We Are The Mad Men Now: Co-Creation In Advertising

by Alessia Manzoni

It is strange how people don’t really think about advertising. As something that touches our lives every day, you would imagine more of us would take a moment to think about how and by whom it is created.

Things changed in 2007 when the role of the advertising mastermind was popularised by the character Don Draper in the successful television show Mad Men.

Set in the 1960s, the controversial series depicted a group of well-off men boozing their way through creative meetings and hot dates. It made us think about executives as careless creative stars who shape our interests and buying instincts behind closed doors.

In reality, it’s not only Don Draper’s cigarette-fuelled chauvinism that is obsolete nowadays. Even the creative process has changed a great deal, especially in the past two decades.

An often quoted Don Draper proverb is: “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

But in the era of social media, when everyone creates their own content and plays the leading role in their own personal show, the Mad Men model of advertising is no longer effective.

“Now there is an expectation from younger generations that the walls between them and brands are far more porous than they have ever been,” says Tom Kenyon, Head of Insights and Research at Latimer, a creative agency in London.

“If we have a problem with something, we can tweet the company directly, and at the same time see everyone else’s tweets as well.”

The direct line that social media has created between brands and their audience has changed the way ads and campaigns are designed. Collaborative forms of campaign designs such as co-creation have become increasingly popular.

The idea behind co-creation is that instead of just being asked what we want, we as consumers are directly involved in shaping the campaign targeted to us. Imagine sitting around a table with a group of peers, recruited to represent the audience the brand wants to communicate to, and unleashing your creativity by designing your own advertising campaign.

Co-creation 3 - Alessia
Picture by Esan Swan

“We don’t expect completely unqualified people to do our job, but people have  needs and opinions that are better expressed through creative processes than they would be through straight questions and answers,” Kenyon says.

Some companies have decided to shift to co-created ads to make sure that the final campaign is closer to what consumers really want. One of these companies is Unilever, famous for its acclaimed campaigns such as Dove’s “Real Beauty” ads,  which celebrated inclusivity in the beauty industry. Unilever has been integrating co-creation in their strategy for the past seven years.

“When you as a brand rely on a traditional advertising agency, you go through the steps of briefing them, then they come up with an idea, then you look at what it is and launch it, hoping the people are going to like it,” says Vittorio Cerulli, Global Insights Business Partner at Unilever.

“All these steps increase the chance you’re going to miss the mark and not engage your audience in a meaningful way. Just like Chinese whispers, the message might get distorted. But if your final end user is also your creator, it’s more likely that the campaign will be meaningful to them.” 

Trying Non-Traditional Forms of Advertising

Brands have also started relying on other non-traditional forms of advertising. Influencers have become central in the strategies of brands, especially those that mostly cater to millennials and the younger generations.

Some strategists even believe that influencer marketing is nothing but another form of co-creation: influencers know how to properly address their niche audiences, speaking the same language and sharing the same values.

Being so popular, influencer marketing raises some important ethical questions. The results of the report Under The Influence by Prizeology show that 44 per cent of the UK population think that the phenomenon is damaging society.

Managing director Sarah Burns believes it is all up to the concept of trust: “People don’t generally mind being marketed to as long as they know that it is happening, but no one wants to feel they’re being duped and if influencers and brands don’t disclose their collaboration they are in fact duping the public.”

In fact, 66 per cent of the public said their perception of a brand actually improved when it was transparent about its influencer marketing.

Social media platforms have drawn us closer to the brands we consume in our everyday lives. We talk about them online, so we are the ones who control their final message. By being involved in the creative process, we help to shape their communication choices.

Matilde, an Italian 18-year-old student, has been involved in the creation of a campaign to support social inclusion among young people, promoted by a famous ice-cream company.

“I like the fact that they gave us this possibility, choosing the ideas and the people we wanted. Bullying is a big problem and by asking us it felt like they care.” 

Featured Image by rawpixel on Unsplash

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