A view from Neil Davidson

Real 'audience first' vision starts from the inside out

Agencies must investigate ways of connecting that are "audience first" not "brand first", writes Neil Davidson, the managing director and partner at HeyHuman.

Agencies are living in the age of the audience. It’s easy to say. It’s also easy to find an array of impressive statistics to back up this statement. What isn’t so easy to talk about is what agencies should do about it, and how they can begin to think about connecting in ways that are "audience first" not "brand first".

Gimmicky solutions are usually the first resort – crowdsourcing, anyone? Then comes the qualitative research and workshops aimed at changing agency mind-sets and putting ourselves in the shoes of our audience.

Some of this is new, some of this is just good old-fashioned marketing, but none of it addresses the real issue. To be truly "audience first", we need to fundamentally change the ways in which we work as agencies, with our clients – and real change is really hard.

A real "audience first" vision starts from the inside out. It’s not just about delegating responsibility to audiences. What we need is a user-friendly approach that keeps their world in mind, not just the brand world.

It also needs to be an approach that clients and audiences find easy to digest – and are moved to respond to. This is an idea that stems from off-the-shelf thinking in the areas of brand relationships, behavioural economics and neuroscience.

However, most "one-size-fits-all" solutions never feel quite right when you actually try them on. The irony of behavioural economics, for example, is that it focuses on making people’s lives better and easier, while its application is totally un-user friendly for agencies and clients.

Agencies have to focus on what works in the real world, with real people, across cultures and countries. This means utilising and evolving new audience-focused tools.

These need to include a redefined spectrum of brand relationships that make the most of shallow and fleeting interactions and connect with more evolved "human brand" behaviours – including the ability to adapt, simplify, speak clearly and actively listen.

Agencies have to focus on what works in the real world, with real people, across cultures and countries. This means utilising and evolving new audience-focused tools.

A real-world approach also means behaviourally focused kick-off workshops that get you to creative territories and briefs with different clients and deadlines of days. Finally, because we live in an increasingly multi-screen reality, we need to make our communications easy to process, through the practical application of neuroscience and psychology techniques.

At HeyHuman, we call this Brain-Friendly Creative.

Brain-Friendly Creative is a perfect example of an "inside out" approach to the problem. It’s not just a case of "what the audience says goes". Ask an average person if they can pay perfect attention to multiple channels at once and most will claim to be king of the multi-taskers.

Delve into actual attention and emotional engagement, via neuroscience studies, and you can see we only ever pay partial attention, as our headspace is overloaded.

The misconception that we can multi-task and maintain attention is just one example that going audience first does not mean "ask the audience". The simple reason for this is that what people verbalise rationally, is rarely what actually drives behaviour.

The reality is we need to make communications easy to process in the context of living in the digital age. Ultimately, for agencies to be truly audience focused takes time, investment and a steely determination not to be taken in by the latest shiny thing.

It has to become part of the muscle of the agency, hard set into the agency process and easy for clients to work with so it feels like an extension of their philosophy and ways of working. It also has to make you wonder how and why we ever did it any other way.