The scourge of channel thinking – it’s about the idea stupid!

The biggest scourge in modern adland isn’t lack of budget.

It’s not encroachment on our business from consultancies or Google/FB/Amazon.

It’s not the talent war or our awful record in promoting diversity.

It’s self inflicted.

It’s the fact that so many marketers inside and outside agencies avoid big picture thinking.

It’s funny how you can’t remember big things, yet some small things stick with you forever. The words of a wise ad man I once worked with are imprinted on my brain.

We were in a pitch kick off meeting.

The type where conversation flows with ideas around how we might approach the brief.

Some of the younger heads in the room had discussed some social media thoughts at length.

Noticeably quiet throughout, our curmudgeonly old friend finally piped up at the end with this gem:

“Forget channels, gadgets, social, digital or new technologies. It’s about the idea, stupid!”

We could all do with some of that advice now.

The cartoon above from the inimitable and brilliant Tom Fishburne perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about.

Sure we laugh at it. But it’s also an insight into the type of conversation that goes on in boardrooms across the world.

Agencies, tasked with coming up with a big, juicy creative solution to business problems respond with ill thought out tactical ideas –

“We’ll do some digital”

“We’ll build an app”

“We’ll use Snapchat!”

“360 video is the answer!”

“We’ll get an influencer”

But the medium is not the idea. As Tom Goodwin says, “we’ve become distracted by what can be done, not what makes sense” for our brands.

Limited thinking

To start with a channel based idea is to instantly limit your thinking. It means going straight to tactics without even thinking about good strategy.

It means lazily avoiding coming up with a big, bold, flexible creative idea or platform.

This excellent Linkedin posts sums up the point. (I’d also add that big data is not a big idea.)

Don’t get me wrong, great ideas need to live within channels. Great tactics bring great strategies to life. A big idea is nothing without a supporting cast of hundreds of small ideas that communicate it.

But execution should be an afterthought, not the place we start.

Why is this happening?

I believe there are four main reasons for the rise of “the scourge of channel thinking”.

First, channel bias means many agencies are pre-disposed to only thinking about solutions that reflect their specialities.

Social agencies see Facebook as the answer to every brief when the brand’s audience actually live elsewhere.

Big traditional creative agencies see TV as a necessity when a tweak to a brand’s user journey could be much more effective.

The big picture is avoided and the blinkers never get taken off, resulting in biased, ineffective ideas.

But when you see all problems in the same way and propose the same channel solution, then you aren’t being creative. Your ideas will almost always be analogous rather than being truly fresh.

Real creativity requires understanding that a big idea must work everywhere, and isn’t based on using a new channel or technology.

Secondly, this growing channel led executional approach is a result of awards chasing. Every year we see Cannes Lion winning ideas that do nothing for the brand’s business, bar garnering PR.

I’ve seen agencies try to fit a brand campaign into a new technology that they’ve bought into, not because it suits the brief, but because they believe it could be award winning.

To me that’s both stupid, but also ethically wrong.

It’s also partly a result of short-termism. The need for instant results has never been stronger in marketing. And thus, we rely on the crutch of channel thoughts rather than coming up with big, bold, longer term brand ideas.

(Ironically, a brilliant paradox outlined by Binet and Field is that long term thinking actually delivers better results in both the long AND short term.)

It’s also a result of the ‘availability bias’. Something new and cool launches (Facebook canvas, Insta Stories, Snapchat spectacles, 360 video) and everyone rushes to be the first brand to use it, fearful of being left behind. But just because something exists and sounds cool doesn’t mean it fits into a creative platform.

So what’s the answer?

Let’s remain channel neutral at least until that big idea has been decided. By all means, then move onto what this might look like in specific channels.

But the idea has to come first.

Idea uber alles.

That’s something that all good agency people implicitly understand, but it’s slowly being lost.

Matt Holt of Ogilvy UK sums it up perfectly:

 

Channels and platforms are the equivalent of creative canvases that we paint on.

But they’re benign without a strong creative idea.

It’s up to us as marketers to get creative, build cool things on top of them, to understand them, test them and sometimes break them.

But just using a new channel can’t be ‘the big idea’ on its own.

When agencies are at our best, we’re coming up with big, risky, uncomfortable creative ideas.

A great big idea offers an ‘Aha’ moment.

It unlocks the mind and removes constraints. You know a great big idea when you hear one, because straight away you can think of hundreds of possible channel focused ways to communicate it.

Mark Pritchard, one of the most powerful marketers and most important marketing agitators of modern times, summed it up perfectly with his recent quote on P&G’s approach:

“We try to no longer think of digital as something separate that we tack on at the end of the campaign. We also try to resist thinking about digital in terms of the tools, platforms, QR codes, augmented reality, holograms or whatever’s coming next in technology. we try to see it for what it is, a tool to build our brands by reaching people with fresh creative campaigns.”

Big idea first, channel, medium, tactics and execution second.

It’s about the idea, stupid!