Turning startups into stayups.


The Edison Agency creates campaigns for startups and clients with a ‘startup mentality’. Before we do that, we have to focus on brand strategy, because most people starting out have no idea what a brand is. why? Because the digital culture never got it in the first place. More on that below.

What does ‘startup mentality’ mean?

There’s a new breed of entrepreneur in Australia, responding to the more favourable climate for business innovation. They may have had a brilliant idea, but they’re not sure if it is. They’ve probably watched every episode of Shark Tank, and wondered if they are onto the next big thing, or the next big flop — but they’re passionate and ready to give it a go.

There’s also a new realisation amongst established marketers — that they need to innovate and stay nimble simply to compete. It’s that realisation that has put the cat amongst the pigeons in the marketing departments of many well-known brands.

The sheer number and quality of opportunities in this space have allowed us to create a new agency offering that introduces innovative new businesses into the market in a way that allows them to truly compete and build a credible, sustainable brand platform.

We turn startups into stayups.

Edison brings the power of advertising ideas and brand strategy together with digital-age channel planning, social media smarts and the storifying of technology.

You’ve heard that before, right?

I must admit, I have seen it done, but it’s a rare bird. Working within these two disparate cultures over the years (advertising and digital), I’ve been able to see from the inside how a process based on personalities and roles clashes with a process based on the iteration and optimisation of minimum viable product.

As humans, we are adept at creating structures and systems. That’s part of the problem — once the systems are in place, they tend to override nonconformity.

What has made the advertising business so great is its flexibility, based on the insight, experience and innovative ideas of individuals within an accepted framework of roles. What makes the digital business great is its unerring efficiency in outputting powerful platforms, tools and products.

What’s the missing link?

Brand vs. Branding.

I covered this in some detail in my article ‘Painting the Furniture’, so I’ll cut to the chase. A client comes to you looking for a solution for their new business. Most digital and branding agencies will immediately start building a chair, because that’s what everybody else does. Then the chair will be refined and remodelled. The creatives (designers) will come in and paint it some nice colours, and create an identity for it. And then the client will sit back and ask “Does it have to be a chair?”

Of course this is oversimplifying to make a point, but it’s an important point.

From a brand perspective, rather than branding, the first question we ask is “Does it have to be a chair?” And then we ask a lot more questions so that, before we begin building anything, we know it’s the right thing to do. The result will be a bespoke idea unique to that client’s business. It will be noticed and remembered. And it will have longevity in the market.

The ‘chair’ here is most often the client’s new web site, but it can be any of a number of ways to best communicate their point of difference – because digital is not a way of thinking, it is multiple skill sets and channels that can bring ideas to life.

The never-ending brand story.

Of course brands don’t last forever — but we hope they will last longer than the creation of their name, logo, web site, social media launch campaign and some data capture. The brand is a summation of all the physical, virtual and emotional encounters that our audience has with the assets we create to represent our client’s business. That is something that requires a lot of thought, planning and concepting up front.  Then, the brand story is about carefully crafting each chapter, so that the audience stays engaged for as long as we want them to.

If you’ve ever tried to write a story before you’ve had an idea, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The Mediocrity of Best Practice


There are fundamental differences between three enormous cultures in the world of mass communication — the advertising industry, the digital marketing industry and the mega-consultancies.

Advertising and digital are fated to merge through the vagaries of global economics and its ultimate end of ‘share grabbing’ in identified growth areas. That is to say, the advertising companies set out to acquire digital capability, just as the digital companies aim to acquire advertising capability, and thus ensure future growth. (The buyout of Sapient by Publicis is a well-publicised example of the past few years.)

Sitting outside these cultures, but very interested in acquiring their most profitable models, are the enormous corporate consultancies such as KPMG, Accenture and Deloitte, who have recently ventured into developing their own digital media arms, and acquiring independent creative shops.

There’s one huge problem with these acquisition strategies. The advertising culture sees creativity differently from almost everybody else.

In Silicon Valley, the creative process begins with ‘inspiration’. Steve Jobs imagines an iPod and voila! He brings the idea to a team of techs and engineers and they work at iterating the construction of this bit of genius. The same process is applied to the building of a web site, the creation of an app or the birth of a startup. Inspiration comes from an individual and then a team iterates and optimises and employs best practice principles to make the best job they can of bringing that inspired thought to life.

Within this iterative process, creativity is most often an application of design, in order to make the finished product appealing to the consumer or user and, in some cases, to regulate their behaviour in the path to purchase (loosely termed UX).

