Antony Mayfield runs marketing and communications agency Brilliant Noise, helping some of the biggest brands in the world transform their approach to getting their message out. He’s got some fascinating stuff to say about how advertising and marketing are changing, and what it means to be digitally literate, with tips that work for microbusinesses as well as multinationals (in fact he says the reason he works with the big companies is that they need more help getting this right!).
But he also talks about Brilliant Noise’s own approach to marketing, and particularly the way they create and use books within the company.
‘Those books are like little avatars, little bits of you that you sent out into the world and they’ve got a life of their own and they’re going round telling people what you think.’
A thoughtful, inspiring conversation with one of the world’s leading thinkers in digital marketing.
Antony’s site: https://www.antonymayfield.com/
Antony on Twitter: https://twitter.com/amayfield
Brilliant Noise: https://brilliantnoise.com/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge (starts 18 September): https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison : Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m very, very pleased to be here today with Antony Mayfield who is a consultant and a commentator on web media strategy and social media and online content and reputation management and digital literacy, which is quite a great list. He’s CEO and founding partner of digital agency Brilliant Noise where he works with brands including Adidas, American Express, Porsche and NBC Universal, focusing on content and social media operations and digital transformation. And he’s the author of Me and My Web Shadow: How to manage your reputation online. So welcome to the show, Antony.
Antony: Well thanks very much Alison.
Alison : Really, really good to have you here. Now tell us a little bit about Brilliant Noise, which is by the way an absolutely brilliant name for a company. Why did you set it up and what’s your vision for it?
Antony: So I set it up about 6, 7 years ago. I’d been working in digital agencies for a few years and PR before that and we could just see, myself and my partners, could see just amazing changes happening, obviously as we all could, in the media, in technology and marketing therefore, you know, in advertising and we talked about and we said, “Look, everybody is doing something digital, but they’ve just basically slapping digital on to the end of what they were doing already, like digital advertising or digital content or digital PR. What about if you start with a blank page of paper? What are brands going to need, especially global brands, if they’re going to change fast enough to keep up with the consumer, really?” And so we started an agency with that question and we’ve been building on answering it ever since and, yeah, we’re very lucky to have some amazing global brands that we work with on those challenges and it’s incredibly varied and interesting work.
The vision really is – just to answer that question – is to define what does a marketing partner for a global brand look like in the digital age? And if we’re a bit cheeky and say there’s kind of a caveat that, it’s not an advertising agency. If you look at how brands have done marketing, advertising agencies have been their trusted confidant, the centre of the universe since … well really the early 20th century but definitely since the Second World War.
The growth of broadcast radio and especially broadcast TV gave incredible power to that way of marketing, building beautiful, compelling, interesting stories, grabbing people’s attention and since the … really the beginning of the web and it accelerated even more by the social web and everybody getting smartphones, suddenly … well the basic … boiling it down without any kind of technical explanation is: customers, individuals are in charge of their media experiences and they don’t like ads so they tend to do whatever they can to avoid them, which means that marketing needs to change and the partner for a global brand that wants to stay relevant is going to be thinking … it’s not going to not think about advertising, that’s still relevant and interesting in some ways, but it’s got to think much, much more about the customer. That’s got to be the thing that they’re obsessed by and staying close to how they can be useful, how they can connect because they can’t … they can’t just buy that attention anymore.
And that’s just … that insight really is just becoming truer all the time so we’ve seeing recently the crash in WBP share price, seeing probably the original, the original soap opera, the people who coined the name soap opera, Procter and Gamble, I think, because their adverts for soap appeared in the middle of these popular dramas. They cut a hundred million out of their advertising budgets. Was it a hundred million? Yeah it was, might have been a hundred billion. I say it was just a giant number, they cut it out around the same time earlier this year and nothing happened. Nothing happened to their sales, so the trust of large organisations in advertising as a way to do business is kind of collapsing.
Alison : That’s really interesting isn’t it? I remember that great quote about advertising that about 50% of the [advertising] spend is always wasted, the trouble is you don’t know which half; and actually it’s 100% now isn’t it because people are just … they have options, they just choose not to look at something that isn’t engaging and interesting to them.
