Collaboration: another business-bingo buzzword of the day? Or the key to brands’ and agencies’ survival? Can we just chuck cross-functional teams into the same pool and hope that somehow they’ll not just learn to swim, but deliver some synchronised feat of aquatic artistry together?
Let’s look at three areas of collaboration, trying to cover some of the big questions. Who. Why. How.
The first, most obvious, area is people & process. How we work and with whom. It’s commonplace that we now operate in a far more cross-functional, multidisciplinary way than before. We recognise that value can come from many places and be delivered by many media channels, in a way that yesteryear’s model didn’t allow. It’s only normal that we all sit together to imagine & deliver user experiences that work together, wherever someone chooses to engage with a brand.
But sometimes inspiration comes by including a more diverse perspective, beyond the one-person-per-agency regulars. I remember learning this lesson, twice.
The first time was in New York, 2001. My agency regularly used a clinical psychologist to conduct in-home interviews with our target audiences. Walking out of one interview, with a millionaire luxury cruise traveller in her penthouse overlooking Central Park, the psychologist turned to me & said: “It’s called inflation. What she felt back there. It’s how you feel when you’re in love. The sky is bluer, the sun is brighter. You’re taller, more beautiful. Everything’s somehow perfect, like your fondest memory. Talk to that feeling.”
We ran back to the agency & briefed the team based on that human insight. It saved us a month of research and I still remember the beautiful, resonant copy that was crafted for the campaign.
The second time was in a brand equity workshop for a L’Oréal skincare brand in Paris, where by far the most useful person in the room was the architect. He allowed us to appreciate & evaluate brand ideas & concepts through his architect’s understanding of shape, form and volume. He forced us all to think in a different way, re-appraising and revisiting our earlier assumptions, stepping out of the boundaries of our own, familiar, disciplines.
Beyond the diverse skills & perspectives we need to draw on today, how we work plays a huge part. To avoid drowning in the collaborative pool of confusion, how can we best inspire and guide teams to get to better outcomes faster? And how do we make sure that “many collaborators” doesn’t lead to projects fizzling out because “no-one owned them” after the exhilaration of the workshop subsides and everyone goes back to their day jobs?
Our team at Google, the ZOO*, has tried to answer this question. We took the design sprint model widely used by many teams today (including Google Ventures & engineering, product & UX), and tailored it specifically to the work we do with brand advertisers and their creative partners. We call it Machine SprintTM - “from problem to prototype”.
The key ingredients: working on a specific brief in a focused Sprint format, with all the key decision-makers from the brand, creative, media & production agency teams, plus our own teams with deep skills in Google tech (from analytics & insights to product & creative technology expertise). It’s nothing if not collaborative – cross-functional, cross-agency teams, cross-product & platform scope, cross-everything.
It’s amazing to see silos fall and the creative possibilities open up as different teams, like the digital department and the retail department of a client, start to imagine new user experiences that are neither “your idea” to resist, nor “my idea” to defend, but “our idea” to nurture & bring to fruition together. Emotional commitment matters in getting stuff done.
So beyond bringing in the voice of the user, we use prototyping and user testing in the Sprint, which fast-tracks the creative process so we can get live feedback on what works. For instance, we’ve involved children’s writers to craft stories for the Google Assistant; video editors to edit ad versions in real time; and YouTube creators to imagine formats & content ideas in one of our YouTube Spaces. This has proved to be one of the best forms of collaboration and we are able to move to tangible outputs in record time.
One Marketing Director walked out of day two of our Machine SprintTM with a working prototype of a Google Assistant experience, to help urban runners choose the best trainers for their needs. He could test it at home with his kids that evening. (It’s now built into the product pages of Nike.com )
By thinking together about how we’ll actually build and produce things after we leave the room, we up our hit rate. It’s that simple. We end each Machine SprintTM M with a session anticipating the barriers to success in getting the work live, then align an action plan to overcome these obstacles & a timeline with clear owners for each task.
So far it’s working well for us, for our clients and for their creative, media, and production partners – other teams will find their own collaborative models that work for them. The more innovative thinking, piloting & testing here, the better.
OK, so more collaboration across skills and perspectives equals better work with more chance of getting live. So far, so good.
The second major area of collaboration is technology itself.
In our ever-more-interconnected world, technology, data, signals, information, rich human stories hiding as numbers, our dreams, hopes & heroines... all these now flow across borders of physical & digital, across devices & platforms, across senses, as never before.
In his excellent book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, W. Brian Arthur tells us that “technologies are put together or combined from component parts or assemblies” - the combination principle where technology 3 = technology 1 + technology 2.
This core idea of technologies combining (collaborating) together is, I think, more at work today than ever before. Open source, open platforms, open programming languages. APIs, the way programs interface with each other, allow collaboration with fluidity at scale.
Take one humble, publicly-available technological data stream that we got the grip of in 325 BCE (AKA what time is it?) then combine it with another publicly-available technological data stream (the schedule of airplanes flying over Picadilly Circus in London) and bingo! You’ve got a Cannes Grand Prix-winning piece of magic on your hands for British Airways. Make tech collaborate the right way and you can create magical experiences that delight and wonder, as well as inform.
