Chris Stephenson is the head of Strategy and Planning for APAC at PHD Media and talks about the importance of defining and delivering effectiveness. He shares the paradox for marketers of the desire to be innovative and groundbreaking and at the same time delivering the results required and how the two are a balancing act that can lead to conflict. He also shares his insights into the increasing role for strategy in a world that is focusing on short term results.
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Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we sit down and talk with industry experts and professionals on marketing, media and advertising.
And today I’m sitting down with Chris Stephenson who is head of strategy and planning for APAC here at PHD. And I’m actually at PHD so, welcome, Chris.
Hey, Darren; great to be here. Welcome to the PHD campus.
It’s a great campus. It’s obviously relatively new.
Yes, a new space, been here a few weeks and enjoying being here and it’s great all being in one space and we’re enjoying it.
And also all of Omnicom Media Group is here on one floor.
Exactly, so we’ve got one big space and it’s all about making sure we’ve got the flavours of all the brands in the group. We’ve got different brands with very specific propositions in market but all part of one big group.
But how do you get the best of both of those worlds? How do you make sure you’re across specific propositions? It’s about delivering to clients but also we’re leveraging those capabilities and specialists that exist at group level and all in one space, all on one floor, on one campus, we can do that much better.
I have to say, that is something I have always acknowledged about Omnicom Media is the fact that the brands do have very specific and distinctive personalities. And the OMD people might hate this but I’m inclined to think of them as the muscle and PHD as the brains; that is a gross generalisation but it is a good way of being able to separate the two isn’t it?
I think the fact that you can separate the two is the point. What’s really important is that when clients are looking for partners, and to give them advice, they understand that they’re talking to organisations with a clear point of view on the world.
And they’re talking to organisations who’ve got perspective and don’t think that everything is right in every circumstance, whatever the client needs. And I think that developing those brands, those cultures and propositions is crazy important.
People can probably tell by your accent that you’re British.
I know you from your time in Australia. How long have you been here in the APAC region?
I’ve been at APAC for 4 and a bit years now and Australia 5 and ½ years before that so 10 years in APAC.
This is a beautiful office but I imagine like most people with an APAC responsibility you don’t spend a lot of time here or do you?
I spend a lot of time not here which is one of the great privileges of this role, being able to get into markets and meet people and see different perspectives and be exposed to different cultures and different ways of going to market. That’s one of the great privileges.
They say, ‘when you’re bored with London you’re bored with life’; if you’re bored with an APAC role you’re bored with culture so I hope I never get to that point.
Because it is a unique region isn’t it? You talk about different cultures but even when you get down to the way that media is actually used and consumed; that’s part of culture, language, it’s the infrastructure, the economy. All of these things create this amazing challenging world of Asia Pacific.
Exactly right. One, it’s huge, the size of the population and volume of media in this part of the world is huge. It’s one of the biggest and most developing markets in this part of the world. Also incredibly diverse and amazing stories emerging from that diversity. We’ve seen whole markets that couldn’t tell you what a desktop computer is.
Their internet experience has been through a mobile phone. And the idea of optimising for mobile is just nonsensical to a lot of people in this part of the world. There are amazing stories around great cultural campaigns here that tap into market specifics, how KitKat tapped into exam season in this part of the world and the intensity of that and all of the KittyKats who work, which is just amazing. Loads of really interesting, nuanced cultural work, which is a challenge for global brands but also a huge opportunity for brands to get that right.
So big, diverse in terms of media consumption and diverse in terms of culture and then even within markets, huge diversity. A market like China is continental. There is more diversity within China than there is within Europe. When you look at the region a lot of the time we see media through geographic lenses and we’ve worked very hard to get away from that.
Shanghai has got a lot more in common with Paris than it has with Hangzhou.
It’s got an international flavour to the city. You can tell that when you go to Shanghai. One of the things that cracks me up is that western friends say, ‘oh, I’ve been to China’, ‘where have you been?’ ‘I’ve been to Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong’. And I go ‘well, the people of Hong Kong are currently arguing whether they want to be part of China’ but that’s actually such a small part of China.
We’re talking about the two biggest tier 1 cities and then you’ve got Guangzhou but then you’ve got this amazing depth of diversity. You get tier 2, 3, 4 and even tier 5 cities that are out there; millions of people.
