Why Brands Must Give as Much as They Take

Rocky Novak, director of digital development at Fallon Minneapolis, believes in focusing on the consumer, not the technology, as well as in building interactions between consumers and brands. Novak’s group is responsible for strategy, design, production, analytics and development for brands that include Cadillac, H&R Block, General Mills, Travelers and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. He spoke with Digiday about the value that brands must bring to consumers and how marketers must adapt to consumer behavior.

Explain your approach of “focusing on the consumer.” What makes it different from other agencies’ approaches?
I don’t think anyone has it totally figured out, but I think that’s what makes working in this space, in this industry, really interesting right now. For us, focusing on the consumer is the thing that mitigates a lot of the change. Focusing on people’s motivation and how they interact with an idea is a way for us to try to level the playing field a little bit. At Fallon, as a full-service agency, we have a long pedigree of really good planning. We have a strategic group at the agency that has informed how we do digital. We have a strong digital-strategy group that sits within the larger digital group, so beginning with a rigorous approach before you put pen to paper is absolutely necessary. The easy answer is, we have incredibly smart strategists in this building that help focus us on people and how they use technology. In a world where you can make whatever you want, that smart strategic element gives us a leg up.

What kind of value can, and should, brands provide consumers?
It is incumbent upon brands to make things people want and want to interact with, but it’s kind of circumstantial. Sometimes what users want from you is to be entertained; they want the big-brand idea or the long-format video because it’s something they care about and want to interact with with their friends. But sometimes they want you to get the hell out of the way. For Cadillac, for example, sometimes [the consumer] wants to see a certain shot of the car and get there in a seamless way that’s easy to navigate, and they want to jump into it with you. If you know what people want from your brand, you’re apt to give them something they think is valuable. If you know what people are looking for, you can provide the value you’re talking about. I think it’s about what people in each of those situations are looking for. We talk a lot about brand generosity, and what that means is, brands that give as much as they take. And in the digital, hyper-social, connected world, if you give users or consumers something they find of value, they’ll reciprocate by forwarding it to 10 people or posting it to their 500 friends to see. It doesn’t just go off into the ether; if you make something that people find valuable, they’ll show you by sharing that with people and becoming your medium.

How important is social media, really? Is it here to stay?
The short answer is very, and yes. The real point is, I think it’s more about behaviors that are now here to stay and less about social networks, per se. So Friendster makes way for MySpace, and it makes way for the world’s largest IPO in Facebook,  but that’s not the point. The point is that people are more comfortable sharing their worlds. And you have to understand the platforms to build ideas that make sense, but it’s that people are using it and feel it’s their right to talk about what you do, the ads and products you make, in a very visible way. It’s less about are social networks here to stay. It’s about the behavior is here to stay, and it changes what we do as marketers. We have spent the last 10 year sorting through it, and we’ll spend the next 10 years sorting though it. We have to get used to that; historically, we were just talking at people.

Where is the line between creative and media, and what is the challenge in blurring it?
This is funny because it’s a line that consumers don’t see or, frankly, care about. And the biggest challenge in that world is agencies and marketers that have departments and functional specialties within them. It’s up to us to get out of our own way and build ideas that people are interested in interacting with and that people are excited to see when they run across them. If we do our jobs right, people won’t be able tell what is the creative part of the idea and what is the media part. Fallon has a deep history in connection planning; we invented it. That’s the role of that discipline to blur those lines and bring the disciplines together. For us, the way you get around it is planning for an idea and not a channel or medium. So it’s not a digital idea; it’s just an idea. You have to have enough people who can execute it in all of its forms so people can’t tell where it came from. So if it started as a TV idea, it should feel seamless to consumers. The example I use is dated but useful — the Whopper Sacrifice. Burger King did this thing that if you got rid of five to 10 of your Facebook friends, they would give you a free Whopper. That insight wasn’t about Burger King; it was that people would do anything for a Whopper. Someone said, ‘You have 500 Facebook friends; are those really all friends?” It came from a media insight — sometimes the insight will be about media, the consumer or the brand — but if the idea is right, the consumer will never be able to tell.

You tech a digital marketing class at the University of Minnesota. Since digital marketing is constantly changing, what can you teach today’s students that will really help them in their careers in the years ahead?
This is why it’s a difficult class to teach. It’s hard to find a good textbook, because the idea of printing a textbook that keeps pace with this is tough, and the curriculum has to be constantly updated. The way we teach the class, the biggest takeaway is that good marketers understand people and can execute good ideas. Every lesson we teach doesn’t come from a platform place; it comes from a what-people-want kind of place. The week we teach website design, we don’t get into whether flash is dead. We talk about personal development and who will use your website and what they’ll look for from the experience. We teach the class from a strategic point of view. If you can identify motivation and what people want, then you can execute the coolest ideas. We hope we are arming them with tools to be good modern marketers and, second, to be good in digital. If this is a world you want to get in and you’re excited by getting into advertising and marketing, you might wake up. Google has launched Google Plus, and you have to react and tailor what your brand needs to be on those new platforms. What surprises me is, these students are hustlers; they already have two or three side businesses. It’s a thing we’ve had to teach ourselves, but they don’t see it that way; it’s how they have lived where three new things come out every week, so they are more apt — if they can get the hard-core marketing skills — to deal with it than we were when we came out of school. Because of how connected everyone is, and if you really do know consumers well and give them the right idea, the cool thing about our jobs is we can affect culture, be a thing that consumers pass around and advocate for on your behalf. It’s super-complicated and can be hard because everything moves so fast, but if you’re passionate about it, it’s a pretty fun world to be in the middle of, and there’s a lot of people trying to figure it out.