The chief complaint at this year’s conference, at least on Wednesday morning, was that the bars close too early in San Diego. The streets (and Hyatt corridors) seemed filled with fast-talking crowds of planners powering through their East Coast jet lag by searching for sponsored and spontaneous after-parties. (Though we all need to continue raising glasses to Andrew Delbridge of McKinney and Jonah of Red Scout for keeping us talking and drinking as late as the law allowed on Monday and Tuesday night).
Everyone I spoke to picked different highlights: Perennial favorite Adam Morgan or Adrian Ho (representing his new venture Zeus Jones with Rob White) controversial and refreshing remark that (I’m paraphrasing here) “Creative departments are the most hidebound and conservative departments in the agency” or Gareth Kay and Mark Lewis’ list of planning’s Seven Deadly Sins. Or Eric Ryan, former planner and founder of method, demonstrating just how well all this planning stuff really works when you get a chance to execute it. Or as he put it, “It’s amazing what you can do when you get rid of the client and just become the client.” Or Mark Earls characteristically sharp critique of overly clever planning structures and strategies that don’t reflect real behavior in or out of the agency (a point compounded and complicated by his own clever delivery).
I was particularly fond of Brandon Geary’s (of Razorfish) “Gathering Insights in a 2.0 World” breakout, a disarmingly modest and useful account of some ways we can all use photo-sharing, site analytics and social media sites as a source of free and pre-illustrated consumer research (building consumer profiles, inspiring media strategies.)
Whatever your favorites, though, some clear themes emerged, restated in various ways in a half-dozen mainstage and break-out presentations. (Full disclosure for whatever it’s worth: I was on the AAAA subcommittee that helped select the break-out speakers)
First and foremost was the near universal critique of “positioning” as it’s traditionally defined: none of us seem to believe that consistently standing for one thing is the foundation of brand growth. This case was made directly by Stephen Walker of Headmint in his “Case Against Positioning” breakout, but emerged in almost many of the presentations I witnessed.
Penry Price of Google mapped out an evolution of the traditional brand-development process (e.g., move from “interrogate” to “follow and anticipate”), and demonstrated several examples of how partners have used multiple campaigns to speak to multiple constituencies. As he succinctly summarized it: “Multiple personalities of brands are now leverageable” And in her break-out on her very successful shift from Planning to New business at Martin, Kristin Cavallo described how her agency first sold in the revolutionary multiple-campaign strategy to GEICO.
Gareth Kay and Mark Lewis, focusing more on the process of strategic and creative development, urged us all to see “brand energy” (with the attendant qualities of dynamism, change and innovation) as key signs of brand strength. They urged us to “Embrace uncertainty and complexity,” “Be uncomplete” and “Continually co-create,” principles, which all demand a more collaborative, flexible and open relation to a strategic development compared to the more traditional emphasis on focus and commitment. As Gareth suggested, a brief could be less about a “message” and more about an intention like: “Make brand X more like Y”
Even Eric Ryan of method, described his company’s culture as “episodic,” trying to produce two revolutions a year.
Though most of us who are involved in trying to impact consumer behavior these days agree that consistency is no longer the golden ticket, legitimate challenges to this doctrine of multiple-personality branding were raised: most notably by one questioner who wondered how to account for success of brands who continually grow precisely because of their commitment to consistency—a question I’m sure we’ll debate well into the next year and the next round of free cocktails.