Activating Human Behaviour
Little Black Book is an online publication/platform that ‘celebrates creativity and the people behind it’. They’ve recently published ‘5 minutes with... Daniel Comar’, an interview done at Spikes. Though the title is misleading (the conversation lasted much longer than five minutes), it covers quite thoroughly my views on creativity in activation. I get asked about it a lot, so I thought of reproducing it here with the full permission of LBB. Thanks, Laura Swinton.

These days, the ideas that really make you go ‘wow’ are not the TV ads or beautifully designed print ads. They’re the ideas that change behaviour, the ideas that that trigger sustainable, long term shifts in culture. And Daniel Comar, the Asia Pacific Regional ECD at Geometry Global is right in the heart of that. Five years ago he made the shift from high-prestige traditional advertising into the turbulent waters of activation when he was offered a job at OgilvyAction. He dove in head first and it was a smart move – since then WPP has combined OgilvyAction, JWT Action and G2 to create Geometry, a brand new network dedicated to ideas that go to the heart of human behaviour, and Daniel is leading the charge in Asia Pacific. He’s a true convert to activation – as his beautifully curated blog Activation Ideas shows (believe us, it’s got some brilliant stuff in there). It’s been quite a journey for the Argentinian creative whose career at Ogilvy has taken him from his homeland to Vietnam, Malaysia and now Singapore. And he isn’t looking back.


LBB> You started off doing traditional advertising, what triggered the move into activation?

DC> It was triggered by an offer but it’s a process that started very slowly. I always liked the science of behaviour, looking into human nature, wondering why people do things. That’s always been my passion. I always liked the free format to ambient media at that time, promotion, I liked that side of the business too, although my day-to-day work was big campaigns for TV and print. The world started to change. You could see how new categories, like Promo & Activation, were opening up; Direct became bigger; Outdoor became about more than billboards, it was about what you could do out of home. You could see that the most interesting things were happening there.

I was working in the Ogilvy Network and I had an offer to run OgilvyAction for the region. At first I was afraid, petrified, because I used to see these BTL companies as the guys in the kitchen. But the brief was bigger; the brief was, ‘how can we transform that and make it a creative company?’.

I thought, maybe if I gave it a shot, the worst that would happen is that I would spend a year learning things and I love to learn a lot. I just took the chance and it turned out to be very good. I love it. I wouldn’t go back now! 


LBB> As you said, there are so many things that come under the definition of ‘activation’ that are winning awards in other categories as well, whether it’s innovation or outdoor.

DC> Or digital, or mobile! It’s so connected now, it’s hard to tell what a campaign is now. That’s why I love the approach. You don’t start by saying ‘how do we communicate’, you start by asking ‘how do we change behaviour’.


LBB> From a creative point of view, when you get a brief or project, how does that process differ?

DC> It’s no different —you have to sit down, put your bum on the chair and start thinking, try things, talk to someone and things start to happen. The creative process itself is no different, but what differs is the goals and the tools and the type of ideas that you look for. They’re deeper.


LBB> How do you know that you’re trying to change the right behaviour?

DC> I don’t talk much about it, because it’s not my role, but in my company there’s a whole other side of it that deals with the science. There are a lot of very capable people that take the data and do configuration and do research and investigate what’s happening, what are the right places to be. It comes to us in the brief so figuring out what to do comes from working with the client brief and adding our perspective.

Back to the creative process that you asked me about, I do find that one thing that’s very different is that usually I’m more detached from the technique. When I used to do traditional ads I used to have the technique in mind – I’ll do a TV commercial for example – they were different ideas but they did the same thing. Here it’s more like ideas with freedom. There’s a lot of ‘what if’. What if we do this?  What if we do that? Once you have an idea, there are so many different ways to implement them. You can do it analogue, you can do it digitally. 


LBB> Obviously everything is backed up by science and research, but what happens when something doesn’t change people’s behaviour in the way you are expecting it to? Does that ever happen? 

DC> No it’s not easy to predict at all. But whenever you do something slightly different in this area you get attention. What’s harder to predict though is whether it’s something that will stick and have a real influence in the marketing of the company. That’s the hard part. But the moment you do anything different it gets attention.


LBB> What’s interesting in activation is that it really leverages quite a basic psychological principle that changing someone’s behaviour is more likely to change their mind than the other way around. It’s backed up by so much research and a lot of the activation projects are getting real results… I wonder if at some point there’s going to be a real tipping point in the advertising industry as a whole in which traditional agencies become more activation-focused?

DC> I would say that there’s always going to be a need for building the story. It might change formats, it might not be the 30-second TV spot but there will always be a need to create the brand story. And there’s an increasing need – well it was always there, but now it’s happening in a more creative way – to bring that story to life. And that’s activation. 

Activation has always been part of marketing, but it was very much about getting shoppers to buy things. Now there are more tools, more data. Technology allows you to do a lot of incredibly magical things that were not possible before. You had to work with formulas – you would have your point of sale materials, your roadshows, but now you can break out from that and do different things.


LBB> Well, things like the iBeacons with the new iPhone are going to create a whole new set of tools...

DC> Exactly. And they allow you to do things that previously you had to do in more creative ways. It gives you magical experiences now.