The problem with applying best practice principles to this arrangement is that everything ends up looking the same, being the same, not standing out. Quite apart from the restrictions placed upon the ‘builders’ by consumer expectations of functionality and the forced similarity of responsive parameters (in the case of web) and production parameters (in the case of products), few people in the digital world seem to think this is a problem. Rather, they see it as a goal. Anyone who has been to a UX conference can see for themselves how this particular group share ‘best practice’ as a way of reaching the holy grail of defining the best possible way for consumers to navigate their way to purchasing a pizza or a designer handbag. The consumer’s emotional state does not fit neatly into this quantitative demarcation of the brand-human interface.

That’s why they just don’t get it.

(Of course, the good digital agencies do, which is why I often point to R/GA as a prime example of one that understands the ‘special sauce’.)

Creativity in advertising is not design. This is where it gets confusing. Pure design companies have a discipline of thinking that evolved in parallel to advertising — for the purposes of this story, let’s leave them out of it. Design is part of the advertising creative process after the conceptual thinking has been done. Conceptual thinking that is deliberate, not relying on inspiration. Creative teams actively set out to create ideas that are not the same as other ideas. That differentiate. That help set brands apart from their competitors — in fact, that is the very reason this type of creativity exists in the first place, to make brands stand out and connect with consumers on an emotional level. Everything after that conceptual activity is what we call ‘craft’. Writing, art directing, design, production.

So, “What’s the difference?” you ask. Many digital agencies are happy to get started working on a brand by building them a web site or some such thing, iterating and optimising as they go, incorporating ‘creative’ as a kind of window dressing. This approach will not help a brand differentiate.

Advertising agencies will not start producing anything, be it a web site, a film, a stunt, an ambient thingamajig or a product until the idea is right. You can’t iterate the idea. You can’t optimise the idea. You must kill all the ideas that are not the right one, before you even start crafting.

It’s not an approach that’s well understood by any of the digital agencies I’ve worked with. But it’s the one thing that can make them great.

I’m invited back often to lecture at a University on ‘Best Practice Copywriting’, and I throw a few principles around here and there — but mainly I try to impress on students that this is an oxymoronic statement. There is no best practice, because the best thing you can do with advertising ideas is to be different.

That’s why David Hegarty wrote ‘There are no rules.’


How Copywriting will save the soul of the Semantic Web.


I am a Copywriter. That’s why I find it ironic that so many people in ‘cyberspace’ refer to themselves as copywriters when they are, in fact, not copywriters at all.

It’s not their fault. I blame the advertising industry and its tendency to hang on to outmoded terms and techniques. The term ‘copywriter’ stems from the very origins of printing technology, and so has a long history.

‘Copy’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the original writing, work of art, etc., from which a copy is made’. Even today, many of our FMCG clients quite rightly refer to an entire television commercial edit as ‘the copy’. Back in the early days of the moveable type printing press, those whose job it was to write the text of an advertisement before it was typeset and ‘laid up’ with art, then taken by the ‘copy boy’ to the press, were known as copywriters in order to distinguish them from journalists or news writers. The name stuck.

This early period in print advertising, which evolved with technology to include radio, television and more, corresponds to a much more recent period in the emergence of the web. In 2001, McIlraith, Son and Zeng of Stanford University wrote a paper titled ‘Semantic Web Services’ in which they predicted “The Web, once solely a repository for text and images , is evolving into a provider of services – information-providing services, such as flight-booking programs, sensor controllers, and a variety of e-commerce and business-to-business applications… In the next decade, computers will most likely be ubiquitous, and most devices will have some sort of computer inside them.”

As this prediction fulfilled itself, a new generation of ‘content creators’ emerged to harness what was not only an evolving Internet of Things, but extremely powerful, data-driven vehicles for advertising and direct marketing. With the birth of the ‘digital agency’ came a new approach to creating ‘copy’ along with the wholesale appropriation of terms that had been the exclusive province of the traditional ad’ industry. These include ‘banner ad’, ‘above the fold’ where folding is physically impossible, ‘pre-rolls’ where no tape or film is involved and ‘copywriter’, taken at face value to mean a person who ‘writes words’.

Copywriters are much more than wordsmiths.

Copywriters are multi-disciplined creative business brains in the advertising world, (along with their ‘siamese twins’ the art directors). They solve advertising and marketing problems, they invent new ways to do things – and they name those things. They invent new words. New ideas. They champion differentiation and competitiveness. They cross the boundaries of management, strategy, conceptualisation and execution. They are Ogilvy, Abbot, Droga and Hegarty.

