How should brands act in a digitally cultured world?
A view from Brian Cooper

How should brands act in a digitally cultured world?

While most brands are digitally literate, they often struggle to pick up the nuances of digital culture, warns Oliver Group UK's chief creative officer.

"I can has cheezburger?"

That line, immortalised by an inquisitive cat, is more than just a funny image. It represents a cultural shift – the ICHC site was an integral factor in the monetisation of memes and, as a result, changing the way we digest content.

The site took meme culture out of the chatrooms and into your parents’ inboxes. It disrupted everything. ICHC’s former chief executive, Ben Huh, predicted that this would happen. It always happens. It’s like pop music in the 70s and 80s: something genuinely different, something quintessentially counterculture eventually becoming mainstream. Not assimilating with the mainstream. Becoming it. A similar shift can be seen in advertising.

Adland in 2017 is a digital cultural jungle. And while most brands are digitally literate, they often struggle to pick up the nuances of digital culture.

To cut your way through now, you have to assess the lay of the land, get acquainted with it. If not, you’re in a spot of bother. And it’s nothing to do exclusively with age. Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed coined many 30-40 year olds the "lost generation" – those who can’t see the forest from the trees when it comes to digital. They’re bluffing in a world populated by 20-something, internet-savvy digital culturalists.

These people have grown up alongside tech – they’ve seen it accelerate, stumble, rise again and so forth. They are the fresh-faced web-kings of digital agencies, whereas brands and above-the-line bodies, who serve them, largely employ traditionally-minded people.

Looking further than advertising, this divide still applies. Zadie Smith described 2010’s The Social Network as "a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people" – it’s observational, top-line stuff, essentially. Contrast this with Catfish, a docufiction released the same year, which was an immersive experience about online culture. It was made by people who truly understood it.

Like music before it, digital culture is becoming the mainstream. When punk emerged on the scene, no one’s parents listened to it – it was underground. Nowadays, with the aid of streaming and the instantaneity of music, everyone can be plugged into everything. People listen to whatever their kids are listening to, and you’re seeing Radiohead on at the same time as Major Lazer at Glastonbury.

This juxtaposition works. Two wildly different offerings housed under the same roof, both brilliant at their jobs. It’s a functional model that brands could certainly apply to their practices going forward. Because – as WPP is learning – keeping everything segmented is not efficient. It slows things down and muddies communication.

There’s no question that brand marketers and traditional agencies are guardians of ‘big ideas’. They understand the business but, more often than not, can’t fully grasp the cultural advancement of technology – they don’t quite see the value. A client once came to me, flustered and confused, about using GIFs and emojis. "Where’s the headline and photo? Why don’t they work together?"

That’s because digital culturists are the opposite. They don’t tell you with cleverly crafted ads, they show you with emotion. The role of the visual has changed. It doesn’t complete the words. It enhances them with quick-fire emotion. It’s still a story, just told differently. Much like the style of storytelling. It’s no longer ascending storytelling building to a denouement. It’s descending storytelling, with the punchline delivered in five seconds. It has to be, otherwise no one will stop as they skim through their feeds.

Brands, however, are still incredibly relevant – they tell stories that resonate with consumers, which, in turn, connects them with a dedicated product or service. However, those experienced in brand skills aren't usually digitally cultured. And those who are digitally cultured often have poor brand marketing skills. They’re masters of digital channels but can rarely properly communicate brand ideas. They need traditional marketers and agencies as much as these traditional folk need them.

And herein lies the rub.

There’s still so much potential room for growth, but better integration and collaboration is clearly where it’s at. It allows a dynamic that enables traditional thinkers to focus on what they’re good at: birthing the big brand idea. Meanwhile, letting digital culturalists focus their efforts on structuring the online proposition, and gaining real traction on social channels. This equals a win.

So what does this mean for the future?

If these two opposing ends of the magnet, come together, and – most importantly – unite under one goal, then something really special can happen. Brands can take advantage of digital adspend to usher in a new age of advertising, which emotionally resonates with the consumer.

Campaigns will genuinely cater to customers and we won’t have great ads being jettisoned into nothingness. Nor will we have big budget behemoths hopping onto the hype train and hoping it doesn’t throw them off, à la the endlessly discussed Pepsi/Kendal Jenner slot.

Ultimately, the merging of these two powers will allow for flexibility and repeatable models. People within the agencies can take ideas and duplicate them, slightly altering them for whatever needs must.

Brands still need big ideas, a message. How they tell those ideas has changed forever. With a perfect balance of traditional thinking and digital culturalists, brands can be truly relevant in the modern world.

They can has their cheezburger and eat it.

Brian Cooper is chief creative officer at Oliver Group UK