The most effective role of social media in creativity – according to brands, agencies and publishers at Cannes Lions 2019

There’s an inherent tension in the creative industry about whether social media should be used solely as a media distribution platform, which comes to the fore at Cannes because of the amount of wealth social media companies have managed to ammasse, which is obvious to the naked eye when you see the huge spend on the beachfront. 

But what role, if any, does social media bring to the creative industry? Do brands see it as just a distribution tool for their creative, or is it bigger than that? Should social strategy be brought in from the very beginning of the creative process? 

After speaking to some VIP brands, agencies and publishers, the overwhelming consensus was that social media is most effective when it’s worked into the campaign strategy from the beginning and bolstered by top quality creative, rather than being used as just a media and distribution platform. Jamil Zakaria, global social media leader at Ernst & Young summed it up well: “It absolutely should be inherent in every part [of the creative process]. Social media has a dual purpose with its delivery but it is also creative. Social is a content generation destination that we should be discovering and consuming content on, not only to inform distribution but to inform creativity and formats as well as to connect, network and discover stories and ideas.”

Over the years, younger agencies and what we call ‘Social Creatives’ have come forth and conquered with a social-first mentality to win multiple Grand Prix; LADbible’s multiple wins in 2018 and VICE Media/VIRTUE’s eight wins this year is testament to that. As is Burger King, the most awarded brand this year, which nails social media in every way with comedic one-liners and mass activations across multiple platforms. 

Here’s what other brands, agencies and publishers had to say.

Don’t just ‘do social’. Be social!

There is no point in using social media as just a distribution tool, for two key reasons:

  1. Social advertising is actually more expensive than mass media advertising. We spoke to AEGON’s head of content and communications, Esther Oostrom who reiterated this: “The downside of social media is that its reach is still relatively small – to reach over a million people is very costly. Mass media is highly effective for reach but it’s harder to measure your campaign.” 

The cost-per-click (CPC) can be drastically lowered on social with awesome creative, but if your creative is average (like most) then your CPC will be very costly. Let’s not even mention your cost-per-acquisition (CPA), which will be higher. However, mass media advertising generates so many more eyeballs on your ad, that the likelihood of a sale is much higher compared to social advertising. 

  • If you’re not using it properly don’t use it at all. When used properly, social media is the most effective way to spend paid media budget, but only when it’s combined with epic creative that resonates and engages. D&AD’s CEO, Tim Lindsay, agreed with this. As an awards body, D&AD recognises creativity, not a performance marketers’ ability to press the boost button: “With anything new media-led, like the use of influencers or social media, when the strategy is perfect and the creative is phenomenal then the organic reach and performance of the campaign will always produce amazing results. But when brands just use social media as a distribution method and keep pressing the dreaded ‘boost now’ button over and over to get extra reach it’s not an innovative use of the platforms’ features, it won’t achieve the right results and we often won’t award it.”

 

Social-first is a highly cost-effective use of marketing budget, only when used properly

This is due to its transparent measurement, traceable consumer journeys and innovative features available that help to engage, but we must stress social-first is the most cost effective only when combined with epic creative. Without good creative and production, you will find a lot of your social content gets a lot of views but barely any comments or likes. This is a major red flag. 

 

AEGON has turned its creative campaigns on its head, now leading with social. Esther Oostrom explains how that has benefited the brand: “We can’t outspend our competitors so we have to outsmart them. Taking a social-first approach has made our marketing campaigns so much more effective than before”.

The CMO at P&G Health, Atilla Cansun, agrees with this. “A good idea is a good idea, regardless of the channel or medium. When you leverage a good idea on social media, it provides a bigger bang for the buck and a higher ROI on reaching and engaging people.”

Eka Ruola the CEO and ECD of award-winning Finnish creative agency, hasan & partners, agrees: “A larger, award-winning campaign doesn’t usually exist without a social element as long as social is being used strategically.”

In the end, strategists should always be included from the beginning of the creative process, the most they are involved the more effectively you can spend your budget and avoid needing to waste money on boosting posts. 

Truly understanding audiences on social is integral to a campaign’s success

Learning about audiences is just as important as communicating with them and social media is a great way to access data, to optimise creative and to provide your audience with content they actually want to engage with, not just what you think they want to engage with. 

From a brand perspective Harman International, Merck Consumer Health and AEGON don’t just see the value in a social-first mentality in creative campaigns but actively practise it. 

Esther Oostrom from AEGON spoke of its Mastering Money campaign, which executed a mass marketing TV commercial with a social-first approach: “We started with social listening and testing to retrieve consumer insights and ensure sure the message was right. With our creative agency, we managed to optimise several formats and stories to make sure it resonated and improved engagement with the target audience. Then we used mass market advertising for amplification of our campaign. We flipped the funnel – started with social and then amplified it to a bigger audience with mass media and because we started with social-first, we knew our concepts would work and we used social to adapt our mass media marketing strategy.”