So, why is it problematic to have a whole bunch of digital writers calling themselves ‘copywriters’? Digital writers have been obsessed with SEO and keywords, ontology and the structure of meaningful content to contribute to a ‘Semantic Web’ that allows users to find exactly what they are looking for – its underlying, functional raison d’etre. Thanks to this elevation of function over form, the meaning of the word ‘copywriter’ has been redacted to a new type of journalism that seeks to incorporate search optimisation as its ultimate goal.

Schemas aren’t neutral and copywriters aren’t either.

As Cory Doctorow pointed out in his ‘Metacrap’ missive (also from 2001), there’s ‘more than one way to describe something’. His unattainable ‘meta-utopia’ is dependent on people agreeing on standardised definitions of terms. As he says “Reasonable people can disagree forever on how to describe something. Arguably, your Self is the collection of associations and descriptors you ascribe to ideas. Requiring everyone to use the same vocabulary to describe their material denudes the cognitive landscape, enforces homogeneity in ideas.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Does the writing function exist to serve search functionality in the Semantic Web – making it more of a Pedantic Web – or does it exist to serve the function of differentiation and the creation of ‘new’ ideas for our clients?

In our role as architects and creators of web sites, e-commerce platforms, brand messaging, social media campaigns and ‘whatever works’ for our clients, we sit astride these functions but are still coming to terms with rationalising the split.

Pre-coordinate indexing will remain incredibly important, and requires all the discipline that taxonomy can bring to bear. On the other hand, cloud sourcing of content identification, microformats and the advent of social tagging applications to enable post-coordinate identifiers have gone a long way towards freeing up our ability to differentiate content.

Thus, the writing function exists – as far as we as a company are concerned – to optimise search, taxonomically support best practice in information architecture and provide ‘content’, but it also exists to create new ways of looking at the world and to differentiate brands for our clients. So, why don’t writers exist who do both? Because we’ve been coming at it from completely different directions.

Blending disciplines to give data a ‘soul’.

Tim Berners-Lee said it so eloquently, “Human endeavor is caught in an eternal tension between the effectiveness of small groups acting independently and the need to mesh with the wider community. A small group can innovate rapidly and efficiently, but this produces a subculture whose concepts are not understood by others. Coordinating actions across a large group, however, is painfully slow and takes an enormous amount of communication. The world works across the spectrum between these extremes, with a tendency to start small – from the personal idea – and move toward a wider understanding over time.”

Having spent so much of my career learning to write differently, remarkably, suprisingly and – in terms of selling – effectively, I found there was a counter-intuitive element to incorporating the ‘sameness’ required of effective SEO. The trick was to strike a balance and, of course, remember that it’s as much about the overall idea and the visual content as it is about the words themselves.

As the Semantic Web develops further, the challenge of writing for search will become less and less of a problem. What will be more of a problem is ensuring that the content writers who have not learned the multiple discplines required of traditional copywriters can develop the skills necessary to think and write strategically and creatively – or that we have enough copywriters learning to work within agile teams.

Why? Because we need to start putting the content first, and investing more time in making it conceptually viable.

The new creative department.

The business thinkers and creative experts still exist in copywriter/art director teams: a legacy of Bill Bernbach who changed the upstairs/downstairs approach to creative thinking in the late 50s and unleashed a powerhouse of new thinking on the industry.

What we have been doing is taking those teams and mixing them up with front-end devs, IAs, social media writers and UX designers to find new approaches to creativity that will not only connect with people in a technological sense, in physical space, but in an emotional sense through creative ideas.

As Phyllis K. Robinson, founding Copy Chief of Doyle Dane Bernbach, says in the film ‘Art & Copy’, “If you want to move someone to do something, you have to connect with them. You can’t just slap them in the face with it or explain it or make a joke about it.”

In terms of the Semantic Web, that comes down to generating ideas that not only inform the tone, style and literal content of the text, but the actual behaviour of the user experience we are creating.

Copywriters (and Art Directors) can drive this approach, because it is already part of their DNA. Sharing this skill with others – while learning new digital skills from them – is the key to developing a new creative department that consistently create great work in the digital space.

‘Great work’ for some of us may mean streamlined project management and best practice in delivering a particular functional spec’ – and that is true. There is, however, an even greater goal that goes way beyond function and is far more powerful. It is the kind of work that moves people, emotionally.

It is driven by great ideas.

It is the soul of the Semantic Web, where data driven by imagination will allow our clients, their brands and their customers to discover experiences they never before imagined, because we imagined them first.

PAINTING THE FURNITURE: Why digital & advertising cultures see ‘creativity’ differently.


