Beyond ‘ship and blip’: Why platform thinking is for everybody
I was invited to take part in Campaign's 'Adland in Amsterdam' feature. "Write about anything you want," they said. This is the slightly longer version. You'll find all the contributed opinion pieces and a write up of a roundtable discussion with fellow friends and inmates from adland here. My thanks to Suzanne Bidlake and Philip Smith for the opportunity of taking part.
Ours is an age of immediacy. Immediate communications. Immediate information. Immediate feedback. Immediate gratification. And the siren call of the short-term is seemingly inescapable in adland.
In such an environment, advertising could do worse than (re)learn some lessons from the product and platform builders.
Now amongst those involved in the development of digital products and solutions, the argument often goes that advertising, is a fire-and-forget solution. While building products and platforms is about building (and iterating) sustainable solutions. Campaigns come and go, platforms are “built to last”.
And indeed within the tiny world of adland, it’s easy to find evidence of a fixation with ‘ship and blip.’
Thanks to the immediate feedback loop of all things digital, our fixation with the short-term has been turbocharged. We ship. And then look for evidence of buzz. We count the views, likes, shares, +1s, pins, comments, tweets, retweets, downloads, links, follows, clicks and buys. And then we move on to the next bright shiny thing.
Our new fixation with so-called ‘real-time marketing’ with its promise of real-time optimisation is going to do nothing to encourage long-term thinking. As the novelist and cultural observer Douglas Rushkoff has argued, immediacy is more and more the central defining characteristic of our culture:
Our society has reorientated itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up… It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now. So much so that we are beginning to dismiss anything that is not happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”
Indeed so short is our collective horizon that work that forms part of a long-running campaign struggles to be rewarded by creative juries. They’re just “not new’.
Consider the Cannes Lions Festival. For all its undoubted prestige, it is patently not (with the exception of its recent effectiveness category) a festival of brand building, but of creative innovation.
So perhaps the product and platform builders have a point.
Except that those who believe advertising ipso facto to be a ship and blip, fire and forget business, fundamentally misunderstand how advertising creates profit.
For we know that sustainable value is built over the long term.
We know that pricing improvements are more likely to drive profit growth than volumegrowth alone.
We know that pricing improvements take longer to effect than volume increases.
We know that the most profitable of all campaigns are those that drive both incremental volume and the strengthening of margins.
And while short term (i.e. temporary) volume effects can be achieved through discount pricing, offers, incentives, incentive, or new product features, we know that longer-term effects such as share growth or reduction of price sensitivity demand creating, sustaining, and strengthening long-term memory structures.
The data from the likes of the IPA’s DataBank is plentiful, and is there for inspection by anybody who cares to look.
So while some will tell us that campaigns work like this:
We know from the work of Les Binet and Peter Field that effective campaigns actually work like this:
It is the curve that matters, not the blip.
If we cannot grasp the necessity of long-term thinking to profitable advertising, it is small wonder that agencies should stumble and fail to make the move into the development of products and platforms that have a real, enduring role in people’s lives.
So perhaps this suggests that rather than think in terms of campaigns, we should all be thinking more in terms in platforms and products. And perhaps the now-famous words of Jeff Bezos should be the ones we all create by:
If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”
Rather than stop-start-start spurts, we should be thinking of sustained engagement with the consumer.
Rather than looking just for short-term spikes (in buzz, ‘conversation’, and sales), we should be looking for evidence that we’re driving sustained growth.
Rather than simply counting the mute evidence of exposure and interaction, we should be using interaction as an active, on-going source of genuine consumer understanding.
Rather than thinking in terms of temporary audiences that come and go, we should be thinking of accumulating audiences over time.
And rather than thinking of strategy as a one-off event, we should be treating it as something that is continuous. As Lawrence Freedman (Professor of War Studies at King's College London) writes in his recent magnum opus:
Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”
Strategy, in other words, looks like this:
And like this:
Much has been made of the (rather obvious) differences between the product and its advertising, and much silly nonsense - “advertising is what you do when you don’t have a good product" - peddled.
But when we look to what makes for effective, profitable advertising, we see that effective advertising is not so different, not so divorced from good products and platforms. For both are by necessity, long-term activities.
It is of course an inevitable feature of a world of finite budgets and an ever-expanding array of possibilities and disciplines that vested interest works to silo and set into competition all the disciplines, products and approaches we are now presented with.
But recognising the shared agenda of advertising and platforms serves to remind us that marketing is not a bolt-on to product, and that product or platform development and advertising need not be antithetical.
Indeed it reminds us that sustained mental (and with it, physical) availability is as useful and valuable to people as products that meet their needs or wants. Advertising in other words, is a fundamental and intrinsic part of a product’s manifestation and value in the real world.
Speaking at an event to mark the fortieth anniversary of the planning discipline, Jon Steel, made an impassioned plea for better, longer-term thinking:
We should be angered by the accountability mindset that means we’re making more and more decisions based on what can be measured, rather than what’s really important. How many companies today are setting “Big, Hairy Audacious Goals?” Certainly not enough, and we are also culpable in their failure to do this. We need to inject more ambition into our objectives…the role for planning in the next forty years is to help clients once more to set the right objectives. The right objectives for brands and for business, not just for communications."
It really is time for a more holistic perspective on marketing. For a more vigorous rejection of short-termism. And perhaps time that we gave up on the ‘campaign’ mindset with its attendant baggage, and adopted the perspective of long-term platform building.
Jeff Bezos, letter to shareholders, 1997
Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long And Short Of It: Balancing Short And Long-Term Marketing Strategies
Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History
Jon Steel, 'Planning at 40: Solving the wrong problems'