10 Things I Have Learned Working in the Creative Industry

#AgencyLife Exposed  

I’ve had an uncommon path to the creative field. Or maybe it’s common. I am not quite sure. What I do know is that the path that lead me to where I am currently included experience, success, and failures in both the traditional side of marketing and publishing and the digital realm.

I’ve had some form of experience in almost every facet of advertising and marketing. I’ve been an account executive making cold calls (both walk-in and phone). I’ve spearheaded distribution and mail-merge strategies, even walking door to door to drop off publications. I’ve spent time in prepress. I’ve helped out in the bindery. I’ve written stories and solicited advertorials. I’ve been a managing editor and an associate publisher.

Strong creative will always resonate with clients and fans alike.

This was in a different life. Surely it has to be. It feels that way at least. And I am not that old. I could claim to be a millennial if the Gen X label didn’t have such a stranglehold on my persona, impostor syndrome included.

And after all these experiences, I was bitten by the digital bug. I wrote copy for the web. I was cajoled into learning how to code websites. I managed and administered a large-scale CMS. I spearheaded two large website-development projects. I honed social media strategy and assigned committees to steer that strategy. I created and managed an email strategy that sent about 100,000 emails per month.

the case for print versus digital marketing - catalog spread

This is my present life. My current position at Britton Marketing & Design Group, as director of online content strategy, is still in its infancy. As a matter of fact, it has spanned roughly the same amount of time as two seasons of one of my favorite shows, The Blacklist. Nevertheless, I feel that I have some valuable tidbits to share. So here are 10 things I’ve learned working in the creative industry.

1. You’re Only As Good As Your Creative

BMDG isn’t an advertising agency. It’s a creative and design agency that sometimes advertises. The creative has always been the lead for our agency since the company’s inception—and for good reason. We have world-class creative talent on staff. That’s not mere braggadocio on my part; it’s the blueprint from which BMDG was built.

We’ve led with wonderfully brand-centered creative for years. Now we’re merging and using digital thinking to make sure that our industry-leading creative is seen by the largest number of people, no matter the channel or medium: digital, social, or traditional. Now we’re honing and refining, adapting and assessing the optimal ways to share and publish digital content that is channel, algorithm, and search-engine agnostic. We produce content that resonates and engages fans and that plays by the rules of native algorithms in order to ensure maximum organic reach. Oh, and then we sprinkle paid media on top to supercharge the creative. It’s a formula we have refined for more than two years now. We call it Content Cartography.

Legos and fun at work

If you don’t have rock-solid creative, you really have no differentiators. Not a whole lot of agencies can sustain volume, technology, or service-only as a differentiator. They’re replaceable assets, making you obsolete because you have something tangible that someone else can replace. A 2.0 version. A firmware update away.

Strong creative will always resonate with clients and fans alike.

2. If You’re Not Innovating and Pushing the Boundaries of Digital Strategy, Don’t Bother Pitching Digital Strategy

It’s easy to see which brands are interested in digital storytelling, and which ones understand the importance of having a digital presence and which ones don’t. For us, digital is more than just a repository for nontraditional collateral. It is the medium where you have to have a substantial presence because that’s where your audience(s) spends most of their time. The culture shift of traditional push marketing versus content creation and pull marketing has already taken place. Here are some of the behavioral changes that have taken place in the last few years:

  • People watch YouTube or Netflix, not your local programming.
  • People read Medium, not the letters to the editor of your local newspaper.
  • People listen to Spotify or on-demand podcasts, not to your local wacky gridlock-hour morning show.
  • People check their Snapchat and Instastories, not Entertainment Weekly.

The brands that are successful are the brands that take full stock of the importance of being active on social, creating engaging, fresh, and consistent branded content. And the ones that are constantly engaging, interacting with, and cultivating digital communities are the ones that are successful.

Britton Periodic Table

After all, the digital realm is where most of your existing fans and customers congregate, so why not spend some time there and enhance their experience? And no, I don’t mean by constantly sharing promos and sales (don’t push it). I mean by sharing content that your audience will like, share, and reshare. Content that enhances their day. If you don’t know what that is, then you need to invest in a brand-DNA discovery session and do a deep content audit (email me, if interested!) to uncover what your brand is really about and what content your fans really want.

3. The Echo Chamber Is Strong

The echo chamber is so strong and so large and so vast and so encompassing. It is most pervasive on social channels that have an algorithm built on advertisement and monetization, which, when you think about it, is probably all algorithms.

Focus on creating content unique to your brand. Don’t worry about what other people are doing.

But I digress. As someone in the creative industry, someone in marketing and advertising, I know how it works. A brand does something that might go viral or get a ton of accolades from the community, and soon you will see 10 brands trying the same approach.

