Toy Marketer Learns Digital Lessons The Hard Way

The Roles of Creative and Strategy Have Inverted

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James McQuivey
James McQuivey

Last week I sat down with Will Coleburn, a CMO employed most recently at Toy State. As the name suggests, the company is in the toy and games business, an industry Will has served for decades, running marketing at several organizations along the way. In our conversation we discussed his journey from traditional marketer to digital CMO. At one point he summarized the difference between his job twenty years ago and his role today in a neat statement:

In the old days our agency meetings were ninety percent about the campaign creative and then in the last minutes, we checked off the list of which media we would buy with our budget. Today, we start with the customer, then we figure out what channels or media we have to use to reach them, only then do we talk about the creative.

It may be the end of the world as we know it for some advertising executives, to hear that the role of creative has been inverted -- that media and customer insight now preoccupy. But what Will described made perfect sense given what we know about digital disruption. In a digitally disruptive era, consumers have a thousand ways they can spend their attention at any one moment. And they can allocate that attention across any number of devices they have within reach, sometimes splitting attention between two or three at a time.

If your goal as a marketer is to reach that digitally enhanced consumer with your brief message, you don't stand a chance if you don't first make an effort to understand how they really think and what they're doing across devices and channels. Then and only then can you properly unleash your creative genius on the task of earning that brief attention.

As Will shared more of his story, he told with pride of how a few years back he learned from his own experience the difference between airing 30-second commercials on Saturday morning showing toy cars or robots in action and offering Web-based ads that let kids virtually drive a car or digitally assemble a robot, all of which stimulates anticipation in a child that TV ads cannot.

This led to the obvious question: "Did you abandon TV spots altogether?"

His answer was as swift as it was complicated. He remains as committed to TV ads as ever. But he has some misgivings about how to balance TV ads with digital media. If meeting the objectives of the campaign were the only consideration, he'd have one answer. But then, he confessed, that's not the only consideration. Sometimes he has to make decisions about allocating budget not based on what's right for the customer but what's expected by his retail partners.

In the world of retail, there are employees that are motivated by company strategy and then there are the retail buyers. Simply put, the long history of retail has produced a system of retail buying – determining which products a retailer will buy, how many units to buy, where to stock them, and how to feature them at retail – that is obsessively focused on itself. As Will put it, "It's a crummy job, because you're never right. You either buy too much of a product or too little. You never get it right."

He shared how a meeting with a buyer at one of the largest retailers in the country went south on him. The buyer was nervous about committing to a large order prior to the holiday and needed some reassurance. His question was direct: How much are you going to spend on TV ads promoting the product? Will patiently explained that for this product they had learned that they could get really efficient use of TV to maintain general awareness but that it was online media that was really driving purchase.

The buyer stopped him short. "If it's not on TV, it's not on my shelves." Try as he might, the hero of my story was unable to help the buyer understand that digital disruption had even disrupted retail buying of toys intended for 5-year olds.

If it can be this hard just to get people to shift the way they expect ad spend to be allocated across traditional and digital channels, just imagine how hard it will be to move an entire marketing organization – not to mention the whole company – to digitally disrupt itself. And as the story illustrates, then you're still saddled with whatever level of digital disruption your partners can tolerate.

That's why digital disruption won't be something a single person can accomplish, even at a very senior level. Digital disruption is not a solo sport. It is neither the exclusive province of the mobile team nor the social media experts at the company. Digital disruption is simply the new way of business – or will be, as soon as everyone from the retail buyer to the media buyer to the person who designs in-store end-aisle displays understands this. Because any person in or out of the company can become a digital roadblock if they are unwilling to rethink how they fulfill their role and either contribute to or hinder digital disruption.

Reflect on your own experience. Is it like Will's? What digital roadblocks are you experiencing as you try to disrupt yourself, your company, and your industry?

James McQuiveyis the author of Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation. He is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and the leading analyst tracking the development of digital disruption.
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