Edward Boches: Building a culture of experimentation and creativity in the social media age

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Edward Boches, Chief innovation officer, Mullen

Edward Boches,
Chief innovation officer, Mullen

“Power out? No problem.” That was Oreo’s tweet during the great SuperBowl blackout. It was re-tweeted more than 16,000 times and written about in many second-day media stories. What do those 22 characters say about creativity in social media?

A couple of really important things. One is that your customers are engaged with a second or third screen and are consuming content in an environment in which they are actual participants. The second thing is, brands need to be in those social spaces along with consumers. And the third thing is about the importance of real-time communication, whether initiated by you or in response to critical consumers. Face it, you’ve lost control over timing, content and media. If you look at this Oreo example, what you see is a brand realizing that context and cultural conversation can be used. I also think there’s an important lesson in here about experimentation. Whether it’s Twitter or Pinterest or Facebook or Vine, we need to experiment in these places to figure out what actually works because we’re in an opt-in age where paid media isn’t enough any more. Will the same behavior that Oreo exhibited get anywhere near as much attention now? I think not. That’s another reason why people need to get comfortable creating for the new platforms.

How do you build a culture that encourages experimentation?

I’ve found it incredibly helpful to change the physical environment. The more that you can force people from different backgrounds, different disciplines and different departments to bump into each other, the more you end up creating natural experimentation. Another way is to change the way you assemble teams. Instead of putting the technical people in a silo and the creative people in another place, you create teams that bring these disciplines together. If I can get the creative department to put developers and coders in the middle of the art directors and copywriters, then suddenly we have a culture that embraces innovation. There are an awful lot of young people these days who say, “I don’t want to do the same thing my father did. I don’t want to make old-fashioned ads. I’m interested in the new stuff.” If you want to recruit and hire those people, you need to create an environment where this is possible.

How do you see the advertising industry adapting to analytics and other forms of accountability?

Well, I’d contend that first of all, too many people in advertising are measuring the wrong things, especially in social media. We’re hung up on fans and followers and likes and responses. There’s a much larger opportunity to use the tremendous amount of data available to us. We can understand exactly where somebody is and in what context they’re engaging or searching, and we can create content that responds to that moment. We also have an incredible ability to learn about our customers’ thoughts, ideas, dreams, wishes, and aspirations based on how we filter social media conversation. Data creates huge opportunities to understand our customers and actually serve them.

What brands are doing that well?

This has nothing to do with my work at Mullen, but let me give you an example. One thing that didn’t work so well was a credit card company program on Facebook that would market to me based on data that it thought was relevant—the likes of my friends. So if I have a bunch of friends who liked cruise lines, the company would try to sell me a cruise. Now, I’ve been a cardholder for 35 years and have never gone on a cruise. You would think they would know that. On the other hand, I connected my American Express card to FourSquare. Shortly thereafter I check into a small restaurant and instantly receive a ping from American Express informing me that if I pay with my card, they’d take $10 off the bill. Now that’s an incredibly relevant use of data that was revealed based on a company’s willingness to connect on a social platform. Think about what American Express gets out of this. I’m telling them where I am and providing a clear picture of the places I frequent. In return, I’m getting $10 off on a $25 or $35 lunch tab. I think there’s a lesson in here about allowing our customers to give us information in a fair value exchange.

In addition to driving innovation at Mullen, you’re also teaching creativity to advertising students at Boston University. How are your students different from the way you were at that age?

These young kids don’t even think in terms of one medium versus another or whether they’re on mobile or a laptop or getting a message via social or TV. To them it’s sort of all blended together.

So what can you—or any seasoned marketing executive—teach to a generation that thinks so differently?

The thing I’m trying to get the students to understand is that problem solving remains the most important skillset to master. I spend the first three weeks of the semester trying to teach only one thing, courage. Because a lot of these kids have used the left side of their brain a long time, they haven’t had to learn to express themselves in a conceptual, creative way. It can be very scary to show your idea to a bunch of people who are instantly going to pass judgment on you.

How can a CMO who grew up in another era summon the courage to experiment in social media?

Well, the first thing we should talk about is fear. For anyone who comes from an older generation, there’s a tendency to resist change and new technology. So the first step is getting people to realize they don’t have to be afraid of all that’s new. That’s because the process that you have to go through, to solve problems or generate solutions, is still the same. You have to define the problem or opportunity, devise a strategy, explore creative alternatives and find one you believe in, employ a budgeting discipline, and do analysis to determine whether it was effective. Those five steps are all still integral—so everything’s changed, but nothing has changed. Beyond that, however, you do need to embrace the probability that a solution may not come from you, the so-called creative. With traditional advertising, the process was pretty straightforward. The creative people would come with the idea and the technology or production people would go build it. In the new age, the creative idea may come from the technologist or the developer or the coder who understands the potential of the technology and the creative team might make it look pretty.

Doesn’t the person with the idea hold all the power in the ad world?

That leads to another change that I see coming. We have to learn not to feel as though we must take credit for something. That’s a big shift from the legacy of advertising, where it was all about who got the Cannes Lion or the One Show Pencil. That sort of idea-hoarding created a culture that can be competitive in a negative way, a culture that actually discourages collaboration. In the digital side of the business, that doesn’t exist at all. Maybe it comes from the nature of software development, where it’s all about building on each other’s ideas and not caring so much about whose name is on it. When I came over to the digital side, I was actually a little bit intimidated because here I was in my 50s and moving into a new world where I knew nothing. But I was welcomed with open arms instantly by the entire digital community, whether they were coders or developers or digital ad agency people. The digital world treats people in a totally different way. It’s more collaborative, more welcoming, and more sharing. It actually encouraged me to not be afraid of something new and to ask for help if I needed it, even though historically I was the person who other people came to for help.

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