Digital Essays: Reinvent the Lexicon

The language of advertising was developed by ex-officers and based on military terms such as 'brief' and 'target'. Now that consumers have more say, we need to rewrite the ad dictionary.

As we sat around as a management team pondering the digital future, a conversation developed ...

Gareth Phillips: I guess the question is less "What's the role of a digital agency?" and more "What's the role of an agency in a digital age?"

Mike Krzyzanowski: True, and what's been particularly interesting about that is the way the consumer's role in communications has changed.

Gareth: How?

Mike: Technology has been the leveller in marketing; once the technology was in marketing's favour with a few TV channels, direct mail databases and telemarketing, but now it's a level playing field. The web democratises people's self-defined viewing and consuming.

Gareth: Totally agree. Technology has created an environment where consumers are more difficult to reach and, on the flip-side, can say more and more when they want to interact with a brand.

Aaron Martin: True. Technology has been a great democratising influence in marketing. It used to be all propaganda, brands dictating the terms by telling you what to buy to make clothes cleaner, teeth whiter, skin softer - when all you want is choice. Now people want to take an active role in participating in the whole process.

Mike: And not just in defined channels - such as the rash of de rigueur user-generated content campaigns 12 months ago - but in less-defined places such as user-groups and chat rooms. Take it to its logical extreme and consumers even want to be a part of the products they'll end up buying! Crowdsourcing is testament to that.

Gareth: It's funny how marketing has not really kept pace.

Aaron: What do you mean?

Gareth: Think about it, even the very language - and therefore the thinking - we use is around this idea of brands fighting each other for consumers' attention. It's all about control: Sun-Tzu, strategies, tactics, conquest, briefs, campaigns, targets and brands fighting for territory. Yet the consumer doesn't even get a look in. I mean we use these words without a second thought.

Aaron: Exactly! We've been using war terminology, almost by force of habit. But people aren't interested in aggressive one-way communication; they expect at least to be an equal - it's no longer exclusive to the advertiser. Doesn't really fit very well with the democratisation that we're talking about, does it? Ha, perhaps it's time the war was over?

Mike: Nice. But you're right, it really is over. The "war", I guess you could call it, was all based on the concept of "push marketing" - that communications would push consumers through the purchase cycle. But the one thing I've really noticed is how that model is dead - replaced by pull-marketing. The pull of search, the pull of content - creating brand experiences that give reasons to go through the purchase cycle.

Aaron: Yeah, I guess that's what peace looks like. Brands and consumers as equals in brand communications. Conversations, I guess you'd say: brands to people, people to people, people to brands. It's about understanding who's part of it, where it's happening, what's said, what's unsaid. We're now able to pick up subliminal behaviour we never thought would have an impact on brand-consumer relationships. It's the influence of technology ... helping us not only converse better, but listen better too.

Gareth: Yes, I agree listening is as important as talking. When you listen, you understand, sometimes you learn things that even the speaker doesn't know about themselves. This is true insight.

Mike: OK, you get conversations between brands and consumers. But more importantly, there are conversations among consumers about brands. And we're now able to look at the worth of these conversations - it's a powerful new source of insight. Brands can now get to know what people think about them in their daily lives, in a real world beyond the boardroom.

Gareth: I agree. Conversations form around a point of view. So, as an agency, it's our responsibility to monitor these multiple dialogues, assess their value and draw insight.

Aaron: Exactly. It's this thinking that's led to what we do. If we look at our client list, it's full of brands that have discovered the worth of these conversations. Forevermark comes to mind: "Nothing like a diamond to create a very special unspoken conversation between giver and receiver ... ".

Mike: And what about HSBC Private Bank? We used the web to single out millionaires for a one-to-one dialogue - real-life stories on luxurious living that only interest a tiny fraction of individuals worldwide - it's the ultimate long-tail challenge for search engine optimisation.

Gareth: Or the time we spent at Mazda talking to the designers, the passion with which they explained why they'd made the dashboard clock a few micrograms lighter. It is about capturing that passion and authenticity that is intrinsic to an organisation and making it extrinsic.

Aaron: Indeed. To me it's about finding those points of engagement; having empathy for the people who choose - or choose not to - interact with a brand. It's about treating consumers like people, not as "users" or other faceless aggregations. I guess the question is often an emotional one, engaging at a "where do I fit into your day?" level.

Mike: And that's where we start - turning that emotional thread into an ongoing link. Perhaps that's why engaging FMCG and fashion brands succeed: they've started dialogues with the right emotion. So when you watch a YouTube video or a television spot, you're enjoying the interaction. Without knowing it, you're in the beginning of a conversation.

Gareth: Sure, lots of agencies and marketers understand the value of conversations but by stopping using war-like terminology, we are rethinking how we create, participate and listen to those conversations. Technology enables these conversations, but it's the insight that makes them successful. Changing landscapes indeed. I guess that's where our opinion lies. The war is over.

- Gareth Phillips is the managing director, Mike Krzyzanowski is the executive planning and insight director, and Aaron Martin is the executive creative director at Syzygy.