Mai 6, 2011 12

How to create something meaningful – two things to consider. My guest-lecture at the Miami Ad School

By in Rethink Advertising

About weeks ago I had the pleasure to give a guest lecture to the ten talented miami ad school students participating in Steffen Stäuber‘s „Create Meaning“ project.

As a Planner/Strategist I thought first to talk about what a strategy is and how to write a strategy-brief. But then I decided to approach my lecture from another perspective.

A core idea of the create meaning project is that the objects produced by classical advertising (a Billboard, a TV-Spot…) have become more and more meaningless for people. Therefore the students are briefed to reinvent advertising with objects (from a game to a product) that are different, digital, particapatory, entertaining or transparent. Objects that people like to use and share in their social network.

In other words: They should create things that are meaningful to people and therefore strengthening a brand.

And German blogger Patrick Breitenbach has already guessed that this approach might be the beginning of the end of the ad-industry (as we know it) :

So I have called my presentation: “How to create meaningful objects”.

I know that the title is pretenious. Nobody has a secret formula to create meaning. If someone had, he would be the only person on earth producing stuff that never fails to sell.

Nevertheless you can learn a lot from case studies (successful or not) as well as from theory or from looking at different fields of business. Knowledge will always improve your chances to create something meaningful.
The class had already discussed a lot of case studies. So I decided to talk about two different aspects I consider important for the project (and the industry) to create meaning.

[You will find my slices below]

1. You need an understanding of the meaning of meaning

The advertising industry is talking a lot about meaning and relevance today. But seldom you will find a discussion about what these words mean. What is the meaning of meaning? What is the meaning of an object?
I intrepret meaning from a constructivist‘s perspective: For me no object has a meaning in itself. It is the story told about the object that structures an object‘s meaning. That is nothing new. It is the essence of brand theory: The story of the brand builds the intangible value of an object.

But far to often advertisers forget something important: The audience might interpret the meaning on an object quite different. Just think about the Fred Perry Brand that was hijacked by skinhead-culture:,,5226933,00.html.

Before the digital age advertisers were far less able to see, how the people interpreted their own meaning into things. Communication was blind for feedback. Now people are connected digitally. They share their thoughts and it becomes more and more visible that they might have their own understanding of things –  depending on a lot of factors from biology to personal contexts.

So  - as you will see in my slides – meaning is always a negotiation between what the creative says an object means and what the user thinks an object means. Therefore the more you know your about the audience‘s real life the more likely you will create something meaningful. But you will never fully control the meaning. Accepting that is cruitial if you want to step out of the one-way-communication paradigm.

2. You need a different creative process

I think that a lot of the problems classical agencies face when going digital do not derive from a missing understanding of digital media. They derive from a fundamental misconseption of the creative-process that is needed to create meanigful digital objects.

Today a lot of agencies are hierachically and linear organized. A client‘s brief goes from account management, to planning, to media buying, to the art department. It is like a car assembly line: Every department gives his specialized input, one after the other to produce the final product efficiently. What people tend to forget: This is not the natural way to do things.An assembly line is only possible, if the result of the assembly line is predetermined. A car company needs a common understanding of a car in order to streamline the process.

The product-portfolio of classical advertising (TV, Print, Radio…) didn’t change for quite a while.Agencies had a lot of time to think about an efficient process to produce a tv-spot. But now the market is asking for different things. Think about the day people would start demanding something different than cars. VW would face similar problems. And they would have to reorganize their process, since it is build to produce cars and nothing else.

The best way to adress an unknown problem is sitting together and collaborate. So creating an meaningful object is a process done vertically – with all departments working together (and with the help of external intelligence) – instead of working one department after another.

(Pictures taken from Heidi Hackemer, Strategic Director @BBH/NY. Source: )

Design Thinking is just one Buzzword describing such a vertical creative process. In my opinion it is describing the natural creative process – liberated from industrial linearity: You start as a team with problem, gather inspiration and research together and with the help of experts. Create ideas together and implement them together. ( In a traditional agency many people will fight against this „togetherness“ because it favours skills before title or position. You don‘t need copywriters, art directors or planners. You may need storytellers, techies, gamers, visual artists and experience experts….)

In my presentation (and in this downloadable map) I have described this integrated process as movements between the inspiration, ideation and implementation room. In every room the team is using different tools and has different goals. But they are in it together. And if the idea doen‘t come the whole teams goes back to the inspiration room.
Think about a start-up: They don‘t think in departments when they are smal. The whole team travels between these rooms.

There is no natural law that a planner should do research alone and the creatives should develop ideas alone. It is a process that can be changed and it must be changed in order to create meaning.

I have seen strong results delivered by the students of the creative meaning project after just one week of research.  I was astonished how insightful the research of these aspiring copywriters and art directors has been and I‘am really exited about their ideas. And if an agency-process would ban these bright minds from research, it would be a real waste of potential.

For know I have written to mutch already. So here are my slides of the lecture.

Christian Riedel  (@mindcaffeine on Twitter) works as a freelance communication strategist and story-architect. He believes that storytelling is the magic-glue between people, brands, digital technology and culture. Therefore it is strategically important for brands to find and tell stories that inspire dialogue, participation and engagement beyond media borders. Christian is blogging at

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12 Responses to “How to create something meaningful – two things to consider. My guest-lecture at the Miami Ad School”

  1. Ähhmmm… In meinen Folien hat der Fehlerteufel Spuren hinterlassen. Die Konzertmilch bewirbt natürlich das Dortmunder Konzerthaus. So was passiert, wenn man Dortmund schreiben will und mit Düsseldorf telefoniert….
    Sorry. :-)

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