Steve Hopkins,  Atomic, version 2

the future of planning

Strategists Must Look Further And Deeper At Culture

Strategists need to connect brands with external stimuli to make them resonate, argues Atomic's head of strategy

By Steve Hopkins

Strategy should always aim to enable creativity. Not simply because creativity is what we sell, but because the power of creativity to significantly impact brands is what we all know to be true.

At its best, strategy makes creativity look like the most logical solution to a rational problem, which, when you think about it, is quite something.

Back when TV dominated the media landscape, advertisers could engage mass audiences with single communications, so the investment in highly creativity comms was well worth it. Back then, the role of strategy in enabling creativity was to write briefs in ways that led to good ads.

Of course, todays’ highly fragmented digital media landscape has largely ended the ability of brands to engage mass audiences, and this has meant that the case for investment in highly creative comms rarely stacks up.

The strategic response to this shift has been the customer journey. Presence has become the goal as brands attempt to simply be where consumers are, at every stage of their customer journey. Communications behave like signposts, hoping to direct very widely scattered people down an ever-narrowing funnel.

The demand for creativity has diminished, primarily because the industry version of creativity – copy, art and narrative based – simply doesn’t fit within the channels and formats it now has to exist in.

Today the relationship between strategy and creativity feels more distant than ever before, so to me the future of strategy question is one of ‘how can strategy once again enable creativity?’.

The first point to make in answering that question is that creativity needs redefining. The old definition rooted in copy art, narrative, plot twist, intrigue and reveal simply cannot exist within most of the spaces communications now live. We need to think beyond that narrow definition.

More broadly, creativity cleverly connects notions and ideas that were previously unrelated. In doing so it creates new neurological connections in our brains that make us think ‘oh that’s clever’, or smile, laugh, cry, or whatever when we see it. We notice it and it makes us feel something. That’s why creativity is so impactful for brands.

Think about some of the more impactful communications of recent times. Butterkist cleverly connected the traditional association of popcorn eating, with the Wagatha Christie trial. Aldi connected its comms with its legal dispute with M&S. Dove connected with the societal concern over the damage social media is having on our kids. And here at Atomic we recently ran a hugely successful campaign for Yeastie Boys – the Kiwi beer brand – by connecting it with Eurovision via a campaign to get New Zealand included in the tournament.

This version of creativity is rooted in a clever connection between the brand and an external stimulus. It isn’t self-contained within individual pieces of communication and therefore isn’t reliant upon certain sizes, formats or time-lengths. Its strength lies in the innovativeness of the connection that’s made between brand and context. It can therefore fit brilliantly within today;s digital landscape.

As our industry races ever more towards creator content, the same will be true, as its success will be determined by the cleverness of the connections made between the external creator context, and the brand itself.

So if strategy is to reconnect with creativity, what I would call contextual planning needs to become a proper focus and discipline. Yes, cultural calendars already play a role in content planning, so that brands can run a couple of topical social posts a year, but this is much more than that. This is about strategy providing proper analysis and understanding of the external contextual factors – be them cultural or social; partners; creators; events; interests; or whatever – how they are truly perceived in people’s minds, and how they can therefore provide rich opportunities for clever and innovative, highly creative connections with the brand, and therefore ultimately, with the consumer.

Steve Hopkins is Head of Strategy at Atomic


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