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The Power of Building Meaningful Connections Through Social Creativity

London, UK
Some of the industry’s top social creatives speak to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt about avoiding media storms, fun, new tools to use and common misconceptions surrounding social creativity

Social creatives are an integral part of any successful agency. Whether they’re gauging consumer interest, collaborating with content creators or helping to develop ads that social users actually won’t want to adblock, the work they do is complicated, creative and essential for bringing brands closer to their customers on a day-to-day basis. 

With that said, it’s inevitable that different agencies will have different approaches to how social outreach gets done. For this reason, LBB spoke to several of the industry’s best social creatives, including MullenLowe Singapore & China CEO Paul Soon, VMLY&R senior analyst Carolina Mach, R/GA creative director Gavin Guidry, BMB creative director Bianca Eglinton, The&Partnership creative director Liz Oakley and M&C Saatchi Talk social creative strategist and associate director Shinal Pancholi, with the hopes of learning more. 

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with them to find out more about what it takes to build a successful social brand. 

The Role of Social Creative Teams in 2022

Paul, MullenLowe> Brands today have a stronger understanding and appreciation of building internal content and social teams that either sit within the brand or performance teams. It truly depends on the role and function of what social delivers for the business. Fundamentally, both brands and agencies need to keep abreast with what best primes, resonates and converts their targeted segments on multiple social platforms. And both brands and agencies must start to hire more creators who love being part of the creative process; reaching out to new audiences and relating to existing audiences. 

Carolina, VMLY&R> As younger consumers become more media literate, social and creative teams working in tandem are becoming even more imperative. Consumers don’t want to see ads, but they spend an inordinate amount of time on social media. It’s up to creative and social teams collaborating to seamlessly incorporate brand messaging into social content without disrupting feeds, and for them to add value through entertainment along with RTBs.

Gavin, R/GA> Short answer? Social teams need to be moving from being stewards of the brand to being stewards of culture. More than ever, social teams have to know what’s going on in communities. They need to not just be consumers of the culture, but active participants; translating what audiences care about (and how they care about it) to their clients, and vice versa. The role of the social creative team should shift away from chasing client approval, and instead toward authentically representing those clients to the audience that their brands serve. 

Social creative teams are also evolving to look more and more like creators. They’re either creating, themselves, or learning how to work with creators. Authentic content creation today is about walking the walk and talking the talk. 

Bianca, BMB> In the past, many social and content creatives emerged via less conventional paths than those of their ‘above the line’ counterparts, myself included. I started out in PR, teaching myself how to create Facebook content for our handful of social clients - with some questionable Photoshop ‘skills. I would systematically learn a new Adobe trick and apply that to half the content in my clients’ plans for the month.

However, I’m increasingly meeting exciting and talented creative teams who have specifically chosen to focus their efforts on content as opposed to simply finding themselves - almost by default - on this path. For many, it’s an exciting and appealing area of comms. A space where brands will allow creatives to be a bit more daring and experimental. A fast-paced opportunity to build up a portfolio of varied and innovative work.

Agencies who get it right have adapted for and embraced the role of social creatives; not as an appendage to their ‘above the line offering’, but as an intrinsic part of the creative department. It’s encouraging to witness this happening increasingly across the industry.

Liz, The&Partnership> Film used to be seen as the holy grail, but now it’s social ideas that are getting the attention. Therefore social teams - and designers - are becoming more central to our businesses.

Social is a skill set in itself. There’s a level of craft to social that, done right, has the potential to grow more famous than a film. And creatives who understand that are worth their weight in bitcoin. Agencies are desperate for socially native creatives, and when something is in demand, its worth and status naturally goes up.

Shinal, M&C Saatchi Talk> The way we consume media in the modern world has completely changed. Conversations now happen digitally, and brands need to find creative ways to join, lead and navigate these conversations. Social creative teams are now increasingly integrated into marketing disciplines. We are a necessary part of PR activations that now rely on social media support to drive traffic and measure success. 

Social Creativity - Central Strategy or Appendage?

Paul, MullenLowe> Having social as part of a campaign should be table stakes today. Where we start then becomes the real question, and how that fulfils both your marketing and communications objectives. When successfully executed, social is your superpower that can amplify your efforts, but it has to have the right amount of breathing space in order for the promises of social to gain the right traction.

Carolina, VMLY&R> Social is often viewed as central and imperative, but the support allocated to it would imply it is more of an appendage. A lot can be accomplished organically with social if done right, but going viral is like catching lightning in a bottle. But in order to have a well-rounded, social-centric campaign, both talent and financial resources have to be invested.

