Facebook’s Mark D’Arcy: ‘Build for where people are, not where they were’

Between various speaking and interview engagements, Kiwi-born Mark D’Arcy, the chief creative officer at Facebook, was given a tour of the new NZME offices—a moment that gave him a twinge of nostalgia, given that his father once worked at the Herald. 

However, the building that he walked around in could not be more different than that which his father once worked in. It has been modernised to become more complicit with changes that have been forced upon it by companies like the one D’Arcy works for.

If the creators of ad:tech were looking for something to embody this year’s theme of ‘Crossing the digital divide and championing collaboration’ there really couldn’t be a better—unashamedly postmodern—representation of this than a Facebook ambassador walking around the recently renovated abode of a legacy publisher.

So what exactly did D’Arcy think of what he saw?

“I thought it was incredibly impressive,” says D’Arcy. “I think the way they’ve organised around interests and passions is a great move.”

This notion of organising around interests isn’t unique among digital companies, with the Netflix vice president of product innovation Todd Yellin pointing out that demographic information regarding age and gender is less relevant in an age when 19-year-old guys watch Dance Moms and 73-year-old women are into Breaking Bad

This thinking resonates with D’Arcy, who says that brands need to find out what their audiences are interested in and then structure their companies along those interest guidelines. 

“Your organising principle is what is the best system to deliver the most value for the people who spend time with us. It’s not about protecting legacy structures and belief systems to make us feel good. It’s about making better things for people and for business partners.”

D’Arcy advises those in the industry not to be resistant to change, pointing out that technology advances have disrupted the industry time and time again.

“The first commercials I did were made on actual film,” he says. “They were cut with a razor blade. Then, eventually we shifted onto computers, but there were still people out there who said they would always continue using film. And you don’t want to be that person.”

Instead, he says, creative should embrace the opportunities and experiment with what’s on offer. 

“Something we often say in my team is ‘just play more’. Stop being so bound up in segments and rules and data. Just start looking at it as a playful expression of how you can learn  and fail and test some ideas … The paint on this stuff is still wet. And creative people should be leaping on it and finding new ways to use it.”

His advice also extends to those on the client side who might be sticking to the processes that have always worked rather than experimenting with some of the new features available in the digital world.

“If you don’t do it, someone else will – someone will be leading this charge to engage with the people on this platform,” he says.

“Whether you’re a media planner or a client, you need to start each year with a clean sheet of paper and ask: to whom do I need to connect, and where are they? And you need build for where people are, not where they were. All of our legacy systems and biases are based on where we were … Today 2.1 million people in New Zealand are on Facebook every day on average 14 times a day. And that wasn’t true ten years ago. So if you’re looking at your comms and media plan and it looks suspiciously like the one you had ten years ago, then you’re probably building for where people were.” 

While there’s always a risk involved in shifting ad spend from a trusted channel to one that’s new, D’Arcy says that marketers should let the results determine whether the approach works (and, as he points out, when people leave their cushy corporate jobs and start their own business, they inevitably focus on new media channels, so why not try it in your big company?).  

“Our measurement technology ensures that every dollar, pound or yen being invested by our clients is driving real results,” he says.

The measurability of digital campaigns is often bandied about as a major advantage to clients, but it has also been met with criticism by some who say that impedes on creativity and causes marketers and creative to focus on numbers rather than creating some great. 

But D’Arcy disagrees.

“Advertising is a commercial art form, and the commercial part of it is about whether it’s driving growth,” he says. “To say to a client ‘my idea has an economic value’ has to be good for the arts … Creative capital, as I like to think of it, becomes more integral to commercial success. It’s not some lightweight KPI. It’s actually measurable.”

He says the fact that value of creativity can now be measured has reverberated across the industry, with an increasing number of companies hiring staff specifically dedicated to tasks of a more creative persuasion. 

“When I got into the business, creative people could only be found in the creative department of an advertising industry, but now creative departments exist in many, many businesses. The elements and variables of our business demand that creative people, who can see and build things, aren’t restricted to one part of a business. They need to be throughout.”

