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How to cultivate human connections

"There's a disconnect between creative agencies and media agencies" says Laila Mignoni, global creative excellence director at Bacardi

"People’s time is their most precious commodity. In every piece of communication that we make, are we giving them something special? Are we giving them something that adds value?" So says Anush Prabhu, chief strategy officer, North America, Mediacom.

Speaking at a Campaign-and-WarnerMedia-hosted discussion, Prabhu knows brands need to add value with their content. The collective voices of brand, media and creative leaders established that in a world where content is king, queen and ace card, brands should seek to maximise human connections formed around human passions.

But how do you harness these passions to create powerful communities?

"We think about it from the inside out," explains Molly Battin, chief corporate marketing and brand strategy officer, WarnerMedia. "We tell diverse stories to impact culture in a positive way."

By way of example, Battin cites the WarnerMedia CNN documentary about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "I bought my 12-year-old daughter with me to watch live-screening previews; it was such a connection point," says Battin. "She now has t-shirts with the slogan: ‘What would RBG do?’"

For Battin, telling stories that resonate with audiences is a key brand differentiator. It’s a popular viewpoint. 

Bodyform – says KJ Weir, Facebook’s group head, creative agency partnerships – with its ‘blood normal’ campaign, is a perfect example. "I thought it was phenomenal and still do," she says. "I was having conversations about my health that I would never have had otherwise." Not only did the campaign have a completely different look and feel, explains Weir, it achieved its purpose of destigmatising menstruation while creating consumer bonds.

The integrated campaign, which earned the Glass Lion for Change Grand Prix at Cannes 2018, included vignettes tackling period shame, stand-up comedy and red blood rather than the blue liquid usually used to signify menstrual fluid. But the brand wasn’t simply out to shock and wasn’t even solely consumer-focused. It also ran a programme of visits into schools, teaching young boys and girls about menstruation.

What lies beneath
"The Bodyform campaign was about doing things at grass-roots’ level because most people can smell bullshit if your brand is not actually doing it," says Alice ter Haar, senior manager, EU marketing at Deliveroo. "We have got to get underneath and use the data at our fingertips. We need more purposeful marketing as it has a huge impact on the brand."

Using data to create more meaningful marketing rather than media overload is key, and marketers are "doing a much better job of speaking to their audiences" says Donna Speciale, president of advertising sales at WarnerMedia.

"Data is allowing us to know a lot more about the consumer and is helping us to create better content because we have more insights," says Speciale.

But some were unconvinced about the industry’s ability to harness data to create or reach powerful and passionate communities.

"The data takes us to a very individualised world," explains Prabhu, "and we are just not set up for that. How do you create for that as opposed to uniting people around a similar interest?"

Laila Mignoni, global creative excellence director at Bacardi, said: "The creative agencies haven’t caught up with where they need to be. They need to be creating so many different iterations of content. There’s a disconnect between the creative agencies and the media agencies. We need to have a media conversation with the creative agency."

Rewriting the boundaries
Not everyone accepted this but there did agree that content created does need to tailor to how it’s delivered, and often needs to be of a higher standard in terms of production values.

"We’re all making too much content and not enough of it is good," argues Weir. "The content has to be fit for the medium. The brand needs to be associated with the right platform."

John Mescall, global executive creative director, McCann, went even further, "There’s one thing worse than a shitty short-form piece of content and that’s a shitty long-form piece of content. We’re competing against brilliance that people happily pay money to watch. The freedom we had to create anything we want is gone. Just because we can make anything doesn’t mean we should. There was an art to ‘it must be 15 seconds long’. And now that it can be whatever you like, it’s a wonderful freedom, but we have to write some new boundaries for ourselves."

With the effect of media overload becoming increasingly apparent in terms of people’s relationships, social lives and wellbeing, how can marketers navigate their way through and build content that enhances lives and brand effectiveness?

"The brands that do it right flip the question," says Weir. "How do you turn passionate communities into your consumers? You have to go all-in because consumers are so sceptical and can have all the answers in seconds."

According to Harvard Business School, explains ter Haar, employees will be three times more productive if they work for a company whose values they’re aligned to. "So, let’s imagine how this ethos can translate to branding, and leveraging brand effectiveness."

Weir says: "I’d love to get to a point where the index of the 100 top companies includes companies who are doing their best to reduce ocean plastic waste. Narrative format has changed so much in the past few years. In a world where we need and want these stories, how do you deliver them in a very short format on the right platform?"

The segmentation of content is a tricky topic for most marketers, and a burning issue is how to balance reach in terms of numbers with resonance in terms of personalisation.

While MediaCom’s Prabhu points out that 85% of branded content gets less than 2000 views, Weir counters: "But if they’re the right 2000 people, if they’re the people who you really want to reach, then surely that’s everything? Isn’t that how brands grow?"

Only the brave
Mescall cites the London and New York ‘fearless girl’. Launched in honour of International Women’s Day, McCann worked with State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) to introduce fearless girl to the world – a statue of a daring young girl, standing strong, because, says SSGA, companies with women in leadership perform better. The Fearless Girl was installed on Wall Street in the middle of the night and became a global phenomenon within 24 hours.

"Fearless girl wasn’t fearless girl until it became fearless girl," says Mescall. "It was an average brief for a financial services company that could have been a shit piece of content that got them only 2000 views. But it’s more about the impact, because we can reach all the people we want, but they have to be the right people. And now with all the data at our fingertips, we are doing a much better job of getting to who the target audience is, and what will add value to their lives."

From the deep to the shallow
But, it seems creating attention-demanding high-octane content like ‘fearless girl’ may be the exception rather than the norm. Prabhu says a study around the psychology of children and technology, comparing their usage and attention levels with scuba diving versus jet-skiing.

"Back in the day it was more like diving, where they really paid attention to one piece of content; whereas now it’s more like being on a jetski and their brains are being converted to skim over information really quickly."

The session left with a challenge: how can marketers help consumers navigate today’s ocean of content to locate their most relevant pearls of wisdom?  

How to create higher value content...

  • "Use music – it’s a great connector." Laila Mignoni, global creative excellence director, Bacardi Global

  • "Ask: what is the story I want to tell and who is the best person I can work with to tell that story?" Ben Wicks, global brand director, Cadbury's

  • "Make it vertical. It’s got to work on Stories." KJ Weir, group head, creative agency partnerships, Facebook

  • "Put the consumer at the centre." Anush Prabhu, chief strategy officer, North America, Mediacom

  • "Actively try polarising people." John Mescall, global executive creative director, McCann

  • "Be sensitive to the customer experience." Bill Kanarick, global customer leader, EY

  • "Ask how your stories direct people and culture?" Molly Battin, chief corporate marketing and brand strategy officer, WarnerMedia

  • "What do you want people to feel, think and then do?" Alice ter Haar, senior manager, EU Marketing, Deliveroo

  • "Make the content more about the audience and not about the brand." Andy Holton, head of creative strategy, Pinterest

  • "Be relevant to what’s going on out there and tell their stories." Simon Deverell, co-founder & creative director, Crowdfunder

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