That’s exactly right. You could take the entire diversity of Europe and the Middle East, the entire spectrum of that and in China alone you could times it by two. At either end of the spectrum you could extend that, India. There’s an incredible diversity within India. You cannot look at these markets like markets. And it’s really important for media that you understand at a city scale, regional scale, and you understand the level of geography that you can engage at.
And those two markets are over a ¼, possibly a 3rd of the world’s population. Then you get other markets that are smaller but still nevertheless challenging like Malaysia because it’s such a culturally diverse country.
Then you’ve got relatively large places (100s of millions of people) like Indonesia which is a very different market again.
Exactly. What I find fascinating is you’ve got different priorities in terms of go to market for marketers. What you’ve got to accept and you come to learn in agency land is that marketers are fundamentally insane from the perspective that they want 2 completely different things at the same time.
On one hand, marketers want results, they want to see performance, they want to see things happen in a very controlled way as a result of the series of investment considerations they’re making. In short they don’t want to get fired.
At the same time they want to think outside the box. They want to challenge category conventions. They want to find new ways of doing things. They want to get noticed, get attention and they want to think outside the stream and find new, innovative ways of doing things. In short, they want to get famous. And all marketers want to get famous and not get fired at exactly the same time.
It’s a conundrum isn’t it because one goes naturally to the opposite of the other. You can do what is known and proven and just grind it through but you’ll never be famous for that.
What comes through and what’s important to understand is that all marketers want both of those things; what is the order of priority? About 100 years ago when I was learning my craft, in London, New York and Sydney certainly there was a London school, which is get famous then not get fired.
So, what do you do to drive innovation, creativity? What are those ideas at a campaign level or category level that are going to cut through and drive marketing objectives? Get there then move that to a position of safety. How do you build sufficient reach, what are the safeguards? What learnings can we bake into that to make sure it’s going to deliver? And set performance indicators around that.
What a lot of marketers will do in other markets—there’s no right or wrong, it’s purely how they approach it, is they’ll start from a position of safety. What is the plan that is going to deliver and get me over the line? What do I know is going to work? What historically are we comfortable with? What are stakeholders comfortable with?
And then you lock that in and move that to a position of innovation. What can we do to add some innovation or creativity on top of that? Now, I’ve got a really clear point of view on which one of those is going to get you to a better place but the reality is all marketers want both and all marketers deserve both, all brands deserve both.
And you’ve got to understand that spectrum of diversity in terms of how you get there.
Chris, that is an amazing insight. You often don’t define those 2 conflicting objectives but you’re absolutely right. As soon as you started talking about it I realised that you feel like marketers have almost got split personalities. They want what appears to be safety but what they’re really saying is I want to get the job done.
But, at the same time, I want to innovate, I want to be different. I want to be the guy or woman who is known for disrupting and doing something unique. I’d be interested in exploring the differences because I come from a science background and science would tell you that you build knowledge by building on what you already know.
So, in some ways the get it right and then innovate is the scientific way of doing it. It’s like ‘we know this works and now what small experiments can we do to see what impact that has on overall results. The other side is quantum leaps in new ideas and inventions, which is actually the way humanity has grown over the millennia.
We like to think we’ve evolved but when you look at it there are quantum leaps of thought that drive it without a lot of control though. It’s like let’s innovate and see where this takes us? And we’re suffering going through that at the moment with social media and the impact that’s having on all sorts of things.
Yeah, exactly right. Science is a really interesting parallel. We said that when it comes to safety and innovation marketers deserve both. Science is exactly the same. When you have this solid grounding in a specialist field but these leaps of the imagination you can’t have one without the other.
Not just anyone was able to grasp the concept of gravity because they saw an apple fall. It was somebody with a solid grounding in physics who was able to make that huge leap because of that imaginative thing. It was the same before him with volume displacement.
It was Archimedes wasn’t it? And the other one was Newton.
So it takes deep knowledge in a subject to allow you to make those imaginative leaps and innovation leaps and it’s never a trade-off between those two things. The security knowing that marketing will deliver and the imaginative leaps that will drive innovation in that; it’s a virtuous cycle.
Getting each of those right enables the other. You’ve got to understand the two different streams; they’re two different things.
O’K so I’m going to challenge you here because I find that the advertising industry, which in a way has set itself up to be the innovator, we talk a lot about creativity and insights. And then marketing, which is the interface into business are the two sides of that in many ways.
