Colm Murphy is the group strategy director for Droga5, an advertising agency based in New York City. The firm’s client roster boasts some of the biggest brands in the world, including Coca-Cola, Chase, Google and Under Armour. Murphy, who led brand strategy for Rolex, Puma and Halls for JWT New York before joining Droga5, talked with Knowledge at Wharton about the creative process behind a successful advertising campaign and how to keep fresh ideas flowing.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you begin working with a new brand or on a new campaign, what are the first questions you ask? What kind of data do you need to get started?
Colm Murphy: We look at the world through four lenses. We call them the Four Cs, which are the company, the category, the consumer and culture. Within each of those, there are different amounts of research that you may need to do, depending on what you already have available and what new questions you need to answer. We get a lot out of digging really deep into what the company is all about, what the DNA and the soul of the organization might be about, what the brand really stands for, not just what it’s selling, what people’s ambitions are, where they want it to go. That’s the first part of it. And the second part of it is the category — what else is happening around the business that this brand is in. What space might there be? What other opportunities? What are the tropes and things you might want to avoid? What are the category dynamics?
The third part is consumer insight, which is probably the one that most people would be familiar with. But what we like to try to do there is get a little deeper, try to get into something that maybe hasn’t been uncovered by normal research. But because consumers are really good at telling you where they are now, what they are thinking about at the moment, the fourth is often the most interesting to us, which is the cultural piece. What’s happening in the culture that surrounds the subject matter that you’re thinking about? Because what’s happening there is where the customers will be in the future. We also do a lot of very qualitative research, often with cultural leaders and experts that can help us unlock a little bit about where things are going to go, rather than where they are now.
Knowledge at Wharton: An article about the agency quoted an executive from Coke Zero who said, “Droga5, they don’t impose their brand on the brand.” What does that mean to you?
“If something is very entertaining or very useful, you have a chance of it becoming viral.”
Murphy: The thing that’s consistent about what we do is the influence that we’re trying to achieve…. The process I was just talking about with the Four Cs is going to be different for every brand and every situation because it has different customers, and they deserve a fresh start every time. Every brand should have its own totally unique point of view, its own purpose and whatever executional elements and style are right for that situation. We have a set of values that we hold that are always the same in how we work, so we’re always creatively led, strategically-driven, digitally native and humanity-obsessed. It’s a set of principles that will always apply and will always get us to the right product for the problem at hand. But I think the similarities work in terms of philosophy more than strategy or execution for any particular brand.
Knowledge at Wharton: Traditionally, when you think of advertising, you think of maybe just a commercial or an ad. But today, it’s about a full campaign. When you’re planning for campaigns these days, how do you determine the right content for each platform and how do you plan for virality?
Murphy: Virality is something that you are rewarded with if you create something that people really get value from. If something is very entertaining or very useful, you have a chance of it becoming viral. But you plan for it being entertaining or useful, not for being viral. That’s something that you have the privilege of being the benefactor of if you create something that people genuinely want. After we do the brand strategy part of what I was talking about with the Four Cs, there’s just as robust a communications planning process where we think about what are the tasks that the communications need to achieve, what are the right channels for achieving those tasks and what is the right content to fill those channels? So it’s all part of a plan, which is far broader than any one particular piece of content. You just pull the right levers at the right time.
Knowledge at Wharton: I wanted to talk more in depth about a campaign you recently worked on for Dixie, which makes cups and plates. This was a campaign planned around the message of #godarkfordinner, which was encouraging people to take a meal with their family but without their devices. This was partly based on a survey that showed that most people use their smartphones or tablets while eating. How did you work with the brand to decide that this was the right match-up in terms of promoting this particular message?
Murphy: It’s fairly common to talk about disposable products as things that can save you time. One thing we found out when we were doing our research was that people were really looking for a more emotional presence around their mealtimes. We thought that the plate was a tool that could help you do that. Once we had established that was what we wanted the brand to stand for, it became a fairly natural evolution to then think about what are the enemies of emotional presence? The biggest one that we found from doing the survey and from other sources is [that technology is] the one thing that just punctures the little bubble you want to try to create around mealtimes.
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s its own bubble.
Murphy: Exactly, and people love those moments. Dixie has a place in that moment, so it’s totally right for that brand to stand up for protecting that moment.
