Nearly 12 months ago I quit my job and started freelancing. With the opportunity for a fresh chapter, I stopped calling myself a Digital Strategist and updated LinkedIn to Creative Strategist. Here’s why.

1. Digital Strategy has changed.
When I started my career, “digital” was a blurry word. It was a grey area you could carve your own definition into. I’ve been lucky for most of my career, in agencies where I largely got to shape the kind of work I wanted to do – finding opportunities for ideas on digital channels. But increasingly, Digital Strategy has nothing to do with ideas. It’s more “transformation” and “enterprise solutions”.

These days the role requires a strong understanding of specific technology tools and data platforms. You have a seat at the table, but it’s not necessarily with marketers. The consultants would say that’s a good thing. And more profitable. But I like writing briefs and working with Creatives.

Unless you love CRM or DMPs, there’s no longer room in agencies for Digital Advertising-ish Strategists. (And rightly so, see below.)

2. Digital is just a tool.
Why do we have Digital departments in agencies? Or Digital Creative Directors? Digital Strategists belong on the same list of obsolesce.

Digital is just a channel. Usually for hosting an experience or distributing a message. But it’s not always the best place to host an experience or distribute a message. Yet if you have Digital in your title, you have a natural bias. Not making that recommendation makes you less relevant.

But Strategists are problem solvers, and they can’t have predispositions to certain tools. To a hammer, everything looks like a banner ad.

3. “Digital” makes me feel a bit sticky.
There’s too many snake oil salesmen out there. And yes they’re mostly men. With oil comes their greasiness. Too many entrepreneurs selling courses for Facebook ads. Too many videos of Gary Vaynerchuk telling you to hustle. Too many digital marketing influencers without any influence (or something to say).  Of course, I generalise. There’s plenty of legit digital thinking legends out there – it just feels like they’re getting harder to find.

4. You can charge more.
There’s more demand for Creative Strategists, and fewer in supply. A Planner who “gets” digital seems to be the sweet spot, more so than a Digital Planner who considers brand or a proposition. People don’t like talking about money, but from what I’ve gleamed, day rates are better for the agnostic problem solvers.

5. I’m finally starting to understand how advertising works.
I’ve worked in advertising for nearly decade, and am only now just starting to feel like I get how it works. And every time I read more, the way brands use digital pulls in the direction opposite of effectiveness. My (ever forming) philosophy is guided by the likes of Byron Sharp, whose work suggests brands grow through mass reach of potential buyers by building and reinforcing memory structures to increase mental availability. Even if there’s too many buzzwords in that sentence for my liking – that’s not  how most brands invest in digital.

Likewise I lean toward the notion advertising works because it is a signal. It’s an investment received socially. Traditional ads work because they are perceived to be expensive, collective and seen in unison. Digital is the opposite: cheap, individualised and sporadic. As Rory Sutherland says, “We make our wedding vows in front of a large number of people simultaneously.” Presumably at an expensive wedding.

Generalising again, but it would seem most of the people flogging digital thinking don’t have a philosophy on how advertising works, or even believes that it does.

I don’t think we can attribute this one to David, but Ogilvy sum it up best: Digital is dead. And so, I ditched the word from my title.

Although you’ll still find plenty of mentions in my bio for SEO. You can’t take digital out of the boy!

If you think for a living, you should write more.

For obvious reasons, like to share your wisdom. And build your street cred.

Even if you don’t have wisdom or hate the phrase ‘personal brand’, you should spend more time writing things down. Capturing thinking, yours or someone else’s, publicly or private, forces you to process it. For me it also takes it out of my head to make room for something else.

Thoughts, ideas, frameworks, tools, quotes, presentation material – anything worth remembering. Or stealing.

Last year I started freelancing and got organised. Here’s how I capture thinking by writing it down:

Moleskin Notebook
In the past I’d capture all notes in a Moleskin. To Do lists, client data, doodles. But these are almost always disposable. Now I write everything on a white A4 piece of paper, folded in half. At the end of each week I throw it away.