Gavin, R/GA> We’ve all heard the adage ‘meet people where they are.’ Well, people are on social. On top of that, technology has advanced to the point where consumers are the ones holding the remote - carefully curating what they want to see and skipping/blocking ads along the way. Yet, the sad truth is that most brands and agencies treat social as a second or third priority, devoting most of their production and media budgets to ‘above the line’ work. This results in brands chasing short term wins with every campaign, rather than the long term gains that come from building a deep relationship with their audience, which can only come from reaching them consistently on their favourite social channels. 

It reminds me of what we’re seeing in Hollywood. The biggest stars in recent years are choosing TV series over movie roles because they realise that over the life of a show, they can more deeply explore their characters and reap the rewards of a community that slowly builds around the show. This is the approach we should take when it comes to advertising. Yes, a big blockbuster is great, but going on a journey with a community is irreplaceable. As a social creative lead for Sprite, I helped the brand move away from chasing the new, hot rapper to endorse their products, and instead devoted our channels to making stars out of the everyday creators that actually want to be repped by Sprite. Over the last few years, (the creators) have been able to foster a community that helped artists through the covid-19 pandemic, connect with like minded individuals and industry experts, and play a role in Sprite’s advertising. 

Bianca, BMB> It is true that most campaigns today have a social element, but I think the best work comes when you can be adaptive based on what any given campaign is aiming to achieve. The key is to be receptive and open to the fact that a good idea can come from anywhere. Sometimes what’s needed is an innovative social-first idea, but sometimes a fame-driving TV campaign and OOH is the best solution, with social switched on to support and work hard at a different point in the consumer journey.

The best way to be truly integrated in our approach is to build a creative department of people who are comfortable creating across different platforms, but who each have their own strengths and areas of expertise that can be plugged into a campaign at any point in the process. Social content used to be an appendage to many ‘above the line campaigns’, but now that social teams are given ambitious projects to work on and lead in their own right, supporting a TV campaign with tactical social posts needn’t be seen as an afterthought, but a critical, measurable element that helps drive further engagement.

Liz, The&Partnership> If you see social as an appendage, then you’re probably on borrowed time. I think most clients realise that social is the fastest growing platform and prioritise it in briefings. Great social ideas elevate a campaign from a nice ad to a famous, effective, 360 campaign that makes far more impression than film alone.

That’s not to say everything has to be 15 seconds long and have the brand logo appear in the first  fiveseconds. It’s more sophisticated than that. Why not use social to launch a two minute film because you can target it more effectively?  

Shinal, M&C Saatchi Talk> Social media is not only becoming an integral part of social lives, but the avenue through which most of the adult UK population consumes news. It's not surprising, then, that client briefs now ask for an earned-first, social-led creative campaign as the way forward to drive change. 

Developments in Social and Their Impact on Creativity 

Paul, MullenLowe> I am most impressed with TikTok. Bytedance has influenced and changed global culture by designing a social platform where truly anyone can easily be a creator. 

That a social platform can bring greater awareness and appreciation for books (search #booktok) and yet at the same time, have the ability to fuse music to the beauty industry and so on, is amazing. The potential growth of TikTok Shop to close the loop of live streaming is something to watch. 

TikTok is the world’s largest Discovery platform, and I am excited to see how as an agency, we continue to leverage and immerse ourselves in their ecosystem. 

Carolina, VMLY&R> Streamlining purchase capabilities is incredibly exciting to me. Oftentimes, particularly in fast-paced verticals, we have to rely on squishier metrics like brand lift and awareness metrics to prove a valuable ROI for social. Now, there is a measurable and direct tie to the client’s bottom line which further reiterates the importance of an engaged social strategy.

Gavin, R/GA> I’m excited to see social media platforms transforming into creator platforms. At R/GA we had the pleasure to build Instagram’s first creator academy called Creator Lab, alongside some of Instagram’s best creators. They now have a place where aspiring creators can come and be shepherded by the platform, learning how to best express themselves in that world. But this is only possible because of the success of creator platforms like TikTok, Patreon, Substack, etc. All platforms know that they have to shift their focus from mass awareness to intentionally connecting with creators and their audiences. The platforms that experience the most success moving forward will be the ones that most authentically connect with creators. 

