While It Might Look a Little Like a Duck

It's misguided to simply drop the word 'advert' from the marketing lexicon, replace it with 'content', and then progress in just the same way, producing something that's as much a brand-centric message as it ever was. The undisputable, game-a-changing fact is this: all brands are now in the entertainment business.

The ad model changed. An unintended consequence of Tim Berners-Lee sending an html missive, and the butterfly effect of digital revolution that followed.

Technology evolved 'media', and turned a portable telephone into a pocket-able, indispensable screen and 'Reality Augmenter'. The list of consequences doesn't end there, of course, but the long-short: old ways are being replaced by new necessities. Former 'proven conventions' have become broken records, so many 'established paradigms' sinking like heavy-weight dinosaurs in an unforgiving bath of tar.

Specifically, for the world of brands and agencies, this Star Date 2014 of ours is a bright and shiny frontier - bold new ways to do things, exciting places for brands to explore - but with more than a few frisky and fast-moving meteor fields to also contend.

Back in the analogue days of happy dinosaurs and no meteor fields, ad agency swagger could write the kind of cheques its ego could indeed cash. You had Maurice and Charles Saatchi, drunk on 'Nothing is Impossible' Thatcherism even try and buy a bank, the Midland Bank. Has balls-out hubris ever soared to greater heights than an ad agency wanting to offer banking loans to its clients, so that they might then be able to cover the costs of the fees they're being charged?

In 1987, Saatchi's attempts to buy Britain's fourth largest bank (with assets to the tune of $77bn) failed dismally, but the money in making ads remained for a good 15 or so more years. Right up to the early noughties, the Saatchi employee car park still looked like a Park Lane dealership, chock full of high-end autos of Italian, German and British persuasion. Walk around that same car park today and it's a ghostly affair, a kind of paradise (make that: prestige marque) lost - and I paint the picture because it's so very telling of a very simple truth: you can't make ads the same way anymore.

In our here and now, few brand-builders would dispute the new manifesto theory of advertising - where PUSH messaging and audience INTRUSION is replaced with PULL messages and the call to create content of inherent audience appeal. It's sense of the wonderfully common kind. Sensible in a way we can all prefix with 'infinitely'. It's just, while very few brands (or their builders) would dispute the challenge to make 'content' that's inherently appealing, fewer still have found their way into this new blue ocean.

It's misguided to simply drop the word 'advert' from the marketing lexicon, replace it with 'content', and then progress in just the same way, producing something that's as much a brand-centric message as it ever was. The undisputable, game-a-changing fact is this: all brands are now in the entertainment business.

And the step-up-to-mike response is not to apply old world thinking and create an open pipeline of 'brand films' that (a) don't entertain, (b) come across like a social bore and (c) do nothing to earn or reward their audience's attention. The role of a 'brand film' is not to simply bang on about the brand with all the same yesteryear car salesman hustle of a slightly longer TV ad.

The role of a brand film is to offer a 'content gift', something that charms or rewards, and in some small or more significant way, makes the viewer's world that little bit better and more satisfying. Even if only for a moment. I still come back to the genius of Forsman & Bodenfors combining JCVD, Enya, and a desert sunset to illustrate "the precision and directional stability of Volvo Dynamic Steering."

Brands are at their best when they are patrons and benefactors and investors in culture and creativity. They are at their best when their participation is self-evident but near silent. Brands become more appealing by saying less, and doing so with subtly and sincerity. Where brands are loud and brash, heavy-handed and charmless in their communications, and sincere in an estate agent kind of way, then they deserve all the derision and negative buzz they get, and all the views and likes they don't.

I like what the Folio Society are up to. Their content gifts are arguably of niche appeal, but the Folio Society know their audience and reward accordingly, offering human narratives that complement the beautiful books they make and stories they sell. Three examples, niche as said, but still very nice: Ben Jones discussing his illustrations for A Clockwork Orange, The Art of Letterpress and The Art of Marbling.

Often curious how fine a line it can be between something working... and simply not working. The same tone and 'human interest' angle as used by the Folio Society is applied by M&S here in their Best of British SS14 Collection - and yet, as a viewer it leaves me cold and bored. I just don't care. And I wager that very few ever would. It's a sorry example of ticking off the needs of a client brief (we want to talk about provenance and quality and craftsmanship) with a painfully literal, brand-centric solution. In contrast, consider the content delight of M&S Food's 'Adventures in Imagination'. Because of course, really great ads are actually just great content. Though this thought is one Chivas appear to be wrestling with, 'uploading and hoping' with a diverse range of output that misses more than it hits.

First, a modest hit: Chivas's 'Story of Craftsmanship' (honouring a partnership with British watchmaker Bremont) is a simple idea. Mostly split screens uniting lots of circles, it's very nicely executed, though not a patch on what I suspect was its inspiration - the very brilliant 'Symmetry' short.

In contrast, Chivas' content output struggles to know what it is when you then consider it's 'Win the right way' platform, recruiting Hollywood high-brow-and-hot talent like Oscar Issac and Chiwetel Ejiofor to apply stylised gloss to a CSR message. While start-ups able to generate social as well as commercial capital is a big-idea-into-ideal worthy of loud applause, I'm not buying into Chivas as its sincere champion. The Issac and Ejiofor executions feel like ads striving to be something else, when they'd have been better off just being better ads.

If Chivas had absolute commitment to the cause, taking 'Win the right way' truly to their DNA, they'd stop feeling a need to still make the kind of throw-back work (check out: Charles Dance as bar man and brand archetype) reminiscent of a time where the epitome of cool was regarded by some as Crockett and Tubbs cruising South Beach in a white Testarossa.

It's not that I mean to pick on Chivas. It's just their content output illustrates the blue oceans and meteor fields all brands presently face. Brands have permission like never before, to make 'content' that is sincere and that audiences have always naturally craved. While on the downside, 'bad advertising' is arguably more found out than it ever was, its underlying urge to sell laid wholly bare.

The entertainment business is fundamentally about entertaining, about making money by being very good at entertaining, at rewarding and satisfying audiences. The lesson for brands is that pseudo imitation of the bona fide entertainment industry can lead to content-sins worthy of a Dr Frankenstein. It's all well and good casting Hollywood talent, but making something that looks a little like a duck and walks a little like a duck is no guarantee of a winning quack or waddle. And while a masquerading platypus with a knack for impersonation might be rather entertaining, anything less literal and similarly false is likely to falter.


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