’re finding how common the markers of intelligence just might be across the animal kingdom. My hope is that as we come to terms with the humanity of other species, we’ll recognize the need for true stewardship of this planet and its many wonders.

But, the cynic in me thinks that in 15 years we’ll get creative briefs asking us to make TV spots and billboards solely intended to get dogs to ask for Purina brand chicken dinners.

13 Jul, 2013 – leave a comment

on the planning salon

Julian Cole, Liane Siebenhaar, and rOobin Golestan have put together an awesome little talk series called The Planning Salon and I sat in on the above G+ Hangout interview this morning.

I was honored to participate, took some great questions, and rambled on about digital strategy and invention at Deutsch LA.

10 Jul, 2013 – 3 comments

digital strategy 101

Digital Strategy 101 is an overview of the current state of digital strategy and an exploration of core concepts, deliverables, and thought-leaders relevant to young practitioners.

I’ve been earning a paycheck from the web, in one form or another, for the last 17 years. I owe any professional success to the web and to the generous people who have used it to freely share what they know with others. With this presentation, I’m trying to pay back some of that kindness by giving away whatever I know about the relatively young and constantly evolving field of digital strategy. I am by no means an expert, but I have spent several years as an amateur. I hope you find this useful and I hope someday you too feel compelled to share all of your secrets.

This is just the first edition, with many more (better) versions in the future I’m sure. So, please use the comment field below to suggest edits/adds/etc. Especially when it comes to the voices and tools, this really represents only a fraction of the brilliance out there. Any omission was certainly not conscious and will be remedied on the next run (which could be sooner than you think).

01 Jul, 2013 – 2 comments

my five tips for surviving change

23 months ago I took on the mantle of Director of Invention at a hallowed ad agency here in LA. I assumed a title no one had ever heard of before, took what was my first gig inside an ad agency proper, and set about (with considerable help) to re-engineer a perfectly good, highly successful factory to produce an entirely new kind of output – marketing as product.

Since, rightly or wrongly, I’ve been asked by clients and outsiders how to manifest change within a big organization. My first reaction is that change is innate to any organization that continues to survive (because our job as managers, like our job as a species, is to co-evolve with our environment) – so no single person manifests change, change is something that happens to you whether you’re prepared or not. My job is nothing as profound as manifesting change. My job is to simply help the organization survive change – and for advertising that means surviving a splintering of attention, a more active consumer, more involved clients, the technological means to actively ignore messaging, negative public perception, and increased demand for talent, among a host of other factors. After 23 months, I still feel ignorant, but I cling to the following as a man thrown overboard is wont to do.

Invest in people who can create demand for their own services and can weather the storm.

Change is a numbers game. Some will embrace its nature, some will resist it, but most are waiting for it to be worth their effort. I’ve been fortunate to stumble across a small brilliant team that have been invaluable to me in my efforts and its not only because they are far smarter than I am (which they are) – they have created internal demand for their services and have shown a remarkable persistence in the face of what some days can only be described as organ rejection. They create a welcoming face and calm demeanor for everyone else, which makes them the best proselytizers for our little church of change.

Focus on building the new thing not on destroying the old thing.

When I took the gig, I wanted to burn the building down. Well, not really, but if there were a room with our travel booking and time tracking systems in it, I would have at least set fire to that room. Going from David to Goliath, everything about how we worked seemed inefficient. In a startup, you’re trying to maximize the output of every single square inch of resources. In a big company, you’re trying to intermingle a host of specialists and silos (who are separated by geography and culture) in order to reduce manufacturing errors. Almost by design this is inefficient, but the only recourse is some kind of draconian process (which creative firms tend to reject). Ultimately, my opinions meant very little until I had my own culture and process in place and had demonstrated (over and over) its success. No one is going to help you dismantle the business that’s paying for their mortgage or their kids’ college education – but they will help you build something that they believe can offer them even more advantages.

Hate to lose but don’t count the losses.

When I started this job, I literally marked a calendar with ‘W’s and ‘L’s (wins and losses) based on whether or not I felt I had made headway that day. This turned out to be incredibly de-motivational. Learn from your losses, just don’t carry them too far. Related, don’t draw too big of a conclusion from any single loss (hindsight is rarely 20/20).

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Change is frightening for most and threatening for some. If you wear the change agent target on your back you’re going to be the object of some hate and fear. It sucks. A lot. And it rarely comes from a personal place, but it sure feels personal. You’ll tell yourself that trying to please everyone is the only sure-fire way to fail, but no one wants to be actively disliked. Within my first week on the job, I was pulled into an EVP’s office and chewed out for an organizational decision of which I had absolutely no role in. I was just the most convenient target at the time. Every member of my team has had a similar experience during their tenure. It’s been inevitable. My best advice is to remember what success is (it isn’t pleasing the un-pleasable) and …

Finally, have a life outside of work.

I’m a person driven by purpose and I seek out accomplishment. I want my efforts to mean something and to produce something meaningful. And I tend to hire a like-minded sort. The challenge is remembering to diversify your efforts outside of your work life. With this job and its lofty purpose, I also was able to rent an apartment on the beach and I’ve worked very hard to be emotionally and physically available to an amazing woman, Britt, and her wonder-dog, Indy. In a big company, working for even bigger clients, there’s so little I have control over and my life outside of work has taught me that control isn’t a path to happiness.

26 Jun, 2013 – leave a comment

the most convenient currency

In human organizations, individual behavior is tuned and optimized to profit by the most convenient currency. Convenience being the ability to accrue, exchange, and display said currency.

Sometimes that’s simply money, but more often than not in profession-based institutions, money is secondary to something else, whether that’s authority, seniority, resources, office space, parking spots, etc.

If you want to impact individual behavior, look beyond monetary compensation and modify what currency is king in your organization.