Marketing in the Maelstrom


Marketing in the Maelstrom

Stuart Aitken

Stuart Aitken, Head of Content at Digitas, highlights some of the key themes to emerge at the 2016 Digitas UK NewFront.

Many strange things have happened this year. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the biggest TV hit of 2016 is called Stranger Things, a show featuring The Upside Down, a dark parallel universe where the normal rules of civilisation, humanity and reality don’t apply.

At this year’s Digitas UK NewFront, we decided to tackle the chaos head on. We called it ‘the maelstrom’. Marketing in the Maelstrom was our attempt to help brands prepare for – and understand how to respond to - the strangest of times, where the normal rules don’t apply and it seems that absolutely anything can happen.

To help us navigate our way through this uncertain landscape, we enlisted a cast of expert speakers.

Welcome to the maelstrom

First up, Fern Miller, Chief Marketing Officer at Digitas UK, outlined what we mean by “the maelstrom”, explaining how we’ve come to find ourselves in this de-stabilising state of almost constant confusion – and outlining what it means for marketers.

Miller was joined onstage by Atul Choudrie, CEO of OnePulse, for a session to assess how well marketers really know how their customers are feeling. Demonstrating OnePulse’s live surveying tools, the session posed questions about the extent to which marketers truly understand their audience in these difficult times.

We need to get that there are new ways of doing things

Next up, Andrew Collinge, the Greater London Authority’s lead officer on the Smart Cities Agenda, outlined his vision for how data and supporting technologies can be used to drive public service improvement and city life.

Interestingly Collinge outlined how our own Pigeon Air project, which saw pigeons with pollution sensors flying across London to gather data, had opened his eyes to new ways of gathering data.

“We live in an age of disruption,” said Collinge, expanding on the point. “Things like Uber and Airbnb were things that honestly speaking, city governments right the way across the globe didn’t necessarily anticipate as well as they perhaps could. So we need to get that there are new ways of doing things.”

People will see through the bullshit

For the first panel discussion of the day, Paul Dalton, Digitas’s Chief Media Officer, quizzed a range of media experts to find out what we can learn from the surprising events of the last few months. Dalton was joined on stage by Tris Reid-Smith, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Gay Star News; Anne-Marie Tomchak, UK Editor of Mashable; and Liam Harrington, Co-Founder and CEO of UNILAD. Each shared insights on how their very different media outlets have been adapting to world events, explaining both the challenges and opportunities that they and their advertisers are facing – and highlighting strategies to help brands thrive in the future.

Discussing the way his audience responds to content, UNILAD’s Harrington was keen to point out the younger, internet-savvy audience that his website appeals to are not easy to fool. “People are becoming more tech savvy,” said Harrington. “They know when they’re being lied to. They know when something’s genuine. So you’ve got to be a bit smarter, a little bit more nimble on your feet and agile about how you advertise to these guys and throw content at them…because it’s going to get a lot harder, because people will see through the bullshit. Completely.”

Empathy is the biggest challenge

For the final panel of the day, Gemma Charles, Acting UK Editor of Campaign, chaired a panel of challenger brands to find out first hand how they’re responding to the uncertainty of recent months.

Charles put questions to four young brands from very different sectors – Food & Drink; Fashion; Computing; Banking – to find out what real impacts the maelstrom is having, how these brands are innovating their way to success, and to discover what bigger brands can learn from their approach.

Explaining how they’ve been affected and what practical steps they’re taking to steer their ship through the choppy waters ahead were Lucy Clayton, CEO of Community Clothing; Jim Cregan, Founder and Managing Director of Jimmy’s Iced Coffee; Tim Grimsditch, VP Marketing at Kano; and Sam Michael, Designer at the online bank, Monzo.

Kano’s Grimsditch outlined one of the key challenges for these brands by explaining that explaining that in the fractured post-Brexit landscape, one of the biggest challenges is empathy. The key for Grimsditch in understanding his consumers lies not in quantitative data but in an understanding of how to better use qualitative data. “It feels like by ‘data’ we just mean quantitative data,” said Grimsditch. “I’m way more interested in figuring out why people do things and then work from there. I feel like it’s maybe not a coincidence that we’re getting to a place where there’s a lot of quantitative data but our understanding about each other is going rapidly the other way.”

Maybe creating some level of offence is a good thing

The final session of the day saw comedian and author David Baddiel in conversation with Digitas’s International Chief Creative Officer Chris Clarke.

In the run up to the referendum, UKIP supporter Mandy Boylett recorded a pro-Brexit cover version of Baddiel’s famous 1996 England football song, Three Lions.

Using this as a starting point for a fireside discussion, Baddiel and Clarke discussed what happens when a piece of your creative work is hijacked for a cause that you don’t support – and analysed what the song tells us about the state of modern Britain.

In a wide ranging discussion they went to assess the creative merit of some of the campaign work behind the Remain and Leave campaigns; explored what role creativity plays in political communication and in wider society; and discussed the ways in which creativity and culture is being compromised in what appears to be a concerted move towards a form of cultural conservatism.

Picking up on this final point, Baddiel discussed his disappointment that his radio show had recently been cancelled following comments he made about the Queen having sex. “Comedy by its very nature – if it’s any good – is kind of nuanced and ironic and it has double meanings,” explained Baddiel. “But that is what is being eradicated by this policing. People just want incredibly black and white statements that can’t be possibly interpreted ambiguously. And that’s a real shame.”

Discussing what this means for the advertising sector, Baddiel went on to add. “If you can provide interesting, different meanings to something, that’s how people are touched by it, or moved by it.”

Agreeing with the premise, Clarke added that because people are very easily offended, the tendency for brands is to shy away from controversy. But Clarke concluded that this isn’t the best way forward. “Maybe creating some level of offence or a reaction is a good thing and we should just do it anyway.”

Stuart Aitken

Stuart Aitken


As Head of Brand & Content at Digitas UK, Stuart is responsible for seeking out the most compelling narratives from across Digitas‘s UK businesses, identifying marketplace trends for comment and managing the Digitas brand across internal and external channels as well as social media platforms. He is also responsible for planning and providing editorial guidance for key Digitas events such as the annual thought leadership showcase NewFront.


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