Schbang just published an open letter on Instagram urging fellow agency folk to ditch the 'trending' format of social media campaigns. Here's why.
The letter we wrote has really “trended” and I can’t begin to explain how much I’m LOL-ing to myself while writing this. This was about a monster we created, so, well, we had to talk about killing it. “We” being all of us in the digital world. The way it has shaken things up, I thought it was perfect timing to tell you the backstory to this letter. It’s an interesting one.
“Following Trends” is one of the first things taught to digital marketers today when they enter the gates of hell (the agency). Over time, catching it early “brings joy” and brownie points. It is about being aware of what people are talking about, listening to the consumer, like an always-on market research piece. If you listen carefully, it will tell you about their likes, dislikes, desires, fears and what not. With this information, make content for that audience which resonates loud and clear. It was quite simple.
A few months back, there was this sudden spurt in “same format” posts. That was a time when certain individual accounts, or meme pages, started something interesting. Agencies would catch it going viral, suggest a version to the brand and try to latch on to the trend. It was still fun then. Some popular first ones were the Really Really Post, The Meme Venn Diagram, For This For That on Instagram, and so on.
After a while, it became a cycle. A “format” trends, everyone makes their versions using the SAME hashtag, and at the end of the day, there is a mini hall-of-fame style showcase. And, God forbid if your post didn’t make the cut. Internal rivalries flourished as a result of this. It was amusing, really, because what was the brand really making out of this?
It became frustrating for agency teams since this took away the focus from true brand voice and creativity. Mimicking a format was becoming more important than originality. We were all celebrating a soft form of plagiarism. Just because we needed to maintain engagement rates, at whatever cost. And, of course, organic reach in the time of paid promotions. Clients were happy. That digital team is getting “earned media” when the showcase happens. They were not wrong in their place. We never conditioned them to fight the FOMO.
The bigger worry was how young teams were thinking. The core discussion in brainstorms was to crack a format that could trend, and not tell the brand story or message. For once, people stopped thinking about the most important person in this industry – the consumer.
It had killed creativity. Or rather suppressed it. (Creativity can neither be created nor destroyed.) I am sure young creatives in other teams have sneered at, mocked, felt frustrated about copying a current trending format, just so your brand doesn’t get left out.
In the process, the planning team’s calendar went for a toss. Dominoes falling.
I once posed a scenario internally.
Imagine you receive a video brief. You look at the latest trending video. Make your brand’s version of the same script, changing names, few dialogues and the end slate. Use the same hashtag, though. Send it proudly to the client saying this is on the lines of another brand’s trending format, please approve as it will get us likes and comments.
What happens? Yeah. Exactly.
Why should the expectation be lower on/from digital?
We needed some data, something to prove to ourselves first that we need to stop doing this now. We’re very ‘khurafati’ like that. We like to break things to see if they get put back together the same way. So, we thought, what if we started the trend? Can we control this? If we were successful, it would give us enough firepower to reduce the craving to trend without direction. We started with the Password Trend, Shortest Distance, and so on. Here, I’d like to give a big shoutout to our equally exciting client partners. They gave us the support we needed. The more it trended, the more we were convinced that this had to be curbed in some way. The engagement was real, nothing staged. But only the first post was truly original.
And then one fine evening, we decided. Let’s write a letter.
The big win for us as, an industry, is the response this letter has got. Everyone has unanimously supported it. Which means, well, we were all thinking this inside. Collectively, our people are clearly hungry to do “better” work. We just had to have their back. Some of the work our teams have done on brands like Fevicol and Unacademy are testament to the psyche of listening intently (to the consumer) and then creating content (for that consumer).
A lot of the talk about strategy and ideation will not be heard on public platforms. It’s a trade secret in a way. But the fundamentals of advertising will not change with new mediums. I am very excited to see how the industry responds in terms of the work that will come now. Let there be more celebration of real insights. There is no formula to getting great engagement. There is no substitute for the elusive creature that is “consumer insight”. There is only hope for great craft.
I've said enough and the industry people really don't need to be told more. Samajhdaar hain, ishaara kaafi tha.
I go back to the words of the great adman with the huge moustache...
Pakde rehna, yaaron. Chhodna nahin!
(The author is business head, Schbang Bangalore and ECD, Schbang, an integrated marketing agency.)