Free Agent: A Cart With No Horse

We need a social media program." Ever heard that one? Or this: "Let's get a mobile strategy pulled together." In the pressure to be (or at least appear) current in today's onslaught of new-media opportunities, many in our profession are finding themselves making or receiving channel dictates like this - which is fine, as long as one critical criterion has been met beforehand: the core idea has been cracked.

This point seems obvious: of course you need to know what you're trying to communicate before figuring out how, when and where to communicate it. But experience, as well as observation of what and who are hot in our industry right now, suggests that many people see no problem with debating and even choosing communications channels without determining what on earth is being communicated.

First, I should make two clarifications. By "core idea" I don't necessarily mean creative idea. It can be a TV storyboard or print layout, but it also might be something more conceptual. I also don't particularly care who comes up with it - it could be a creative team, the media people or the janitor, for that matter. The point is, whatever the heck you're trying to get across should be known before investments are parceled out across media channels.

Second, I'm not suggesting that media should go back to its former position at the end of the assembly line, waiting for The Suits in Charge to decide it's time for the recommendation to be priced out. What I'm saying is that there can be no assembly line today - the fusion of media and message is now so complete as to make the separation of the two completely anachronistic. It's no more right to start with channel selection, absent a message idea, than it was all those years developing campaigns with no thought toward media except for the assumption of TV.

And there's the rub. There are people in this industry making lots of noise - and money - determining channels with no regard to the core communications idea.

So-called "communications strategy" groups are savvy enough not to admit that they put channel selection before the core idea, but time and again that's what they do. Through brilliant salesmanship and the use of impressive-on-first-glance tools, they propose to clients a range of communications channels without regard to what is being communicated. They talk valiantly of "communication in full color" (and other euphemisms for "as many new-media channels as we can cram down your throats") while blithely ignoring the practical reality that the channels will work better or worse depending on the idea at the center of the communication.

For example: the heralded "Real Women" campaign by Dove. Not only did this effort win praise for its bold depiction of realistic women's bodies, but for its new-media applications too. The "Evolution" viral video, in particular, built huge industry buzz and won this year's Grand Prix at Cannes. Do you honestly believe the Dove team could have arrived at something so compelling had it started from the perspective of "we need a viral idea" rather than "how do we celebrate real beauty?" The idea - to challenge mass media's manufacturing of unrealistic beauty role models - is what dictated viral video as the medium, not the other way around.

Another case caught my eye earlier this year. A team faced with the substantial challenge of advertising a competitor to the iPod took a very smart turn: rather than oppose the 500-pound gorilla, they decided to appeal to the predictable backlash group who loved to hate the iPod. By creating what appeared to be a homegrown, underground anti-iPod movement, they captured momentum and sales far greater than their media budget otherwise could have. Had they started with a channel analysis, I seriously doubt they would have come up with graffiti as a primary medium.

The core idea can - and should - determine the most effective investment across channels. Yet despite how obvious that may seem to many of us, our industry's headlines and new-business win records are reporting another reality. Sadly, channel-centric, idea-vacant thinking, cleverly packaged as New-Age Communications Strategy, has never been hotter.

Lisa Seward is the founder of Mod Communications, a strategic media consultancy. (

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