In 2012, the Guardian released its last blockbuster TV ad, at least for the foreseeable future. Three Little Pigs was a big moment in advertising – beautifully crafted and stuffed full of a big idea (of how journalism is a complex, open-source beast that the public could play its part in shaping), the ad was loved by the public and showered in awards by the industry.
Watching it now though, it speaks of another era, in both the media and in advertising. Its rather naïve, optimistic message of how the public influencing the news agenda will be a wholeheartedly good thing now feels a little painful to watch. And in ad terms it all seems a bit, well, self-indulgent, particularly for an organisation that has been open about its financial struggles.
The Guardian’s marketing efforts today seem lean and channelled in comparison. Much of it is focused on its requests for support or subscriptions, via an ongoing message about the power of its editorial independence – “Our journalism is free from the influence of billionaire owners or politicians” – but also on the promotion of its sub-brands, such as its dating site Guardian Soulmates (see top), or particular aspects of its output, such as VR. The work certainly doesn’t lack charm – the Guardian has always recognised the power of design and is naturally good with words – but the message is arguably less dramatic and all-encompassing than previous efforts have been.
Subscribe to Change campaign (created in collaboration with Karmarama)
The team delivering this marketing has changed dramatically too. As of two years ago, the Guardian parted company with its ad agency of several years, BBH, and now produces the majority of the work in-house, with Karmarama also producing campaigns on a project-by-project basis.
Unusually, the in-house team at the Guardian is not permanent, however, but instead provided by Oliver, a company that specialises in providing ad teams that are built inside companies. This allows for the flexibility that the Guardian needs, explains Marketing Director, Sonia Sudhakar, meaning that the team can scale up or down when needed and also draw on the expertise offered at Oliver.
Being in-house also allows the team to really understand the Guardian’s unique tone of voice. “The copywriting team really need to understand the tone of voice because words are really important to us,” says Sudhakar, “you can’t just jet in another copywriter and hope for the best, it’s really critical.”
This deep understanding of the brand is the major benefit of being in-house, says Sam Jacobs, who is Creative Director, Marketing at the Guardian, and leads its in-house team. “You’re in the brand, you live it and understand it. It’s a brand I care about and love anyway, which is massively helpful.
“I feel the difference in working in-house versus the way we worked before is being able to get to the right solution faster, not wasting time,” he says. “Because you strip away all that need to learn everything, you can get to the most creative place possible quicker. So that’s really, really nice.”
Placard created by the Guardian for the march against Trump’s visit to the UK which took place in London in July
Promotion of the new Guardian Weekly
Jacobs has also been surprised by the insights into the marketing process he has gained by being on the inside of a brand. “I’ve learnt more about marketing than I ever, ever knew,” he says. “Having worked in advertising and design for I don’t know how long, it felt like coming here, after a year suddenly I understand what marketing really is and it’s not just the creative solution to a brief. It’s all of the stuff before that, that gets you to this point – all of these business problems, all of these wants and needs of all of these different people within a business. Seeing it all you really get a clearer understanding of how it works and how you can help people to achieve what they want to achieve. And also get a result the brand should be aiming for.”
There are negatives of course, with the pitfalls of this set up familiar to any in-house team. “The negative side of it is that routine, rigidity thing that you have to fight against,” says Jacobs.
To help battle the dangers of over-familiarity that come with in-house working, the marketing team will bring in ad agency Karmarama to help with certain briefs, and has recently experimented with running ‘creative sprints’, where the in-house team will work in partnership with Karmarama creatives to come up with solutions. This has been the most successful approach so far, according to Sudhakar.
“Previously it was very much big agencies getting the brief and they would bury themselves away and then the work would come back to us. This just feels so much more connected,” she says.
Promotion of the Guardian’s VR projects
The sprints usually take place over a couple of days and may also be repeated following feedback to further move the ideas along. “I think there’s this Google idea of what a sprint is, which come with these really fixed rules, and we don’t do that,” says Jacobs. “It is just working really quickly, in an agile way and really collaboratively. That’s not massively breaking the mould of anything that’s ever been done before but it does really yield results.
“When you’re in-house, you get that routine, rigidity thing, and this does help break it – you’re forced to think differently, in a way where you’re away from everything else, it pushes you in a different direction.”
For Sudhakar, the deep knowledge of the in-house team can pair really successfully with the ideas of an external agency in a sprint. “What you can get with an external agency that aren’t as connected to you is great, really interesting ideas, but they just don’t feel like the brand sometimes, and they’re disconnected,” she explains. “Basically [the internal team] catches that before it comes to us, so by the time we see them they are great, interesting ideas that feel right for our brand. So there isn’t the moment where as a client you go, ‘yeah, really nice but not for us, thanks’. You don’t have that moment.”
