I recently had the honor of judging the AAF National Student Competition. I went into it thinking I’d see a lot of wildly creative, yet somehow unrealistic or off-target ideas. Ideas that I could help “plus” or make “more impactful” if I was the professor or the creative director involved. Boy, was I wrong. The work was extremely strategic, beautifully executed and engaging on so many different levels. By the end of the day, I felt inspired and, to be honest, a little humbled. Because even after 30 years in the business, they were teaching me. And when I think back on my student portfolio, filled with marker comps and typewritten radio scripts, I know I wouldn’t have stood a chance against these kids.
Here are just a few of the things I learned, or re-learned, in that judging room that creative directors and clients everywhere should keep in mind.
Execution IS the idea. Back in the old days, we were taught that the idea should always come first, with no typefaces, photography or other design embellishments to “get in the way.” But these days, every idea has to work in so many sizes, shapes, and places–some of them extremely limiting from a creative perspective–that the execution almost has to be figured out from the start. More and more, execution is what differentiates one brand from another as an integral part of a brand’s voice and personality. Plus, students now have the hardware and software to design, shoot, edit, animate, and code themselves…so why hold back?
Social is a way of thinking, not a channel. Those of us who came up before social media have had to adjust our thinking on the fly. But today’s students grew up in a digital world, and in a maker’s culture, so sharing, content-creating, and meme-ing (is that even a word?) runs in their veins. They inherently understand what kind of ideas are worth talking about, sharing with friends, or participating in, regardless of where the idea appears. Some of the best ideas we saw were the ones you just had to talk about, whether they were designed to run specifically in social media or not. When creating content, too many agencies and clients forget that people don’t share just because they like your brand. They share when they like your content enough to put their own personal stamp of approval on the line.
A brand is what you do, not what you say. A lot of the entries we judged were for big, recognizable brands with well established brand platforms. At first, I was tempted to mark down on those entries for coasting off of someone else’s hard work in building that brand–which is usually the hardest part of the job. But I quickly realized that this approach is not only smart, it’s how every brand should be thinking these days. We should be focused on giving people new ways to experience our brands instead of more messages to process. Make it easier to buy or compare. Deliver customer service on the customer’s terms. Let them sample, give reviews, offer product ideas and feedback. Remember, all the behavioral data we now have access to as marketers is a double-edged sword. We know a lot more about our customers, but they also know a lot more about our behavior as brands. If our actions don’t live up to our words, they’ll know.
Don’t try to change behavior, hack it. We used to have to do all kinds of research to figure out why people do what they do in order to get them to change. Now we can just observe. In the early days of digital and mobile, many brands tried to change behaviors or “move them online,” with mixed results. Witness the thousands of branded apps that never found an audience. But these kids have it figured out. They show the ability to take an existing user behavior and mimic it for a slightly different purpose. For example, take a popular app like Waze that crowdsources traffic, and use that model to help bikers or walkers find the safest route home. Or, rather than teaching grandma how to use social media, create a program that turns your posts into snail mail, so she can follow along at her own pace. (One of my personal favorites.)
As marketing professionals, we’re constantly looking for new insights and strategies to solve today’s challenges. My day of judging reminded me that sometimes you have to forget everything you’ve learned and think like a student.