Integration Essays: Real-time campaigns created yesterday

Listening to and acting speedily on what's said on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter can lead to more relevant, less formulaic advertising.

One day, Paul Mead, Dominic Stinton and Chris Whitson found themselves stuck in a lift between the fourth and fifth floors of Greencoat House in London SW1. Resisting the urge to Tweet their plight to the world, this is the conversation they had instead:

CW: Is it just me, or should we be using real-time conversations in social media to inform our campaigns, rather than just relying on traditional research?

PM: I've been thinking about this as well. Particularly when we're getting real-time feedback on the Comparethemarket.com campaign on an almost hourly basis.

DS: Do you mean from Facebook and Twitter?

CW: Yeah. It makes you wonder how many more similar conversations are being had in call-centres and shops every day, which aren't being captured because they've yet to go digital.

DS: I'm much more interested in using these real-time conversations to help brief our creative teams than only relying on a handful of focus groups up the M1 six weeks ago and some brand tracking that's a year out of date. After all, that's part of the reason Aleksandr's IT sidekick, Sergei, got to star in his own ad recently. His fans told us about it, and we reacted. If we'd waited two months for a research debrief to tell us this is what the public wanted, the ad wouldn't have ended up being half as fresh.

CW: I thought the IPA's Fast Strategy topic was a good example of posing the issue as a challenge or question for discussion: the most important skill strategists now need is speed! "The most important skill that strategists need to learn in this era is speed. The quality of a strategic answer is now partly determined by the time taken to create it. Slow-baked strategy, no matter how good, can never be great."

PM: Is it a coincidence that lots of other industries, the media and technology businesses are already using "real-time"? Basically, any sector that utilises digital has gone real-time. Why is it that the communications industry has become a follower, not a leader, in this, preferring to languish in "pre-recorded" time? The generations about to go into the industry don't know anything but real-time.

CW: Maybe the question is along the lines of "here comes the Integration Generation".

DS: Ugh, I was wondering how long it would be before the "I" word reared its ugly head.

CW: It's interesting, this idea of real-time planning ... do you think we could build a model that not only collates real-time conversations in social media but also other real-time inputs from search data, different audience profile responses from direct channels and our client's sales data? Then you've got lots of really interesting three-dimensional inputs to ensure your campaigns remain fluid, fresh and relevant.

PM: You probably don't need much more data than that to understand how consumers are interacting with brands.

DS: OK, so it's a good thing all our planners know each other well and are in the same building, as I'm assuming there's going to be a lot of training to make them "real-time planners"?

CW: That's definitely a consideration for the training budget, assuming it comes back next year (ha ha), but we've already kicked off several Real-Time Planning workshops for all our planners, regardless of discipline. And some of this thinking is already paying dividends in the integrated (sorry) pitches we've won recently.

PM: OK, so assuming our planners continue to develop this concept of real-time planning, what are its implications for creativity?

DS: This is the really exciting bit. TV advertising, in particular, still plays to the age-old rules of a sequential narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, building up to a packshot and clever-arse endline. If we want to create real-time campaigns, we'll need to dismantle these structures to allow the work to be updated when necessary with consumer input and findings from all this data you clever planners claim to understand.

CW: Funnily enough, we've been doing this for years in direct, and even more so in digital direct.

DS: What do you mean?

CW: Well, we move headlines, price points and visuals around continually to optimise response. It's normal to us.

PM: And search too. We're always tweaking and optimising our results. It's interesting, the idea of applying the willingness and rigour of constant improvement to other channels such as TV and press.

CW: Which will enable us to create much more spontaneous, unpredictable and interesting creative content.

DS: Just what we've all been waiting for, really.

CW: I slightly worry that this could lead to very knee-jerk responses, which will make the work disjointed.

PM: No, executed properly, this will allow campaigns to be become more unlimited in scope, but it's crucial that the brand idea stays constant. That's the important bit. Coherence through a strong brand idea. Brands such as Nike do this in their sleep.

CW: What will the awards juries think about real-time campaigns?

DS: It should make the work better, as the content will be more up to date with what the public wants. The public loves playing with stuff, and this will continue to be reflected in the work.

CW: And, for once, we'll be able to have a proper grasp on our clients' brands and the value they're delivering to the bottom line (assuming they'll share their commercial sales data with us, which can sometimes be a challenge), and we'll always be one step ahead of the competition instead of reacting to insights that are out of date. If strengthening brand value comes as a result of strengthening relationships between consumers and brands, real-time input can go a long way to making this commercially more compelling.

DS: Are there any other implications for our culture?

PM: Luckily, we don't have the ego bullshit that some agencies do. We probably do need to mix people up more, not just the creatives and planners.

CW: It's very exciting. And fits beautifully with our methodology we've been touting all year: define a brand, not an advertising idea, then away you go creatively and the sky's the limit, as long as people talk about it, participate in it and stay part of the conversation.

DS: There we go. Participate. We've now managed to fit the holy trinity of today's buzzwords - integration, data, participate - into one conversation. Now, how are we going to get out of here?

- Paul Mead, Dominic Stinton and Chris Whitson, managing partners at the VCCP Partnership.