Antony: It’s probably not all wasted but it can be a lot … you could spend a lot, lot less and have a much bigger effect and you can see that because new companies into a sector just don’t bother with it. So if you look in say the beauty industry and make up and beauty products, new brands there coming in there don’t tend to spend anything on advertising, they spend it all on social media and content and point of sale. Meanwhile the incumbents are still spending huge amounts on advertising because it’s hard for them to change.
Alison : Yes and it’s interesting as well because I’ve noticed that a couple of times, there are huge companies that I’ve been completely unaware of because I’m out of their social media bubble and suddenly they come to mind because they report a flotation or something and you think, “Oh my goodness, this was happening and I had no idea”, which is really interesting.
Antony: Yeah, funnily enough one of those little stories that you hear a lot is that people who are doing really good effective advertising online – and it can be done! – are plagued by the CEO or the CMO, someone in the company boardroom, going, “I never see any of these ads.”
Alison : That’s because you’re not a 15 year old girl and we’re not advertising to you, yeah.
Antony: I’m glad you don’t.
Alison : Because that would be wasted.
Antony: Whereas in the old 70’s and 80’s long-lunch era of advertising, one of the first things that you’d do is slap a billboard outside the CEO’s home or their office and hope that she or he then will think, “Oh alright, this advertising’s really good.”
Alison : And that’s so interesting because I immediately think about the corollary in books, which is that people say, “Oh I want my book in the airport WHSmith’s.” And you’re like, “Well that’s great if you’re targeting people who are going to that shop, but if not, frankly, why? What’s the point? You need to have this book, where the people who want to see it are going to be.” So yeah, but if advertising doesn’t work… you talk about connected customer marketing, which I thought was a really interesting phrase. Tell us what that is? I’m hoping you’re going to offer something that does work here.
Antony: Yes, yes that’s right. Well, so this is just basically our method for let’s just think about this straightforwardly. Connected customer marketing is … first of all it’s a recognition that what has changed is the customer, their behaviours are very, very different and they will, because they’re connected and because they have access to online services. That means that they have an incredible amount of power that they didn’t have to choose their own experiences. They might not always exercise it but they do have an incredible amount of power. So that means that we need to change our communications into being much more connected. It’s not about chucking stuff at the places where we think they’re going to be, it’s going to be about understanding the whole of their… well, we call it customer journey but it’s the steps that you go through when you’re thinking about buying something or thinking about renewing a subscription or watching a film.
What happens, what are all those little influences on you and are there any opportunities for the brand to be useful through that process, to not just shout, “Me, me, me, have a look at my product!” but to say, “Look here’s some useful stuff if you’re considering our brand, Oh you’ve just bought our product, here’s some ways to use it well.” Or, “You’re thinking about making a cake for your partner’s birthday, well here are some ideas also including our ingredients.” But you know, it’s those sorts of things so you’re looking for the opportunities where you can be useful to the customer.
The other side of it is not just about the outward approach to marketing, it’s about changing how marketing and content and communications get done inside the organisation because organisations, especially large global ones, are structured to execute marketing in quite an old-fashioned way so there will be a department that’s looking at advertising, there will be a department that’s looking at digital and PR and quite often there’ll be a power structure there as well or a hierarchy and everyone does their work on their own. Or if you’ve got a house of brands for instance or if you, for instance, if you’re a sportswear brand, then you’ve probably got a brand that’s for football, a brand that’s for running, a brand for women and a brand for outdoor enthusiasts. You know these are typical ways of organising and all of those bits will be doing all the same research on their own and not necessarily sharing information or doing things sufficiently.
Then the other aspect of connected customer marketing is just, “How can we use data to tell us when the right moment is to talk to the customer, to tell us what works, tell us what doesn’t work?” You’d think all of this was old hat because we’ve had computers and data and the internet for a very, very long time but it’s still, it’s still quite radical for a lot of people to think, “How much does it cost us to get somebody to fill out a form on our website saying they are interested in this or that?” So quite often our work is less like the kind of glamorous advertising thing of coming up with wonderful ideas and winning awards and going to market and more about, “How do we make this stuff actually work and not waste the money?”
