10 MIN READ
Cultural trends are one of the most important driving forces of brand expression in our industry. They inspire not only the creative work around the world but lead to product development as well. Great brands discover cultural trends right before they explode and even create them, changing the world for years or decades.
In our haste to identify and address cultural trends for our clients, we sometimes fail to see how these trends change our own industry in profound ways.
Specifically, I want to talk about “Instant Culture”. Instant Culture refers to our expectation to have everything now, even if we haven’t put in the effort for them that our forefathers had to. A few examples:
It’s been a cultural tidal wave that was initiated by the dawn of the internet and has since swept into most facets of our life. It’s what we endlessly make fun of Millennials about, not realizing that Millennials are turning 40 this year. “Instant Culture” has been central to many creative briefs, strategic support behind countless media recommendations, and a must-have in every digital strategy presentation.
Instant Culture has no doubt had a profound effect on many industries, entertainment and even how we raise and educate our children. However, we don’t often discuss how it affects the way we work in advertising and our end product. And we should. Because the dangerous side-effect of Instant Culture is the loss of ability to think for ourselves, understand deeper concepts and distill them into thoughtful insights. Otherwise known as…what we’re paid to do at advertising agencies.
No, more and more inside our agencies and in our clients’ boardrooms, we are pushed to get to the point instead of building the support around our recommendations. Some people can’t be bothered to look up from their phones before they ask “where is this going?” Our levels of impatience have skyrocketed in the “Instant Culture” age.
This place of “Instant Culture” and instant gratification has sparked a continuous reliance on best practices over blank sheets of paper.
Nothing is more worrisome than the increasing demand for “best practices”. What are best practices? My definition:
Best Practice: /Best ˈpraktəs/ noun
A quick and widely agreed upon solution to a range of problems which allows me to move this forward quickly.
Best practices are Instant Culture masquerading as smart thinking. They are, far too often, assumptive responses to every problem, no matter the complexity. Best practices are achieving hockey stick growth in our industry, which just so happens to correlate to the broader trend of expecting everything NOW. Even within our own jobs.
Best practices are especially dangerous for us in advertising and for our clients’ success.
Since best practices are measurable and have been proven out time and time again, best practices and the short-term vanity metrics that support them have a TON of brands moving in the same direction, behaving the same way and becoming lost in the process. It’s a race to the bottom. To quote Orlando Wood of the IPA Advisory Board:
“A golden age for ad technology has not translated into a golden age for advertising. Short-termism is rising, and effectiveness is falling. Recent work from the IPA has suggested that campaign effectiveness is deteriorating: it’s increasingly rare that brands are achieving very large business effects. The same work tells us that the proportion of campaigns with short-term aims is on the rise, even though it’s still long-term campaigns that create the greater uplifts in effectiveness.”
It’s not lost on this writer that the companies that preach “Don’t Be Evil” and strive to “Bring The World Closer Together” are the ones that have not only brought on and accelerated Instant Culture, but are the ones that have profited off its effects on advertisers. Why produce a moving, culturally uplifting brand piece when you can get 9 Million views on your :05 video for $45k? After all, this is what people really want, right? They want their information in five seconds, not 90. They’ve got the data to prove it! But the data is tainted by the user experience which Google and Facebook control, so the entire argument is a circular reference that funnels through their pocketbooks. People still go to theaters, they still watch live sports, read books and have other long-form experiences that stay with them far longer than a cinemagraph.
And as such, brand & company performance data don’t always correlate to vanity metrics views or follow the hottest industry trends.
Although digital companies have majorly exacerbated the problem, best practices are not limited to digital media. They are gospel in many major industries, which is why most car ads and restaurant ads, for example, look the exact same. It’s uncomfortable to do something different against a wave of competitors marching in the same direction (even if that direction is down).
A key facet of successful advertising and branding is that your execution and overall message is memorable. This is a given, unless you live in a world where everyone suffers from memory loss…but that’s a topic for another article.
According to neuroscience, the brain forms memories when new neural pathways are formed. New neural pathways are formed when you receive stimulus that is not immediately familiar, so your brain cannot easily categorize them. Novelty also boosts memory retention. Long-term memories are formed through strengthening neural pathways by adding definition or context to the once-novel concept.
In very simple terms, memorable branding is just doing something new, while keeping some pieces (design elements, mnemonics, fluent devices) consistent. Ta da!
Best practices are by definition the opposite of novel ideas, and therefore set you up from the very beginning with less of an opportunity to produce new neural pathways and memories. Best practices are provided as what many other brands have done to achieve a (usually insignificant) level of success. And the insignificance is concerning, because there are no best practices for how the most famous brands have been successful over the course of time. There are only best practices for how to get the highest completion rate on your video ads, how to produce the most clicks on your banners or how much time to give your offer in the script.
Creating truly novel ideas is what makes our jobs at ad agencies so difficult, so talent-dependent and (at least historically…) so valuable to companies. It is not easy to come up with something new, let alone build a brand over time by both constantly refreshing them and yet keeping them consistent. It’s hard! It takes talent. It also takes time and thoughtful consideration.
Let’s make sure we think about how trends are affecting us, alongside our clients. This is not the only broad sweeping cultural phenomenon or human bias that affects our work. We spend so much time thinking about our brands that we forget that our ways of working also need reflection.
Most importantly, we must always remember that there is no shortcut to great advertising and building great brands. For those that don’t love this industry, it may become the reason they leave it. For those of us that do, it’s what gets us up in the morning.
Maybe we need to watch more Mad Men. Maybe we should ditch our phones. I think we just need more blank sheets of paper.
Article image from Mike Tinnion.