Collaboration drives relevance

Many marketers cling to brands, such as Apple and Nike, to prove that they have cultural impact, but it is often new business models, built from collaboration, that really change lives. If marketers want to genuinely influence culture they should reject silos and maximise collaboration throughout the creative process.

There are two phrases in marketing that have become increasingly bankrupt over time. These two thoughts may seem disconnected at first glance, but I believe they are intrinsically linked to one another.

The first is the oft-trotted-out aphorism that ‘brands are part of culture’. It appears in pretty much every presentation designed to sell a ‘brave’ new idea and is increasingly uttered by CMOs around the globe. Sadly, there is precious little evidence of this assertion being based in reality. Sure, as an industry we are good at co-opting culture and reflecting it — often a few months late. But we’re not very good at either moving as fast as culture or, more importantly, positively contributing to culture rather than merely reflecting or refracting it in an attempt to bend it to our ends. The examples of real impact in culture are few and far between and, as a result, have become labelled as clichés. We cling on to Nike, Apple and Airbnb as emotional crutches to prove what brands can do when they’re at their best — marketing ideas that have changed the conversation in culture in their favour. More often than not, real cultural impact comes from new business models rather than marketing ideas that change the way we live, work and play. Think Google or Amazon.

The second thought is the notion of collaboration, a term used so loosely and with such little meaning that it has become almost laughable. We use it to describe how we work together in our agencies, when the reality is far more like a relay race with the inevitable mistrust and high likelihood of the baton being dropped at some point. We extrapolate this thought to how we work with our clients. I’m sure 99.9% of requests for proposal (RFP) talk ad nauseam about collaboration and partnership lying at the heart of the relationship model, yet the reality paints a rather different picture. We disappear for weeks, to come back with an answer to a question, only to discover we have been answering the wrong question or that things have moved on in the time since the initial meeting. More often than not, our agendas are simply misaligned from the offset and we speak different languages to one another. Magnifying this issue is the inability for us to break silos, either within the client organisation or the other agencies on a client’s roster. As we live in a world of increasing specialisation — for good or ill — clients need their agencies to work better together in order to deliver a seamless and effective end-to-end experience. Yet a survey of brands last year by Econsultancy came to the damning conclusion that 86% of brands say agency collaboration is important to their growth but only 20% say their agencies are collaborating ‘quite effectively’.

On the face of it, these may appear quite disconnected thoughts. But increasingly, the evidence suggests that if your objective is cultural relevance, then the strategy is collaboration. Take the film industry. Hollywood is built on a model of building a team of collaborators around the job. Brian Grazer, one of the most successful TV and film producers in recent history, attributes his curiosity interviews where he meets people outside his usual walk of life, as one of the biggest influences in him uncovering new stories to tell in new ways. Pixar, the studio with the most gongs per movie released, is the result of a radical collaboration between technology and storytellers and works in a way designed to maximise collaboration throughout the creative process.

The importance of collaboration has become increasingly true in the world of music. As The Economist recently reported, collaborations now account for one-third of the songs in the Billboard Hot 100 compared with less than 10% between 1960 and the mid-1990s. Hip hop, the most collaborative music genre, is now America’s favourite. In a little over a decade, DJ Khaled has racked up 24 Hot 100 hits, all of them collaborations with other artists. Streaming services are blurring the lines between genres and the results are a more prodigious level of collaboration.

This is what’s going on with the stuff that truly shapes culture. Collaboration is commonplace. Radical collaboration, connecting the previously unconnected, is putting a real, positive dent into culture. Yet when you look at what we do to influence culture or, perhaps more realistically, to bend culture to our will, there is precious little real collaboration. We’ve got to learn to make our natural mode of engagement one of openness and curiosity. To want to learn from one another and build upon one another’s ideas. To spend real time working together, not building silos or passing the baton. Perhaps then we might honestly be able to point to some ideas that have genuinely influenced culture.

This was originally published in the March edition of Admap