The good stuff, I transfer into a single notebook, the front page you can see above. Doug Kleeman calls it writing your own textbook. It’s for the timeless stuff – lessons on how advertising works or how to be a better problem solver. Things you might refer to in five years.

Strategy Library
I have a folder on my MacBook that houses every good report, framework, paper or case study I read. It includes pieces of work from other people/agencies, even well designed decks for inspiration. All of which is carefully filed, building up over nearly a decade in advertising.

Strategy Cellar
It’s an online version of the Library, kind of like my personalised version of Julian Cole’s Planning Dirty Cheatsheet. It’s a toolkit, with resources and tools I refer to. A Google Sheet works nicely.

This Blog
Of course, there’s this blog. Even if no one reads it, it’s where I can distill and build on thoughts. And identify themes in my own thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done presentations only to later realise they’re repackaged blog posts. You might argue Twitter plays this role for micro thoughts too.


Where do you write things down?

Okay, not that old fashioned.

I’m sometimes criticised for stirring the pot without providing an answer. Like my last tirade against brand immaturity on social media. If you didn’t disagree with that post but were wondering what to do – here’s how I’ve been strategically thinking about brands on social.

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I think their customer service sucks, they lie to brands, they pulled a rug from under us and Mark Zuckerburg is Lex Luthor. But Facebook isn’t going anywhere. Despite its flaws, its cannot be dismissed.

Most brands know this, and have jumped in head first. But they suck.

Since I started freelancing the most common conversation I have with clients is telling them they’re social media strategy is bad. They’re wasting time, effort and money. Often because of an approach sold to them by parties with vested interests or a limited understanding of how advertising works.

Here are some red flags you might raise with your current agency/snake-oil-social-media-expert:

  • You measure success (or worse, invest) based on page growth/likes/followers
  • You measure success on engagement
  • Your strategy is built on ‘organic reach’
  • Content is promoted indiscriminately
  • You spend more on content creation than content distribution
  • You’re creating more than one piece of content a week
  • Your content consists of stock imagery or is sourced
  • You don’t know what a Relevance Score is

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat – they are all media channels. And we must treat them as such.

This means a return to good old fashion advertising. But using the new opportunities these modern channels bring.

The notion of building communities or interaction is a myth. And largely it exists on unproven hypotheses, and a good dollar margin on content production. Content creation can be very profitable, and therefore is an attractive recommendation for vendors. What they won’t tell you is to be most effective you should be investing 80% of your budget into media. Because here the margins are a minimal (and continue in their race to the bottom). It’s also a skillset that doesn’t sit with a traditional creative agency.

The truth is, there is no content beast that needs feeding. The most important word in social media is not “social” but “media”. Do not invest in high volumes of content, instead focus on reaching potential buyers.

Of course, making good content is still important. Facebook rewards brands that do (if you haven’t already, research Relevance Score and its role in increasing your reach).

Brands should be doing fewer things better. Create only a few killer content pieces and nothing more. You know where the rest of the budget should go. I’m going to take a guess and say you’re not at risk of over saturating your audience. If you’re feeling bold, make one great piece a content a quarter – setup the media to reach many with a low frequency.

There’s no need to post daily, or even weekly. This means content calendars are largely redundant.

Instead think about programs. One of the key technology benefits in digital is the ability to target people through a marketing funnel towards conversion. Use your marketing plan to build relevant messages for each audience at each stage. Definitely do not worry about International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Another benefit of digital is our ability to measure. Forget about vanity metrics, instead build actually useful plans to measure brand and ad metric uplifts based on exposed versus unexposed audiences. Or use third party shopping data to understand actual buying behaviour.

This is how brands should be building social media strategies in 2018.

In many ways, it’s a return to the basics. Create ads that build saliency and distinctiveness. Then spending money distributing them to refresh memory structures.