Do you think that’s why the advertising industry, advertising and media agencies spend so much time talking about creativity, insights and disruption because they feel they have to counter the weight of the more rational, predictable approach that comes from business?
I don’t think it’s so much about marketing being on one side and advertising agencies being on another. I think that both marketers and agencies are having a real moment and it is bordering on a crisis because we have these conflicting impulses.
We’ve got conflicting impulses around performance and understanding the performance of marketing whether that’s in the short or the long-term but mainly in the short term.
But then we’ve also got the impulse. We know, the evidence is in, that large business effects come from creativity and innovation and work that cuts through and gets noticed and changes conventions.
No matter which side of the fence you’re on you are facing these conflicting impulses and we’re not getting the balance right. The balance is far too in favour of short-term performance at the cost of long-term brand building.
And that’s been happening for a decade, ever since someone clicked on a banner and said ‘wow, I can measure that someone’s done that, when they did, how they did it really quickly’ and ever since then we’ve been pulled into this position of safety and it is coming at a huge cost.
The real tipping point from my perspective (I started doing what we do in 2000) was 2007/2008, the world global recession, the financial crisis, whatever people want to call it, was where businesses suddenly contracted. And in contracting they often did what they had always done in a recession, which is marketing is seen as an overhead so we cut the marketing expense.
Except that we had marketers still needing to try and drive growth. They suddenly went from long-term brand building and long-term value (and long-term could be a year, 3 years, 5 years) under an imperative; ‘yes, we’ve cut your budget but you’ve also got to keep us out of going backwards so you’ve got to start driving growth.
At the same time you had technology coming along, clicking banners, so suddenly marketers went from the top of the funnel (And I still think the funnel is relevant) to focusing on the bottom and becoming salespeople.
The old relationship and tension between sales and marketing; suddenly marketers were expected to be as accountable as the salespeople in getting those sales.
I think that’s exactly right. Add to that the issue of disruption driven by technology; the fact that one of the world’s biggest accommodation companies doesn’t own any accommodation. One of the world’s biggest transportation companies doesn’t own any cars. You’re seeing huge disruption.
Any business is now looking at multiple horizons for where the next disruption is coming from. So on top of all of that complexity you described and making sure we just deliver, what you’ve then got is anxiety over whether we’re going to be disrupted and how and the speed of the change as well. And the imperative to eternally disrupt.
I’ve seen those presentations; IBM rolled it out, Deloitte, and they all talk about it being technology. All of the successful disruptors, the Airbnb, Uber or Grab, Taobao or Amazon; technology was an enabler. What they actually did was tap into customer experience.
They are all being used because they provide an experience that the traditional legacy systems no longer provide. It’s not technology that is actually the attractor to those experiences. It’s the actual experience itself. I say to people, ‘stop thinking technology is the solution because technology is not the solution; it is the enabler.’
It’s the tool in the toolbox but you still need to understand the consumer, their experiences, expectations, their wants, their desires. All of the things I know you as a strategist are constantly thinking about. But all the technology did was provide a platform to create a new experience.
I stayed in New York recently at Sonder Apartments. This was a start-up where they went to San Francisco, these two guys, and they got an Airbnb, and they’ve both got dog allergies and the place was covered in dog hair and within an hour they can’t breathe, breaking out in welts, they go to the hospital, get treated for the dog hair allergy. They then check into a hotel and they suddenly have this epiphany.
What if you could have hotel style service, consistency, quality of cleanliness in an Airbnb type experience staying in an apartment? And so they created Sonder Apartments. And yes, technology is part of it, you book through the app and you order whatever you need through an app, which hotels don’t do (you call the concierge still).
But that’s not the reason I’m staying there; it’s actually the experience of staying in an apartment in New York City but knowing that someone’s toothbrush is not going to be there or there’s going to be hair under the bed and things like that, that it’s actually been kept like a hotel.
That’s why I think we’ve got to be careful when we talk about technology transformations. They’re still predicated on improving the customer experience.
They absolutely are and disruption is customer-focused but there is an element of understanding the potential and capability of technology. Technology is not the starting point, you’re right, it’s the enabler. But understanding what is possible is absolutely crucial.
One of my media heroes, Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian, former editor of the Guardian newspaper and he was in Sydney shortly before he retired and someone asked a question about his digital strategy and what is the digital strategy for the Guardian newspaper and how is he managing to tread a line through that when a lot of publications aren’t?