We, as marketers, ruin everything.

As soon as something takes off or is successful, we try to emulate it. But it never (i.e., rarely) works. Why? Well, the whole concept of something going viral is deep-rooted in the belief that the collective found something that resonated with them and they shared it, thus amplifying the content and enhancing their experience. Not a fabricated situation but rather something organic, interesting, and surprising. You can’t emulate organic online groupthink behavior. You can pursue the same content and the same execution, but you can’t anticipate the reaction. You can’t control it.

Peter Millar collage

So therefore, don’t pursue it. Focus on creating content unique to your brand. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Focus on solving the problems of the existing strategy. Try to focus on your brand’s objectives. Create content around that. Virality is a drop in the bucket of social engagement and not made from sustainable substance, so it’s a fleeting moment of nonsubstantive value. It’s a passing 15 seconds of fame for your brand. Your brand is better than that. Your brand is not Chewbacca Mom. Your brand is not a fad. Your brand is heritage and soul and emotions and connections and feelings and history. Act like it. Tell that story.

4. Marketing to Women Is (Still!) Predominantly a Tone-Deaf Endeavor

The 3% Conference exists because of the industry’s rich history of misogyny and its deep roots in a “boys’ club” heritage. We all know it. It’s a thing. It’s dumb. It’s not sustainable.

And when you think about it, the approach of having men make advertising creative around products that women use is quite laughable. It’s not optimal. It’s foolish at best. Now, I know there are tons of great creative directors who are male who create wonderful campaigns that target, resonate with, and engage all genders, but from a purely relational and knowledge and familiarity standpoint, there’s a better way.

We think women are a bit better at knowing what women want.

If 70–80 percent of consumer purchasing lies within the female realm, shouldn’t at least a majority of industry creative be created by females? We think so. We think women are a bit better at knowing what women want. Sue Britton, our chief creative officer and co-owner, explained it: “Women know how to stick together. We congregate, help each other out, and talk. Women know the brands that get them and those that don’t, the products that work and the ones that fall short. The days of interruptive advertising are over for lifestyle brands—companies now have to connect.”

Well, actually, agencies that understand demographical buyer behavior will rise to the top because their creative will, ultimately, be better suited for the vast majority of their audiences. So maybe consider more females for creative leads? We do.

5. There Are a Lot of Great People Working in This Creative Field

I think there are amazing things happening in the field I am in right now. Real, creative stuff is being augmented and expounded upon on different channels and at different volumes on a daily basis. Creative is only as good as you make it, and a lot of industry peeps and peers are making some amazing stuff—because there are amazing, passionate people working in the industry. There are people who care about what they do, how they do it, and how it affects our daily lives.

Vader

Every day isn’t always #AgencyLife material, but a lot of the things we get to do is remarkable. And as with any segment of a marketplace, there are good peeps and bad peeps in the industry. From personal experience, I am fortunate because I work for an agency that prioritizes family. This is not the norm for creative agencies. It’s usually pretty cutthroat, sometimes downright nasty, and if nothing else, hypercompetitive.

At BMDG we’re a bunch of unrepentant perfectionists, and at the core, we’re people who enjoy working together to solve problems for our clients. We’re a bunch of problem solvers who constantly try to figure out how to help our clients reach more fans, be more cost-effective, delight their customers, etc., et al. Rinse and repeat.

6. Advertising / Media Buying Is on the Precipice: Adapt or Be Vanquished

I mentioned earlier that we’re not really an advertising agency—because we don’t buy that much media. We’ve hardly ever bought traditional media, and although digital media is part of our repertoire, it’s just not always what we lead with.

Our focus is always to accentuate the brand and tell its story. We get close to the brand. We try to understand it, and then we figure out how to tell its story. Then we figure out how to organically use digital, content, and social media marketing to share those stories. Once we’ve set up the brand’s sustainable, consistent publishing universe, we move into the paid-media realm to supercharge the messaging.

Vera Bradley collage

You see, we want to be careful and purposeful with our client’s investment, and we want to make sure that we squeeze out every ounce of organic reach before we capitalize with our paid-media strategy. This allows us to be more cost-effective, having already created content that targets search engine ranking factors and signals to make our clients’ paid investment go even further.

7. Brand-Centered Content Creation Is Hard and Takes Purposeful, Long-Term, Strategic Buy-in, but It Can Yield Astonishing Results

What we do here at BMDG isn’t easy. We could cheat and go with a cookie-cutter approach. But we don’t. We’re unrepentant perfectionists, for better or worse. We’re invested alongside our clients. It’s a partnership, not a paycheck.

Table with Video Marketing Tools

And we’re as picky about picking partners as our clients are about picking the right agency.

