Gareth Kay believes brands should show, not just tell
Gareth Kay is cofounder of Chapter, a San Francisco-based creative studio. Before Chapter, he was Chief Strategy Officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the advertising agency known for work such as 1993’s iconic “Got Milk?” campaign for the California Milk Processors Board.
I was excited to talk to Gareth because, while he’s a strategist, he doesn’t come from the world of traditional brand consulting that I come from (and so many of my other guests come from). In fact, one of my first questions for him was, “What do you think the general perception of the brand consulting world is amongst people in the advertising world?” Gareth says advertising agencies are increasingly seeing clients that have already been through a brand consultancy, and “when [the brand consultancy’s work] was good you would be a little bit miffed because [cracking the strategy] was something, as a strategist, you really loved doing.” On the flip-side, he’d sometimes see brand consultancy work that looked “clever on a piece of paper but…frankly, it was un-executable or, worse still, was a piece of thinking that was clearly designed to get through the armies of different interests inside a client organization and it kind of got watered down…through rounds and rounds of meetings and consensus-building.”
When you think about how we throw the term [brand] about, more often than not we are describing something we do—a brand strategy or campaign, not the associations we are trying to create. … We use it too often to create a false sense of control and a mistaken belief that we manage the brand. The models we use reinforce this: the tools of temples and pyramids are about what we build, not how people respond to them. The tools we use to shape brands are not fit for purpose. They are used to create simplicity and consistency which run counter to a culture of complexity and change.
This led us to a fascinating conversation on what agencies should be using instead of these “temples and pyramids.” Gareth argues consultancies should:
- “Show the thing,” a mantra at Chapter—essentially prototyping real-world applications to showcase brand ideas rather than trying to capture them with words alone, which he calls “a very lossy form of compression.”
- Avoid wordsmithing. He quotes a friend, Russel Davies, “you’ll be discussing whether a brand is funny or…humorous.” “Is that really the best use of our time, of our money, of our resources?” he asks.
The brand model used at Chapter is a “Brand Operating System,” the underlying code and principles that define everything a brand does. The framework includes three layers:
- Belief: What does this brand genuinely believe in the world? This is the problem it’s trying to solve or the opportunity it sees.
- Purpose: What do you do as a brand given your belief?
- Pursuits: Because we believe X (our Belief) and we’re going to do Y about it in the world (our Purpose), we will do the following things. The Pursuits are normally three, action-oriented principles.
Gareth provided a detailed example of the Brand Operating System by talking through Chapter’s work for Silent Circle.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Gareth Kay, thank you so much for joining the show.
GARETH: Thank you very much, indeed, for the invite to join.
R: Tell me a little bit about Chapter, the agency that you now run. How big is it, what kind of work are you doing, and what types of clients do you have.
G: Of course. We’re roughly a young company, we’re about three and a bit years old now. We have about 10 people full time. As a company, we talk very much about being a creative studio that is really focused on designing soulful brands that thrive in an age of unreasonable customer expectations. We do this by making things that close the growing disconnect between what people expect and what brands currently offer. That disconnect is huge, and it is growing.
R: You used a couple of phrases in there. You called yourselves a creative studio and it sounded like from some of what you’re saying you’re trying to move away from what would traditionally be thought of as an advertising agency. That’s a purposeful decision.
G: Absolutely, absolutely. I love to work in a world of advertising for whatever it was, 15, 16 years. I was very, very lucky to work at some great companies, with some great people, on some great brands doing what I think is really interesting work. But my sense was there was a need to try and build a different type of creative company. It was perhaps a little bit less constrained by some of the legacy of the past, and I think, more importantly, not constrained by silos or by channels, and that really led to the decision to try and build something a little bit more from the ground up.
We do talk about ourselves as being a studio, and that’s partly to reflect the type and size of company we want to be. We don’t want to be another hundred-person agency or creative company without figuring out what the needs are nowadays, to be quite honest. We also call ourselves a studio because we want to really stress that we’re not just consultants, we actually make things. We really believe in the kind of power of applied strategy which is, “Showing the thing, not just showing the PowerPoint slide.”