Alison : And one of the things that really intrigues me about your company and this approach is as you say the data is really, really central to it and you’ve got that interesting balance between the human, you know the creative, the stories the relationships and so on, and the machine, the data that’s coming in to make use of that and to tell you where you should be directing your efforts and so on, and you use that phrase ‘digital maturity’. I get that you work with big companies and these are perhaps big company concepts, but I think there’s something really interesting going on with small companies here as well who sometimes are even… certainly they don’t have the issue of internal communication, and perhaps they’re closer to their customers just because they’re more niche, but how do you think the small companies can use those principles to really get the most out of their own advertising and their own marketing?
Antony: Well the principles are universal and the reason we work with big companies really is because they need the help. In a small company…
Alison : That’s so funny.
Antony: …you do it all yourself. No it’s really, really hard to change things in a large organisation because of inertia and because there are people defending political turf or the whole culture of the organisation is about, rightly so sometimes, especially if you’re an investor, minimising risk. Whereas in a small company you’re more … you’re more able to change things so these are principles that you can apply at every level, and when we talk about digital maturity we talk about the organisation, we also talk about individuals, some of our work is about making content marketing work better or reshaping a brand or a website but some of it is as well is about helping leaders in the business develop a different mindset, a different way of thinking about digital so they’re not just delegating it to the youngest person in the room or … which they often do, or get, “We need to do digital can we … does anyone know any millennials?” You know, and you’re like, “Oh God…”
So we talk to leaders and we say the same thing to those leaders actually as we say to anybody in the company regardless of age or their experience with technology because all of this is new to everyone. Just because you’re younger doesn’t mean that you’re born with a deep understanding of network theory and critical thinking and data and cognitive bias. These are things that we’ve got to adapt to. So the advice I’d give to small companies and to anyone, in fact, is… we always have to pick three things don’t we because that’s the law of communications:
The three things that I would pick would be, the first thing is to develop a sense and keep a sense of critical thinking and that’s … as opposed to cynical thinking, which is what a lot of people use as a kind of defence against digital. It’s like, “That’s not for me, oh it’s nonsense, oh it’s a fad.” Critical thinking, thinking, “I’m not going to take this stuff at face value, I’m not going to take your data strategy or even this dashboard that you’re showing me at face value, I want to understand it and it’s up to you to explain it to me.” And when I’m handed a new machine or a new app … I mean this is one thing that I think that people don’t often appreciate is that the most … as a worker, as an author, as an executive, as anybody working with their knowledge, the most precious commodity you have, or the most precious resource you have is your attention and your ability to deploy that in an effective way.
So as an example of critical thinking, which I would say applies to everything from your ad campaign to your website to a new piece of technology being shown to you, just think about your phone and just think about all of the red dots all over it and all of the pop up little things that say that you … that someone’s liked your tweet and you should definitely go and have a look at the person who’s liked your tweet and maybe you want to look at some more tweets while you’re there.
These are all defaults, all of these tools and applications are designed for the way that the company who built them wants you to use them and really what you should be doing is saying, “How do I want them to work for me?” So in that example, thinking critically about my phone is like, “I do not need an attention trap in my pocket, what I want is something that can help me get things done and faster.” So even though it takes an incredibly long time, this is how deeply they’re organised for distraction, I’m going to turn of all of the alerts apart from phone, and apart from text – because people only tend to use those when it’s really urgent. Everything else I put in a box or in a folder under my iPhone and I put an emoji of an alarm clock there and the time that I’m next going to check them.
So at the moment it says, on my phone it says 10 in the morning, well we’re talking at the moment, it says midday and I’m not going to look at them till then because I don’t need to get into a game of social distraction, I want to focus on stuff.
Alison : I love that this has turned into a masterclass on productivity, this is great.
Antony: Yeah, but if you can say like that, “I’m not going to accept that the faults on my own phone,” then you can apply that to a spreadsheet and then you can apply that to a database or a CRM technology or those sorts of things, and so, “No, I want it to work like this and this is the job I want it to do.” So when it comes to using data in your business whether you’re Procter and Gamble or whether you’re a start-up office services company then you’re going to say, “What do I need to know from the data that’s going to help me give a better experience to my customers? What do I need to know from the data that’s going to improve my business? It’s about I reach my goals over time and then how am I going to measure that?” Not just looking at data because it’s there or looking at sales because that’s easy, trying, really, really thinking about it.
