The Internet may have torn up most of traditional media, but one area it has left relatively untouched so far is brand advertising, the image ads that television and magazines still dominate. Most of the nearly $120 million in online ad revenues worldwide are dedicated to direct marketing–getting people to click on a buy button.
So everyone from Yahoo and Google to Facebook and Twitter is gunning to wrest a chunk of brand advertising from traditional media–and now those efforts are starting to get the full attention of marketers and ad agencies. A session today at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, called “Technology As Muse–Inspiring Innovation” explored how technology is helping (and in some cases limiting) the prime weapon of brand marketing: storytelling.
First up was Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, in conversation with Michael Kassan, CEO of media consultant Media Link.
Q: What brought Unilever to CES (good question! I’ve been wondering why marketers are so prominent at a tech show), and how has the mashup of the chief information officer and chief marketing officer at Unilever worked out?
Weed: Quite simply, I want to fish where the fish are, and our consumers are using all kinds of gadgets. I want to get a feel and a touch for what’s going on. Also, I want to talk to the Googles and the Amazons and the startups of the world.
Q: You championed digital literacy almost four years ago. You made the trip with 30 of your brand executives to Silicon Valley and met with startups, existing companies, and VCs. How has that influenced your marketing decisions?
Weed: We were wondering whether it was worth a separate meeting with Twitter back then! We had a lost generation who didn’t grow up with this stuff. So we wanted to give our people a sheep dip in this technology. The biggest impact was doing it at scale. We have 7,000 marketers at Unilever. Dove Real Beauty Sketches, the Cannes award-winning videos that involved a police artist sketching women based on their description of themselves and on a stranger’s description, now has 200 million views.
On a broad scale, brand advertising is moving online, business is moving east, and food sustainability are the three big trends we’re concerned with.
Q: How is technology fueling change in our business and how is that affecting the kinds of decisions you make?
Weed: Things are changing quicker because of globalization and digitization. Brands have been great organizers. I challenge you to go into a supermarket today and spend less than a day shopping if you didn’t have the help of brands to tell you what to buy. Brands simplify. In this ever-complex world, you have brands in your mind because they simplify your life. But your bombarded with messages left and right. My job is to break through the filter we have to screen out most of those messages. So the power of brands can further simplify our life.
Media Link President Wenda Harris Millard, who ran Yahoo’s ad operations in their heyday too long ago, then moderated a huge panel that included (besides an extremely wide range of sartorial styles) Tim Castelli, president of national sales, marketing and partnerships at Clear Channel Media + Entertainment; Eddy Moretti, chief creative officer at Vice; YouTube superstar Freddie Wong, cofounder and partner at Rocketjump Studios; Janine Gibson, editor in chief of The Guardian; Fred Santarpia, chief digital officer at Condé Nast Entertainment; Ben Lerer, founder of Thrillist; and David Shing, “digital prophet” (yeesh) at AOL.
Q: Tell us about the NSA story The Guardian did (about Edward Snowden’s leak of documents) and how technology helped make it happen.
Gibson: Funny thing she mentions is that she realized she couldn’t use Skype because it wasn’t secure enough. One of the biggest challenges for my industry and the tech industry as a whole is the need for better encryption.
Q: You’re not worried about this, Tim?
Castelli: My muse will continue to be my mobile device. It runs my life. I find it has allowed me a way to find a work-life integration. If I give up a little bit of privacy to get that, I’m OK with that.
Q: David, you have several muses. Talk about your “pretty young things.”
Shing: Mobile devices are disruptive to conversation. What I like about wearables is that you can use them without being a d**k. Where I think this will go for platforms. He pulls out a dongle called Pair that can monitor your heart (though honestly I don’t know what this has to do with media or marketing).
The new technologies are about immersion. Vision is taken care of, but sound is the next thing we need to improve.
Q: Ben, is e-commerce your muse?
Lerer: E-commerce represents a new access to data. We know what people are buying and that has changed the kind of content we create. We can create better content because we are selling products.
Q: Eddy, you said your muse was your espresso maker, which costs about $7,000. What’s up?
Moretti: I drink a lot of coffee, so if I live another 40 years and drink three espressos a day, it might pay off. It’s an incredible machine. It’s become a symbol. In the morning, I used to look at my smartphone first. Now I go to my espresso maker first and it forces me to take some time to look at the day. We should be a little bit terrified of technology. (Sorry, not following his logic here.)
