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Chris Kelly: “You Can’t Just Advertise Your Way Out of a Problem Anymore”


The Fabric co-founder and former Organic CCO tells LBB why experience - not messaging - will be key to driving growth in the coming years

Chris Kelly: “You Can’t Just Advertise Your Way Out of a Problem Anymore”

Chris Kelly is rarely one to withhold an opinion. Fortunately, his views have been forged and informed over the course of a career spent at the forefront of creativity’s collision with technology. From designing websites in the 2000s to fully embracing the art of experience in the 2020s, if there’s anything Chris doesn’t know about digital marketing, it’s likely not worth knowing. 

Recently, Chris - alongside former Isobar COO and fellow interviewee in this series Keith Pine - has founded Fabric. The new consulting firm is setting out with a resolute and singular priority: experience. Indeed, Chris argues that an excessive focus on communications over a more holistic embrace of experience has been holding brands back, as the nature of our industry moves away from what proved successful in previous years. 

Here, he reflects on how experience has become such a defining part of a brand’s identity, and why, in his own words, ‘you can’t just advertise your way out of a problem anymore’... 

LBB> Chris - in your own words, the team at Fabric are "architects of breakthrough Human Experiences". When you say 'Human Experiences', what do you have in mind?

Chris> Traditionally, and sometimes still today, ‘experience’ is largely framed in terms of ‘customer experience’. We’ve always felt that this was a slightly myopic view - mainly because it's not always customers you have to deal with. ‘Experience’ affects just about any outside entity who comes into contact with an organisation - vendors, partners, future employees, and anything else besides. 

What we found was that when we talked about ‘customer experience’ it would be confused with ‘customer service’, or perceived as something that the marketing department alone needed to solve. But it’s so much more than that. It affects procurement, recruitment, partnerships, and every other part of a business. So, using the term ‘human experience’ is an attempt to reflect how all-encompassing this approach truly is. 

It’s also a reflection of how we look at things from a human point of view. Technology, we always say, is at its best when it doesn't feel like technology. It should feel organic, helpful, and relevant - like it's the result of an interaction with another human being. 


LBB> So why is experience something that a company needs to see as ‘all-encompassing’, and not just a concern for the marketing team? 

Chris> Something we preach heavily at Fabric is that, if your organisation wants to embrace experience in a way that’s beneficial, everyone needs to buy-in. You have to get everybody involved from finance, to HR, to sales and marketing to realise that, even if they don’t directly touch customers, they indirectly influence their experience through their work. A big part of our job is explaining why absolutely everyone within an organisation has ownership over customer experience.


LBB> How easy is it to get that universal buy-in across an organisation?  

Chris> Well, it can depend on who we’re speaking to. CTOs, CXOs, CEOs, and chief data officers understand and embrace it. Some CMOs, perhaps understandably at first, are fearful that it’s an intentional land-grab on their territory. But it isn’t - honestly, it isn’t. 

What it is, however, is a reflection of the reality that you can’t simply advertise your way out of a problem in 2022. It’s not possible. Beating people over the head with a repeated message won’t work in the way it might have done in the past. In addition, there’s a certain paradigm shift inherent in understanding that a big TV ad or campaign might well not be part of your human experience strategy. But the reality is that the CMO can stand to benefit greatly from an increased focus on experience, provided they are open-minded to the fact that older ideas and strategies are now out of date. 


LBB> Hang on, why can’t you advertise your way out of a problem ‘anymore’? What’s changed? 

Chris> First and foremost, there is the obvious reality that most advertising is white noise and is tuned out. People are also avoiding it all together with many tools at their disposal. When it does break through it offers little past a basic awareness of your product or service.

Customers today are far more sophisticated and knowledgeable with access to vastly more resources than in previous years. Their perception of your brand and the choices they make are going to be influenced by the experience they have first-hand or by the experience someone they trust has.

The data is absolutely everywhere, experience is what drives behavior. The deciding factors in whether or not a customer chooses to be a customer, stay a customer and tell others to be a customer is driven by the net quality of all the interactions they have with a brand across all touchpoints and channels.

