Shaking Up Is Hard To Do

By Brett McKenzie on Jul 26, 2022

Critical Mass exec + One Club Member Grant Owens navigates us through change in tumultuous times

In just a few short years, the advertising industry as we know it has undergone some seismic changes, from social upheaval becoming a front-burner issue to a pandemic that taught us that perhaps commuting daily to even the coolest offices is a bit overrated. Our clients needed to pivot, and our agencies needed to help them — all while trying to figure out how to pivot themselves.

The path forward has been a precarious one, which is why we reached out to some of our esteemed One Club Corporate Members to share their thoughts on what they’ve learned about shaking up traditional ways in order to navigate these changes. We were fortunate that Critical Mass Chief Strategy Officer Grant Owens was more than willing to share his insights, based on a 20+ year career and a number of leaps of faith.

In terms of challenging legacy concepts, it’s often hard to let go of old traditions. Generally speaking, which ones do you find that clients — and other agencies — are most reluctant to change?

I find that too many brands are looking at each other and perpetuating their own category norms. It’s especially prevalent in larger markets, like here in the U.S. Marketers spend far too much effort mimicking competitors instead of charting their own paths.

What we’ve noticed during the pandemic (and other global inflection points) is that much of the change isn’t optional. Behavioral changes have forced marketers to rethink large parts of their approach. I think this new energy translates to all aspects of how brands show up in the world and gives them an opportunity to explore entirely new creative territories.

The one tip I have for clients that want to create change is to draft a charter for the future — not annual goals, but a genuine vision of what they would like to become. Getting people on board for change is hard, but if you openly discuss a vision, and deliberately write it down to be referenced when challenges arise, you stand a much better chance of keeping up your momentum and staying on a positive track.

Brands and companies live in this world, and it’s one where the public can react strongly to changes. How do you recommend clients and their agencies navigate these choppy waters?

The ability to navigate pitfalls starts very early. You need to have already built a strong rudder. It’s a function of marketing and brand leaders knowing exactly what their organization and the communities they serve believe in and agree is important to the whole. I’ve often said the product is what a person buys, but the brand is what a person buys into. Defining a brand this way helps you push past the inevitable naysayers. It’s true that you can’t please everyone, but you can do right by everyone — that’s the important nuance that enables real progress. Even for pragmatic efforts, like product tweaks or logo refreshes, leaders need to have their finger on the pulse of the community’s belief system.

" can’t please everyone, but you can do right by everyone — that’s the important nuance that enables real progress."

Of course it’s one thing to offer recommendations to clients and brands. In your role as Chief Strategy Officer, how are you walking the walk, so to speak?

As an agency, and an industry for that matter, we’re experiencing extraordinary change. Some of these changes arrived on our doorstep in light of massive cultural shifts spurred by the pandemic, but other elements have come from new ideas we’d like to embrace as a team. We see enormous growth opportunities, new ways of working, and new creative canvases — ahem, Web3. We’ve had to be deliberate about getting the organization on board and involving folks top-to-bottom in shaping our new initiatives.

We have new voices, veteran voices, and partners that have got to be on board with us. Together, we’ve also had a lot of healthy debates about the future of Critical Mass and the industry—something that’s requiring substantial time and effort. During the past two years, we’ve been able to make decisions that have led to a rebrand, an overhauled employee experience, and new categories of work. A major enabler of that progress was the well-defined set of values and beliefs shared by our entire team.

Your industry expertise goes back over two decades, a stretch in which social media and smartphones came into existence, among other technologies. What are the biggest changes in that time that have affected how you manage clients? Conversely, what has remained the same, what rings true no matter what year it is?

Yes, tons of change, and so much more is on the way. Through all the digital upheaval, people still start their days with dreams, fears, and needs. Understanding these basic human conditions is where all great work starts. The best strategists often just remind people of something they’ve always known to be true, then inspire new ways of conveying it. The human story has always been at the center. With that said, there are a host of new skills we’ve adopted and industry challenges we’ve embraced. There are three things that stick out to me across the 20-year span…

  1. Audience Engagement: I’ve always felt that strategists should start their day trying to be the voice of the customer. That remains true, but now there are billions of voices and so many ways to study culture. You can jump into Reddit for a few hours and dig deeply into a sub-subculture like never before. It’s so empowering when we’re exploring creative possibilities. At the same time, it’s an overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing amount of information. We’ve put a ton of innovation into quickly separating the signals from the noise. We’ve invested heavily in home-grown tools, partners, and new methodologies.
  2. Cultural Velocity: Marketing tied to the zeitgeist isn’t unique to the last 20 years, but it strikes me that the pace of global cultural idea exchange has exponentially increased off the back of the Internet. The context of your idea or message is constantly and sometimes violently shifting. Creating timeless ideas based on those basic human conditions is still entirely possible, but tying those ideas to “of-the-moment” marketing has become increasingly difficult. And yet, it’s very exciting when we get a brief asking for that, because it requires a combination of rapid learning cycles and deep strategic reflection.
  3. Digital Weaponization: As with anything, new technology can be used for good or for bad. As we’ve leaned into each new wave of technology, we’ve had to do the hard work of exploring its potential—both its benefits and its unintended consequences. We want to be on the right side of history with our work, and we want to improve the lives of our clients’ customers. I lose sleep over how much damage is done when powerful human insights and advanced technology land in the wrong hands. I intend to keep the second half of my career focused on this challenge. With great human insights, comes great human responsibility.

"...the pace of global cultural idea exchange has exponentially increased off the back of the Internet."

Now it is 2027– what is the most significant change you have seen unfold over the past five years?

In 2027 we’ll be looking back on the past five years and taking stock of large shifts in the industry – from challenging conventions to pushing for healthier relationships between platforms, brands, and consumers. The move toward a more transparent and mutually beneficial marketing engine is the biggest shift we’ll see.

In 2022, 75% of U.S. enterprises said they planned to rebrand within the next five years – I expect that Critical Mass will be a partner in a number of those efforts by 2027. Along the way, my vision is that we will help brands embrace new ideas, and build on top of a whole new set of behaviors and ideologies. Using those new insights, we intend to be at the center of award-winning work that lasts decades in culture, not just weeks in advertising.

My personal hope is that we’ll be enjoying new traditions and rituals that represent life after a pandemic, a war, and shared enlightenment.


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