R: You mentioned the history in advertising, the first 15 years of your career. You really come from that world, and I don’t. One of the reasons I was excited to talk to you is to get a little bit of an outside perspective on this world that I’ve come up in, of really brand consulting. I’d love to hear your thoughts and to the degree that you can share what you think the general perception of the brand consulting world is amongst people in the advertising world. When I say brand consulting, I’m talking about David Aaker, Interbrand, Landor, these big agencies.
G: Yes. It’s a great question. I think it’s very difficult to paint in a broad brush because all types of companies, particularly companies in the kind of advice business, there are good companies and there are less good companies. I’m a huge fan, for example, of David and what he’s doing at Prophet, I think they’re a really interesting org. I think there’s definitely a growing awareness of brand consultancies inside agencies. I think that’s because more and more clients are using them.
Now, increasingly towards the end of my time at Goodby Silverstein, we were seeing more and more briefs that were coming in from clients that had basically gone through the brand consultancy first. I went to the kind of thinking around what does a brand stand for? How does a brand behave and feel out there in the world, have been done by the brand agencies. When it was good, you would be a little bit miffed because it’s something, as the strategist, what you really love doing was actually cracking the bigger fort around the brand. But then you really get angry when you were given something that may look clever on a piece of paper, but actually, was not very useful to you because frankly, it was unexecutable. Or worse still, was a piece of thinking that was clearly designed to get through the armies of different interests inside a client organization.
R: Sure. Built consensus.
G: Yeah. It got watered down to be a piece of consensus or committee speak that really lost all its teeth and lost all its point of view and sharpness through rounds and rounds of meetings and consensus building. It’s kind of two big moments where you went, “Oh my Lord!”
R: Do you feel like on some fundamental level, though there’s a difference between how advertising agencies think about brand versus how brand consultancies think about it? Again, just hard to generalize?
G: It’s hard to generalize, but I think when it’s done well, I think good agency strategists, for example, are really good expansive thinkers about the totality of the brand.
R: You said expansive, I thought I heard expensive.
G: When done properly, Rob. When done properly. It was no reason why those two words have got this usually one vowel that’s different between them. But I feel that there’s a growing trend, sadly, inside agencies where there’s been this kind of increasing specialization, this increasing commoditization as a result of that. Increasingly, what masquerades brand thinking actually is advertising campaign thinking. And they’re thinking about, “What’s the interesting nugget we can build an ad campaign around?”
A great saying that I think Mark Waites who’s one of the partners of Mother in London once said, which was too many agencies basically walk into the meeting room and go, “Here’s your ad. Now, what’s your problem?” They see the kind of world as being full of advertising-sized holes to fill. I think they perhaps live in a model of thinking where they believe advertising is a strong lever and a strong determinant of the overall brand rather than the reality which is it is but one part, and arguably, an increasingly less strong part of the overall brand personality.
R: Speaking of just brand thinking, I was really interested in the article you wrote last year called “The ‘brand’ word.” It was published in WARC. In it, you argue that we should be more careful about how we use the word brand. I just want to read a little bit of what you wrote to jog your memory. It says, “When you think about how we throw the term brand about, more often than not, we are describing something we do, a brand strategy or campaign, not the associations we are trying to create. We use it too often to create a false sense of control, and a mistaken belief that we manage the brand. The models we use reinforce this. The tools of temples and pyramids are about what we build, not how people respond to them. The tools we use to shape brands are not fit for purpose, they’re used to create simplicity and consistency which run counter to a culture of complexity and change.”
I’m of course intimately familiar with those temples and pyramids. That’s the stuff of brand consulting in a lot of ways. I’m not necessarily a big fan of them, at least some of the time. I was hoping you could give a little more detail of what’s wrong with them in your view and what we should be using instead if anything.
G: Okay, yes. I think there’s probably two forts that lie inside that. The first is around the old classic thing around stimulus and response. Reality is brands are a response to something out there in the world, it’s what people feel, it is the kind of patterns and associations. They get formed in someone’s mind sometimes knowingly, more often than not unknowingly. I think it comes back again to that motion of starting with people and working back from there, and trying to understand what are the associations, the mental reinforcements you are trying to build in someone’s mind, to make them feel more favorably to brand X rather than brand Y.
