Some men are born great. Others have greatness thrust upon them. Slightly abridged, but you’ll recognize the line: Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, passing comment on how our natures and our circumstances influence how we step figuratively up to the plate. Philosophically speaking, provocatively speaking, the line is also a bit of cheat in that it mashes together opposing schools of thought.

The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle proposed ‘Great Man Theory’. Carlyle’s thinking was that greatness is the stuff of nature, leadership a slug of DNA code sitting snuggly (or absently) in the double helix. Great men are born that way. That was Carlyle’s reckoning.

Tolsty (he of War & Peace and seriously impressive beard) sat on the other side of the debating chamber. Leo argued man’s moments of greatness to ‘zeitgeist theory’, to the times we pass through and how we take whatever slings and arrows on the chin. Context makes us great.

As a formula for brands and advertising (and their potential role in culture), I think we can take sage instruction from Messrs.’ Carlyle and Tolstoy. Meaning, for one thing, that ‘the Bard of Avon’ would have also made a damnably shrewd brand builder.

I believe brands are made great. In making them great, I’d like to suggest that ‘Great Brand Theory’ is not in isolation and opposition to the zeitgeist. Rather, ‘Great Brand Theory’ is a brand intrinsically so designed that it’s open-minded and adaptive to change. A great brand is a flexible brand. It’s one that knows what to do with the opportunities, as and when they come knocking. Opportunities, of course, are the external factors, as determined by those Tolstoyan circs of the day.

The great brands have the skills to surf the zeitgeist’s swells and troughs. Ineffectual brands sink beneath them. With a final glug that’s equally ineffectual.

And in ensuring that brands surf rather than sink, a singularly simple question arises. What is our zeitgeist, ‘der Geist seiner Zeit’ (as Gerg Hegel phrased it back in 1848), this spirit of our 2014 times?

Certainly enough, it is a digital one. Meaning it is a technologically-empowered one. A creatively-enabled one. A ‘mobile computer in our pocket that connects us to the world’ one. By consequence, it is a liberated one, in that the Digital Age gives all voice and invites us all to like/comment/share and tweet/post/upload.

Our zeitgeist is not one where anyone’s role is that of passive and mute witness. Our zeitgeist is one of being actively invited to get stuck in and a play a part. And this all has huge implications for how brands can make themselves great, and how advertising must consider the role it gives people. Which brings me to Noddy Holder (and isn’t the non sequitur it may appear).

You may well be as familiar with the work of Slade as you are with the frequently quoted lines of Shakespeare. And even if you’re not so au fait with the former, I’d wager you could sing along to ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’, a track that first entered the UK charts at number 1 back in February 1973. It stayed there throughout March, selling half million copies in its first 3 weeks. It is said that the factory couldn’t press the vinyl’s quickly enough. Ten years later, US heavy metal group Quiet Riot achieved massive success, sold 6 million copies of their cover version, and then in 1996, UK pub rockers Oasis paid homage with their own take.

‘Cum on Feel the Noize’ might be a seriously good tune to mosh or jog to, but I also believe its success is due to what it’s about. I think it resonates with audiences, because it’s about them.

‘Cum On Feel the Noize’ saw Slade attempt to “recreate and write about the atmosphere at their gigs”. Front man Noddy Holder recalled it as, “how I had felt the sound of the crowd pounding in my chest”. Co-writer Jim Lea added, “I thought — why not write the crowd into the songs.” (Source: Wikipedia)

“Why not write the crowds into the song?” I love this sentiment. I love the acknowledgement that a moment is defined by its audience, that they make it what it is. Without the audience, Holder & Co were just a group of crazy-haired guys up on a stage performing to an empty room.

Why not write the consumer into the campaign? Of course, this is what ‘Great Brands’ do. In our connected and converged age, great brands ensure their audience feels the noise by making them the centerpiece of the campaign moment. Great brands acknowledge that it is the contribution, energy and participation of the audience that defines the advertising, so making it a moment full of both noise and feeling. Campaigns that embrace the zeitgeist are campaigns that invite consumers to play their part. Great brands put consumers not just in control but ‘in character’.

Bud Light’s 2014 Super Bowl spot, ‘Ian Up For Whatever’ is a perfect example of a brand putting ‘The Consumer’ in character, of literally writing them into the campaign. The ad might center on Ian Rappaport, but we enjoy his adventures vicariously, our delight in watching turning the third person narrative into a first person experience.

The Heist, Zombie Run and Tough Mudder are recent additions to this burgeoning cultural trend in “first person/in character/’gamefied’ experiences. We now live in an age where we can hire zombies to chase us, and pay for the pleasure of tackling obstacle courses that electrocute us, while giving us permission to get as muddy as 5 year olds.

These very physical experiences reflect what has already taken place online, of the shift from ‘passive observer to active participant’.

Culturally, significantly, we’re moving more and more from ‘See it’ to ‘Live it’, meaning the designing of ad campaigns has become the designing of human experiences, of brands creating something for us all to live through.

Once upon a time, advertising campaigns were all about visibility. They were messages piped to us through static media channels. A big poster on a big flat poster site. 2D, unmoving, changing every 2 weeks. There was a time when poster sites couldn’t change image in the blink of an eye, and that change could not be prompted by, say, the Sun coming out or the Sun coming out or the passing of a plane overhead. In our analogue past, ‘media’ was rather unremarkable and ‘The Campaign’ was obvious in intent, on the nose in message, all elements quite literal and clearly visible.

We’ve moved from using media that makes the brand message ‘Visible & Literal’ to something that is much more ‘Staged & Revelatory’. 21st century advertising isn’t simply about the stuff that comes at you head on. It’s about the stuff that comes at you from the side, wraps round you, that creates a narrative context in which you have a role, with a desired emotion being all part of the plan.

Great brands are becoming cultural architects, their advertising becoming as much about the stuff you can’t see, constructs of ‘invisible design’, about the deliberate crafting of character-based first-person experiences.

Great men, great design, great bands, great brands, great experiences; none of these things happens by chance. In each case, our zeit invites it. But in making it so, we all have our parts to play.