Alison : Brilliant. And the third?
Antony: I said three things didn’t I and then I just went on for ages? That was number one.
Alison : That was number one? Gosh, I thought we were at two, okay. Blimey.
Antony: Sorry no it’s critical thinking. No actually I did kind of roll recognising attention and energy as your most precious resource so the whole thing about whether you’re either organising a company to work with a massive marketing technology or whether it’s just you thinking about the tools that you use everyday then how do you think about how they work together most effectively, which is kind of the point of attention.
Alison : Brilliant.
Antony: And the third one, I guess it’s kind of underlining both of those things as well, is that make everything work for you and just insist on it, and this is the same as I’ve found … what I’ve learnt working with finance and working with accountants. I’m a stories person, I’m a writer by instinct rather than a numbers person, and I kind of thought that you could get away with not really ever having to understand cashflow or not ever really having to read a profit and loss sheet, someone could tell you what was going on there and you could just nod wisely and then get on with other stuff that you were interested in.
But it’s not the case and actually what you learn when you have to get to grips with something hard like data and numbers is that once you’ve learnt enough to be dangerous, and it takes a little while, then you suddenly realise that everything that seemed like really complicated crazy science or an objective truth, an accountant in a sober suit will sit down and go, “Here are your sheets and it indicates that you need to do this, this and this,” and if you’ve not got enough of an understanding of data or of finance, and I’m using the two interchangeably, then that person’s just telling you what to do, they’re giving you their opinion. Whereas if you’ve invested the time to at least have a working understanding, at least having an understanding of the 101, then you can go, “No, I don’t think it is like that. I want you to show me these numbers, I want you to show it to me in this way. Does it have to work like that?”
Or when you don’t understand them because they’re talking in their own jargon, to say, “No, you need to explain that me again so that I can understand it.” And that’s … all three of those principles really are kind of eternal, we should always be thinking in those ways, but they especially apply to digital. Don’t let yourself be carried away by jargon and fads and experts. Insist on stuff making sense to you and working towards the objectives of your organisation.
Alison : I love that, and I particularly love that sense that actually do you know what this stuff is hard but it’s not that hard. I remember when I was doing my MBA, doing the finance module and thinking at the start, “Oh this is just the worst thing ever,” but actually when you approach it with curiosity and don’t let yourself … you know, what’s the worst that can happen? And you get on top of it and it’s to be honest it’s not that hard and it totally changes how you look at a spreadsheet and a balance sheet in the future. Same with data, it’s not that hard and it’s quite fun actually.
Antony: That’s exactly it Alison, so in the same way as you’ve studied that kind of module but then you don’t then go, “Right well I am now going to head a finance company, I’m-
Alison : Oh dear, no, no, no no.
Antony: …but you know enough not to have the wool pulled over your eyes and it’s the same for data, it’s the same for SEO for websites, for technology all of those things. As a leader if you’re leading it, or someone in your company, you need to understand enough so that people aren’t just bamboozling you or … not even intentionally, but they’re doing what they think is best, but they don’t actually understand your business well enough to make those decisions for you. You need to spend the time to know enough to hold someone to account perhaps, I’d say that.
Alison : Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I love that. Now you talked before about the customer journey and the things that need at different points. I just want to particularly pick up back on that and talk about content. Obviously you … the whole connected customer marketing thing, content is very, very central concept to that. What do you create in your business, how do you use content in Brilliant Noise?
Antony: Brilliant Noise, yeah. We eat our own dog food as they say, yes, we do effectively content marketing so we do a number of things and people have different ways of explaining these models or ways of thinking about it. But there’s … I’ll choose to call it evergreen and pulse content. So there’s two type of content that we’re creating most of the time one of them is books or … one of my clients called them monographs and I said, “Oh that’s so lovely.” So we create these little A5 printed and available as eBooks and PDFs and all those sorts of things, books on key topics for us, things that we’re really, really interested in, but we write them with the sense that they’re going to be around for a few years so they’re not kind of, “Here’s the latest thing, this might be big, blah blah blah,” because that’s going to date it very quickly.
They’re about, “These are the things that we believe are pretty much universally true and are going to stand the test of time”, so we’ve written books like those on culture change, on content marketing, on three or four different aspects, and about connected customer marketing actually of course.
