How Do You 'Drink The Kool-Aid' And Not Kill Your Brand In The Process?

Throughout my career, I have often asked: How invested in a client’s product, philosophy or approach can you get before your own valuable perspective is compromised? Before your work on their behalf suffers?

What is the tipping point where you, as an advertising partner, stop authentically seeing the brand as a consumer and lose your value as an objective third party? When this happens, the brand voice stagnates in a world that requires constant reexamination and reapplication to relevance. Having a plan for keeping your perspective, and demonstrating the value of that approach, will ultimately keep the brand’s work more unique, more relevant and more successful.

Neil French, the legendary copywriter, once told a group of us at Ogilvy & Mather that when he received a client brief, he would ignore the brief for three days and then write to what he remembered of it after that, as that part was important enough to be remembered. In the process, he created an effective time barrier between himself and the "Kool-Aid."

“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is an almost 40-year-old saying based on a truly horrible event, but it is, unfortunately, illustrative of one of our most basic social instincts. The desire to conform is hardwiring that is as old as humankind but directly counter to the need, in our increasingly fractured media landscape, for a brand’s authentic voice to distinguish itself through an ongoing relevant voice. All brands hopefully have their own unique story, point of view and value – their “Kool-Aid” that must be expressed effectively to their audience. But brands that conform to one point in time only will die.

Which certainly happens, Starbuck’s lost its way for a time on service quality and rebooted for investors only to become a parity product now competing with McDonald’s. And McDonald’s itself continues its effort to court America’s changing views on food, leaning into its unique breakfast offering, though arguably starting too late. My first creative meeting at Kodak in the late 1990s coincided with the layoff of 10,000 employees on the same day. Because Kodak did not sufficiently see the obsolescence of film coming and create new relevant messages and products for its company based in its brand truth of “moments,” it ultimately had to sell off its patents and eventually declare bankruptcy.

The deep-seated need to go along with our peers is fraught with mediocrity. It has no edge and because of that, it is dangerous to the relevance, personality and profile of any brand looking to move forward today. Further, going along with the group even hampers our decision making, often defies simple logic and undermines the big leaps in success and the "unicorns" we now hunger for.

Certainly, companies and their organization require some level of conformity and buy-in to a collective vision to be able to function. Anyone or any agency that partners with a company needs to fully understand what that brand offers and buy into it enough to sell it. But managing that buy-in is key; culturally, brands must be mindful of the effects and reward independent and skeptical thinkers.

Or brands can partner with agencies and consultants that can keep their unique perspective by maintaining a reasonable distance from any brand’s flavor. But if your brand has an in-house creative department/agency, there is a good chance that it is full of Kool-Aid. In-house agencies trade expertise and perspective for the comfort of the known and for the feeling of being understood and hopefully, efficiencies of time and cost.

According to the In-House Creative Services Industry report (a benchmark survey of the in-house creative community with feedback from 462 leaders representing Fortune 1000 companies’ in-house creative departments), in-house agencies are steadily growing but suffer many of the same relationship challenges as the traditional client/agency model.

Internal client behaviors are a challenge for 70% of those surveyed. Only 16% of these leaders are extremely satisfied in their current roles. Over half of them never survey their internal client, while 65% say they lack the time and resources to help their team reach full potential. Much of their department’s growth is through consultants or freelancers. Additionally, as these departments grow larger, they are faced with the same P&L issues of an agency and must charge the client back, usually through a subsidized blended hourly rate.

Finding the right balance of partners and solutions internally and externally to successfully market your brand will always be a challenge, but here are some checks and balances that might help make it happen.

  • If you plan to build an internal agency, be sure that the internal agency model addresses the problems you’ve had in the past with external agencies. Is there a way to guarantee strategy and creative are linked? Are you paying for time (hours) or great work? Are you creating the same problems you seek to avoid? And most importantly, ensure that this internal department has enough autonomy to keep an eye out for your brand relevance.

  • Find partners that can demonstrate an approach to discovering what it is that makes your brand truly different and appealing and how that difference can be universally relevant enough to work well into the future. Or that have a process for staying attuned to what your target finds relevant. Or both.

  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. An easy way to ensure proper perspective moving forward is to employ a variety of viewpoint generators and optimize to those that make the most sense or demonstrate the most success.

Having a point of view and a culture are critical to any organization’s success. But it is the organizations that continue to examine themselves and evolve that have a sustainable and lasting success.

This GCF authored editorial originally appeared in FORBES AGENCY COUNCIL

John Trahar