Without intending to, I wrote a three-parter on the current state of uselessness of brands on social media. I took umbrage at:

These are lazy strategies. They are easily copy and pasted (and often are), lack insight and usually lead to work that is generic and uninspired.

Unfortunately, they often work. At least in the short term, in so much as bullshit metrics like Engagement Rate. If you do the above, it will get you a handful more likes. Even a lift in ad recall. But this is not how you win. (In same cases it may even do harm.)

This is what happens when you give the kids a seat at the grown up’s table. (I know, I’m one of them.)

In the past it didn’t matter because social and content had little impact. You’d joke saying it was a good job for the intern. But now, rightly or wrongly, brands are investing more time, effort and spend. Suddenly this activity is being seen and heard, with scale.

Yet it’s still the same unexperienced marketers behind the wheel. They’re just not driving go karts anymore.

Michale Goldstein compares it to fishing with a line or fishing with a net. To bastardise his analogy, line fishing has an immediate return but it’s one fish at a time. Net fishing is a long game, with no quick wins or visible short term result. But they haul more fish eventually. And have the infrastructure to keep hauling every year.

Brands on social have forgotten how to fish with their net.

Peter Field has proven brand building drives long term growth. And everyone’s favourite marketing academic Byron Sharp says “Most of your sales this year come from work that was done in the previous twenty.”

Do we honestly believe the Bachelor reference you tweeted last week is going to impact your customers’ buying behaviour in 2037?

We need the grown ups back. The ones who have been around long enough to understand how to build brands and think long term.

Today Pigs Don’t Fly turns 10.

From the very beginning it was naive and too often arrogant. But my early writing is a good reminder to voice a opinion, especially when it’s controversial. And don’t do too much self censoring – it’s okay to piss people off occasionally (especially when you’re right).

I certainly write far less than I used to. In 2008 I wrote 153 posts (most of which were rubbish). In the last twelve months I published 15 (still mostly rubbish).

What started as a side project at university quickly sparked an interest in writing. It became somewhere to explore digital marketing, and later brand, communications and entrepreneurship.

It got me a foot in the door to advertising and helped build my personal brand, for want of a better term.

In many ways it’s come full circle, back to being a side project. In 2009 I did 45k pageviews, this year I’d be lucky to reach 10k. The once-thriving Australian marketing blog scene is largely dead.

If I was smart I’d probably be publishing on LinkedIn or Medium. And I’d definitely have migrated from Blogger to WordPress (which has been on the To Do list for about eight years).

Most recently, Pigs Don’t Fly has become the banner under which I freelance. We (read “I”) just had our first project signed off that requires people other than me. I guess it’s an agency now?

Above all, it remains a place to think out loud, collect my thoughts and occasionally write something people read.

Thanks for being one of them.

Animated Gif Product Shot

Product shots have became a default strategy on social media. Especially for brands in FMCG, alcohol and retail.

And it’s a sign we’ve hit rock bottom. We’ve regressed into the lowest cost, lowest common denominator approach to social.

We’ve forgotten comms need a strategy and an idea. And how to think long term.

Somewhere, somehow, we convinced ourselves flatlays would create meaningful business impact.

I mean, you wouldn’t even use a product shot in old school media without a price point. But I guess if you animate it as a boomerang that makes it better.

Not to say there’s not a role for them. Product shots might be the reinforcement a person needs to convert further down the funnel in your content marketing engine. But you’re not going to change behaviour with just a well-lit cinemagraph.

Even worse is the approach of reposting user-generated content. Usually as a product in some punter’s hand. No concept. No strategy. Not even some art direction. If you think anyone’s being persuaded by this except marketers you’re delusional.

(Nothing against driving UGC. It leverages the real power of social – the network. It creates social norming and reach with advocacy. But that doesn’t mean brands create value in broadcasting it.)

And it’s not just social publishing either. We pay “influencers” to take photos of our products. Even better if they’re holding it!

