So what’s the Big Idea?

In the digital world – where brands and targets interact without ads – much-lauded proprietary tools face an uphill challenge, says David Wethey

I wrote about agency proprietary tools in this column a year ago. There’s been some activity on this front during the 12 months, which has inspired me to return to the subject. The digital revolution has also focused attention on the need for integration. So I have been wondering which of the proprietaries are sustainable in a world where the consumer is king, and loudspeaker communications have been superseded by debate.

For a start, the proprietary is going to have to drive brand proposition development. No longer will marketing communications be about cooking up formulae to possibly bring about a sale in June 2009. Proprietaries will have to work in real time: those with a development process have an advantage over ones simply seeking to define a state of being.

Let’s start with the best known current methodology. Jean-Marie Dru, the global chairman and guru of TBWA, has published his third book How Disruption Brought Order. Let me put my cards on the table: I’m a huge Dru fan. If there’s an advertising genius still working out there, a worthy successor to Ogilvy, Dru is the man.

But I don’t think this book will be as convincing to Disruption virgins as the first two were because it is too full of other people’s words, clients and colleagues alike – not to mention fulsome tributes to them. Dru has been too generous. The Disruption proprietary is still powerful, but it also needs its principal prophet at its heart.

Another interesting development is that the Saatchi & Saatchi proprietary Lovemarks, invented by the celebrated Kevin Roberts, is now in kit form. Saatchi has developed “Lovemarks in a box” to help planning and creative teams around the world create new Lovemarks. The principle behind Lovemarks is that some brands are “loved beyond reason” by their fan base. The agency explains this phenomenon by describing what it calls the attraction economy. The language of Lovemarks is highly emotive.

Saatchi talks of the axis of respect and love, creating Lovemaps and Lovemarks Journeys. By turning Roberts’ book into a kit and a process, the agency has given the proprietary legs and a good chance of a longer life. Like Disruption and its communications planning cousin Connections, Lovemarks has a building process that is also designed to involve clients. This has to be a plus.

Lovemarks shares with Y&R’s Brand Energy some examples that are very convincing. The problem is that when an enthusiastic agency stretches the definition, it is pretty obvious that such and such a brand is neither a real Lovemark, nor does it have genuine Brand Energy. Worse, making an exaggerated claim for an ordinary brand weakens the status of those that do deserve the accolade.

DDB should know a thing or two about developing campaigns that work; as BMP the agency won nearly as many IPA Effectiveness Awards as all the other agencies added together. DDB has launched Co-creation, a process for building powerful brand experiences, not just through advertising, but also in direct, online, PR – anywhere. Lucy Jameson, in her essay A Question of Influence, defines influence as the desired outcome for any brand. Co-creation is based on the belief that successful brands are the most influential, and the reality that influence will only come about with a 360 degree approach. Again, Co-creation is a process, not a descriptor.

But will some of the existing Big Idea tools continue to work in an environment increasingly shaped by the influence of digital? After all, Big Ideas are the linear descendants of the famous Unique Selling Proposition, coined in the early 1940s by Rosser Reeves, chairman of once mighty Ted Bates (but originally developed as the “pre-emptive claim” 40 years earlier by Claude Hopkins).

In the digital world brands and target audiences interact without ads. Conversation is as important as selling. Marketers have to listen and respond, as well as plan and tell. How many proprietaries are going to work in those circumstances? In his new book Adland, Mark Tungate has produced a racy and highly readable history of the very best agencies and ad people. Apart from USP and Disruption, not a proprietary in sight. Just amazing talent. Funny that.

David Wethey is founder and chairman of Agency Assessment International

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