Alison : Can I just pause you there for a second, sorry, because I’m really interested in this.
Alison : Are they only ebooks? Do you put them out in print?
Antony: Yeah we do print them, we say, I like to say that if you really mean it then you’ll print it.
Alison : Oh I like that!
Antony: Because, well they do a number of things. I mean, the first time I learnt about how powerful monographs as I’ll call them now, thank you very much client-
Alison : See now I’ve got that an academic monographs in my head, which is entirely the wrong sort … but literally it means written by one person, so you can use it.
Antony: That’s true. So five to eight thousand words, basically long essays but each has been produced so we have our designers you know create imagery around them and put them into a consistent style. We have them printed by a print company called Generation Press usually who’s a third generation company that have … As I say three generations in of a company nestled in the Sussex Downs who are just beautiful craftspeople. Their craft is beautiful, they’re not that beautiful themselves. They create, they just print gorgeous books, gorgeous things so when we create these books then we can share them around with people, we give them out at events, we give them to clients or to people that we’re visiting with and because they’re such lovely objects they get treated with a little bit more respect than a glossy printed brochure and they tend to stay on people’s desks and people tend to read them and we get a lot of feedback about how useful they’ve been.
And that’s the other thing of course is that we write in – even in connected marketing where we’re writing about effectively our method – we don’t write these things as overt sales materials. We write them as a strong point of view with practical advice, so you don’t necessarily need to work with us to benefit from reading them and that goes back to that thing I was saying about you need to be useful to your customer. That’s the best way to gain their attention. Yeah, so-
Alison : Great, very useful example of books in the business, I really like that. I’m sorry, carry on.
Antony: It’s kind of that it was a tactic that we deployed right from the start of Brilliant Noise of creating these thought pieces, these books, even though they were quite intense labour to get them done they are hugely valuable and they last for years and it was something that we learned from my time at my previous agency, iCrossing Spannerworks where I started a practise there in 2006 around content and social media and this at the time this was quite a new thing, to the point where we weren’t really sure whether social media would stick around as a term but what we did with that was we wrote a book called What is Social Media? Because there wasn’t one, there wasn’t a dummies guide to social media yet, the term was really new so we wrote like 8000 words on, this is how social media works, this is the definition of it and that was a really, really useful thing to do, people really wanted that but it was ridiculously successful.
We published it under a Creative Commons Licence online and it got translated into Polish, a group of people got together in China and created a Chinese version of the ebook, perfect in every way, all of the same illustrations and all of the same links. We had all these … we had massive SEO search engines boosts from thousands of people in China linking to us because of this book they were all sharing that we’d written and it ended up in Chinese, in Indian text books, someone in Poland created a wiki out of it. It was just an incredible example of do something useful and it will spread really, really fast, especially if you give it away.
Alison : I know and that’s the fascinating thing isn’t because so many would have said, “Oh if this is valuable we should be charging for it.” And that’s fine, you might have made a bit of revenue from it but actually the impact that when you give it away, presumably you did it under a CC BY licence where you still got the credit for it?
Antony: Yeah, exactly, people weren’t allowed to change it, they had to ask permission to change it, which some people did.
Alison : So no derivatives licence, yeah.
Antony: Yeah, yeah, I don’t remember the exact details but it was like yeah, you still have to keep all the links and change the … and make sure it’s attributed to us.
Alison : Superb.
Antony: And people used it in business plans, which they then used to get funding, which they then came and spent with us doing work, which was … that was amazing. So yes we did the same thing at Brilliant Noise in that like, “Okay there is going to be new ways of doing marketing”. In a way the books and the case studies don’t exist for this yet so we’ve got to write them and give them to people to help them articulate why it might be useful to do the things that we’re recommending.
Alison : I’m guessing it’s useful for your team as well to go through that work of creating that content?
Antony: Yeah, yeah, I mean I wrote a few of them myself and it was fantastically useful because you … as you know the thing of having a deadline and having a focus and a public promise to get something done means you have to do it, but all of that time you get to spend writing means that you take all of these kinds of fascinating and interesting thoughts and turn them into something actually articulate that hangs together as a system and of course you gain new insights as you’re writing. That’s … many writers talk about that but it’s like, “I think by writing.” I forget who said that but-
Alison : It’s come up so many times on the podcast, I can’t tell you.