That’s why we carefully craft editorial, aggregation, curation, and content-creation strategies with frameworks that enable cross-channel consistencies and on-brand messaging, no matter what channel or medium. That sounds complex—because it really is complex. It takes extra effort to be brand-centric. It takes time to understand voice and the complexities of tonality as they relate to different channels. It takes careful consideration to determine channel-specific strategies and purpose. It takes effort to personalize and customize instead of to strictly automate and cross-share.

Our focus is always to accentuate the brand and tell its story. We get close to the brand. We try to understand it and then we figure out how to tell its story.

But it’s usually the one thing a brand can always do to differentiate itself from its competitors. Because at the core, after stripping away services and products, what remains are the basic values and what makes up the foundation of the brand. The brand itself. The ultimate USP. The optimal measurable KPI. Core values are always going to be the thing that sets your brand apart from the competition. Products, services, technology, fads, and trends all come and go. Culture and heritage and your brand soul will always be the same.

That is, unless we’re headed to some sort of meldable branded future akin to the premise of Idiocracy. If so, Fuddruckers and Brawndo stock will skyrocket, but it will be futile because we won’t be in need of stocks, what with the whole crumbling of society and such.

8. Omnichannel Messaging Is Overplayed and Overused, and While the Premise Is Solid, Our Execution Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

The word omnichannel is a bit overplayed. It’s a fine term that has an important utopian quality to it, but omnichannel isn’t a functional or even doable approach for most brands. It’s a panacea or silver bullet that can’t really be attained. Omnichannel by definition includes all channels, traditional to digital, online to in-store, print to social, and all channels aren’t created equal. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that all channels have different audiences (to an extent), so one piece of content can’t be repurposed for all-channel use, no matter how much we might want it to be. Oh, and channels have different content types as well, so I guess that’s the third problem.

Desk with writing tools

For us, it’s a matter of taking a multichannel approach and creating purposeful content we share on channels where it makes sense. Channels where it makes sense for the brand and for that channel’s audience. Cramming content that is not native to a channel will never work (à la hashtags on brand pages on Facebook). Putting all your pixels on one channel (lame analogy?) and owning that channel also won’t work, because you’re limiting the success of your content to one specific audience. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But consciously limiting your content to one audience isn’t the optimal approach.

Instead, create content that can resonate across multiple channels, and then tailor that content to channel-specific native features, tonality, and cadence for maximum reach. Sounds great, right? Do you hear that, Ello? Peach? How is the interaction over yonder on ye olde Tumblr, Yahoo?

9. Native-Channel Audiences Are the Future of Branded Content

My last takeaway is to not put all your eggs in one basket and try to own a specific channel, correct? Am I about to contradict myself? Not necessarily (oh boy …). It’s just that the importance of using—and creating—a solid native-user experience on each channel that your brand is on is the most effective way to use channels. So brands need to be really strategic and know the native features of each channel that they’re using.

What matters is that your creative is always a reflection of the brand voice.

What do I mean by that? Well, if we take a hypothetical case study (based on BMDG’s primary data and secondary industry data) and look at content type and native features on Twitter, we know that we’re restricted by a character count of 140 (for now at least).

  • The most engaging content type is an image tweet.
  • The most engaging hashtag quantity is two.
  • Each tweet can have four images attached to it.
  • Each image can have 10 accounts/handles tagged.
  • Each link takes up 21 characters.
  • An image (no matter how many images there actually are) takes up 23 characters.

Effectively we have less than 90 characters with which to craft the perfect tweet, including a link CTA, four images with 10 tagged handles each, and two hashtags.

This is a hypothetical way of using optimal secondary data to squeeze the most out of organic reach on Twitter. Of course, you’d have to merge this with primary data from your brand’s accounts to generate the true formula. But this is how you could make sure you create content that is seen. Algorithm be damned!

10. You’re Only As Good As Your Creative

Yes, I know. I am repeating myself. But the most important differentiator there is in this industry is strong creative. Deal with it. If you don't have it, find someone who excels at it and get all pilot fishy on them.

Love What You Do - Open Office Concepts

Creative is another word for telling stories. Whether the creative is visual imagery, emotional copywriting, a groundbreaking podcast, or a live-stream video doesn’t always matter.

What matters is that your creative is always a reflection of the brand voice. A near imitation of the brand soul. Once you know your brand, you know how to craft and share its stories.

And we’re all storytellers in today’s climate. Some stories are just better than others.

Photos/Images: BMDG

Niclas Hulting

Niclas Hulting

Director of online content strategy who enjoys the strategic part and feels content about the other. Loves to read fantasy and industry books. Writes about social media and content strategy most of the time.

Meet Niclas Hulting