This was echoed by Dave Seedorf, digital marketing manager of Harman International and Atilla Cansun, CMO of Merck Consumer Health (now part of P&G Health). Dave said: “Social media is incorporated at the start of the creative process because it’s a channel where you can both distribute your creativity and get insights from our audience to inform our own creative. Atilla said: “Merck Consumer Health has approached brand building with a digital-first mentality and this is what made us stand out from the crowd and was essential to our success.”

We spoke to the world’s biggest social publishers, VICE Media and LADbible, who unsurprisingly hold similar views on how social media helps to provide audience insights to inform creative. 

Stefanos Constantinou, Global VP Partnerships at VICE Media, talked about the generalisation of audience demographics on social and how VICE learns from its audiences to optimise content targeting: “Typically, Facebook is where the core of our audience sit, but if you take Snap you’ll see most of our readers being Gen Z. We have a reach of 300M globally so a social media strategy is not as simple as it sounds. Our USP is the amount of data we gather, so we’ve started to calculate our reach in a much more sophisticated way, working closely with the social media platforms to develop an audience segmentation with a real backbone”.

Lizzie Barclay, Head of Marketing at The LADbible Group, which boasts a community of over 120 million on social echoes the importance of being niche: “Social has the potential to take creative campaigns to new heights. It’s so much more than a distribution channel. It provides marketers with valuable insight on their audience and it gives campaigns a sense of community, which can help drive tangible actions offline too.”

It’s no surprise that social publishers value social as a key tool to learn about audiences, because of the large, highly engaged online communities they boast. So we spoke to The Next Web, an online publisher – not social-led with a such a big community, so we were surprised to hear its CEO and founder, Boris Van van Zanten champion the importance of its community: “To us it feels that we have a community of people we want to reach and the more you involve them in the beginning, the more involved they feel.”

Brands without a large community on social may think it’s difficult to learn from online audiences, but we would always challenge them to think bigger – to search and look for audiences they can pull data from little pockets of highly engaged people found all over the internet. Reddit, for example, is great to pull data from and test content on specialised audiences – the VR and gaming community is abundant, the parenting scene is mighty curious and the design community is inspiring on various Subreddits. 

The exception to the social-first rule – “be more punk”!

You will most likely have seen Oatly’s creative ads in your neighbourhood, whether it be on a side street in Shoreditch or a bus stop in San Francisco. It’s no secret that the alternative milk brand has been aggressively buying OOH media space, which isn’t typical of a brand that looks to Millennials as a large target audience. Oatly’s chief creative officer, John Schoolcraft, explained the alternative milk brand’s approach to advertising, which although it values social as a media platform will always lead with a creative-first approach: Schoolcraft added: “Oatly is more like a voice than a brand. We only have one rule, which is to make sure that we are consistently inconsistent in everything we do. We don’t have a marketing department at all, which means that creatives are briefing themselves, doing the work and approving the work. This gives us control over every single touchpoint, meaning that each piece of creative we make is crafted specifically for the media it will be seen in.”

When talking about the brand’s social strategy, Schoolcraft said: “We tend to look at social media as part of an ongoing conversation that we are having with our fans or non-fans. If you look at our Instagram account, you will see that we treat Instagram as a writer’s medium. Yeah sure, the photos are excellent, in fact beyond excellent, but the writing is what brings the images to another level and gives it an Oatly feel.” 

To put more emphasis on the caption instead of the visual is not typical of a branded Instagram page, but merit lies in doing something differently because the community is abundant, the posts perform well and engagement is high. On an Instagram post, the brand describes itself as a “group of unrelenting oat punks”, which is a testament to the brand’s tendency to go against the grain and defy the rules of social and still produce great results.

In the End Creativity Always Wins

It’s safe to say that there’s a consensus that social media plays a truly vital role in creativity but only when used right and in combination with awesome creative. Every award-winning campaign this year had a social media element to it, even if it was just as a distribution tool. However, we continue to encourage brands to incorporate social strategy from the very beginning, because it’s only when social media strategy and epic creative are joined together in holy matrimony that a brand campaign can truly thrive and real business impacts can be made.

CEO of D&AD, Tim Lindsay, put it perfectly: “Social platforms will change with the times but genuine creative will always be the driving force for success and it will never die.” We wholeheartedly agree with this statement. As a social creative agency, we at Hey Honey, combine epic creative with a social-first mentality and that’s how we’ve won accolades to be proud of at Cannes Lions, The Effies and The Drum Social Buzz Awards. The Black Pencil is next on our radar 🤞