Bianca, BMB> For many years, the mention of influencer marketing had me running for the hills! I was quite cynical about the value of what was essentially product placement within an over-polished, heavily filtered hyperreality. Quite frankly, I saw it as a place where creative went to die. However, the emergence of platforms such as TikTok and formats such as Instagram Reels have turned this area of social content on its head. Suddenly, the platforms’ daily users are encouraged to push their own creative limits, and we’re working with influencers, or as I would prefer to call them, creators, much more collaboratively and creatively than we ever have before.

Liz, The&Partnership> Obviously Elon Musk’s acquisition of twitter will be huge, but it feels like the all-powerful, superrich owners have left the door open for less corporate start up-style social apps. BeReal seems to be getting a lot of traction and I can see lots of brands jumping on that one pretty quickly.

Shinal, M&C Saatchi Talk> An exciting development is the rise of s-commerce. As social media is increasingly ingrained with our daily lives, brands are tapping into the tools that make social media shopping easier for users. As users, we now favour a more immersive experience, and as social media continues to evolve and the number of users increases, there will be more opportunities for brands to create s-commerce experiences. It will allow for seamless and frictionless online shopping that reaches real consumers in the places that matter. 

Social Misconceptions

Paul, MullenLowe> There is still a general sentiment that those who are labelled social do not have the ability to build brands. But the reality is that as an industry, we need to recognise that in order for a brand to be successful, it will have to be a sum of all of our strategic and creative chops. As consumers, we don’t just live our lives on social platforms, and that in itself requires a larger view and knowledge of how to creative work that matters  

Carolina, VMLY&R> I’m fortunate enough to work for very social-minded clients, partners and team.  With that said, due to the accessibility of social, some folks think that anyone can qualify to be a social strategist. And while being an active social user is definitely helpful, there is a lot more that goes into it.

Gavin, R/GA> As a creative director, clients and even colleagues sometimes expect me to take a hands off approach to creating work, as in, come up with an idea, sell it in, then hand it off to production. But I actually started my career as a content creator, which I believe has made me a better creative. So I still love being scrappy, getting my hands dirty, being hands-on on set and attempting the overly ambitious. 

Bianca, BMB> I think (hope) that we are long past the days of people assuming that social channel management and creative is solely the job of an intern. For much longer than necessary, the rallying cry in the comments section of a social-post-gone-wrong was “Sack the intern!”, without any awareness of how many stakeholders would have been involved in signing off just that one post.

Today, I think the biggest misconception I face is the assumption that I will be aware of literally everything that’s ever been shared online. Whilst, of course, as a creative who specialises in social content, it’s important to stay on top of trends and social media culture, one person can’t possibly consume everything in the social media spectrum - especially when it falls outside of one’s own interests. I am often faced with surprise if I haven’t happened to see every vaguely popular piece of content going.

Liz, The&Partnership> I think the main misconception is that you can pull rabbits out of hats. Great social ideas can take just as long and need just as much crafting as a film. You still need to invest in the craft and the media. And they can take just as long to produce. Great ideas don’t often become great executions with one day of design. 

Shinal, M&C Saatchi Talk> One misconception is that ‘viral’ campaigns are based on scalable or mimicable tactics. Brands and users often forget that social media users today favour arbitrary content (think about the photo of the egg that racked up 18.2 million views). Whilst you can create a well-designed strategy and engaging content, nothing can actually promise your content reaching viral status. Instead, focus on finding a hook, knowing your audience and adding real value to a platform born from human truths. 

Social Media, Stress and How to Deal with It 

Paul, MullenLowe> We have come to learn that fast is slow and slow is smooth. There should never be a time when a response is fast without a strong process behind it that balances the risks and rewards of social. And when it comes to social, like everything in real life, consistency is key. Your audiences can and will call you out when you act out of the persona created. So, there should never be a time when we are caught by surprise unless it is a scenario that is purely driven by a consumer that is totally unhappy with the service or product. 

I am not saying that we should not be afraid of having an opinion as a brand, but again, that should come from a known playbook. And when the time comes to take a risk, we know the process to have that done without sacrificing the brand, ultimately. 

Carolina, VMLY&R> From my perspective, the biggest factors here are having a well-developed brand voice and identity, and understanding that not every little comment needs a response. One other thing I try to prioritise is to only join conversations you, as a brand are invited into. It doesn’t make sense for a popcorn brand, per se, to join in on NBA Twitter conversations out of the blue without an invite. But with that said, it’s important to avoid a ‘silence brand’ moment.

