The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


It’s Not Big. It’s Not Clever. But It’s A Bit Funny …

So Cannes sent out a ‘wrap up’ of things learnt from this years festival.

There was a lot of talk about authenticity and audience … great, intelligent speakers with genuinely fascinating perspectives on how we get closer to audiences without them just feeling like ‘the data told us what to say and how to do it’.

Again, this is not an anti-data thing. Far from it.

But for creativity to infiltrate, invigorate and ultimately move culture and business forwards, it needs to be resonant to the audience [and the brand] rather than be some semi-relevant message that has been designed to actively disregard the very things that makes us human.

For that I mean the messiness, hypocrisy, fears, complexity, loves, passions, habits and nuance of how we think, what we think and how we live … the stuff that gives us individuality … the stuff that is very different to just focusing on transactional data points that have ultimately been designed to give specific answers to specific questions that forgets the importance of context.

Great data folks understand the need for this.

Great planning folks understand the need for data.

Sadly, we still treat them as an either/or, which highlights our industry seems to be more focused on the ego of power and control rather than what can liberate the most interesting creativity. Ironically, while I think my attitude shows me in the most professional light that I’ve ever been, I recently got called a ‘corporate anarchist’ – which kind of reinforces my point – however all this is immaterial, because imagine the utter disappointment of the people who spoke their brilliance at Cannes and discovered in the wrap up, almost half the pages dedicated to this subject come from a ranty, sweary Nottingham lad.

Their loss.

The industries shame.

My unbelievable, unashamedly wonderful gain.

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Careful. Your Data Is Showing …

The big conversation in marketing right now is around data.

So it should be, it’s insanely valuable and important.

But the irony is, while it can absolutely help us have deeper understanding about our audiences behaviour and habits – information that can lead to more powerful and valuable creativity – it’s alarming how many companies who claim to be experts in this field express themselves in ways that are the opposite of it.

Here are 2 ads I saw in Cannes …

Really?

You think that is going to convince people the data and technology you have is going to lead to better work?

You think that represents the language of your audience?

Sure, I know it’s Cannes and so there is a certain sort of person who is attending there at that moment – but they’re still bloody human.

Quite frankly, this is more an ad for celebrating ‘the old way’ rather than the new.

As Martin and I said in our presentation – if companies think creativity can be reduced to an engineering problem, then they don’t understand how society actually works.

Sure … you want consistency if you’re doing surgery.

Or making rockets.

Or producing food.

But society as a whole, is a mish-mash of complications and hypocrisy.

A group where their passions extend to far more than what they transact with … but how it integrates with their life.

Their fashion. Their music. Their games. Their language and imagery. Their context.

If you remove this from the process, you are simply creating the answer you want, not the answer that actually stands a chance of moving cultural behavior and attitudes for the long term, not just the short.

Or said another way, making brands successful in ways culture wants to stick with.

As I said, data has a huge and valuable role to play in all this.

I’m fortunate to have an extremely good data partner at R/GA … someone who not only knows what she’s doing, but appreciates it means nothing if it doesn’t help create better work.

And that’s the thing … great data doesn’t want the spotlight.

I see too much work where the brief seems to have been ‘show this data point’.

Or worse, too many briefs where it is the data point.

Great data – like great PR – is, in a lot of ways, invisible.

It liberates creativity rather than dictates it.

Revealing opportunities to think laterally not literally.

Helps you make work that reaches audience in more powerful ways.

Whether that’s where you play or how you play.

Put simply, data is an incredibly important part of modern marketing but – and this is where many people fall down – it can’t do it all.

It needs help to help make great work.

It can guide … it can reveal … it can lead … it can do so much, but it can’t do everything.

For data to truly show its full potential, it needs the nuances of culture added to it. Not purely for scalability, but for resonance.

As I’ve said many times, we need to stop looking to be relevant and start wanting to be resonant.

Making work that feels it was born from inside the culture, not from an observer.

Or said another way, work that doesn’t patronise, condescend or bore people.

Are you listening IBM and Neilsen?

Data with culture opens up more possibilities for creativity.

Allowing ideas to grow and go in places we might never have imagined.

Ideas that feel so right to the audience rather than explain why they should feel that way.



Netflix DataFucks …

Let me be clear, I really like Netflix.

I like them for the programming they make.

I like them for how they reinvented themselves when they saw their business die with DVD’s.

I like them for putting craft back into content and arguably making this the golden age of telly.

[Yes, I said TV, because some research said Netflix was mostly watched on the old box]

But I digress …

There’s one thing I don’t like about them and that’s how they talk about data creating the show ‘House Of Cards’.

I’m not doubting data played an important role in their thinking, but the way some people talk about it, data was the whole reason the show was made, ignoring the fact that a team of talented and creative actors, directors, camera men and film crew were needed to actually bring it to the screen. But even more than that, House Of Cards had already been made by the BBC years earlier, so it was an ‘update’ rather than a brand new creation.

However the main reason I doubt that narrative is that if data had proved to be so successful, why haven’t they done it again … and if they have, why is there no show that has had the same level of impact?