Antony: Yeah, it’s intensely useful and then yes it’s useful for the team working on it an editing it and but it’s then useful when we have new people join the company because they can very easily read all about it before, so they get a sense of where we’re coming from almost immediately.
Alison : That’s fantastic, and do you use that content in any other ways? Do you do courses around it or talks or anything like that or are they quite isolated from everything else that you do?
Antony: Yeah, we, well we do use them in courses yes, so I mean, it’s not a huge part of our business but we do do training and we’ll use those books to support the training as well and put them on the reading list for people and give them copies so they work quite hard in that respect. Yeah so we use them all over the place, I’m quite pleased when we do a reprint every now and again because it means that they’re being used and we give to … I think it’s something about, I remember, especially with What is Social Media? and it’s that you used to hear people talking about it sometimes when you were doing a pitch and people would go, “Oh yes I’ve read that book, so-and-so gave it to me.” And it’s someone that you didn’t know and then you go, “Oh it’s amazing”. It’s like those books are like little avatars. Little bits of you that you sent out into the world and they’ve got a life of their own and they’re going round telling people what you think.
Alison : They’re little miniature business development managers aren’t they?
Antony: Yeah, magical.
Alison : Fantastic. That’s so cool, thank you and it’s a great case study actually of how you can use something like that in a business so really useful thank you. Now I always ask my guests to recommend someone else as a guest onto the show, someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books or content marketing. Who do you think we should talk to?
Antony: So yes, it’s a really hard question and about five of the people I thought of you’ve already interviewed in your amazing series already. I’m getting back to listen to the podcasts and they’re great, but the person that I would recommend talking to is a guy called Matt Locke. Matt has had many jobs over the years but he was a commissioning editor at Channel 4 and then he set up just an amazing company called Storythings, which is all about helping companies and people to tell stories more effectively.
He also runs this, I think it’s my favourite conference called The Story in London, which is just a lovely collection of people talking about different ways of telling stories in different media. Why I think he would be so interesting, apart from like anyone could chat to him for ever, is that his major obsession is attention, what he calls attention patterns and attention shapes. So he’s done a lot of work and I think he’s written a lot of this up and is possibly working on a book around how the shapes of attention and audiences affect the way the business of media is run. So the way that audiences for novels changed that format, the way that music-hall audiences in Paris in the 19th century were used and monetized and all of those sorts of things and he’s intensely interested in, well, what’s going on now? A bit like after the print revolution when you had thousands of different formats of printed book appear from squibs to libels to pamphlets to everything, monographs even, and you’ve got that at the moment still going on. This is the incredible thing about the digital revolution is, it’s early days.
Alison : It’s so true, and it’s that-
Antony: He’s really thinking about how that’s working with audiences and I love it.
Alison : That’s fascinating. He sounds great and I think that’s so true, in publishing particularly because we know that eBooks aren’t that great, they just kind of copies of print books really but on a screen. So I think that people are just really interested in how that’s going to evolve and how people reading online changes the nature of them. I’m absolutely fascinated by that field.
Thank you what a great recommendation and-
Antony: Oh, you’re welcome.
Alison : …we’ve just touched the surface, we could be talking for another few hours here and not really cover everything but … so frustrating but I’m going to have to end it there, but thank you so much for your time Antony that was amazing.
Now if people want to find out more about you, more about Brilliant Noise, where can they go?
Antony: Yeah, couple of places, brillaintnoise.com is our company website and there is a blog and a newsletter thing on there with just lots of ideas. antonymayfield.com is my website, which I update every now and again. I’m also, if you look at dots.brilliantnoise.com that’s the Brilliant Noise conference, which is again a kind of festival of ideas and thoughts about all sorts of things to do with attention and marketing and content and on Twitter at I’m @amayfield.
Alison : Fantastic, and maybe we have to have you back on the show to talk about Dots actually because I thought that fascinating but we’re just out of time today. Thank you so much I will put all those links up on the show notes so if anybody is driving and couldn’t write them down just to Extraordinary Business Books and have a look and thank you so much Antony, absolutely fascinating stuff.
Antony: Thanks Alison, that flew by.