And he said, ‘the thing to understand is that what you cannot do is put brands on the internet. Successful brands have got to be of the internet. You cannot take a legacy as an institution and put them on technology and go ‘well, this is going to be better now’.
It’s got to be of the internet. You’ve got to understand the vibe of technology, what’s it’s capable of, what it’s enabling, how is that changing behaviours and expectations. And his question was ‘how do we make the Guardian of the internet not on the internet?’
And I think Kath Viner has picked that up and run with it. And what you’ve now got is the Guardian is arguably more a community of like-minded people globally than it is a newspaper. And they understand what it takes to take an organisation beyond the internet.
And that’s crucial. Technology is not the enabler but understanding the potential and being of technology and having that mindset will enable that disruption.
I remember quite a while ago having that distinction between the internet or digital as a channel and the internet as a platform. And what I mean by that is so many advertisers and agencies for a long time just thought about digital as a channel you would just buy impressions or engagement somehow.
And yet what it is best for is creating a platform of which business becomes part of that platform and a place where you interact and engage and create experiences for your customs or community or however you want to define it.
That’s exactly right. The last decade or 2 has seen this Venn diagram emerge of legacy media, broadcast, one to many, and then the image and digital businesses. And then we see that Venn diagram come together and we see this really interesting space in the middle where you’ve got performance capabilities because of all that.
And you’re starting to see digital spread into what were the legacy businesses. And we’re starting to see loads of tipping points around streaming. It’s been a long time coming but now we’re seeing them. We’re seeing tipping points around things like VPAs; 50% of U.K homes have not got a virtual personal assistant—50%.
Half of U.K homes have a big digital giant who will help them with their shopping. All these things; the launch of Disney+ later this year and streaming as a default as opposed to broadcast. We’re now seeing digital massively impact these legacy, reach-building, long-term, emotional brand-building engines.
At the same time, thank goodness, we’re seeing the learnings and legacy of that big brand building start to impact the digital space. And that’s where, quite rightly, we see big digital start to obsess about brand uplift, long-term marketing metrics and what those platforms can drive rather than just short-term performance.
I’ve been talking to investors who are looking at start-ups and one of the things they’re starting to consider more than just what the idea is, is what is the potential for this to be a brand that becomes a lighthouse? That’s challenger brands, the lighthouse that’s going to attract a community because they see the ultimate financial value is creating these online lighthouses that will attract people to them to interact with each other, with the brand, the business and that’s where the financial rewards will come from.
That’s right and that’s one of the big bits of advice we give clients at the moment is around having that really clear point of view. One of the consequences around digital and contemporary marketing has been this alignment of message and media and PHD we are trying to pull those apart again.
Successful brands right now have got a really clear pinpoint positioning and point of view that acts as that lighthouse but the danger is you target media in the same way. You customise, precision craft really specific messages to reach Debbie in South Hanoi because she’s exactly tuned to that thing and it doesn’t work.
The media’s got to stay broad, your reach has got to stay big, you’ve got to be a gauge of the category levels. Yes, have that lighthouse positioning but you’ve got to go forward, you’ve got to be engaged in your category.
For me this taps into social media and in some cases people have forgotten the social part and are focused on the media and others have focused on the social and forgotten that it’s a medium as well. So the two have become almost polarised from each other yet it is a social media.
I also think people have forgotten they’re human beings. They’re largely social animals.
And irrational ones.
And we want validation from our peer group. The people who are around us we want to validate so it’s always been a concern for me this talk about technology being used for personalisation because most of the time it’s been used on me personally it just comes across as creepy.
I couldn’t agree more. Certainly the point of view at PHD is that you only go into personalisation or customisation in media if there is a really clear creative reason to do so. There is a place for personalisation and customisation and that comes at a brand level, marketing, user experience, customer service level.
If you, for example, arrive in an Airbnb or hotel and there’s a personalised note—that’s an amazing experience. If you want to go shopping online and the site tailors around your browsing history, you can more easily and efficiently find what you want; that’s a great reason to personalise and customise.
Media doesn’t work like that. There is this gold rush into this space which is an absolute error.
The whole talk about big data is there’s a great opportunity to use it to identify the tribes, communities or groups that you can start to then target them as a group through media. What you get then is the social recognition that they belong to a group and you as a brand are recognising them as a group. Acknowledgement is such an important part of making people feel positive about your involvement in their community.