Knowledge at Wharton: Some of these campaigns, like the ones you did around Honey Maid graham crackers, looked at different types of families — nontraditional families and blended families. These are longer, kind of documentary-length commercials. Would you start with the concept and break it down into the smaller pieces that then become the commercial, or do you start with the small and take it to the big?
Murphy: The way that we really think about it is, “What do we want the brand to be known for, and what’s the right way of telling the story?” With the examples where we are getting into quite big cultural discussions, it deserves a longer-format way of bringing it to light. It will be more about what’s the right way of telling the story that we are wanting to tell? And then, commercial. There’s a media plan to fill as well, so if it requires breaking down into smaller segments, then you do that. But I definitely would think about it more in a top-down way, which is, “What’s the story we want to tell? What’s the best way of telling it? And then, what are the right executions to do it?”
Knowledge at Wharton: You recently launched Under Armour’s first global campaign around soccer, or football as most people around the world call it. When you are working on a global campaign, even the wording shows the differences in culture. How are you able to keep that balance?
“It’s better to pick a path and do it properly than it is to water it down with compromise.”
Murphy: It’s really difficult. When you start getting into it, you realize quite how much of the discussion that we have with one another — movies, music, advertising, anything — relies on local nuance and local context. But you’re always looking for the highest common factor that unites everybody that you’re trying to speak to about the subject. Luckily, with that campaign, we had a very specific audience, which was young football players. They are united by football. There’s an attitude that brings all of those guys together, which is about the mental strength that it takes to keep getting up and facing challenges over and over and over again, which is what you can see in the work. We used our global network to validate that, and we spoke to scouts and coaches and people who were involved with teaching young kids soccer. Then we tested the hypothesis in different countries to see if it was a thing that held true — and it did, and that was great.
Knowledge at Wharton: We are in a period where millennials are becoming the dominant consumer group, and then behind them we have what people are calling either Generation Z or the Founders. As they become the majority of consumers, how does that change the way you approach campaigns?
Murphy: The fact that they are bound by an age group is true, but it’s by the [interest or behavior], really. For example, with the Under Armour campaign, we were looking at kids of a certain age that play football, but football was the thing uniting them. We will always, especially from an insights point of view and a media point of view, look at how the group of people that we are thinking about behave and how they think. For the groups that you are asking about, there are certain brand behaviors that are becoming more important as time goes on, but I don’t even think they’re necessarily isolated to Gen Z and Gen Y.
“Everything that we do, I think it’s about trying to make very complicated things very simple.”
I think we’re in an environment where people demand transparency from brands. The interaction that a brand has with its audience, it’s so direct now that there’s an expectation from customers, particularly from young ones, that they will have a transparent and honest relationship with the brand that they’re talking to. I think they expect there to be discourse and they expect it to be honest, but they are really fine with having relationships with brands, which I think is something that is maybe more true of that group than of others. Some other examples are personalization. There is a lot of room now, a lot of tools available to brands to personalize messages, and I think that is another thing that’s becoming an expectation from people. Standards can be set outside of advertising. The kind of personal service, the standard that’s set by companies like Uber, where people are using various personal data to provide a better service. That’s setting the standard now that brands are expected to live up to.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you are working with a brand on a particular campaign, what do you do if they’re coming to you with something that is the opposite of what you’re coming to them with? How do you arrive at the middle ground?
Murphy: Generally, we want to work as closely as possible with our clients and everybody who is involved in the creation of the work. There shouldn’t really be surprises. I think the iteration of progress towards whatever it is you’re going to do should mean that you’re really more together than apart on most decisions. It’s better to pick a path and do it properly than it is to water it down with compromise. Really, those are decisions that you should be making together and informing with strategy and research, so you should rarely be too many million miles away from one another.
Knowledge at Wharton: What gets you up in the morning? Conversely, what keeps you up at night?
Murphy: I think what’s great about what we’re doing at the moment is we’re doing the world’s best creative work on bigger and bigger canvases, so I get really excited about that, about seeing if we can maintain the same level of creative integrity, but do it on the biggest possible scale. In terms of what keeps me up at night, I think a big part of what we’ve got to manage, and not just in terms of media but in terms of messaging and audiences, is about simplifying complexity, and I think that’s the hardest part of our job. Everything that we do, I think it’s about trying to make very complicated things very simple, and I think that could be the thing that keeps you up at night.