Jacobs acknowledges that there can sometimes be some competitive tension between the in-house and external teams but says when overcome, it can be a positive experience to work closely together in this way. “There’s always tension from both sides in that, it’s totally natural for it to be competitive,” he says. “I think the first time we did it, it was probably higher. Subsequent times we’ve worked together it’s mellowed…. We’re getting better at it, we’re getting better at understanding how to get the best out of external people as an extension of the Guardian’s marketing team.
“So with their support and with our understanding of where we fit in things becoming more clear to us, then we can harness that in a better way. Of course naturally my feeling is I just want to do everything and I want to do the most creative, best possible work I can do and push and push and push myself. Because I’m a creative person and that’s what I think drives us. But at the same time it’s not about my ego, it’s about getting the best work, so I want to make sure that that happens.”
Support for the Guardian messaging
Alongside other ad agencies, the Guardian ad team also has the benefit of having a team of top-flight journalists in the same building, and has drawn on the editors and writers for ideas and advice. Again, this has been far easier to achieve since the team has been in-house. “It’s really quick – just popping up to somebody’s desk,” says Sudhakar. “Whereas before you had to really make it a formal thing, where you had to book an appointment with an editor to come down and brief the agency.”
“If we have the journalists all around us anyway, to get their perspective – whether it’s editors, journalists, or video makers, if we can get their perspective on how stories came together or on the way they work, or why the Guardian’s framing certain stories in a certain way, then we get a really good understanding, for inspiration,” says Jacobs.
These insights have particularly informed the approach the team has taken to the copy used to help prompt readers to support the Guardian’s journalism, either via one-off contributions or a regular subscription. Much of the style and tone has been inspired by Editor Katherine Viner’s vision for the organisation.
“What we’ve tried to do, and I think successfully, is to link the reason to support to the purpose of the Guardian, says Sudhakar. “When Katherine Viner really articulated the purpose of the Guardian, it gave us this brilliant essay with a lot of fodder of how we were to frame our ask for support. It was powerful, and that works, it really resonates with our readers. It links support to the reasons that the Guardian is a force for good.
Guardian subscription advertising
Guardian Soulmates ad
“There’s a line in Katherine’s purpose that we really stood by,” she continues, “which is ‘using clarity and imagination to build hope’. In a sentence, you get a real feel for our tone of voice, because that’s what we’ve tried to employ. So clarity – don’t use 100 words when you can use 10, keep it simple. Imagination – make people think in terms of ideas, not just anger and gloom and doom. And the hope is an extension of that – this is about our editorial building new ideas for a new way to tackle the issues.
“So actually, even though it sounds pretty grandiose, it does give a really good steer I think to our tone. It’s taken us away from something that was quite angry sometimes – not all the time. I think for its time it was probably right – we went out there at one point with a very [strong message]: ‘no one edits our editor’. Which are lines that we still use, but coupled with other things. And we’re still learning.”
The Guardian’s quirky approach to a media planning pack
The messaging has undoubtedly been successful in prompting readers to voluntarily put their hands in their pockets, which is certainly no mean feat, with the Guardian’s widely stated three-year business plan/mission currently on track. Yet, the tone has at times met with a negative reaction, from the newspaper being accused of begging, to a more nuanced analysis from Nick Asbury, which questions the effectiveness of the messages.
In response to these criticisms, Sudhakar points out that a little bit of controversy is no bad thing, though says they are always rethinking and considering the message. “I think if any type of creative is controversial enough to provoke debate, that’s a good thing,” she says. “The ultimate test is ‘is it working?’ and it is. I think we do often need to check in though … there’s a danger you can just layer and layer and layer on top of that, so we do question it. It’s not something that we think is done and we’re not going to change it, it needs to be refreshed. So all criticism is useful in that context as well.”
As to whether we’ll see a Three Little Pigs style spot from the Guardian any time soon, both Sudhakar and Jacobs are doubtful, with Jacobs even wondering whether the blockbuster TV ad is the right approach generally in today’s complex media landscape.
The Guardian’s GDPR messaging
“I think there’s a question in general, not just for us, but for everyone, whether ads like that still have a place,” he says. “Everyone who works in advertising, that’s what they would love to do, that’s the dream. But the net result of it…? Occasionally there can be moments when it is so perfect, it taps into a cultural moment, it’s the right mood, the right ad. And it is a big overblown production – that’s brilliant, there’s still a place for it, and it still makes my heart sing when I see an ad like that…. But I also think that taking the care to do that across everything that we do is so important.”
“We haven’t been on TV for years,” agrees Sudhakar. “I think there’s something about smarter media. We’re openly on a mission to break even so going out and spending millions on TV doesn’t massively align with that…. It’s much more interesting to come in and build a media plan from the audience up.”The post Bringing the Guardian’s advertising in-house appeared first on Creative Review.