And the way to do it is data allows you to get an insight into what that group is about without having to go and ask questions like, ‘what colour is your favourite colour?’
‘What is the last chocolate bar you tried?’ One of the points that Peter Field raised at Cannes this year when he raised his next level of alarm bell. Peter Field each year raises his DefCon level when it comes to marketing effectiveness.
And one of the things he said at Cannes this year around big data was, ‘brands that see large business effects as a result of marketing use big data to drive insight not performance’. And that’s a really valid point. I couldn’t agree with you more.
100% right. Thank goodness we’ve got people like Les and Peter Field who are raising that DefCon level because we will look back at this time and go the balance wasn’t right. We weren’t doing enough for long-term brand building and investing in that. We’ve got to put it back.
When you put a focus on what technology can do rather than focusing on the customer experience, technology has come along and said ‘hey, we can take all this data and actually identify you as an individual and start talking to you as if we know you. And then, in that process or personalisation, the technology gets it wrong or if it overplays its hand then as a human being you totally reject it.
But if you use it for an insight about the group, the community that you identify with and are able to talk to and engage that group with a conversation around the things that are important to you then you feel much more comfortable because it’s not just putting the focus on you.
Just because you can do something with technology is not the reason you should.
All roads lead to Dr Ian Malcolm and Jurassic Park. Exactly right. I’m a massive optimist and I’m positive about digital. I think the capabilities and opportunities it’s opened up for media, marketing and communications are huge but when we look back at what we did with digital, until we get those balances right, and it will correct because it’s got to, will be defined by exactly that quote and Dr Ian Malcolm.
We were so obsessed by thinking what we could do; we didn’t stop to think whether we should. And that is the moment right now. We need to step back and understand the context of declining effectiveness right now across the board. As an industry we are less good at what we do than we were a few years ago. And that’s not good enough.
We all need to pause, take a step back and ask what should we be doing, not what can we do. Use what should we be doing to drive our client’s business, to build their brands and drive long-term performance.
And one of the big anchors of that is creativity and that is why it’s absolutely right that people like me and agencies will keep talking about creativity and innovation because that is one of the single biggest levers you can pull to get back on track. And focus on big ideas to drive fame and emotionally engage people and build brands at the top of the funnel long-term.
So, Chris, earlier you were talking about the rise of streaming. One of the things that cracks me up is people talk about advertising needing to become shorter and shorter because the average human being has a shorter attention space than that of a goldfish.
But how can that possibly be when people are now bingeing on 8, 10, 12 hours of watching long-form content. Isn’t the fact that a lot of advertising is not engaging them, is not using creativity to inspire, delight or educate or entertain them; all of that energy and creativity is going to create TV series that you binge on for a whole weekend.
And the reason for that, Darren, is because the worst thing that ever happened to advertising is the advert. Decades and decades of advertising craft trapped us into thinking that the way advertising works is through adverts.
These units, packaged, pocketed messages that convey, but as media has changed those pockets have become smaller and smaller and more fragmented and fleeting and more instantaneous. And the response to that has not been ‘well, perhaps advertising isn’t ads anymore’.
And the response to that has been ‘let’s just make the ads better, more punchy and effective. Let’s obsess about them. Let’s just try and make better ads’. And what a lot of brands realise, and this comes back to being of the internet rather than on the internet, brands that get the capabilities of technology to engage, reach, serve and enable products and services in people’s lives, they understand that a lot of types of ads get in the way of that.
As streaming reaches a tipping point it will absolutely punish the last remnants of people who think that the solution to the world right now is better ads—they’ll be swept away.
Big ideas. People consume more content than ever before. We’re consuming it in more engaging ways; we’re consuming it on our terms. The world has never been fuller of ideas and thoughts, concepts, and creativity. If the best we can do is make better ads, we don’t get our place in the 21st century.
We get our place as an industry by being part of that ideas culture, that content, by partnering and collaborating with people to produce ideas that challenge and engage people and that create new things in the world. That is how 21st century brands will continue their legacy of being things that inspire, engage people, and grow business and our societies and economies.
That’s ours for the taking if we want it but better ads is not how we get there.
Chris, that’s brilliant. Thank you. We’ve run out of time, which is a pity because I think we could almost do another podcast just leaping off from this point. Thanks for having me here at PHD in Singapore. Thanks for making time. Before we go, one question.
What’s been the biggest idea you’ve seen hit the market in the past 12 months?
Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here