The unfortunate thing is inside many advice companies and ad agencies are particularly guilty of this, is that we think a brand is about something we do. It’s about brand campaigns, it’s about the brand, the temple, and it is literally about we will—in ad agency world—say these things to people and that will make them do something or think or feel something as a result rather than thinking much more about how do you want people to feel about this brand. And then trying to work back from there, to work out how can you best build those associations over time. It was our first issue which is just the old problem of stimulus versus response. Sometimes mistakenly […] those two things.
I think then the second fort which is around the tools we use is we got a couple of problems, one is language and words by themselves are a very lousy form of compression. We’re trying to pack very complex ideas often quite intangible, soft ideas, into words and the danger becomes we don’t really pick very good words that really count of our assessment because they’re just hard to find. Then secondly, those words get misconstrued in terms of what their meaning are, depending on who you are, the context you see those words in, etc. It becomes an issue, I think, we’re trying to use words as a medium for getting across the sensibility of a brand.
Secondly, I just think all the tools we built are designed to be, I would argue, less about distillation and more about reduction. I’m a big believer that simplicity is really, really important and really, really powerful. But that should be distillation of thinking, simplicity, rather than maybe slightly brutal reduction where we’re chopping off arms and limbs to get to something, which I think is far too often the case in terms of those models.
On top of that, I would just say that those are models that were basically built consensus inside client organizations that built a frankly stand alone on a one page, on a chart, so you get the temples and the brand pyramids, and the brand keys. All of which have got some value and sometimes can say they are meaningless. But I think we put way too much weight on what these words mean. You end up having far too many meetings.
My friend Russell Davies used to complain about where you will be discussing whether a brand is funny, whether it’s humorous, and literally spending four months and dollars in research to try and disentangle this. You kind of go, “Is that really the best use of our time, of our money, of our resources?”
R: I’ve been in those calls and on those meetings.
G: They’re glorious, aren’t they?
R: Yes, and I hear what you’re saying. I guess I want to push back on a couple of points. I agree with so much of what you’re saying, I get that some of these models with all of their boxes that need to filled in with words. A friend of mine used to call them parking lots. Anyone on the leadership team of the client could have their word that they wanted to make sure was in there, their idea, and it just became a parking lot for everyone’s ideas. It ended up meaning nothing. I hear you on that.
But in terms of using words to try to capture these intangible ideas, what better tools do we have other than words? What should we be using if we’re not trying to use language to articulate and capture the essence of a brand?
G: We have a mantra here which is “show the thing.” It’s about trying to bake the thinking that we’re doing and the journey we’re going on not in words but actually in things that a real person in the world might see or be exposed. It’s not making out fully blown thing, but it’s prototyping what a brand might look, feel, behave like. Whoever is thinking about what might a poster for this brand look like or what might an experience for this brand feel like, if that’s kind of a new product, or whether that’s a web experience.
I think it’s much more about trying to show the reality of the thing rather than having this kind of intermediation of the words on a chart. I have this revelation about the power of showing the thing when I worked with the Creative Lab at Google and Andy Berndt is an absolute genius. I love the guy. He has got amazing energy and I think he’s built a creative company who we greatly admire. Often we talk about ourselves as trying to in many ways emulate what the Creator Lab does, emulate what the Eames Studios did back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
It’s really about not building charts that have words on there but actually very quickly, in no more than three slides, expressing what the challenge or what situation is, what the opportunity can be. And then, beginning to show what they actually might feel like if you are a real person in the world, as opposed to building some kind of tool. But by its very nature will have some kind of bias about thinking in there, and by its very nature we will be making decisions to get to a set of words where it’s the reductive nature of sacrificing the heart of strategy, or to your point, the parking lot where you are leaving space for the CEO, for the CFO to go and dump all their words to make them feel better about life. Just about trying to, in many ways, jump to the end. Really begin to help people see what the brand might feel like, what it might behave like.
R: I take that to mean you guys at Chapter are not using any sort of brand model that consistently articulates what a brand stands for.
G: We have a brand model but it’s just very different, I think, to the ones I worked with in my past. Where lots of people are using terminology now but we have a model where we talk about our brand operating system. Really thinking about what is the underlying code and principles that informs everything a brand does. It’s not about what does the brand say, it’s much more about how does actually the brand behave, feel, turn up in the world. That’s about essentially three layers of things.
One is around what’s your belief. What does this brand genuinely believe in the world, what is the problem it’s trying to solve for people, or what is the opportunity that it’s trying to see. That’s what you really do in the work of trying to express the human problem or opportunity that lies behind the business problem or opportunity.
