Is Brand Activation Marketing Finally Getting Respect as a Truly Creative Field?

Geometry Global's new CCO aims to bring 'below the line' into the light

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Jim Carlton has long struggled to characterize what it is, exactly, he does for a living.

"It's a question my parents have often asked me," he tells Adweek, adding, "Design was hard enough to explain to them!"

Carlton started his career as a graphic designer, and he has worked in brand activation marketing for more than 20 years. In February he will become North American chief creative officer of one of the sector's largest agencies, WPP-owned Geometry Global.

Rebranding a Long-Overlooked Practice

Jim Carlton, incoming CCO of Geometry Global

Though activation has been around in some form for decades under different names, it has largely failed to explain itself to a public that defines "advertising" as TV/digital video spots and out-of-home work like giant, can't-miss-'em billboards.

Throughout Carlton's time in the field, one of his goals has been "to take it from this perception of schlock or 'below the line' to something more high-end. I always preferred to call it 'at the line.'"

Traditionally, activation agencies create in-store signs and other impulse-oriented sales materials you might encounter in a Starbucks, McDonald's or Walmart. Most often that means banners or other displays highlighting a new or discounted product, but agencies such as Geometry have been working to expand the category with big, bold ideas that turn everyday objects into potential sources of PR and social buzz.

One such idea was Arc Worldwide's "Beautiful Hair, Whatever the Weather" campaign for Pantene. The work, which geotargets consumers and recommends hair care products based on Weather Channel forecasts for their zip codes, is currently in its fourth year and still going strong after winning an Effie, an Ogilvy Award and a Digiday Retail Award, plus inspiring a partnership with Walgreens.

The reason that this sort of work has so often been misunderstood is that multimedia campaigns and Super Bowl ads are more likely to "stick" with viewers, while consumers and trade media alike assume that activation work is less valuable because it is less visible.

The reality of the equation is more nuanced. As Carlton puts it, "Our work is a bunch of things that add up whereas, with TV, you get it when you see it."

He sees his new role as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to help highlight the sort of work done by retail/shopper-focused teams like those in Geometry's 10 North American offices, which stretch from Toronto to San Francisco.

On that note, Carlton tells Adweek that the responsibilities of an activation agency's creative leader go well beyond designing in-store displays. He describes his day-to-day as "a conveyer belt of work" ranging from the aforementioned print materials to banner ads, e-commerce environments and even product design projects (like his work on "Adidas concept sneakers that never got produced").

One recent buzz-worthy project from Geometry Global was "Animal Instincts, Pet Condoms," created to promote the San Francisco SPCA in 2013.

Activation Goes Mobile in a Big Way

The end goal of almost all advertising is sales, but retail/brand activation marketing aims to reach consumers at the moment they make their purchasing decisions. For that reason, the mobile revolution has had an even more dramatic effect on this form of marketing than it has on "traditional" creative agencies as more clients recruit activation shops to target consumers where they browse and shop: on their phones.

Carlton says, "Because of our expertise on shoppers, our clients have naturally gone from giving us their paper merchandising requests to mobile, which is an extension of the shopper experience. We've started to deal with motion, movement and ideas beyond print."

For that reason, the worlds of creative and activation have begun to overlap. "I have had great success in hiring traditional agency folks to work in our space," says Carlton, adding, "The winners will be brands that can embrace both approaches."

So will retail work grow as paid media budgets shrink? "TV is always going to be important," Carlton says, "But clients are realizing that some of their money is better spent at the point of purchase, be it in the store, at a concert, at a football game, or on my phone while I'm sleeping."

New Day, New Agency

In the new role, Carlton will report directly to Geometry North America CEO Carl Hartman, who calls him "a unique blend of a world-class, inspirational creative thinker and a savvy businessman who understands intimately how to sell our clients' products and services."

Before being recruited by Hartman in late 2015, Carlton spent nearly two decades at Arc Worldwide, the Publicis/Leo Burnett unit he describes as "an amalgamation of several entities oriented around promotions or shopper/retail merchandising." He handled creative duties for all of Arc's clients including McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Walmart.

Regarding press coverage, he says, "I think that's something our industry is learning to do better: after you've done the great work, how do you get people to talk about it?"

In the meantime, he just wants to make a good impression at Geometry. "The first thing I'm interested in is being respectful, getting to know the people, observing, listening big time, then starting to figure out where the opportunities are."

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.