What I learned in my first 100 days at Buzzfeed

Simon Veksner joined BuzzFeed Australia as creative director in December last year. Here, he compares his new role to his adland days, where free biscuits were banned and ‘argument with creative director – 1.5 hrs’ never showed up on the timesheet.

After 20 years of working in ad agencies, I have now spent 100 days at BuzzFeed.

So what’s different?

First of all, the pace. The joke we used to trot out in one of my previous agencies was “we may be slow, but at least we’re expensive.” At BuzzFeed, we’re completing projects in days, not months.

And this can only happen because we make stuff ourselves. Agencies like to talk about being makers, but the truth is, they are outsourcers. Agency creatives make cool stuff in their spare time, but when they get to the office… they suddenly develop camera allergy. We shoot, edit, design and animate in-house.

Data: More walk, less talk

BuzzFeed is also much more data-driven than the world I’ve come from. Nowadays ad agencies have uncountable people with the word ‘data’ or ‘strategy’ in their title – sometimes both – so you’d think there must be a huge quantity of analytics going on.

But if so, it almost never reached me, the creative director. Which is kinda like spending millions developing a high-tech dog food, but then feeding it the same old brisket as before.

Maybe they thought data would upset me. Not true! I always had a suspicion that data would show consumers preferred interesting ideas over boring ideas, so I would have been delighted to have a thousand robots crawling over every decision I made. It just never happened.

Decisions around work seemed to come down to the creative director looking the client in the eye and saying: “This is going to be awesome.” Data? Not so much.

Which is odd, because that’s not how clients operate in their own businesses. A telco wouldn’t open a new store in a shopping centre without poring over demographic info and foot traffic.

At BuzzFeed, there is lots of data – we are swimming in it. And we use it. The creatives are constantly looking at what is working and not working with our audience, right down to the individual words used in headlines.

At ad agencies, I’d grown used to the notion that we were playing a kind of game: consumers were basically trying to avoid us, and we were trying to hook their attention so we could sneak in a sell. But I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be that way. If you use real data and insights to create content that’s based on what people are genuinely interested in, then they are not only happy to consume it, but they’ll even share it with others… even though it’s branded.

Now, we need to talk about culture. Culture isn’t parties. Culture isn’t giving staffers $50 to go out and buy a personal desk-lamp to express their individuality. (Yes, that actually happened at one place I worked). And culture isn’t built by committees.

Culture is who you hire. BuzzFeed has a ‘no haters’ policy, and diversity. Too many companies are still just saying they want a diverse workforce. It’s really not hard. Just hire that way.

Focussing on the consumer

I’ve learned to deploy a more ruthless focus on the audience. Clients are great at this in their actual business. Like, when telcos figure out we want to be able to roll over our data, they rush to let us do it. But when it comes to their communications, they have a tendency to drop this ruthless focus on the consumer for a ruthless focus on themselves. And ad agencies let them get away with it, because they’re scared of losing the account.

At BuzzFeed, our starting point is what consumers are interested in. Why is so much of our content about puppies, pizza, dating, shopping, and babies? Because that’s what we’ve found our audience are interested in. The job becomes figuring out how to make the fee-free ATM or data rollover announcement into something people care about.

I’ve learned that it’s very simple to generate teamwork: you just give everyone the same KPI. In ad agencies, there’s more a system of (how can I put this…) creative tension. The suits, planners and creatives all have different KPIs.

On a good day, the resulting pressures create fireworks. On a bad day, you just spend all of that day arguing. How much time did we waste in ad agencies fighting each other? Impossible to say, since ‘argument with creative director – 1.5 hrs’ never shows up on the timesheets. But it’s a lot.

Finally, there’s a noticeable difference in ‘vibe’. The ad agency model is more than 100 years old, and the structure is making creaking sounds like a submarine that’s about to implode. I recall with sadness an all-staff email at one of my previous agencies announcing “the end of free biscuits”.

BuzzFeed is new and growing. And the snacks, my friends, are unlimited.

Simon Veksner joined BuzzFeed Australia as creative director in December last year.


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