Alright, there have been a few that have definitely captured cultures attention, but they seem to be more because they’re talking about an event that captured the World’s attention [Fyre Festival] or simply offered a show featuring a Hollywood star at a time where people were desperately looking for content [Sandra Bullock’s, Bird Cage, which came out at Christmas]

OK, I’m being pretty unfair as Netflix is pretty awesome, but I suppose I just get wary of people claiming data made their creativity happen when the reality is [1] it didn’t and [2] if it did, then there is a hell of a lot of content on that network that is a great case for not relying on it entirely.

Data has a very important role to play in almost every industry, but when you claim – and trust – it can do it all without needing the understanding, imagination and craft of talented and creative humans, then you’re about as blind as the people who fail to see Bird Cage’s ending was rushed, contrived and massively underwhelming.



What If We’re Wrong …

One of the things that bothers me is how data [in marketing] has become law.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of data – or should I say, real data that has been amassed properly, read properly and used properly – but a lot of the stuff today is nothing more than small bits of information packaged to be big bits of information.

Worse, a lot of it has no texture whatsoever … designed to reinforce a position someone wants rather than to inform and enlighten on things you don’t know but would like to find out.

But even then, data is not infallible.

There, I said it.

Data is as good as the people who created it.

And yet day after day, I read about companies who treat their data like its god … even though you can see the flaws in their approach from 10,000 miles away.

From what they’re trying to discover.

To how they’re trying to discover it.

To what they want to do with it once they’ve got it.

No surprise then that so many then go on to report ‘lower than expected’ revenues.

I’m lucky that I work at a place with a progressive view of data, especially with the way we use our Ventures program.

But in addition to that, I work with an amazing data specialist.

She’s cheeky sod who is a bloody legend.

Not just for what she does but for what she pushes.

A believer in the role of culture not just habits.

But another part of her skill is that she knows what data does and what data doesn’t.

Data guides.

It heavily suggests.

It shines a light on important and essential behaviours.

It forces discussions about how best to approach situations.

But it rarely is undisputed, unquestionable, always certain, fact.

To be honest, I believe most people in the marketing field of data knows this but – as is the case with most things in marketing – we go around talking in certainties in an attempt to raise our professional standing when all it does is the opposite.

Hey, I get it, we see it being done in so many fields – from government to finance – but that still doesn’t mean it makes people believe what we’re saying, it just makes us complicit.

The reality is society is far smarter than we give them credit for. The only reason they let so much of this rubbish pass is because they literally don’t care what we say. They have seen so many facts that turned into fiction that they view what we do as literally a game … which is why, while data and strategy still play an important part in making creativity that helps brands move forward, the most powerful differentiator between ideas that culture sees and culture give a shit about is how interesting, intriguing and exciting it is.



Don’t Blame The Insight, Blame The Person Claiming It …

So a few weeks ago, the very lovely Neil – of Only Dead Fish fame – invited me to talk at Google Firestarters on insights.

This is a subject I’ve written and talked about for years, so it was right up my alley … and yet, despite that, I ended up writing a presentation where the underlying insight appears to be, ‘don’t ask Rob to write presentations on insights’.

For reasons I’m unsure of [though I think ‘fill this blog with something before the end of the year’] I thought it might be good to put it up here for others to look at/abuse. However, as it’s my usual ‘picture, no words’ presentation style, it probably will make little sense … but if it’s any consolation, that’s how the people who heard me give it, thought too.

If you want the general theme of the deck, it’s insights are important because culture is important … and if you know how the culture around categories think, act, operate and interact, then you have information that not only lets you create work that feels born from inside the culture, but can open doors to new possibilities.

Oh, and the bit about the Titanic is that I’m amazed this discussion is still going on because we all know insights matter, it’s where we’re getting them from and how we’re using them that is key. And yet – as an industry – we like to debate the things that we know matter and ignore the fact the majority of the work that’s being put out is an exercise in how to bore the fuck out of everyone with insanely and inanely rational communication.

And yes, I blame clients as much as planners and agencies for this.

It’s like they have forgotten that no one cares about what they care about and the job is to make them give a damn – and the most powerful way to do that is to use creativity in wonderfully mad and chaotic ways because [as Mr Weigel says, both in public and in my presentation] you can be as relevant as hell and still be boring as fuck.

The Henry Ford slag off is simply that he is well known for saying that if he’d asked people what they wanted they’d say a faster horse and my point is, if someone said that, any half decent planner should be able to workout they’re trying to say they want to get from point A to point B quicker than they currently are able.

And if that isn’t an amazing brief, then I don’t know what is.

Anyway, if you want to see the deck, including one of my favorite ever slides – the pic at the top of this post – click here: Firestarters

Enjoy … if that is the right word. Ahem.



Standards Not Speed …

So while I was at Deutsch, the brilliant WARC – for reasons that I don’t quite understand – asked me to contribute to their paper regarding the future of strategy.

To be honest, these sort of things tend to do my head in because ultimately, when you’re talking about the future – you can say anything you like and no one can say you’re wrong until the future is the present.

