I’ve always thought creativity shared a lot of common ground with comedy.
Comedians see things differently. They can reframe familiar things into something fresh.
They collide bits of the world together to create something new, be it absurd or profound.
Last night I was at an event, run by the lovely people at Twitter, that really brought this comparison home for me.
It was called #FurtherFaster. Four talks – three from social media practitioners at agencies, and one from a comedian, David Schneider.
Like so many other joke writers has found Twitter to be a fertile and receptive place for his humour.
It’s particularly good for topical comics – especially satirists. The accelerating pace of news and commentary creates a perfect zone for comics who can move fast enough.
As Schneider explained it: “the multiplier of topicality is what makes it really funny.”
There was a lot in all these talks about making the most of topicality.
Speakers majored on the value of proactive planning – being equipped for reactive improvisation. Most measures of success were about how well activity had found an audience.
But there was a different subtext for me.
This was really all about how important it is for a brand to find its voice.
The case studies that really worked (Paul McCrudden‘s Dorito’s story, and the Lynx dogging tale from Mark Carroll) worked because it felt like the brands had found their place in popular culture and knew how to articulate it.
This proved invaluable when they each sweated (sorry) over the right tone to adopt when responding to respective crises.
Now I know I may get into trouble for this, but the #DancePonyDance example didn’t work quite so well for me. At heart it’s an ad idea with some social bolted on. And an app.
It was a campaign planned to begin and end, and the interactions start to fall away just as the TV stops airing.
This is not a criticism. If anything it shows how difficult it is to generate genuinely sticky brand activity within social channels.
(As an aside, there was also a nice reminder that engagement social channels with TV programmes should be considered as part of the media planning process. Imagine if TV spots were evaluated in terms of their Twitter rating as well as BARB ratings – something I talked about a while back.)
But it’s a great reminder that brands are always up against real life. This is normally far more interesting and important for anyone we might glibly consider to be our ‘audience’.
And this is where the comedy lessons come in.
1. Timing is everything.
Schneider sees joke-telling on Twitter as akin to surfing. You need to ride the topical wave and catch it at just the right time.
Too early and the audience isn’t ready; too late and it’s old news.
He writes jokes that need to be held back for just the right news item. That takes nerve and confidence. (I for one am looking forward to the moment that’s right for his one on Gove.)
Brands’ sense of timing is important too, and it has huge implications for agencies and their resource.
How quickly should Lynx have acknowledged the fact that a masked dogger in a Channel 4 documentary was blatantly using the product as part of his, er, night-time routine? How much approval did the Nando’s community management team have to go through in order to secure an extra 5 minutes opening time on the day of Alex Ferguson’s retirement?
For brands this is a question as much of judgement as it is of spontaneity.
Judicious scheduling doesn’t always mean reacting straight away.
The phrase ‘real-time’ planning essentially derives from ‘quicker than conventional ad production methods allow’.
Now we’ve adapted to the pace that people and platforms are setting for us, perhaps we should start talking less about ‘real-time’ planning and more about ‘right-time’ planning.
2. Don’t be afraid to up the ante.
Humour, I think, is inherently transgressive.
It plays with expectations. It mashes things together in surprising ways, that sometimes skirt the boundaries of acceptability or familiarity.
Now, no-one’s going to go out and get Frankie Boyle to live tweet their next signature event. But retaining some of the comedian’s remit to test, probe and cajole is going to be increasingly important.
Certain brands on Twitter live or die on the strength of their personality. Anything anodyne is death.
Personality is often the very thing that gets smoothed down as part of the approval process around advertising.
Being more playful and more experimental in social makes absolute sense. It’s what gets a reaction. It’s more likely to prompt another share, another +1.
It also allows a brand to create associations with a greater number of smaller things. TV is essentially utilitarian: the most motivating thing for the most number of people.
Jeremy Bullmore’s ‘bird’s nest’ theory of brands makes more sense. They’re made up of lots of tiny, interlocking associations. And social is tailor-made for creating new ones.
Paul McCrudden made the point when he talked about the times the Dorito’s team would stop and say, hang on, this is Dorito’s. How can we go further? How can we play with and exceed the expectations of the people who they’re interacting with.
I liked that.
3. Heckling is a gift
Hecklers give the performer the chance to prove itself. Is there a better win for a stand-up than when they deal confidently, smartly, unexpectedly and graciously with someone in the crowd?
In social it’s often the public setting the brief.
They provide the random stimulus that a brand should respond to.
When Ross Noble asked rhetorically on TV why Dorito’s had a Twitter account, and suggested people Twitter bomb them with ridiculous questions, he inadvertently gave the brand the material it needed to prove the value of it being on Twitter in the first place.
It allowed the brand to engage with culture, rather than (like 3) be forced to contrive it out of nothing.
Mark made the great point that in response to a crisis a brand has three tools: a community manager, 140 characters and someone else’s hashtag.
This kind of creative restriction should be a gift to any smart and engaged brand. It’s the kind of randomised lateral creativity that De Bono championed.
There’s something backs-to-the-wall about it. There simply isn’t the luxury of time, as there is with advertising, to over-think and second-guess what you should do. You just need to do it.
Perhaps it’s appropriate to end with a joke I once heard from a speaker.
He posited two scenarios.
In the first, a grenade is thrown into a room of 10 people with the pin pulled. The 10 people pull together, act in the moment and decide what they’re going to do.
In the second, a brick is thrown into the room. A note is attached, saying that in 1 hour a grenade will be thrown in, pin pulled.
The 1o people form a committee and spend 59 minutes arguing about what their strategy should be.
The lesson in all this?
Sometimes you just have to see the funny side.