Consumer engagement: From new media to TVCs

“I was at the Cannes Lions this year and Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook was there. He’s looking for the same answers,” says Charles Courtier , global CEO, MEC. The question is one that has been vexing the entire marketing communications industry. You would be hard pressed to find an ad or media person who is not bullish about the potential of “earned media” — references in the media, blogs or on sites like Twitter and Facebook that are not paid for. And yet, how does one harness the potential of and more importantly earn from earned media? According to Courtier, “The whole world including the people that own it are trying to get to grips with it at the same time.”

MEC is trying to crack the puzzle by changing its approach to the entertainment universe. The agency divides all media into paid, owned and earned. As of now, there are more ‘how not to’ than ‘how to’ lessons. Courtier cautions, “You have to earn your place in there. You cannot go in with all guns blazing and say ‘I am brand X and I am here.’ You’d probably do more damage than good.” One of the keys is possessing liquid content: ideas that lend themselves to being modified and adapted by people. Courtier says, “If you get that right, you don’t have to put it out there; the consumers will do that for you.”

Getting consumers to work for or participate in the marketing process is also one of the objectives built into MEC’s positioning tagline: active engagement. “We were really lucky or really smart to hit on this” says Courtier.

While the marketing communications industry is frequently (and justifiably) pilloried for not being able to differentiate itself, MEC has been trying to do just that. Conceived in 2005 when the agency was known by the rather more unwieldy title of Mediaedge:CIA, active engagement was a proposition that was initially very hard to explain or justify. Courtier admits, “Agencies are past masters at saying the right things. But it has to be backed with real evidence. When we started, we didn’t have much.”

At least that is no longer as big a problem. The global buzz around moving from an exposure to an engagement driven model worked well for the agency and it garnered an enviable strike rate at pitches. It’s a positioning line that has helped MEC draw the right sort of talent. Courtier believes “It defines what the ambition is. And it works with clients as well. People who want pure ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’, might look at us and go ‘I don’t know if this is the agency for me.’”

Earlier this year, MEC published a book full of case studies in which active engagement was used across geographies for clients as diverse as Sony Digicam , Microsoft Windows and Honda motorcycles. Many of these are what case study dreams are made of — multi-touchpoint programmes with active participation by consumers and with some of the ideas going “viral.”

But are these case studies representative of the overall oeuvre of the agency or being highlighted purely because they are exceptional? Courtier pauses a while before replying, “You are of course seeing what we think is some of the best. But does every client we have want or need multi-touchpoint communication plans? Definitely no!”

Courtier is at pains to explain that “active engagement” does not have to be a consumer surround initiative, but is dictated more by what’s relevant. He says “It doesn’t mean I won’t end up with a TV plan and 30 second spots because that just might be the active engagement that you need. One is not better than the other” However, there’s a definite shift taking place according to Courtier: “By and large, all our clients are moving in this direction but at different paces in different places and times.”

Besides, active engagement took a beating through the course of the recession from late 2008 through 2009. Courtier says, “This is a big generalisation but last year the focus was on efficiency and cutting costs. Most of our clients and everyone else’s attention was not on engagement or new strategies but on making every dollar go as far as possible.”

One of the markets that’s beaten the recession and is currently the fastest growing country for MEC is India. The local operations bagged one of MEC’s biggest global clients earlier this year when Colgate shifted out of The Media Edge. A thoroughly pleased Courtier says, “There’s a real sense of a coming of age for MEC here. It’s been a stunning run so far.”

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