Choosing where to bank and staying a customer isn’t about advertising, it’s about the quality of the banks digital tools, it’s painless branch visits, it’s the call center knowing what I just did online, it’s being able to speak to a real person if that’s what I want…That’s how to influence customer behavior.


LBB> So if I asked you to describe a great human experience in one sentence, what would you say? 

Chris> A great human experience should be frictionless, personalised, anticipatory, and contextualised. In other words, it should be as close to interacting with a human being as possible.


LBB> Your own career path has seen you move from traditional creative roles towards a greater focus on experience. Do you think that in any way reflects broad changes that have been happening within the industry over the same time? 

Chris> What I increasingly saw throughout my career in advertising was business problems not being solved at all. Even as “digital” advertising was becoming more and more relevant, agencies were building websites, apps and taking advantage of all of these great new platforms and claiming to have improved customer experience. Really all they did was maybe improve a single channel experience but the overall experience customers had was largely overlooked and more or less the same. 

Unfortunately, I have not seen the industry progress much. Agencies design their organization and sell their services in a disconnected, channel first mentality. The proposition most are pitching to their clients may state otherwise, but insiders know they are selling websites, TV commercials, social campaigns, media, etc. as independent commodities. When there is any connective tissue, it largely comes down to a “matching luggage” approach of ensuring the headline and brand colors are consistent across channels. This is the industry’s misunderstood concept of customer experience.

I was always interested in orchestrating an entire ecosystem of touchpoints and how a company could synchronize channels to work together to reap the benefits of a holistic experience.


LBB> Is there a brand out there now which you feel has really nailed that philosophy?

Chris> There are a few. An obvious one is Amazon, who have made their experience so seamless and convenient that they’ve become the standard against which others are judged. 

The other is Tesla. They are dominating the automotive category across virtually every dimension, and have spent zero on advertising. From purchase, to ownership, to the vehicles themselves, every dimension of interacting with Tesla is an unparalleled automotive experience. 

What I like about them is they know customers don’t care about what your industry thinks is a good experience, or the reasons why your experience can’t be better. People wanted to buy a car the same way they buy everything else these days, and people wanted to be able to upgrade their vehicle the same way they upgrade their phone. Tesla spent their time and money delivering against that, not spending billions trying to convince people that an antiquated vehicle that you would have to purchase through a nightmare process was worth it.


LBB> Is there anything that unites those examples? 

Chris> Yeah - an embrace of the fact that nothing is more important than the customer’s happiness. Call it a ‘customer-centric mentality’ if you like. The second that an organisation embraces that, everything changes. I’m not saying it’s easy - that’s why we come in to help - but it’s vitally important. 


LBB> And does that take us back to experience over messaging, in that putting the customer first will more often involve going beyond purely marketing?

Chris> Absolutely,  and what’s especially frustrating is imagining what a given brand could have achieved if they’d invested some of the budget they put towards an irrelevant campaign into rethinking their experience. That really would move the needle, and you might find that actually ends up providing genuine help to more people than an insincere ad. 

Of course, creative ideas are great and businesses will always need them. But what we should be championing is creative ideas which move the needle. I don’t believe, for example, that a three-minute video about how a chip brand is solving all sorts of social problems is making anyone want to buy more chips. On top of that, I don’t think they’re really solving the social problems they claim to care so deeply about either. It’s the worst of both worlds - inauthenticity and ineffectiveness. 

And, in pursuing those kinds of campaigns, you’re risking doing some serious damage to your brand. People don’t want to buy from brands they think are full of bullshit.

Plus, this kind of customer-centricity is more measurable. I fundamentally believe that this is the change that will drive our industry forward over the coming years - the understanding that experience, not messaging, is how to drive growth and win business. 

The sooner the advertising industry absorbs that truth, the faster that future can arrive. 

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Genres: People

Adobe, Tue, 10 Jan 2023 09:48:00 GMT