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What we need are more big ideas

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What we need are more big ideas
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A friend at an ad agency recently shared with me some spec creative work they had pitched to a big national company. The primary focus, per the client brief, was an overhaul of the company Web site. And I thought my friend’s agency had done a nice job. The design they came up with was neat and clean, the information was well-organized and there were a couple of nifty bells-and whistles.

There was just one thing missing: the big idea.

The agency later found out they hadn’t won the business and frankly, I wasn’t surprised. Because had I stumbled upon the proposed site, I couldn’t have told you what the company stood for, what separated them from their competitors or why I should buy from them. It was another “me-too” site. And I don’t think this lack of originality was an isolated incident.

Over the past few years, it feels like the power of the idea is often trumped by the power of technology. Coolness wins over substance, and when that happens the opportunity to connect with consumers in a meaningful way is often missed. You may make a one-off sale, but the emotional connection that leads to return visits, repeat sales and brand loyalty is lost.

In the creative department we often say that the creative work is only as good as the strategy or brief behind it. (The exact phrase we use is “Sh-t in, sh-t out”.) And I believe a leading cause of the dearth of the big idea, is a faulty or non-existent strategy from the outset. The upfront thinking (aka heavy lifting) that’s required for meaningful work is often kicked down the road and then retro-fitted into whatever creative/technological solution that’s deemed the most cutting edge or fashionable.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin touched on this less than consumer-friendly approach to marketing, specifically as it relates to strategy. Godin posited that the culprit was often the fact that there were too many strategies out there: “an email strategy and a social media strategy and a web strategy and a mobile strategy” and that they often ignored the “one and only one thing that matters, and it’s people”.

Godin goes on to point out the pitfalls that come with an incoherent strategy: All of these media are conduits, they are tools that human beings use to waste time or communicate or calculate or engage or learn. Behind each of the tools is a person. Do you have a story to tell that person? An engagement or a benefit to offer them? Figure out the people part and the technology gets a whole lot simpler.

When we put more value on the tools and tactics than the upfront thinking, what results are poor strategies that lead to weak ideas that fail to engage the consumer. While the finished product, for instance a new Web site, may look shiny and hip on the outside, it often has a pixel-thin appeal and lacks the emotional resonance that sparks people into developing a real relationship with your brand.

One company that’s getting it right: Anthropologie.

My wife is a big fan of this female-focused company’s clothing and accessories and a visit to their Web site helped show me why. The Anthropologie site successfully sells an alluring lifestyle that varies by season. Currently themed “The Island Life”, the site features a mix of beautiful “island” photography, video and copy that’s carried through on each of the site’s main sub-pages. It sets a great mood and romances the customer before trying to make a sale.

As far as the company’s use of personalization, upon entering the site it immediately called up the nearest store location (helpfully informing me it was currently closed for “remodeling from head to toe”, but pointing out another nearby location). And I know from e-mails my wife has received, they also do a fine job of personalizing e-mails, apparently by analyzing her past purchasing behavior. Kudos on a job well done!

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