Mark Pollard – The Future of Advertising Is Inside-Out

Mark Pollard, VP Brand Strategy, Big Spaceship

Remember when you were young and everyone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? And how, if you hesitated, your parents answered for you and, over time, their answers became your answers? (Because they wanted you to have good self-esteem.) And, do you remember the specific moment when you realized that – unlike how many previous generations thought – being wouldn’t be an end-point – and it certainly wasn’t a job title?

That’s the challenge with questions about the future. The future never is. It never stops. It never lets you catch up. It just does. And then it keeps on doing.

That’s why we don’t obsess about what advertising will be when it grows up. Instead, we focus on what it will do: tell stories and help people, while helping businesses make money. The former, evolution has built into us; the latter, evolution is about to wire back into businesses. The days of creating something that people don’t need (or that hurts people) and yelling at them about it from the rooftops so that they buy it are waning. These businesses will soon be space junk.

So, while our company focus is on the pixel where products and communication meet (where products tell stories and communication is useful), our real obsession is people – our people. We obsess over what advertising will look like on the inside – not the outside. We believe that if we create the right context and pose the right questions then our inside will shape the outside that we’re striving for – that pixel.

Let’s start with context. Every business’s context starts with its culture – ours is ambitious yet quirky, introverted and empathic. Our company values call us to collaborate with our clients and within our teams while making exceptional stuff and taking care of each other.

To make collaboration happen, we sit in cross-functional teams including people from design, technology, strategy and production. This means that there are no departments and minimal explicit hierarchy – unlike more established agencies where mini-empires can allow Ponzi schemes and bad behavior to sprout. The teams have names and birthing rituals – think margaritas and Mariachi bands – and teams will see a project through from start to finish. We have business processes but teams choose how they approach each project. The company context is broad so that each team can set their own context for each project and feel they have ownership of it.

With the broad business context in place, the questions we pose ourselves shape the stuff we make. Instead of a brief, we’re currently toying with an ambition – a document that’s less about deliverables and more about achievables. In it, we ask the following questions:

1. Significance – Why will this project matter to the world?

“The Stuff Americans Are Made Of” reveals research about what drives people in their work. Significance matters. So we encourage the discussion about how a project will be significant before it starts. It doesn’t matter how big or small a project is, we believe that answering this question will give the team a collective focus.

2. Aspirations – What story does the team want to tell about this project?

With this question, we encourage the teams to discuss personal goals. Perhaps a strategist wants to try a new approach to  research, perhaps a technologist wants to flex her muscles with a new programming language. People want to be able to tell stories about their company and their work Рwe want to encourage an upfront discussion about this.

3. Success – What S.M.A.R.T. goal are we aiming for?

Often, advertising briefs are vague about what they’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to do the opposite.

4. People – Who are we helping and what are their goals?

We don’t talk about consumers and targets – we talk about people. We try to understand how they behave and what they’re trying to achieve (in life, with our clients’ products, with the things we make for them).

5. Problems – What problem/s could this project solve for them?

We don’t want to create space junk so we need answers to this question. If we aren’t solving a human problem, then the world doesn’t need what we’d create and what we’d create would not get attention from people.

6. Behavior – What behavior/s can we play to?

Sure, a company can sometimes create new behaviors but we believe that understanding existing behaviors (how people choose and use a product, how people interact with businesses and their networks – online and offline) is a more powerful place to fish. While our one-page non-brief doesn’t capture it all (an experience plan would), we try to call out the most important and, sometimes quirky, behaviors that people demonstrate.

7. Actions – What are the most important actions for us to measure and what numbers are we aiming for?

A focus on behavior means that it’s necessary to measure action. Message recall, brand affinity and so on are not as useful in a world where it is possible to measure behavior.

8. Purpose – How does the company serve humanity?

Behavioral economists have repeatedly proven that businesses with purpose outperform businesses that focus exclusively on “maximizing shareholder value”. Brand essences and single-minded propositions aren’t useful in a world where a company’s beliefs and the behaviors that such beliefs lead to are so transparent.

The future of advertising will happen inside-out. The companies that will flourish will care intensely about their cultures, knowing that purpose makes profit, and it all starts with their people.


“The Stuff Americans Are Made of: The Seven Cultural Forces That Define Americans-A New Framework for Quality, Productivity and Profitability” Joshua Hammond, James Morrison