(Note the deliberate use of quotation marks. Read any number of articles on bots which generate fake interactions or the concept of an ‘engagement pod’.)

Or the epitome of modern advertising, paying six figures for your product to replace someone’s head as a Snapchat lens. But if you open your mouth it animates so I guess there’s that.

It’s usually the Strategist who wants to shoot the Creative or visa versa. But we’ve watered down social so heavily they probably both want to put guns to their head.

How did we get here?

Definitely a lack of experienced marketers and advertising folk making decisions. More on this in another post/rant.

We’re also lazy. You don’t need an insight or a concept for a product shot. And the margin’s healthier because of it. It’s easy to get your hands on product and shoot something with decent production quality. Especially when most agencies look like converted warehouses.

Fortunately within every problem is an opportunity. The very last brief I wrote before leaving my previous agency turned into a series of product porn piss-takes:

Easy Roller Social Content

Don’t forget kids, product shots don’t build brands. And you’re not going to win the battle for attention without an idea.

Once you’ve developed a creative strategy, written a brief, got a concept and sold it in… there’s still plenty to be done. The next stage is a comms strategy – finding the best way to spread your idea to the right people through the right channels. More often than not, you do this with media.

And it’s rare these days to see a media plan which doesn’t include Facebook. Facebook’s revenue grew 62% in the US last year. Between them and Google, they receive 85 cents of every $1 in digital growth.

Which is problematic when it doesn’t work.

The above error message is what a client of mine saw the day they went to push a major campaign live. No context, no means to solve and no help anywhere online. Especially not on launch day.

This is a pretty standard level of service. Facebook are notorious for giving little support unless you spend big each month. If you do manage to track someone down, there’s usually nothing they can do except escalate, whatever that means. And conversations with online support yield little, to a point where you wonder if you’re talking to a bot.

In the end there was nothing to be done except for my client to wait it out. Six days later it was fixed. And the only reason they knew was because we were checking daily, not because we were notified.

That’s six days a client wasn’t able to be in market. Six days of opportunity missed and sunk production and resource costs.

With any other media owner, it would be completely unacceptable. You’d remove them from all future media plans. At the very least they’d work with you and your client to make the rectify the problem, or give bonus value. You’d definitely get a response to your emails.

More than ever media owners need to do everything they can to win and keep your media custom. (Although to be fair some of them are hopeless too. Last week I reached out to two sales reps for a client looking to spend $50k with each of them. Neither got back to me.)

The sad part is, despite the huge fuck up, Facebook’s monopoly means they’ll still be on the media plan next time. Probably with a 62% increase in budget.

Unfortunately I’m yet to see a brave media planner tell a client they’ve removed Facebook because it’s not in the industry’s best interest long term. And margins are so thin it’s in the agency’s best interest to avoid fragmentation anyway.

We’ve shifted an awful amount of spend and therefore power to Facebook and Google. And in doing so we’ve painted ourselves into the corner of a seller’s market. Which is very problematic, but no one seems too worried because we’re losing our ability to think long term.

Today is my last day at Cummins&Partners.

I’m closing what has been an excellent chapter in my career. For five years I’ve worked on some outstanding brands and business problems. I got the opportunity to build and manage a content department. And I learnt from some of the best (and funnest) in the business.

As of Monday, I’m a freelance digital thinker. The plan is to dust off a few side projects too and write a bit more.

So if you need a problem solver who understands how brand, creativity and media engage consumers through technology – buy me a beer. I promise I’ll make things much simpler than that last sentence.

When brands ‘hijack the conversation’.

Hijacking the conversation. Culture-jacking. Real time marketing. Whatever you call it, it’s a social strategy too often abused by brands.

As a strategy it’s a first thought and generic. It’s usually poorly executed, where quality is sacrificed for speed. Most importantly, it almost always forgets to build brands.