When (social media storms) happen, (and it will happen), it’s important to get a diverse group of stakeholders together and talk through options. Taking a step back might be enough of a solve, depending on the gravity of the situation, but in some situations addressing the issue head-on might be painful but ultimately the most productive approach.

Gavin, R/GA> Brands should only join conversations that they have permission to enter - either because they have earned it, or because the culture has allowed them. This is something I work with my clients to understand. We aim to be citizens of the culture so that when we speak to something going on in the world, it perfectly aligns with what we already do, how we already speak and what our audience already expects from us. That’s the only authentic way to be responsive. 

Shinal, M&C Saatchi Talk> Brands must intrinsically harness authenticity at the core of what they do online. Don’t jump on the bandwagon in a hope to ‘go viral’. This year, during International Women’s Day, we saw examples of brands that attempted to signal their cause, only to get criticised by their audience. Rather, there is more value in a brand that is true to their ethos and listens to problems that need to be solved. Social Media platforms are spaces for relevant conversations. It’s an art that must be refined and practised by brands in order to inspire meaningful change.  

Brilliant Recent Examples of Social Creativity 

Paul, MullenLowe> The agency’s Unilever Closeup team (based in Singapore) recently launched an NFT project that mints smart contracts for any couple in the world to declare their love for each other on Decentraland. The ‘City Hall of Love’ is a great example of using technology for good. It leverages on Closeup’s believe that love of all kinds need to be celebrated, and that the metaverse, as a universal platform, allows for that to happen in the most meaningful way - beyond the hype driven world of NFTs. 

Carolina, VMLY&R> Recently, my team and I had the opportunity to work alongside our client partner Wendy’s, helping them launch across Discord. Getting to interact with Discord’s highly engaged audience is so different from most platforms we work on, and adds an element of authenticity and one-to-one connection that we don’t often see in branded social. 

Gavin, R/GA> Besides Instagram’s Creator Lab, I was able to help lead Uber’s ‘Vaccinate the Block’ campaign with Spike Lee and Tyler Mitchell. This was one of the rare opportunities where I was able to create something for TV, but the real power of the campaign was what happened on social. We built a network of trusted messengers, hyper-local heroes and subject matter experts to have authentic conversations with one another, on their channels and Uber’s, delivering a crucial message to vaccine-hesitant audiences and showing off their communities to the world. 

Bianca, BMB> We are currently working on some very exciting and ambitious projects with Samsung, which includes a number of social-first projects that focus on appealing to the oh-so discerning and difficult to reach Gen Z market. As a generation who have grown-up on a diet of digital culture, they can see straight through traditional forms of marketing, media and brand communications. We constantly challenge ourselves to find new ways to relate to and engage an audience who expect more from brands. As such, we strive to create meaning in what we do, whether that be as simple as creating content with genuine entertainment or educational value, or creating change within the brand’s organisation and standing up for a cause we know this audience truly believes in.

Parting Thoughts

Paul, MullenLowe> Brands need to be a lot more intentional with the way they embark on their web3 journey. And just like how brands have had to be more consumer centric and value driven in web2, the entire industry needs to ensure that we constantly hold ourselves to a higher standard of using technology for good, and deliver on the utility of the brand promises. 

Gavin, R/GA> This conversation around social media creatives and platforms has been very web2-centric. But web3 and metaverse is taking the world by storm - engaging our imagination to dream about what’s next. But it’s important to remember that there are some things that we can’t leave behind like community and authenticity. The same way brands and agencies today pay loads of money to reach people with a message that they don’t care to hear, there will also be those that spend lots of money to build aimlessly in the metaverse. Brands that will do well in web3 are the ones who already do a great job of building and fostering communities in web2.

Bianca, BMB> It’s an exciting time for social and digital content, but of course I would say that, because it is always an exciting time for social and digital content! The parameters within social are constantly changing and evolving, and I relish the ongoing challenge of finding new ways to show up in this space. It’s a discipline that never gets tired, because something that worked 10 years ago - like my shoddy but charming self-made Facebook posts - won’t work today. We are forever in a state of reinvention, adaptation and growth. Even now, I’m constantly learning a new skill or gaining a new trick that I’m able to apply to the next round of creative executions.

Shinal, M&C Saatchi Talk> As brands increasingly put social media at the core of marketing campaigns, we will continue to see the rise of social-first brands. These are brands that will use social platforms as the first point of conversation with their target audience. And while the new environment of the digital age will still hold timeless audience truths - such as this focus on authenticity - social-first brands will be a vehicle in bridging the conversational gap between brands, people and culture. 

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