Due to bad timing, the one essay we lost through the process of finalising the book, was the essay by Nik Roope (Poke London) and Iain Tait (Wieden & Kennedy) on Compression. They felt that once we got closer to publishing the book it was a little out of date and alas they did not have time to update it. However still thought it was worth sharing here. Iain & Nik, hope to get you into the next book:

In the good old days the relationship between products and advertising were clear and well defined. The product was made to meet a perceived need. Smart advertising people identified a specific USP. Then advertising shouted about it as loud as it possibly could, at as many people as it could, for as long as it could.

Television advertising not only provided big business with a mouthpiece for their messages and manipulations, it also provided a conveniently distilled practice that could be considered and commissioned separately from the operational concerns of making things and getting them into the hands of customers. Ads could be an afterthought and the good ones still worked very well under this arrangement.

In this controlled media environment you are safe as an advertiser; you’re the only one who can afford the viewer’s attention and in a channelled world no-one else can join up and surface the consumer’s real experiences.

The advertiser controlled the airwaves, the consumer was helpless and thus products and brands didn’t have to listen (and learn). The only time we heard about consumers’ experiences was when we were being told that 8/10 people with cats who bought a certain brand of cat food thought that their cats liked it more than the alternatives.

This set-up allowed for very poor products and services to survive. The distance between message, purchase and experience was sufficient in time and disjointed enough in context to conceal huge inconsistencies, gulfs between promise and delivery.

For example, Brand X Washing Powder gets advertised as washing much whiter than Brand Y (which you currently use). Next time you’re in the supermarket you remember that Brand X is the answer to all your whiteness woes, so you pick up a pack and take it home. When Brand Y runs out you make the switch. And you’ll never guess what, Brand X is OK. It washes clothes to the point where they’re clean enough.

But what happens when Brand Z tells you that your clothes need to be softer? Or smell more like Alpine Forests, or Lemons? Or that there’s hidden dirt that even your eyes can’t see and your nose can’t smell? Time to switch again. And there’s enough gap between promise and experience to mean that you don’t feel really conned. And everything is pretty much good enough anyway, isn’t it?

So why has the world changed if this proven set-up is so convenient for everyone? What sickness has beleaguered the previously obedient herds of consumers and forced a bottom up reappraisal not only of methods but the whole philosophy driving brands, businesses and their communications?

The answer of course is the internet.

The web has changed two key elements of the arrangement, but like pulling the wrong Jenga blocks out of the stack, it’s rendered the whole tower a bit wobbly.

The first of these changes is the hard wiring and turbo charging of word of mouth by communities and bloggers, the ant hill built by reviewers, raters, recommenders and ranters that force their feedback into places outside the boundaries of commercial control.

Unlike ever before a user’s response has become applied and amplified through organised, integrated, google-friendly blogs and sites that often have the pulling power of only the previously dominant networks. This is very good news if your company has something good to offer but it’s very bad news if you don’t

The second significant shift is the compression of events between the promise and the purchase. In the Brand X Washing Powder example it’s a series of days or weeks between the moment the buyer was inspired by an advertiser’s message to the purchase and finally to the experience of the product itself, the proof.

Online, especially in the realms of digital products and services, this process can take a few seconds, a review or ad leading to a buy page, downloading, installing and using in a few fluid steps. The consumer is in the same mindset and context, they remember the story they were sold because it was only seconds ago. Any gaps or discrepancies stick out like a sore thumb in this otherwise frictionless chain.

So what does this mean to the web creative? What questions does this leave us to answer? What are the borders of our domain? Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to be designing product, other times it’s advertising. For some of us it’s building retail spaces, or customer service facilities, or relationship management. All things that fundamentally affect the relationship of the new consumer with the new brand.

Exciting times. And surely our changing roles should be the source of our inspiration as the walls of our playpen are extended out and new toys and challenges emptied in. It no longer makes sense to treat our work as an afterthought, something to spread on already baked bread: our work has become the bread’s ingredients and the controls on the oven that bakes it. Even sometimes the idea of the loaf itself.

The answer is in building brands from the ground up, listening brands that inspire through the ideas they take to market and adapt in the reflection of the user’s response. This requires us to consider that what we offer the consumer are journeys as opposed to interventions. And that means that, creatively, we have to think beyond discrete elements: we’re throwing the party not just making the drinks.

Everything communicates so in a medium more intimate than most we must also craft these journeys so disjoints don’t surface to undermine a user’s motivations or a brand’s story. This requires a creativity that, on one hand can imagine or inspire and on the other smooth and match the joins between each click.

It’s something that not all agencies are cut out to do. And it’s not always the thing they want to do either. If you view your work as art, sometimes the cold hard realities of commerce and business are a huge turn-off. Equally if you’re in ‘the business’ to make a certain kind of product, whether it’s advertising, short films, games or widgets you have be ready to take a knock or two. Sometimes what you do might not always be the right answer.

Which is why we need to learn to collaborate more and better. It’ll be impossible to have all the people under one roof that might be able to do everything that you might ever need to do for a client. But where collaboration falls down at the moment is where people try to cling on too tightly. It’s important to be able to work with experts, and treat them like experts. Encouraging them to make things the best they can be, not forcing them to make things the way that you think they should be.

As well as collaborators, agencies need to attract, hire and breed other kinds of people. Problem solvers. Generalists. Entrepreneurs. Inventors. People who understand business. People who understand people. People who can learn and adapt quickly. People who don’t sit comfortably inside the boxes that they’re given to sit in.

But perhaps most importantly of all we need to look at how we interact with ‘real people’. We can’t talk at them any more. We have to speak with them. And consider all the ways they can access and fiddle with our products and our brands.

It’s not easy right now. In fact its really really difficult. But trying to figure out how the new world works is sort of fun too.