Inputs Before Outputs (Always and Forever)

Definitions matter. Therefore, we endeavor to explain the value of strategy to ourselves, to workshop attendees, and our clients. But before we can explain the value, we also need to explain what we mean by strategy.

Here’s a recent explanation from my Twitter friend Derek Walker:

I’d like to illustrate the above sequence…

  • An online brand is suffering from shopping cart abandonment. That’s the data.
  • One insight derived from the data is people feel unsure about their purchases and/or their relationship with the brand.
  • A strategy based on this data point and the insight derived from it would be to increase trust with customers.

The creative team then takes this call to create more trust and creates a series of ideas that, when executed, build trust with current and prospective customers.

Solve Business Problems, Sometimes With An Ad

Salmon Theory, a weekly philosophy newsletter for creative and strategic minds by Rob Estreitinho features an interview with Zoe Scaman, founder of Bodacious, a full-service strategy studio in London.

I like this passage a lot:

What’s the philosophy behind Bodacious?
Embracing mess and uncertainty and applying strategy problem-solving skills at the broadest possible level. People often ask me to define myself – are you an ad agency, a consultancy, an innovation house – but I balk as definitions, they don’t suit me. I’m all of the above and more. And I’m ok with that amorphous shape. And my hope is that other strategists will start to wake up and feel the same. We keep reading pieces about how the ad industry is crashing and burning and that’s because the problems we need to solve are ever more complex, but the solutions (where the margins live) are always the same, so what do we expect?

Strategists are problem solvers as their core, and that means you should be able to turn your skills to any challenge. The sooner we divorce ourselves from advertising as the output, the better.

This is a theme that I keep returning to time and again. In 2016, I wrote this:

We routinely ask that an action or series of actions be taken by people inside the client company. This is where marketing communications meet operations. When you’re dedicated to growing successful businesses you end up going way beyond making ads. You become an essential part of the team and invested in the outcomes. This level of teamwork and commitment may surprise some clients. It’s our belief that we need to care about the marketing problems at hand, but more that than, we need to care about the human beings our work impacts, namely our client’s customers and prospects, and the community of people employed by the company.

Brand Truth Is Foundational

At Bonehook, we pursue our client’s brand truths because it’s the mud that we make Marcom bricks from—bricks that hold up the brand house.

I hate that advertising is considered to be wallpaper or paint by anyone inside and outside of the ad business. Ads are not decorations, although they can be appealing to look at. Ads that move people to pay attention and to buy are interactive artifacts from the sponsoring company. An interactive artifact (print, broadcast, or digital) can be entered, like a house or a compelling story. An interactive artifact can be explored, altered, celebrated, and shared.

A brand has to know how to turn people on. Is it the quality of the products that drive people to the store? Is it the low price? The magic is always inside the company, yet people go searching for wild ideas far from the where the action is. All the action is happening inside the customer’s heart and mind. Thus, the job of all brand marketers is to know their customer’s desires, fears, ambitions, and day-to-day pressures.

When you know your brand truth and what makes your customers and prospects pounce, you’re ready to advertise. If you do not have these two essential ingredients figured out, we’re here to help you. We can also make your ads after the discovery period, but so can lots of other talented people who focus on outputs. We focus on inputs because when you get your inputs right, your ad campaigns practically make themselves.

Deeply Distracted Is The Digital Condition

The dude’s on his phone.


And that pretty much explains it.

  • His reckless driving
  • His vacant look in meetings
  • His constant obsession with curating a manufactured self-image

Now, if we can, let’s pause all judgments and realize that every marketer under the sun is working to disrupt this man from his handheld trance.

It’s a herculean task. The spell cast by the platforms is seemingly unbreakable. People are reportedly spending an average of 7.5 hours a day engaging with media, with 29% of that time juggling multiple streams.

“In 2014, a group of researchers out of Stanford University found that people switch between content on computers as often as every 19 seconds, with 75% of on-screen content viewed for less than a minute.” — Jacqueline Detwiler— David Burn (@davidburn) October 23, 2019

Harsh as it is, every marketer and every media company is posting into this digital wind.

Brand Messaging in the Time of Rapid Thumb Movement

Digital behavior means scrolling, which explains the power of platforms.

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the rest are all built on the need for next. The need for next diminishes the now and obliterates the past. Ergo, the need for next is a vexing problem for marketers and western culture.

