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Interview With Smithery Founder Mr John V Willshire: Part II

31st January 12

After Part I last Friday, which foraged largely outside the parameters of brands and marketing, this post – the final and second part of our interview with John Willshire (@willsh), founder of Smithery – comes back closer to home to discuss the future of advertising, what’s stopping brands universally adopting better marketing practices and ‘Real Marketing’ … along the way taking in cargo cults, starting fires and Doctor Who.

BBH Labs: In the past you’ve used a bonfires and fireworks analogy to describe the difference between advertising and social, and more recently we’ve debated what we at BBH call “Super Bowl, Super Social” on your blog. We can’t help but think (great) advertising will have a role in people’s lives for a good while yet, for the simple reason that good marketing acts as a persuasive shorthand for choice and news in a world increasingly flooded with terabytes of irrelevant information. And we’ve had the likes of Eric Schmidt speaking recently about advertising becoming super-relevant and connected in future. What’s your view on the future of advertising? Is there one?

JW: I think your point about the persuasive shorthand matters, and redefining the story that advertising is going to tell.  When I was thinking more about the media planning side of advertising, it was useful to simplify it to two things, activity & phasing; what we should do, when we should do it.

So Bonfires & Fireworks is the what – never really an either/or choice, as companies still need to do social bonfires and advertising fireworks together to make each work.

The when of doing both together, the phasing, is crucial.

What the social bonfire piece allows you to do is, as a company, do noteworthy things that are amazing for your customers, for your employees, with your products, whatever… let the real human stories and triumphs emerge.

Then, after that, you can then tell the story of that.  And if you want to tell that story with scale and immediacy, there is no better way to tell that story than in advertising.

The crucial difference is that advertising is no longer the thing you do, it’s the story of the things you’ve done.

BBH Labs: Brands ‘becoming more human’ is a common theme at Smithery, reminding us of The Clue Train Manifesto (we’re fans).  Nonetheless, will there come a point in time when we’re sick to death of brands trying to be “just like us”?

I think if we were going to become sick to death of people, we’d have all died in solitude about 5000 years ago.

But perhaps brands should be aspiring to be known as a collective.  ‘The people who…’, the folk at…’, ‘the guys that made…’.

It’s increasingly how people talk about brands anyway, and it’s the theme of my favourite thesis from Cluetrain, number 84 -

“We know some people from your company. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?”

On a slight tangent, it’s strange to think that Cluetrain is now, what, 12 years old?  13?  Everyone thought it’d change the world in five years.  And yet here we still are, slowly plodding along.

It’s Amara’s Law, I suppose: “…overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run…”

*KLAXON SOUNDS… predictable technology quote bingo alert*

BBH Labs: Yet all too often ‘human’ gets interpreted by organisations and their agencies as ‘universally approachable FB-speak’ (I just made that up). What’s your advice for brands here?

That’s what we might tire of, going back to your previous point.

The overfriendly mateyness of social network conversation, where some poor marketing junior is told to be the ‘voice of the brand’ (within strict parameters) which essentially adds to typing thousands of words whilst avoiding saying anything.

That’s not ‘being human’.  That’s live, largely unskilled copywriting.

And yes, you can hire agencies to do that for you, and it’ll be better.  But it’s not making the most of the connections you could be creating.

If all you want people to bother doing is to come along and give you a little pat on the back for doing what you’ve done as a company for the last fifty years, then Facebook’s perfect for that.

Oh, I like that. It’s fine. OK. Satisfactory.

I do wonder if Facebook got rid of fans because weren’t enough great companies, products and services out there worthy of fandom?

You wouldn’t be a fan of a shitty generic lager, for instance, but you might like something they did.  The like lets the whole world damn you with faint praise… you can like a page, leave, and never have to look it again.

Which is what happens on the majority of Facebook pages.  The numbers vary, but the last thing I saw suggested that Facebook pages only reach 17% of people who’ve liked those pages.

And yet far too often, likes and friends pop up as things to actively measure success or failure by.  Just because the numbers exist, suddenly they’re something to judge entire marketing efforts by.  It’s causing way more problems for clients & agencies than it is offering solutions.

Its this climate that might’ve prompted Richard to write this the other day:

“The involvement of most brands and in the social media lives of the public remains clumsy, inept and disrespectful. Driven, it seems, by a profound misunderstanding of our place in this world, our importance in people’s lives and the basic question that we should have learned a long time ago ‘why would anyone give a fuck?’ As my girlfriend incredulously remarked over the Christmas break, ‘how sad do you have to be to ‘like’ a brand on Facebook?’

