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In my end is my beginning

Julian Boulding President, thenetworkone

Issue 50 | February 2019

This piece is written for the fiftieth edition of Directory magazine, a labour of love for many people over the years.

Fifty is a watershed: half way to one hundred, a beginning of the end, a midlife crisis, a new direction?

Looking at our industry today, it's easy to see nothing but change. The new holders of power – Google, facebook, Tencent, Amazon, Alibaba – are newly minted entrepreneurs, all less than twenty-one years old and still run by their founders. New media is shiny and fast moving. It does not feel like old media. And yet, it is.

Back in the day, if you knew what you wanted but not what to buy or where to find it, you went to the classified advertising section of any newspaper or magazine. Now you go to Google. Is that so different? Classified advertising has not died, it has simply morphed into Google.

What was 'direct mail'? The insertion of targeted advertising among what you really wanted, which was letters from family and friends. Is facebook different?

Retail? Promotional marketing, special offers, category management, if you like this you'll like that: all the techniques of traditional mass retail are now found in e-commerce.

And so on. Sales promotions became programmatic display. Soap operas became branded content. The horse became the car: it still gets you from A to B, is still a status symbol and still fun to ride, is it really so different?

Of course, there is a qualification to this: it's not about what became what, it's also about how became how. Because while the big five are the inheritors of the past, they are also different: their work is powered by machines, not by human intelligence and creativity.

We in the creative industries, are facing our fifty-year crisis. Which way do we turn?

I travel a lot, visiting independent agencies all around the world. I recently visited the Nordic countries. Last week, I was in Denmark and Sweden; recently I was also in Finland and Estonia.

Perhaps because of their long dark winters, Nordic peoples always seem to have more time to think than most of us, and consequently think better. They were early adopters and indeed inventors of mobile technology: think Nokia, Ericsson, Skype.

So, what are the Nordic agencies thinking, about the future of creative communications?

Many of the most interesting are very actively engaged, thinking about their future in a 'post-digital' world.

A frequent theme was defining the frontier between artificial intelligence and human creativity. As Gary Kasparov, the chess champion, has shown: machine beats man, but man plus machine beats machine alone. We all know that we live at the intersection of human and artificial intelligence.

Interestingly though, there was another recurrent theme which I had not expected.

It was around the opportunity for agencies to move beyond screen-based interactions (which are the currency of Google, Facebook, Tencent, Alibaba and Netflix) towards a more coherent orchestration of the entire customer experience.

A senior executive of Forsman & Bodenfors, the grande dame of the Nordic region, defined their skills as "insight, creativity and orchestration."

Stendahls, another leading agency, has actively recruited professionals in service design, to complement its digital creatives and strategists. Norgard Mikkelsen, a creative agency in an independent group which also includes an e-commerce specialist, has designed software to integrate social media with ecommerce.

I asked Ellermore, a smaller and more traditional advertising agency, to show me the recent work they were most proud of. All three cases they chose were based on live experience (an employee-guided tour of Astra Zeneca's corporate office, an auction where the successful bidders were the ones with the highest emotional response to the artworks (measured by a kind of polygraph) and a 20km forest run generating biofuel for a bus company (you can see exactly how in the panel on the next page.)

Another agency, the former Valentin & Byhr, has radically changed its service offering, slimmed its staff and repositioned as "Valentin Experience."

Julian Boulding

President, thenetworkone

In my end is my beginning

Pool, founded as a customer experience agency, is rapidly gaining traction, with creative Partner Arvid Axland's talk at Sweden's principal agency conference, Ad Day, voted as the most popular presentation.

We see this on the client side too: Experience includes product, packaging, service design, storytelling, social and community interaction. Marketing is frequently identified with the push side of business – advertising and promotion. Some well-known companies have replaced CMO's and Marketing Directors with Chief Experience Officers and Customer Directors. Agencies, take note.

Perhaps the most ambitious repositioning was a new agency I visited in Copenhagen, called Belong. It was formed after a merger of two successful, award-winning shops called Very and Patchwork. Belong designs experiences too, with a focus on communities.

Their website quotes a New York youth marketing agency, K-Hole: "Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today, people are born individuals and have to find their community."

The dynamics of experience itself are changing. Like most of marketing, it's been driven by the USA which on a global scale, has a highly individualistic culture. Experience means the customer's experience, not the customers' experience. Whereas most of the world (think Asia, Latin America, Europe) has a more collective, community-based culture. Whichever your preference, be conscious of the dynamic, as it will explain a lot of what is happening in the world today. Brexit, the US-China trade negotiations, the increasing relevance of regional groupings (ASEAN, USMCA, etc.) and the rise of "slowbalisation".

After meeting the agencies, I had a couple of hours to spare in Stockholm. I went to an exhibition at the National Museum, called 'Design Stories.'

The exhibition features physical objects whose creation relates to the personal stories of the designers. They were small in scale and mostly unknown outside Sweden, but they are inspirational.

Examples included two siblings, Annika and Marie Eklund, who had taken over a family fabric business and converted its products to be environmentally friendly; a Muslim artist, Iman Aldebe, who designed elegant and innovative hijabs; Petra Wadstrom, a traveller in Africa who made a solar-powered water purifier; and Louise Linderoth, a fashion designer who became wheelchair-bound, realised that denim jeans were designed for standing up and designed jeans which were comfortable for sitting down. (See also the Tommy Hilfiger campaign on pages 88 to 89.)

Interestingly, the designers were all women, but the show's publicity had not felt it necessary to mention this. Presumably because in the Nordics, women already enjoy equal respect to men. Interestingly too, all four Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway) rank in the top ten of the UN's world happiness index report.

But let's not get drawn into politics: the point is that all these designers, like the agencies I met, are focussed on real-world, multi-sensual experience and not the little world behind a screen. And if agencies can help their clients craft these experiences, they are surely adding value beyond their hourly costs.

But isn't that where marketing and commerce began, before newspapers, television and the internet?

As the poet T.S. Eliot, whose words form the title of this essay, said: "We shall not cease from exploration / and the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time."

Julian Boulding

[email protected]

Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the agencies or designers mentioned.

References

Agencies:

Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg https://forsman.co

Stendahls, Gothenburg https://www.stendahls.se

Norgard Mikkelsen, Odense https://www.nmic.dk

Ellermore, Gothenburg: http://ellermore.com

Valentin Experience, Gothenburg: https://www.valentinexperience.se

Pool, Stockholm: http://www.pool.se

Belong, Copenhagen: https://belongagency.com/dk/

Designers:

Can all be found at https://www.nationalmuseum.se/en/utställningar/ design-stories

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