Q: Fred, how did your tech muse affect your creation of content for brands?
Santarpia: My muse is just the increasing speed of content on mobile devices. So going into 2014, our challenge is to try to crack that code of content on mobile devices.
Q: Freddie, you create live action videos that get tens of millions of views. How did you get started?
Wong: We just looked at how people are consuming videos. I just don’t watch TV anymore. So where is everybody going? Teenagers are watching videos and content but not in the ways we’re used to. It seemed like YouTube was the way to go. People still ask when we’re going to make a movie. Why do I want to go where people aren’t seeing things anymore. The means of distribution is in our hands now. What stays the same is that good, compelling narrative is still the thing that works.]
Q: Some find the technologies restrictive to storytelling?
Santarpia: Through technology now we’ve got an opportunity to reach an entirely different audience through video. So we’re able to go broader, with a younger generation less likely to pick up a magazine.
Gibson: We’re now the third biggest newspaper website in the world, even though we were a tiny print publication. We wouldn’t be here without digitization and globalization.
Moretti: The greatest content is narrative. Most storytelling technologies are pretty basic. The underlying tenets of a story told through video is not so different from the golden age of Hollywood. We’re just in the very beginning stages of storytelling across media and devices.
Castelli: You need to focus on the narrative first, and technology allows you to distribute it around the world, but it doesn’t change the basic narrative.
Gibson: Snowfall, about the avalanche, that the New York Times did, was the first. You have to make it fit the technology.
Shing: When you talk about video, we’re going to become ecosystem marketers. Screens will talk to each other. Video will go from six second to 36 hours. People need to participate in a story before it’s out.
Q: Do you seek out new sources of inspiration or do they find you?
Lerer: I’m far too lazy to seek them out. For me, I’m just bombarded and I’m inspired when I least expect it. I’m just trying to take it all in and be open-minded. Every three months we try to reimagine our business.
Q: Freddy, do you deliberately seek inspiration?
Wong: It just comes from living your life and trying to draw inspiration from as many sources as possible.
Q: Shingie, you travel a lot, so inspiration must come flying at you. How many days do you travel a year?
Shing: Close to 300. Inspiration finds me like a bloody mack truck coming down the highway.
Lerer: I literally had to stop using Twitter because so many things were flying at me.
Q: Do you all wait until a technology is proven before embracing it as a muse? (What’s with this muse thing?)
Shing: I love everything. I’m a digital prostitute. I seek out things early and as soon as something becomes mainstream, I check out.
Back to Kassan, who introduces the main event, Russell Simmons, partner in All Def Digital.
Q: How does technology inspire you?
Simmons: S**t just happens so far. It’s restrictive to some but so broad to others. I’m a content guy, so I use technology to put content where it needs to go.
Q: As we look at how talent is discovered, the gatekeepers have changed. The Internet has democratized it. How has that changed your business?
Simmons: It’s an important part of our process that we can be original, no one can stop us. My daughter can create something from home that’s popular. It’s humbling to gatekeepers, because I’ve been a gatekeeper.
Q: You’ve brought in partners.
Simmons: Brian Robbins at Awesomeness understands youth culture and hip-hop. He sold too early (to Dreamworks). He’s given us lots of perspective.
Q: You’re a storyteller. How has technology changed how you tell a story?
Simmons: At All Def Music, we can make a video for very little money. Post-racial America may not exist in your life, but it’s an aspirational goal. There’s no scandal without Kerry Washington. I moved to LA to be part of that integration process. (He points out that there are only three black people in this room of more than 200 people.)
Q: How do you look at the role of distribution in storytelling?
Simmons: You could throw a breakout song out the window and it would be a hit no matter what. But you have to be awesome, you can’t be just great. So distribution continues to be important.
Q: How do you use technology like social media to run your business?
Simmons: There’s a lot of smart tech people working for me. I tweet, I’ve got 3 million followers. So I use social media to help build a global brand. All Def Digital has social media as a big part of its push.
Q: You can build a brand quicker than you ever could, but you can destroy a brand in one sentence. How do you manage that?
Simmons: If you have a message that tries to inspire, you’ll probably be fine. So I try to give people things they need, things that will make them laugh or poetry that inspires. I also sign artists who have some edge, who piss people off, if I believe in them.