BRAVE NEW WORLD, SAME OLD APPROACH? — How the Agency of the Future must adapt to Survive and Thrive

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It wasn’t so long ago that we in the marketing world were transfixed by the twin meta-influences of Globalisation and Technology. But times are changing. COVID has joined the party, and its impact is being keenly felt.

For me, this was best summed up by Consumer Psychologist, Dr Paul Marsden, in this webinar on The Laws of Human Nature; “COVID is not a change agent, it’s a trend accelerator.” Initiatives that would have taken years (not least the development and implementation of a vaccine programme) are now happening in months.

So, what does our super-charged new world mean for marketing, and the agencies that serve the brand community? We often seem to be drowning in (big) data, with our clients feeling they are data-rich but insight-poor; as the old saying goes, “if only Unilever knew what Unilever knew”. We need to change, but how?

We need to be smarter and more agile, but more action-focused too. Who needs a 100-page debrief these days? We must move through the “What?” into the “So What?” and “What Now?” But we must also be mindful that clarity and simplicity often isn’t compatible with speed. As Oscar Wilde put it, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”

What follows is our 3-point manifesto, to ensure the ‘Agency of the Future’ is more human, more hybrid and more positive too, to better meet new and changing client (and ultimately consumer) demands.

1. MORE HUMAN: immersive and experiential approaches to deliver more real insight and understanding

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Remember the days of sterile focus groups with dry sandwiches in faceless facilities? And remember the stat that while 80% of companies believe they deliver a superior experience, only 8% of customers agree (Bain’s Closing the Delivery Gap)? Well, maybe the two are related.

One of our favourite recent insight reads is The Road to Reality, which trashes notions such as “brand love”, “joining conversations” and “brand tribes”, with a hefty dose of reality of which Prof Byron Sharp would surely approve.

Future research must be human-first, looking at brands in the context of people’s lives, not vice versa. Conversations in Context (rather than Focus Groups) and Consumer Closeness are where real insight and understanding resides — hangouts in bars, supermarket shop-a-longs, ethnographic delving into kitchen cupboards. These are the touch points that help us unearth the insight sitting beneath the surface level verbatim.

Unscripted and observational empathy-based techniques are helping us understand human motivation and behaviour more fully. This empathy-based research playbook highlights 8 key research tools, which allow you to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes.

For innovation, we have long been champions of Consumer Co-Creation — mixing clients and consumers in creative workshops, where group ‘energy’ and non-verbal communication are so critical. We are also big fans of embracing start-up thinking, ensuring a lean approach to innovation: test & learn, product placement, and preto-typing, to name but a few. But it is the combination of these two facets — empathy and experimentation — that ladders up to truly human-first propositions and design.

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Many challenges still remain in this area, such as how we curate insight and innovation experiences to deliver emotionally engaging content that is inspiring and shareable for our clients. But we are now experimenting with podcast debriefs, customer journey wallcharts and even actors bringing to life findings via live theatre. Next up could be 60-second human stories, insights presented as memes, or even TikTok debriefs (would be fun to make, wouldn’t they?!)

2. MORE HYBRID: tech-enabled and mixed methodologies to deliver more agile and complete solutions

We now live is an age where our ability to fuse big data with human understanding is giving us opportunities like never before. We can access consumer homes and lives virtually, all across the globe, in real time.

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The average person in the UK spends more than a day a week online, with Gen Z and Gen Alpha raised as digital natives. So much of our lives are lived through mobile or social media, again amplified by global lockdowns and social distancing.

Technology is changing how we live, how we think and how we socialise. And this poses challenges for brands, who are no longer in control of their own narratives, given the social media ‘megaphone’ effect.

The future opportunity here is fusing both online and offline sources to gain richer and more robust human understanding. Smart phones, apps and AI can provide great insight, and of course following social media conversations and trends allows us to understand customer views in their own space and place, as opposed to us dragging them into ours. But we should always balance tech learning with a human (face-to-face) understanding. Welcome to the world of the Hybrid

Hybrid methodologies are all about balancing fact with feeling, data with stories, global with local, and quant with qual, to ensure a ‘best of both’ deliverable. If qual gives us exploration, discovery and depth, then quant can supplement this with scale, validation and prioritisation. Integrated together, a qual-quant hybrid can tell an insightful and inspiring story, supported by robust data.

3. MORE POSITIVE: better understanding human motivations to deliver more purposeful solutions

The world doesn’t need “more stuff” right now, but rather “better stuff” — new products and services that make people’s lives better and more enjoyable, via more simple, intuitive or fulfilling solutions; ideally ones that make the world a better place too. We are firm believers in “positive growth”: growth with a positive purpose, that adds sustainable business value, makes people’s lives better, and has a positive impact on the planet too.

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To unlock this type of growth, we need a deep understanding of human instincts and motivations, not just behaviours. We need to reach beyond what people say and think, to how they feel, and why they feel that way.

To access this understanding, we use 4 distinct lenses: Human Sciences (to ground our findings in evidence), Human Empathy (to understand emotional connections), Human Behaviour (to unearth the unseen and unspoken) and Human Futures (to understand the direction of change). This ensures we can access those deep-rooted human truths that unite humanity, as opposed to those that divide it. And these become our building blocks for positive growth.

The recently published World Happiness Report shows that, even after the tough year we’ve all been through, human happiness remains remarkably resilient, as well as important. Our post-pandemic mantra should be not just to “build back better” but to “build back happier” too!

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THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE (HX) LEARNING

Technologies change, businesses change, and markets change. And the world has certainly changed dramatically over these past 12 months. As an insight and innovation business, we must not only recognise this, but respond to it too. We have to ensure we are an innovation agency that innovates itself.

And the key to this is human nature: it’s the one constant amidst all the change. If we can truly understand this, we can continue to develop new approaches to help our clients better future-proof their businesses. Being more human, more hybrid and more positive too affords us significant opportunities to be more relevant and effective — and to increase human happiness and wellbeing too!

Andrew Christophers is Co-Founder of Brand Genetics, a global insight and innovation agency specialising in unlocking growth by thinking human-first. Brand Genetics’ global clients include ABInBev, Estee Lauder, Mondelez, PepsiCo, Reckitt and Unilever. Andrew previously held marketing and innovation roles at Cadbury, Guinness and United Biscuits.

Human-Centered Insight, Innovation and Trends from Brand Genetics www.brandgenetics.com