BBH Labs: Yep. It strikes us that too many brands look at the social web as another “channel” to broadcast in. They adopt cargo cult behaviour: “Let’s have a conversation!” Versus let’s listen and then add value. The worst examples are just creating white noise 24/7, 365 days of the year. How do you reckon this is all going to end?

It’s fascinating how many “Facebook is too polluted” posts and articles seem to be around.  And a lot of that pollution is caused by brands, who’re also the main source of revenue for Facebook.

The source of the cash is detrimental to the product; it was claimed last year that 89% of Facebook’s revenue is from advertising.

There’s two pieces worth reading.  There’s something in the Uncrunched post “Nobody goes to Facebook anymore.  It’s too crowded” that rings true.

Facebook have got a marvellous platform there.  But they should let people have a fresh go at starting again.  Or make it very easy to defriend lots of people at once, so you can easily refocus it to be as useful to YOU as possible, not as useful to Facebook in how many links you might click on.

The joy of using Path at the moment is in making fresh tracks in the untouched powder of a new social network.  Which in that slightly haphazard snowboarding analogy, makes Facebook the bottom of lifts where you can’t move for bloody skiers…

Source: New York Times

The second interesting piece is this one on Colony Collapse, which looks at the parallels of bee colonies to what happens in social networks…

“When a power user departs a social network, the hundreds of thousands of ties, however weak, collapse, and so at scale the whole infrastructure begins to collapse, and the social network begins to die. This is directly what happened with MySpace, which remains a desperate shell, an empty husk of what it once was.”

So, if you have less ‘power users’ and more ‘white noise’ from brands as you put it, it’s a less desirable place to be, and the energy disappears.

And with increased pressure post-IPO to make money for Facebook shareholders… well, there’s a chance that Facebook could go exactly the same way as Myspace, Friendster, Friends Reunited… the list goes on.

BBH Labs: So what should brands do about it?

If your social strategy disappears because Facebook disappears, then you probably never had a proper social strategy in the first place.

The temptation with a lot of brand social projects to date has been to write one big, central narrative – let’s crack THE THING that EVERYONE will want to PARTICIPATE in, and throw all energy and resource behind it in our marketing campaign.

When really, it shouldn’t be one thing, it should be LOTS of things (“Light many Fires”, as my good friend Mark Earls says).

And they should be from all around the company, not just concocted by the Marketing Department and their agencies.  Think about this:

“Real Marketing cannot be thought of as a department activity.  It is a matter of harnessing all of the company’s resources to satisfy customers, and of linking what the customer wants with what the company is (or can become).”

That’s not new thinking.  It’s from Stephen King’s 1985 paper “Has Marketing Failed, or was it Never Really Tried” (I found it through Simon Clemmow’s Admap piece).

If you think about the connections it’s possible to make between people internally and customers externally now, well, King would have a field day.

Interestingly, of the four essential aspects of Real Marketing that King proposed, the second one was ‘Working Over Time’.  The whole point of proper marketing was to make it “a little easier to be successful in the future than at present”.

I think maybe Stephen King wouldn’t have had any truck with the notion of “social bonfires”.  He’d have probably just called it “Real Marketing”.

BBH Labs: Looking into 2012, what are you excited about?

Well, we’re expecting a second child in June.  So THAT, for one.

Work wise, it’s continuing to debate and discuss things like this, for one.  Where does brand meet community, are they at some level the same thing, and therefore how do we create definitions that help companies get better at marketing.  I’m sure that’ll be solved by May…

Then there’s a ferociously bright and talented bunch going through the IPA Excellence Diploma (created by BBH’s Nick Kendall, of course).  They’ll be writing their 7,000 word dissertations through the summer, which will no doubt serve up enough inspiration for a lifetime.

Interestingly, a lot of my in-house projects and current client work is about exploring the links between pixels and bits, where things becomes digital services, and digital services become actual things.

And as always, I’m excited about the project that appears over the horizon and completely contradicts everything we’ve talked about…

…but that’s half the fun, isn’t it?  To quote Doctor Who – “do what I do; hold tight and pretend it’s a plan…”

John is @willsh on twitter, and blogs at http://smithery.co/blog. You can read Part I of our interview with John here.

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