How is a single-player—a well-heeled brand, a struggling media company, or anyone else—going to slow down the scrolling (which means altering the deeply ingrained behaviors of millions of people), so people can focus on the content offering?

Not the next content offering. The one in front of you now.

My belief is content offerings in digital media—no matter how compelling—must lead people to a non-digital place. At a brand-sponsored event, or at the brand’s retail store, the relationship between prospect and company can develop naturally.

Internet Spinners Are Spun

When you’re ready to humanize your marketing communications, we’re here for you. And yes, we’re on a different page, by design.

What they don’t teach in business school is the value of Return on Kindness (RoK). In the real world, where marketers and their customers exist, RoK is everything.

Managers who care about Return on Kindness, ask these questions of themselves and their team:

  • Did we manage to make people feel good about the interactions they had with us?
  • Did we show the customer the kind of respect all humans deserve?
  • Did we listen and respond with humility?

Brands are the public face of the company. Customers and prospects are real people with real emotional needs that always accompany their desire for product or service solutions. Therefore, marketing communications is never purely functional. At it’s best, Marcom is part poetry and that’s why suits in glass towers must go down the elevator and take a walk in their customer’s shoes. To hear the voice of the people.

When you need a walking partner and someone who will actively listen and hear your Marcom problems, let’s walk and talk.

We can also add hard plastic discs to the walk and play a round of disc golf, which is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.

Disc golf is physically and mentally challenging.

Please use this contact form to schedule a time with me. Thanks.

The Pursuit of Brand Truth Is The Real Work of Advertising Professionals

“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” -Bill Bernbach

Advertisers want to place their products and services in the best possible light. It’s a natural desire and a legitimate business concept. The problems start when brand managers think that “the best possible light” has anything at all to do with make-believe. It does not.

Unlike our peers in Hollywood, advertising professionals are tasked with finding and then polishing and elevating the truth, because that’s what helps sell soap, cars, vacations, and so on. Again, there’s a flimsy notion to overcome that people buy the promise in the brand, whether or not it’s true. No. People buy the brand promise once and if the product or service fails to live up to its promises, the brand is forever removed from the person’s consideration set.

Don’t lose my files, brah.

It all sounds so simple. Seek the truth in the product and show how it makes the product unique and hopefully better, then weave these insights into the ad campaign. But it’s not simple, because clients are often too close to the problem to solve it on their own. When the client is smart enough or lucky enough to hire a consultant who deals in brand truths, the client must also be open to hearing these truths and acting on them, or it’s all for nothing.

It Takes A Humanist to Connect

Advertising pros who lead their clients in the discovery of brand truth are warriors, poets, and philosophers with a keen sense for what moves people. These practitioners see the business for what it is—an exchange of ideas and goods among people.

There are also plenty of people who work in advertising who don’t know the first thing about what I am talking about here. For the hucksters and charlatans, there’s still plenty of money to be made in “applying lipstick to the pig.” Sad, but perpetually true.

Of course, no clients see themselves as the pig or in need of lipstick. All clients want the ads that they’re paying for to produce positive business results. The question is always how.

  • How do you appeal to people?
  • How and where do you connect with them?
  • And how do you keep them coming back for more?

To answer these elemental questions, it also means you need to know why people care enough to pause and listen?

How Do You Enter the Conversation?

How advertising is made is not well understood. This is why clients sometimes call up and ask for advertising outputs without understanding the need for strategic inputs first. No great advertising is ever made without first walking a mile in the customer’s shoes. It’s the only way to get on the customer’s page.

Take a look at your company’s messaging. The truth has a certain quality to it. It shines and it rings. Truth is like a river. It cuts through mountains of stone. The job for the agency and the client is to jump feet first into this river of brand truths and let the current carry you to the destination. Paddling against what customers truly think is a fast way to die.

If you feel that your brand’s messaging is off balance, and that there are no “ah-ha” moments in your advertising, set up a call with me. I’m happy to spend 45 minutes discussing the problems with you for free on an initial fact-finding call. If you want more help from there, we can cross that bridge, but first thing’s first.

Not ready to call yet? Perhaps you already have legions of fans waiting to buy from you. Take a bow if that’s you. If, on the other hand, you endure long periods of radio silence and erratic revenue cycles, take heart. These are challenges almost all businesses face. Thankfully, the challenges can be solved efficiently and affordably with a smart customer-focused plan.

UPDATE: There’s an earlier version of this article that I published on LinkedIn. @CommArts kindly pointed to it, significantly increasing the number of readers.