Think of tech in three buckets, if it helps. Input, process, output techs.
On the input side we can now collect, collate, compare, contrast - collaborate with - ever more data. This helps us decode the human stories hiding in the numbers, so we can inform the strategic choices we need to make.
Data is creativity’s best friend because, sorry Diesel, but it makes creativity smarter. Better understanding our users does compel us to craft content and experiences that are more relevant and meaningful for them, in context.
Being able to serve video content on YouTube based on someone’s individual Google Search queries means we can deliver exactly the content that users love the most, in that context.
If Content is still Queen, then Context is certainly a senior royal of some sort.
We can now analyse more data that ever, at scale and simultaneously in a hyper-local way. We’re able to ask one question at a national scale, but get answers at street level, thanks to creative new approaches to our data analytics, where first-party data collaborates with Google’s data perspective, unlocking new value for brands.
Next up, Process: how to make sense of all this data when there’s so much of it? How to get the tech out of the way to let the magic happen? One answer is to use the Cloud. The processing power of open source Cloud platforms like TensorFlow or Google Cloud Vision let us create seamless user experiences that can feel magical: just point your Android phone at something & your phone recognises what it is, invites you to find out more, watch a video or even click to buy it. These technologies help us interact - collaborate - with the physical world around us in new & exciting ways. Our environment becomes our interface...
As for Output technologies, this is now our creative toolkit. In a given week, our ZOO teams work on many products & tech platforms: YouTube, Display, Search of course, but also the Google Assistant, Project Jacquard, Waze, Maps, Daydream, AdLingo & more... Here as well, the silos are disappearing: we can go from watching a YouTube ad for Assassin’s Creed to playing the game on Stadia within five seconds, at one click. Livestream it back on YouTube at another. Life’s smoother when technologies collaborate like this, from the structure of technology itself all the way through to fluid UX.
My third big theme of collaboration involves the wider, cultural context.
If some brands thought they could soldier on by hammering home the old models of push marketing, one-size-fits-all messaging and scaled physical distribution deals, while ignoring the culture their consumers (that’s you & me, real people) live in and co-create, they’re rapidly wising up now.
They’re having to, not least because brands can’t survive outside of culture. Culture’s changing fast, and it’s enabled by technology.
People now connect their purchasing habits to issues like sustainability, diversity & inclusion, social and even political causes. Transparency via social media means that many more people care about, and are knowledgeable about, more things that brand owners have to worry about. The doormen at the Dorchester Hotel may claim to be only the friendly face of an inclusive brand, but the crowds outside beg to differ. Our collaborative cultural and media landscape now connects the retail or media property to brand purpose, and corporate practice, far more directly and rapidly.
This should encourage brands to stop talking at people & do more enjoying with them - based on understanding them better. You can’t collaborate with someone if you don’t know them or get their values.
Take Gillette with its recent We Believe ad. This is a brand which became so successful from the “old” ways of marketing that it’s tough for it to adapt to the new cultural realities. While I love the intention behind the ad in tackling toxic masculinity, I’m disappointed by the tonality of the execution. The “show- and-tell” narrative style & unsubtle repetition feels heavy- handed to me: still a brand-on-high talking at men, over- explaining the message (mansplaining even at men...)
Dollar Shave Club, Gillette’s cheeky upstart of a competitor, by contrast, gets everything right in terms of posture & cultural smarts. Get Ready, one of the most joyous, insightful and brilliant bits of film I’ve seen in years, is sheer genius, down to the soundtrack. They’ve nailed the key human insight of the category (men groom to get ready for something important - it’s a transformative psychological journey, not just a shave - they want to see themselves as heroes in the story they’re about to create) and brought it to life with wit, splendour, and empathy. Tenderness, not judgement. Validating and embracing the authentic glory that lies in each of us (even the weirdest) as we look in the mirror and see hope. We’re all weird when we’re drying our privates. But we’re all about to be reborn as heroes of our own lives. And that’s actually the best any man can be.
This is Nike’s Find Your Greatness, in the bathroom (and tub), only funnier. Like Nike, the Dollar Shave Club truly gets us as human beings, and we love them for it. From the value proposition to the purchase channel to the digital-first communications to the production and employment policies, to the self-deprecating humour, everything the brand does is with and for people, not at them.
Collaboration here means better connections with culture and communities. With human beings. With purpose. The big stuff. And look at the price tag Unilever put on that, or the slice of market share that Dollar Shave Club has taken from Gillette.
1. Collaborate via people & process. When we bring more diverse perspectives and skill sets together, and guide everyone through the process using an effective methodology, we foster emotional buy-in among teams and create more powerful, more relevant work with more chances of going live (and winning awards, btw...)
2. Collaborate via tech. When we align & combine the right technologies for our specific challenge, we build more compelling and fluid experiences, and can fast-track from ideation to user testing to production.
3.Collaborate via culture. When we connect brands with people and culture in a way that’s empathetic and feels genuine, we’ll forge more meaningful, longer-lasting bonds, with individuals and communities, at scale.
Thanks, collaboration. Works for me.