Jessica Tamsedge

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Brands should set culture, not just follow it

Simply mirroring culture can take advertising into a dark place, argues the chief client officer of McCann Europe and UK

By Jessica Tamsedge

Culture means a bunch of things but check out any headlines and we find they are dominated by polarising messages, reductive conversation about anti-vaxxers, wine and cheese haters, a blanket Great Resignation.

And advertising can add to that noise. From tactical content that jumps on a cultural moment to simple product marketing that justifiably requires little more than eyeballs and awareness, we are inviting easy agreement via instant likes, retweets, 5-second mandated view throughs. So far, so fair enough. But if we reward reach and immediacy above all else, we miss the opportunity for deeper engagement.

Content wise, we can end up oversimplifying the message. Take the Black Lives Matter banner for the now well-known fashion brand which even oversimplified skin shades. Contextually, we’re ending up in spaces we never intended to be in. A food client recently complained that one of their pre-roll ads had appeared directly in front of an extreme video featuring Katie Hopkins. The media buy had successfully identified audiences with a high propensity to buy the brand but at what reputational cost?

We could be accused of becoming a part of the problem.

But for all the confirmation bias we seek, it is human nature to be curious. We find meaning in nuance, our horizons broadened by new ideas. The Guardian’s 'Points of View" was one of the first adverts I fell in love with. It made me question what I believed, how I sought information, who I trusted.

What a shame then, that our business model today can at times favour short-form simplicity over content that pushes and provokes thought. We understandably need to prove short as well as long term commercial impact, but as long as our metrics prize efficiency over effectiveness, we won’t break this circuit.

So what if we challenge what good looks like? A powerful domino effect awaits...

Imagine the benchmarks change. For brand campaigns, for thought leadership, we seek ‘save for later’, ‘shared with original thought’, ‘viewed for 3 minutes-plus’ KPIs over instant agreement. We set brand health measures that gauge whether consumers feel brands have opened their minds, started a new conversation, led the way.

This would be a more meaningful gauge of brand power, our ability to actively shape culture and break the cycle of feed scrolling in passive agreement with everything. [Of course, social platforms are grappling with the same, with Twitter trying to stem the spread of misinformation by trialling a pop up asking users if they had read the full article before allowing them to retweet. Stronger regulation isn’t far behind either. The EU Digital Services Act is working its way through the European Parliament and Lina Khan is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to responsible technology in the US].

And don’t get me wrong. Culture setting needn’t be heavy. Starburst’s Little Lad, The Old Spice Man, McCann’s "Dumb Ways to Die" were all off beat, unexpected, started small and drew in a wider audience as a result. We just have to be given the time lengths, space and opportunity to create something new.

At McCann, we help brands earn a meaningful role in people’s lives. Entertainment, information or otherwise, we have to be additive to people’s lives. Our Xbox Fanchise work did precisely that by empowering gamers to become entrepreneurs and profit from their own personalised console designs. Each with their own meaning and shared with their own audiences. The Trump Cheeto to this day remains my favourite.

If we only follow culture, at worst we follow it into some dark and dangerous corners through placement alone, at best we preach to the choir with lazy content. Creating something of meaning needn’t require a blind leap of faith on behalf of our clients. The proof will be in the results. Did we capture the imaginations and original thought of our audience, not just have them nodding along whilst double screening, copying and pasting their borrowed thoughts to their mates.

The irony is not lost on me that in criticising oversimplifaction, I could be seen to be guilty of precisely that here. The best media strategies of course adopt a mix of metrics reflecting jobs to be done, and sometimes reach and immediacy is all we need. But there are moments where we can and should create the conditions for more meaningful engagement with our audiences.

2022 will no doubt bring with it more concern and confusion but let’s take (at least some) matters into our hands and start making headlines of our own.

Jessica Tamsedge is the chief client officer of McCann Europe and UK


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