LBB> Do you find that because you’ve been working on these projects for quite a long time now that it changes the way you think about the consumer and their experience? With TV ads, for example, you have to put yourself in their shoes to understand if they would enjoy that ad, but with this it’s so much more important.

DC> I do and sometimes I’m a bit tough on that. I ask myself ‘would I do that? Would I make that effort?’. And if it was up to me I would say ‘no’, but I’m not the person to ask. I tend to be tough on ideas because I wouldn’t personally do it, but people do a lot of crazy things. You have to be very conscious about that. In advertising a lot of it is about entertainment and that’s enough, but here I really want people to go from A to B and that’s a different story!


LBB> Has there been anything that you’ve learned about the science since you’ve joined activation that has really stuck with you, or surprised you?

DC> Oh plenty! I like, of course, the simplest solutions. A lot of the times the things that win awards are new apps but I’m more into coming up with an idea that uses old tools in a different way.


LBB> Has it made you think about your own behaviour, how you might be subconsciously affected by things?

DC> In a way, but we are human! We are bad! We never do what we say we should do. I try to use it with my daughters, try to create the right set up so that they will want to do things rather than tell them to do things. There’s a lot of gaming in the family. But for me it’s tough to apply to yourself because you know the tricks.


LBB> You’re based in Singapore —are a lot of these behaviours universal or do you think that different cultures are triggered by different things?

DC> Yes and no. There are a lot of differences culturally, so when it comes to food, religion and things like that behaviour changes dramatically based on the region and geography. But when you look at the core motivations, then you will find commonalities. You have to be sensitive to regional differences, but you can apply these motivations universally. Human beings are hardwired the same way. 


LBB> Which projects recently that you’ve worked on have really resonated with you?

DC> There was a project from India for Lifebuoy Soap that is really beautiful and it’s one of the nicest things we’ve done. It was really simple and based on the insight that there were already water pumps in the school yard and no one was using them. The question was ‘how do you draw attention to that?’.

We’ve done something recently here in Singapore for Omo, the detergent, around the ‘Dirt is Good’ line. Children these days don’t spend a lot of time outside, they sit on their iPhone. How do you get them to experience the idea that dirt is good? Especially in countries like Singapore where everything is so clean? How do you encourage mums to let their kids do that? We looked at the packaging on the detergent and printed dotted lines on them so the kids could turn them into a spade and a bucket to encourage the kids to play in the mud. 

I like those that really bring the brand to life and also make a difference for people; things that have a purpose outside of just selling things. 


LBB> That’s the thing about activation, it’s got the potential to achieve something far deeper and broader. It’s not just about business solutions, but social solutions.

DC> Yes and that’s where they work best. Last year we did something for Cadbury Malaysia, linked to the fact that digital is changing how we interact with each other. I give you a ‘happy birthday’ on Facebook because it’s easy and it prompts you to. So we used an old type press and we changed the printing machine so you could print on chocolate bars without unwrapping them. People could send a message and it would be hidden on the bar. It’s a real way to spread a message – you have to think about it, go to the store, engrave it. It’s not just sending a message on Facebook. And there’s a big surprise when you open it and see the message. It was really successful. People were buying ten bars at a time.


LBB> Because the area is so diverse, I guess that makes production a lot more challenging. With TV ads, you need to think ‘we’re going to pick one of five directors’.

DC> Everything is ad hoc. Every project is new. You create a network of partners and suppliers who are good at certain things. You know who can give you advice on digital, you know the guy who can always make something work. You create a network then you pick your team. It is tough, especially for production management. It’s always new.


LBB> You’ve got a blog in which you curate great examples of activation work from around the world, from other agencies too. When did you start doing that?

DC> Four or five years ago. The reason I started was that there was a big need to train people, and in the beginning we didn’t have any work to show. We didn’t want to work like we did before, so I had to search out work from other agencies and I also needed a system that would be easy for me to maintain. I was always looking at stuff online, so I created a blog that lets me send stuff to the queue whenever I see stuff that’s interesting. I post something every day or two. It’s easy for me, it takes 15 minutes during breakfast. It’s become a database now. I’ve been tagging everything by discipline, brand and agency. I use it for clients to get them to see the work.


LBB> And talking about training people up, how do you go about finding the right new talent for an area which is itself quite new?

DC> I’m working on converting people. I felt that with people who come from BTL, it’s a lot tougher to train them in storytelling and behaviour change. They’re very focused on what they’ve done all their life and it’s very hard. There are some exceptions and I’ve found some gems and trained them up. I find it’s easier to take advertising people and train them up because they have the creative process and conceptual thinking in their mind already. We’ve been quite successful in that. We’ve found a great creative director in Hong Kong, we’ve got a great creative director in Malaysia who comes from social media, we’ve got another one in Tokyo. We’ve been doing some great hires recently.

One of the things that drew me into this was that in my last years in advertising I didn’t learn anything. I was doing the same thing again and again and again. TV ads, print campaigns, they were all the same format. We don’t have that. No one comes to us to do a commercial or banner ads. A lot of people still think that traditional advertising is the king. It still has that halo, which is fine. But, for me, this is much more exciting.

Regional Executive Creative Director, Geometry Asia Pacific