As social media seems to regress in its creative sophistication, apparently now we’re just doing things for the sake of it.

Oreo is largely to blame. Their Dunk in the Dark post “won the Superbowl” in 2013 and has been thrown around content meetings ever since. Kristina Halvorson has a fantastic take down of the work, describing it as hitting “peak derp” in her excellently titled presentation Go Home Marketing, You’re Drunk.

I’m less critical but only for one specific reason – the work aligns to broader comms strategy. All case studies analysing the stunt (both positively and negatively) overlook how six months earlier Oreo ran their Daily Twist campaign – 100 days of ‘real time content’.

Their Superbowl activity wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was a considered and deliberate approach to build relevance for their brand. They planned for it, which yes means they have the right people and processes in place, but more importantly they identified the role it plays strategically.

Some brands do it even better. Specsavers have a brand platform built on it, which allowed them to capitalise on the mistake at the Oscars. Likewise Nando’s have been doing cheeky takes on culture in print for years.

Neither of these brands are fast for the sake of it – they understand the role it plays in growing or changing the perception of their brand.

While it’s fun to present strategies and setup processes for ‘planned spontaneity’, too many businesses overlook long term impact and relevance. A bit like those who post memes.

(I should mention, for a much better articulation on the problem with real time marketing, read Jon Burkhart’s chapter in Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief, which I saw while drafting this.)

I bloody loved ABC’s War on Waste.

So much so I wrote 1,000 words on the potential impact of a petition to relax cosmetic standards on bananas. Apparently it wasn’t enough.

The show dives into a range of issues in sustainability – each one an insightful look at different strategies to change behaviour (or at least tries to). Here’s four ways governments, business and individuals are attempting to influence our decisions and how we act:

1. Recycling Soft Plastics
Did you know you can recycle soft plastics? Waste like glad wrap, bread bags and chip packets can be taken to most supermarkets and recycled along with your plastic shopping bags.

The primary challenge here is awareness. As we see on the show a whole street of families change their behaviour once they become aware of the solution. My household did too after watching.

Our industry tends to get caught up in whatever’s trendy at that moment sometimes overlooking the simple answer – in this case: good old-fashioned awareness building. Particularly with so much data on our hands now, we’re increasingly spending time looking at the conversion end of a funnel and not the top.

Dare I say, to efficiently address this problem on scale with speed… we need television?

2. Banning Plastic Bags
One lever you can pull to influence behaviour is to remove barriers. Make something easier and they’re more likely to do it.

Or in the case of getting people to stop using plastic bags, add barriers and make it harder. That’s the focus of the Ban The Bag movement. Recognising that charging people for bags (in some states they’re no longer free) hasn’t had enough of an impact – to properly address this problem we need to go harder. The answer seems to be adding the biggest barrier of all: making plastic bags flat out illegal.

3. Killing Coffee Cups
Another tool for behaviour change is adding incentives. Coffee cups are a problem in Australia because their plastic lining can’t be recycled. As a result they end up in landfill. To address this, some cafes are leading the charge by offering discounts to customers who bring their own cup.

This issue has an interesting secondary problem too – people think coffee cups can go in the recycling bin, contaminating whole containers. Yet again another problem we can fix with awareness (although this one could be more tactical, with messages on bins or the cups themselves).

At work we’ve taken the barrier approach. Our coffees are ordered through an automated Facebook Chatbot (advertising, amirite!?). We’ve made it harder (actually, impossible) by removing the option for a paper cup from the system altogether. Problem solved.

4. Slowing Fast Fashion
Another issue highlighted in the show is the ‘fast fashion’ trend and the six thousand kilograms of clothes we toss away every ten minutes in Australia.

H&M and other retailers are doing their bit, offering vouchers for returned items to recycle and reuse them for those in need. But as host Craig Reucassel points out, this strategy really only makes things worse, incentivising fast fashion to be faster. No solution to this one yet.

Man it would be fun to write strategies for any of these problems.