Can agencies embrace this new vision for customer engagement?
Ask your agency this, “How willing are you to be open-minded in the pursuit of big ideas?” The prevailing wisdom says that agencies are best when they bake everything in-house before exposing the goods to the general public. What if this weren’t true? What if agencies took a chance by inviting customers to work side by side with them in producing the very ideas that are intended to persuade them? Such a practice is called co-creation, and the rewards are nothing less than bigger insights and bigger thinking.
Creativity in 3-D
Co-creation is the art and discipline where an agency roughs out promotional material—concepts, messaging, activation initiatives—and then invites customers to join in the process of turning such rough thinking into ideas that not only serve the brand’s objectives, but more importantly, ensure that customer engagement is built in. It is not market research, where the goal is to “push” ideas out to customers and then ask them what they think. Nor is it crowdsourcing—asking your audience for marketing advice. Rather, it is immersive interaction that creates a three-dimensional brand experience—a simulation of the real-world dynamics typical of intimate relationships. Doctors and patients are not marketers. But as the recipients of communications, they can become essential partners in helping you persuade them. Think of it as a patient and psychologist working in concert to create a treatment plan that’s effective because it is enthusiastically adopted.
Pride in the name of love
Since co-creation is such a departure from the traditional way of concepting, non-believers take easy aim at the practice. The usual critique is obvious: aren’t you asking the audience to do your job for you? Well, this depends on what the “job” is. Is the job to put the brand’s fate solely in the hands of experienced ad professionals as it has always been done? After all, audiences really don’t know what they want until you serve it up to them. Or is it to be open to the possibilities that we don’t know everything, really, and we must get comfortable with this truth? Is the job simply to ideate first and test later? It can be argued that when co-creation is matched up against the standard approach, it saves time and money. By working in unison with customers during the creative process, the resulting ideas have already been qualitatively validated. The entire client presentation is transformed from a subjective assessment of what ideas might work, to an objective showcase of what ideas really do work. Co-creation means you get it right the first time and don’t need revisions before entering quantitative testing. The pride of ownership is still present, but it’s a pride of open-mindedness out of love for the brand, rather than idolizing the ideas themselves. After all, ideas are owned by the brand, not the brander.
More control by letting go
Nay-sayers might question the whole process by fearing a loss of control. Quite the opposite is true: you gain more control. The “Co” in co-creation means that the agency is not blindly following orders and doing whatever the customers tell them. The agency must hold customers responsible for not just shooting down an idea, but rather coming up with suggestions that make the idea more appealing to them. The agency also fosters a debate among the customers themselves, enlisting all in a group brainstorm, and not just as isolated opinions. Further, the agency enters into a bargain of sorts: you tell us what engages you, and in return, we’ll be willing to stretch your thinking on what could change your beliefs in favor of the brand. Pushing back from both sides is an integral part of the initiative.
Co-creation is not something every agency can do. It takes a cultural willingness to be vulnerable—to put your initial, unpolished thinking at risk. It takes expert moderation to achieve the right balance of push and pull. And it takes a brave creative vision for new ways of concepting. Darwin believes that the species most capable of thriving is neither the smartest nor the strongest, but rather those most capable of change. Ask your agency if they’re willing to do so.