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Many, many years ago, a young actor called Robert De Niro went to the Lee Strasberg acting school in NYC.
It was here that he learnt an acting technique that formed the foundation for how he was to approach his craft for the rest of his career.
That technique was called method acting.
Method acting was not created by Less Strasberg – that was a Russian actor and director called Constantin Stanislavski – however he was the one who ultimately gave it its high profile and credibility.
Method acting is based on the actor drawing on their own personal emotions and memories to fully capture and represent the character’s psychological and emotional motives.
To ensure purity of this state and to minimise clichéd or contrived behaviour, actors are actively encouraged to live their life as the character – never breaking their identity until the end of filming – so that they hone their approach, understanding and behaviour to ensure total separation of who they are with who they are playing.
It’s a very confronting and challenging technique however when you look at the work of practioners like Daniel Day Lewis, Al Pacino and countless others, you appreciate the impact it makes on the actor and the resulting impact it makes on the film as a whole.
I mention this because we recently decided to see if this methodology would work for planning.
We wanted to investigate whether it would give us deeper and better understanding.
Whether it would lead to ideas that are fundamentally different to all that has gone before.
And I have to say, while it is still early days, all the signs seem to be very, very positive.
Method Planning ™
The reason we undertook this experiment is that I’ve always felt our approach to gathering insights has been flawed.
As you know, over the years I’ve tried many different approaches – from talking to prostitutes and car thieves to working with a criminal profiler to develop a technique I call circumstantial insight – however despite all that, I’ve still been painfully aware that many of my viewpoints have been based on ‘interpreting’ others actions and words rather than experiencing them in their purest form possible.
While I still passionately believe these approaches still give us better insight and clarity than things like focus groups – especially focus groups in China – the reality is that so much of what we ‘learn’ is second hand.
So when we were recently given a project that required us to understand the attitudes, mindset and behaviour of entry level white collar employees, I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to explore the method acting approach … which is why for the last 5 weeks, one of my my planners has basically been living someone else’s life.
If you were to go to Wuhan today and speak to the co-ordinators at a large local bank, they would tell you Leon is a new colleague who recently moved from Shanghai to take the first steps on his career path.
They would say this because, to them, that’s exactly what happened.
5 weeks ago we sent young Leon to a temp agency to get a new job.
To ensure he would be put forward for the sort of role we wanted for him, we constructed a backstory that was crafted to make him seem the most appropriate white-collar entry level candidate in China.
That said, we followed the learnings of Lee Strasberg by basing it on his real life because he says that makes the line between perceived truth and real truth more blurred … allowing your ‘character’ to more easily consume your real identity.
Anyway, a week later and after 3 interviews, he was on the train to Wuhan preparing to start a totally new life.
What’s different to this approach – versus adlands much loved ‘ethnographic research’ or just hanging out with various people and/or departments within a clients organisation – is that this has been designed to eradicate any wall that could come between participant and observer … hence Leon isn’t just acting out his new life between the hours of 9am-6pm, he’s sharing a house with them [3 men], eating the same food as them, surviving on the same low salary as them, learning the new banking terminology as them and – most difficult of all – wearing the same suit and tie as them.
Well, not literally the same, but you get what I mean.
4 weeks into the 6 week experiment and his new house mates/colleagues still haven’t got the faintest that Leon is really a planner from Wieden+Kennedy.
Mind you, they wouldn’t even know what a planner or Wieden+Kennedy is if we told them.
That said, it’s fair to say Leon initially found it difficult to maintain ‘in character’.
There were times where he found himself slipping into ‘planner mode’ and then worrying he’d been discovered, but fortunately for him – and us – that doesn’t appear to be the case.
He said the real turning point came when he was told off by his boss for being late and realised he was really living this life and within days, he felt it was all coming to him more easily and naturally … to the point he complained to his new housemates/colleagues about the questions and expectations he was supposedly getting from his parents about his new job.
What’s fascinating is how different his attitude and behaviour has become.
While he tells us the stories, challenges and experiences he has gone through [and is going through] he no longer talks about it in terms of observation, but personal feelings. It’s a fine line, but the difference is clear especially when he is expressing the highs, lows, gossip and politics of his new life, because he expresses them with the full force of the emotions he’s experienced or is going through.
There was one point where we were questioning something he had said about this audiences ambitions and he snapped back with …
“Not everyone has the chance to live in the big cities”.
In short, Leon is no longer observing our target audience, he is our target audience and that’s translated into him giving us information and briefs that have opened a whole new world of perspective and opportunity for the rest of us.
Of course we are under no illusion that this is both a risky strategy and a questionable strategy, however despite all the difficulties, complexities and challenges to set it up [not to mention the outrageous amount of time, patience and resilience everyone needs to have to pull it off] I would say Method Planning ™ offers ad agencies a whole new approach to gaining powerful and influential audience insights … though I would suggest the best time to do it is on April 1st because people are way more gullible on that day.
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