Interview with Th@t Lot’s Barney Worfolk Smith

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As part of helping put together the Best of Branded Content Live event together in partnership I’m speaking to industry experts around the globe.

This week I caught up with Th@t Lot’s Managing Director Barney Worfolk Smith and we discussed how at the macro-level we are seeing a modern version of what was once creative and media. Basically, on one hand Barney points out that there are the ideas, content and messaging, and on the other there is the actual framework and mechanisms for delivering those. These mechanisms have swiftly become more algorithmic, programmatic and predictive in order to help personalise and optimise content across multiple platforms i.e. MADTech (marketing and advertising technologies).

Barney sees MADTech as increasingly meaning social platforms, and the means of buying it at scale to reach people in their fractured environments (passion centres). At the same time, he also sees the creative output of social media, content marketing and PR becoming more similar. In addition, he feels that output should be more about the development of creative stories that inhabit the methods of reaching people. However, mainly due to how new and fast moving this area is Barney thinks there are few who really understand how to develop stories delivered through MADTech at scale:

What’s the point in spending all your time trying to get to the party if you don’t have anything to say when you get there. And vice versa, what’s the point in having something great to say if you can’t get to the party”.

Clearly media and creative still need each other to do the job of meeting a marketing goal, but as Barney points out the problem is that the modern landscape isn’t what it used to be:

It’s more fractured and very complex, and doesn’t necessarily favour the thinking that comes out of more traditional media and creative organisations.

We discussed 3 important and interrelated considerations for helping solve the challenges posed by the modern landscape:

#1: Plugging the skills gap:
The changing media landscape has created confusion on both the client and agency side about who to hire and what skills they might need to create and deliver great content, as well as measure its impact. That’s why Barney believes that modern marketing favours the generalist:

Even if you haven’t worked in a specific area of media, then having a passing understanding of it, and how it interacts with the other bits, give you a better footing to think through how the parts fit together as a whole.

Those different parts now involve strategy and planning, content (co)creation, engagement/relationship management, distribution networks and delivery mechanisms/technologies, and also measurement, analytics and value optimization and more subdivisions thereof. It’s rare to find those with an understanding of all these areas – let alone the experience of linking them strategically – not least because of the move towards more specialization as the technofication of marketing continues to evolve.

Barney sees the solution as being more strategy-led, and one that requires a framework for planning successful content, together with a creative process that adhere to that framework in order for any later distribution and media planning to be coherent (see his recent LinkedIn post on How to brief for killer branded video content).

#2: Disruptive thinking is not in the Big Data algorithm
For Barney these strategies now start with the data, but that also means understanding its limitations:

I really enjoy working with data to inform creative; and even though I am not directly involved with transactional media I think it’s obviously a good thing if you can harness data to increase targeting at scale so that there’s less wastage. But the disruptive spark that will give someone a car rather than faster horse is going to come from elsewhere.

The issue being that analytic technologies rely on historical data. That said the incremental improvements they uncover can make a huge impact when aggregated across large audiences. But although analytics might tell you the ‘What’ and ‘Where’, they don’t tell you the ‘Why’; and understanding this is essential for giving people “what they don’t know they need” and communicating this because no amount of big data can deduce that. That’s why my colleagues at Tenthwave think that the answer is to become more customer obsessed. This means going beyond the desktop and dashboard to conduct more ethnographic-type research in order to find those insights that will help you out innovate your competitors.

Some hope to find disruptive thinking through creating relationships with start-ups. Barney thinks it also comes from any media organisations who focus on big idea marketing with a central concept based on solving a business problem. Then executed in ways which are relevant to each channel. Others think it’s less likely to be about big ideas with legs, and more about the production of continuous content by those content creators that understand editorial and programming, i.e. publishers and broadcasters.

#3: Modelling the success of the smaller specialist shops:
Barney thinks another place to look for that disruptive spark is amongst those smaller ‘shops’. The type were clever heads who’ve set up by themselves arrive suddenly with award winning success. This he points out is normally the result of a relationship being formed with a progressive and bold client. He thinks the secret to their success is their ability to specialise in a specific approach, as well as being more agile and responsive, so that they’re able to do something more ‘out there’ than would normally come out of more traditional media organisations.

This is where Barney thinks you now find progressive thinking because these small, smart, multi-tasking/skilled companies understanding MADTech and the development of stories that get delivered through them. He thinks they are also coming at this from very different angles creatively. That’s why he thinks that it’s incumbent on media and creative to look at what’s happening in this space and try and find ways working with these smaller companies to figure out how their great work can be replicated at scale. The point he’s making is that winning the hearts and minds of customers is going to take more than just throwing mud at the wall via the programmatic and predictive technology algorithms hoping that something will stick, regardless of how attractive the simplicity and expediency of doing so might be.

I hope to be speaking to others about the issues raised by Barney above, as well as speak to him more about the other themes we discussed. In the meantime, you might also want to read the Top tips for social video success chapter by his former Unruly colleague David Waterhouse in the second edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketing ebook series I curate. Like Barney’s post on briefing killer viral content David’s chapter references research by Dr. Karen Nelson-Field at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science covered in her 2013 book Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a strategist, writer, and speaker, and is a Lecturer on both the BA (Hons) and MA Advertising courses at London College of Communication. Justin has a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He’s been writing about the impact of interactive technologies on business and marketing since the early 90s, and his books include ‘Connected Marketing: the viral, buzz and word of mouth revolution (2005) and the Best of Branded Content Marketing’ (BOBCM) series he conceived and has been curating since 2013. Justin also chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judges awards, and consults brands and agencies.