When the world zigs, zag. — Sir John Hegarty


Since Bernbach ‘invented’ the creative team in the 60s, the concept-led culture of advertising has grown in leaps and bounds.

Before we ‘scienced the sh_t out of it’, (as Matt Damon so colourfully summed up his strategy for surviving being marooned on Mars), advertising was a creative business. That didn’t mean we sat around on plastic sheets with paint pots and safety scissors. ‘Creative’ was a noun, as well as an adjective — it presupposed that the people labelled as such would regularly deliver strategically based, laterally oriented thinking that would produce an idea big enough to lead clients and their agency brand teams in a direction they could all believe in — and apply their respective passions to — in order to create something wonderful, noticeable, persuasive and effective in selling a product, service or viewpoint.

Once we said ‘everyone’s a writer’. Now, everyone’s a Creative Director.

When I started out as a Junior Copywriter, the logical career destination for myself and the Art Directors I teamed with, was to one day become a Creative Director. Nowadays, the term Creative Director seems to apply to any ‘artsy’ supervisory role, be it in craft-based design, hipster hamburgers, even the behavioural science we’ve come to know as User Experience, or UX.

Not to demean crafts, hamburgers or UX — all of which I love — but where has the ‘idea’ culture gone? Not the pickle-on-top-of-the-hamburger kinds of ideas, great as they may be — but the ideas that led groups of people to create communication arts of the highest level. The stuff that really moves people. The advertising.

Why don’t the ideas come first in digital? Or do they?

The culture of start-ups and boot camps — the mammoth Silicon Valley revolution — was never built around idea generation. It was certainly built around ideas — some of the most influential ideas in history — but they were, and still are, the ideas of individuals.

Start-ups are the epitome of this. A person has a great tech idea. They start a company around it. The company grows as the idea is brought to life. The company is acquired. Start over.

This pattern began with the big digital genii. Someone would have a huge tech idea, and then put together a team who could realise that idea. Look at Steve Jobs – once you take him out of Apple, the company has an ‘ideas crisis’. Put the visionary back into the company, crisis averted.

Bringing in teams to build others’ ideas meant that subsequent digital production processes assumed the big idea already existed. The aim of production methodologies such as ‘waterfall’, ‘Kanban’, ‘micro-innovation’ and even ‘agile’ focus on the iteration and incremental optimisation of pre-existing technologies.

This was necessary because there was very complicated technology to deal with, and this process was necessarily handed over to the specialists who could make it happen.

“We need an awesome new web site that does what nobody else’s does.”

Day-to-day digital process would take this oft-wished-for client ‘request’, look around for something new that ‘fits their brief’ and then attempt to ‘iterate it into difference’.

The ‘advertising process’ would take this brief, front-load conceptualisation with a Copywriter/Art Director/Creative Director creative team and not start building anything until all stakeholders had bought into the concept — based on the commonly held assumption that this concept would be the best way to express the brand’s proposition or point of difference.

The difference is, in advertising, we weren’t coming up with ideas like ‘iPod’. We were coming up with ideas to sell iPods.

Who can mix big ideas with the digital teams needed to build them?

I’ve worked with designers more in the past few years than ever before in my career. That’s because I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the digital space, where there is a huge need for people to paint the furniture, before it’s packed up and shipped off to the shiny showroom.

As the UX guys create structures for optimal navigation, as developers iterate and optimise, designers are required to ensure visual amenity. The product is usually on the conveyor belt by the time they have a chance to apply any design thinking. So it’s simply a matter of ‘painting the furniture’.

Who better to paint your new furniture than someone who is qualified as a designer? It’s bound to look beautiful. But it’s also a drastic under-utilisation of a designer’s skill.

Now that the digital world is subsuming the advertising world — or sometimes the reverse — experiments in collaboration are rife: Google’s Art Copy & Code is a prime example of ‘digi-washing’ as these guys realise more and more that they’re almost purely in the advertising business. Experiments in the integration of digital processes with brand-focused, concept-led processes are not. Why? It requires the disruption of two very strong cultures.

The key to avoiding the ‘digital sameness’ that is characterising responsive design is in just such a disruption — one which brings experts in both approaches together as one team. Of course, it needs a bit of give and take on both sides. The ad ‘creatives’ are not famous for sharing their ‘creative secrets’. The digital guys are not famous for the counter-intuitive approach that generates lateral thinking and leads to big brand ideas. Now, your creative team is everybody on a project, carefully resourced to maximise their ‘head time’ and minimise ‘head hours’.

The future is up for grabs here. Some agencies are managing to create their own ways forward, with memorable results. Some are not, and must ultimately be forgotten.