You then have falling out of that belief, a purpose, now that’s the most […] weren’t using that word still because I think it’s become incredibly […] using a buzzword and become mistaken but really that is about what do you do as a brand given your belief. If you believe X about the world, you are going to do Y in reaction to that.
Rather than having those kind of […] suit games of tone of voice or main message or reasons to believe, we just have a thing we call pursuits. That’s basically because we believe this and we’re going to go and do this about it in the world. In order to fulfill our purpose, we will do the following things, which are normally three very action oriented sets of principles. We find that thinking about building the brand that way removes the pressure on each word that’s in there. It becomes something that’s more instructional and inspirational for people.
R: Can you give one example of a pursuit that a brand might use, whether it’s a real case or hypothetical?
G: We worked with Silent Circle. Silent Circle are initially were company that offered apps for your phone, whether it’s an Apple device or an Android device. They gave you very secure, highly encrypted messaging and phone calls. They realized but actually it’s a bigger opportunity to think about could we create a phone, a piece of hardware in our own device, of our own operating system on it that was the most secure mobile device for anyone. They were absolutely mindset and locked in on security as being their big thing.
We talked to them actually about it sounds semantic but there’s a difference between privacy and security, security almost born out of a reactive, please don’t let me get hacked. Privacy is a bit more of an optimistic thing, and frankly a piece of language that real people talk about much more often. For them, their operating system, we had a belief which is based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that privacy is a right. We built a purpose falling out of that belief which is about putting you in control of privacy.
I think the in control piece was really important and you being in control of it so you weren’t literally just relying on the platform to do it, it’s about creating yes, a more secure infrastructure to enable privacy but it’s also about trying to help people understand things they could do when they were using not just a black phone but frankly any form of technology to live a more private life and those are down to your actions as much as they are down to what are manufacturer will do for you. And then we have three simple procedures flowed from that purpose of putting it in control of privacy.
In order to do this, the first thing was creating a simple and secure a starting point for communication. That means we actually helped redesign the onboarding experience for the black phone when the first phones launched. The onboarding felt remarkably secure, it took about 3 hours and 57 screens. It was really secure but it just felt incredibly onerous and not very seamless. We worked with them to create an onboarding that had all the security of before but could be done in five screens and three minutes, kind of on par with setting up any other type of phone.
Secondly is about providing proof, not just promises. We really wanted to make sure that the communication we did was really about demonstrating what we do as a company to put you in control of privacy but also to give you the tools, tips, education to live a more private life.
And then thirdly is about continually setting the standard for privacy without compromise. Our big push on them was yes, we can live private lives but honestly to do that, you almost have to go into the disconnect the internet and put a silver hat on your head made out of foil and be in a room. But actually it’s about trying to deliver an experience in the phone that was still as delightful, and as seamless, and as useful as the best Android devices or an iPhone that had all the privacy in there. Really thinking about if we are making something that’s private by design, how can we do that while still not making you compromise on what you want to do overtime for the experience you were going through.
R: That’s a great example. Thanks for running through that. What’s the process that you use to get to that brand operating system? Importantly, how do you avoid the consensus driven approach that we talked about earlier and the wordsmithing that seems to be inevitable sometimes.
G: It feels like there’s a lot of word that will go into creating what that system can be. Part of that is doing the homework. Talking to people, looking at the competitive landscape, looking at adjacent brands and different categories that perhaps have tackled similar types of problems or see similar types of opportunities, what we can learn from them. But I think the joy of the operating system is one you haven’t got so rigorous a set of here’s five values, what the brands need to have is much more about directional instructions rather than putting pressure on individual words.
Secondly, it’s about showing how that comes to life very, very quickly. In many ways, asking less people to buy the words that exist perhaps on a page and you are going do you believe those instructions are right to create a brand that feels like this. It can begin to build associations in people’s minds around these things. It just takes a pressure in many ways off the words, off the “architecture” and actually begins to help people see what the finished building might look like renders much more powerful than blueprints.
R: Great. A couple of wrap-up questions. Are there any brands out there—I want to stipulate a rule here, you can’t choose one of your own clients. Are there any brands that you just feel like are doing everything right?