In much the same way that media companies are moving away from their traditional structures, D’Arcy recommends that creatives also need to jettison some of the lines and borders that have until now determined where they can colour. 

“Media has moved from the universal truths of good and bad and [from being confined]to genres. It now focuses on the individual, and it’s shaped around you … We are currently seeing a personalisation of marketing where each of us has a uniqueness in terms of where we are in the world and where we are in our day and who are, and this creates an extraordinary opportunity to have things of more relevance delivered to us.”

He often gets asked ‘who uses Facebook well?’ And he responds: ‘Whose Facebook?’ Each one is tailored to the individual and everyone now demands relevancy, to the point where he says the complaint Facebook gets the most is that the ads aren’t relevant enough given all the data they have. As he says, if you see an ad on your Facebook page offering plastic surgery, you might be offended. But if you see it in a magazine, meh.  

It’s no secret that marketers are able to segment their audiences into smaller and smaller groups. That’s the essence of direct marketing. But is there a limit to this? Do we really need to partition people into ever smaller groups, especially in light of the fact that the blanket messaging of television has until now been so effective in driving consumer awareness and creating a sense of bigness (interestingly, the world’s most valuable brand, Apple, doesn’t really embrace digital or social and still spends millions on TV, print and outdoor). 

D’Arcy openly admits that segmentation isn’t always necessary. 

“The segmentation has to serve the purpose. It has to have value that’s worthy of time and attention … It’s just a tactic. What’s important is making things rewarding to people when they see it in their newsfeed. So if you have one film or one photo that is the single greatest thing you could show to every single person and is going to be the single most effective and rewarding thing, then by all means do one thing.”

During his presentation, D’Arcy argued that segmentation can help to drive insights that clever creative ideas can be built upon. A standout example of this was the Wendy’s barbecue campaign, in which the hypothesis that people in certain locations across the United States were more likely to purchase the new barbecue burger on account of what was eventually dubbed ‘barbecue inaccessibility’ was proven correct. That creative was then targeted at them. 

He also points to a campaign for Vanish which featured a range of different pieces of clothing being whitened, with men shown a t-shirt, women shown a bra or mothers shown nappies. When EA Sports launched Madden videogame, it showed a promo clip featuring the team the user supported, rather than a generic one. That people will be more interested in what’s relevant to them all makes intuitive sense. But creative agencies have traditionally created one thing and aimed it at many, so this is a big shift. 

Last year at ad:tech there was a lot of talk about distribution, but very little talk about what you were actually distributing. And that’s where D’arcy’s heritage comes in handy. He understands that it requires a mix of art and science. 

“The people who believe that creativity, creative people and the creative parts of our business are redundant because of technology are 100 percent wrong. The people who believe that creativity is as it was ten years ago … are completely wrong. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.” 

The point he makes segmentation only works if you drive interest. And as he says about the Wendy’s campaign, which was created by VML, even though the insight was good, you still need great writers and great directors to bring it to life. 

“We’re great custodians of our attention and the shift that we’re seeing, particularly in mobile, is that feed-based economies are ones based on discovery, not disruption,” he says.

“And for creatives that’s really exciting because it means we now spend our days making things that people actually want to see. No creative person sits there saying, ‘I’m going to make something awful, and I don’t care’. Any creative person that cares starts their day wanting to put things into the world that are going to absolutely drive business but also be things that they’re going to want to connect with people. That’s gone from being an optional exercise to a mandatory exercise.”

As is always the case with the spokespeople of global tech companies, D’Arcy has a pretty compelling pitch, and it isn’t difficult to see why clients are increasingly satisfied shifting their ad spend across to the likes of Facebook. So given the upward revenue trajectory of Facebook and its huge global usage numbers, do the traditional media players even have a fighting chance?   

“Mainstream media is competing really well with Facebook,” says D’Arcy. “Look at the numbers. They’re doing just fine.”

And with recent investments in new facilities across the board, the traditional players are certainly attempting to re-inforce their ranks in preparation to continue battling it out with the tech players in future. And if the current rate of media transformation continues, who knows what space-aged media platform D’Arcy—or perhaps his progeny—will be spruiking 30 or 40 years from now.  

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