G: Good Lord. That is a heck of a question. Honestly, I think so many brands are a little bit broken. If you look at all the data that comes out of […] brand started and they basically say that most people couldn’t care if three out of four brands disappear tomorrow. You immediately got one in four brands that seem to have some type of value to people. That becomes quite a good reductive exercise in the first place.
I guess I’ll just talk about a brand that I personally feel is just absolutely nailing it, a brand that comes out in the UK, it’s a brand where it’s set up by a guy called David Hieatt called Hiut Denim. David was an ex advertising copywriter, his first business was an amazing clothing brand redesigned for cyclists called Howies. They did lots of brilliant stuff around their brand.
But Hiut Denim, there’s a wonderful thing about it where it feels incredibly natural and organic. There’s a lovely human ambition they have for their brand which is to become the biggest denim manufacturer in Cardigan, in the Northern Wales. There’s no sense of, “Hey! We want to be the world’s biggest brand.” What we’re trying to do is breathe life back into what was once a dominant industry inside our town that basically lost its way.” It’s really a town that had so many people with amazing craftsman skills to make the best jeans that were out there and had basically been lost by the forces of commoditization of badly run businesses, etc., etc., etc. It was a wonderful way he’s giving back to the community so he tells amazing stories about the regeneration of a town which they play a small part in.
But I think when it gets down to how they market the brand, there’s just this lovely mantra they have about doing one thing well. They’re not trying to build chinos and shirts and everything else, they make really damn good jeans. As a result of that, they produce some lovely stuff where there’s a great weekly newsletter where they tell a story about what’s going on in the factory in a very engaging, humble way. They tell stories and they point towards other brands that they believe do one thing really, really well which creates this lovely neighborhood of brands where they associate themselves with. And then they make this absolutely delightful angle report as they call it every year which is not the financial annual report, it’s just a story of the town, of the people, some of the products they made, of those brands that do one thing well.
I think similar to them, Allbirds who probably got a remarkable valuation for what is basically a two year old company at the moment but just their obsession with making a more comfortable sneaker made from amazing, high quality wool from New Zealand. I’ll pit you all some stories on what they’re doing. They’re doing some really lovely little activations now. They got this great partnership for example with Air New Zealand which is a natural partner for them given the wool comes from New Zealand, where they’re making face masks for the premium cabins now out of the wool they use to make their sneakers. They made the face mask just feel full of whimsy and full of love. It’s just something that’s worth honestly talking about, putting a photo up on Instagram. They look cool.
R: Those are two great examples. I’m familiar with Allbirds but not the denim brand, I’ll check that out. Last question. I know you do a lot, Gareth, in what you write and before we started recording we were talking about the online planning school. I know you do a lot to give back to the community of strategists and planners out there but just given the success you’ve had in your career I’m curious what one piece of advice you have for young people that are interested in getting into whether it’s planning in the more traditional advertising space or just generally strategy and the brand and marketing world.
G: Oh my Lord. The pat answer is do everything you can to be curious about the world you live in. Stop reading advertising books, advertising blogs, marketing books, marketing blogs, etc., etc., and take time to observe the world around you. Get off your computer, get off your phone, walk around, listen to people’s conversations, try and find interesting stuff that’s going on in culture and think about what you can learn from them. Build that bank of just rich stuff in the world to learn. I think that’s one really important thing I would ask people to do. Just fill your mind with just really interesting random stuff.
I think the second thing is maximize your chance of interesting collisions being formed and building an interesting take on the type of work you do. That’s really about being less obsessed about the companies you work for and the brands you work on, and really spotting really interesting generous people to work with who have different takes of what strategy is and can be. There’s a great adage that Jeremy Bullmore from WPP, about how brands are built like birds, build their nest from the scraps and straws they chance upon. I think the same is true of how you build up your planning or strategy style.
There’s no right answer, if there was, MBAs would rule the world. Actually, MBAs are going out of business because AI machine learning would begin to rule the world because it will be some type of rule based binary form of decision making. The reality is there’s an infinite number of ways of doing strategy.
R: Real argument in favor of eclecticism.
G: Yes, absolutely.
R: A little bit of randomness, lack of prescriptiveness is the theme across everything you’re saying. I love it. Gareth, thank you so much for joining and hope to talk to you again soon.
G: Rob, likewise. Thank you for having me on.