However as WARC are ace [present contributor excluded] and a bunch of my much smarter friends were also going to be a part of it … I happily agreed, even though my version of ‘the future of strategy’ has ended up being less about what we can be and more about how we should be looking to the past for how we should be doing it.

You see I worry that, as a discipline, we’re working more down to a speed than up to a quality.

I get it … the competitive landscape means clients and agencies want more stuff in less time for cheaper prices … but it’s a false economy because if our job is about opening possibilities for the clients we partner with, the only way we can truly recognize the creative opportunities for them – whatever they may be – is if we really understand culture.

Not just the big or functional things, but the nuances of attitude and behaviour.

And while we now have many ways of doing this, I don’t think many make up for good, old fashioned, rigor.

Not just in what we do, but who we get to do it.

I’ve seen too many people interpret data without truly understanding data.

I’ve seen too many people think they’re the audience when they’re the opposite of it.

I’ve seen too many people think focus groups reflect reality as opposed to exploring reality.

I’ve seen too many people evaluate culture from outsider positions, rather than insider understanding.

I’ve seen too many people think society doesn’t know what they want when most of the time, they just don’t know how to express it.

Rigor changes everything.

The level of understanding. The ability to see what’s possible. The quality of the creative response.

It’s something I worry we are sacrificing in our bid to keep up with what we think clients want.

And while speed is a competitive advantage, quality builds sustainable change and we should never just focus on the quick fixes because that is ultimately running to stand still.

If our industry is to get back to where we deserve, we have to do what’s right and that’s more than just doing the job, it’s doing the job with knowledgable and dangerous minds. It’s why Martin Weigel and I started our school and why I wrote this as my ‘future of strategy’.

PLANNING IS AN OUTDOOR JOB

So WARC asked me to write a piece on the importance of spending time outside the office.

Not in the quest for a decent lunchtime sandwich, but to better understand what’s going on in people’s lives.

In some ways, it’s kind-of horrifying to be asked to do this because it should be bloody obvious. Even the author John Le Carre, understood it with his famous quote, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the World”.

And yet, it seems fewer and fewer planners spend much time in the real World, preferring to observe it from the comfort of a research report and google search.

Look I get we live in times where we can access incredible amounts of data.

And I appreciate in this competitive World, things need to happen quicker than ever before.

But – and it’s a big but – spending time outside the bubble of adland is also a necessity.

Not just for planners … but for the clients you’re working with and the audience you’re unleashing your creativity on.

When I first joined Deutsch, I wanted to understand what the hell was going on with American youth so I sent 3 of my colleagues – Maya, Armando and Leigh [along with Sarah, a photographer and co-supported back at HQ by the wonderful Kelsey] backpacking across the US to spend about a month in some of America’s most opposite cities.

Specifically, the richest/poorest … fastest growing/shrinking … most/least diverse.

The only stipulation I gave them was a bit of advice my Mum once gave me, ‘be interested in what others are interested in’.

And so off they went.

A month later and they were back with experiences that had challenged them on deeply personal levels. Stuff that was incredibly uncomfortable to witness and experience.

But they also came back with stories that changed the way they looked at what was going on in America. Stories that added colour and context to how people live… stories that filled the gaps between data and research reports … stories that made them laugh, cry, despair and feel excited with what’s going on in the shadows of society.

No nice hotel rooms. No fancy travel. Just a month listening and learning straight from the mouths, lives and streets of youth. No wonder we called it America in The Raw.

We are all better for the experience.

Better planners, better department, better agency.

Better at helping our clients understand their audiences more intimately.

Better at identifying creative opportunities that would otherwise not reveal themselves.

Better at making work that stops telling people what to think and starts resonating with how people are thinking.

Of course, nothing in this approach is new.

Nor is necessary to go to such extremes to get cultural understanding and nuance.

But given how few planners seem to get the time – or have the inclination to get out into the real World – I hope this serves as a gentle reminder that planning is an outside job, because in a World while clients want agencies to help them stand out from the competition, the real opportunity is to help brands truly resonate with their audience… and as great as sitting in a nice office can be, you’ll never achieve that – or the creativity that can come from it – if you’re sat behind a desk.

You may wonder how you get your agency or client to pay for you to do this?

Well – apart from the fact it doesn’t cost anywhere near what they may think – you just need to point out the commercial value of having a level of intimacy with culture that few others will ever have. Plus there’s the fact this understanding leads to more interesting creativity with more powerful results.

But as I said, it doesn’t have to be this huge, formal thing, it should just be a natural part of how you do your job which is why if you’re a planning head, you should push your team to get out the door and if you’re a junior planner, you should push your boss to let you out the door.

It will change your life. And career.



Is The Only Thing Big About Big Data Is The Hype?
May 31, 2016, 6:20 am
Filed under: Attitude & Aptitude, Comment, Data, Insight

I am a big fan of data and information.

I am a firm believer it has incredible power inherently within it.

I am absolutely convinced – mainly because I’ve seen it and been a part of it – that when used correctly, it can liberate opportunity.

But despite this, I am also of the opinion it’s current position on the pedestal, is misguided.

To be honest, the reason for this is more because of how people are using it – or choosing what data they think is important – than the actual data itself, but like most things in life, when people look for convenient answers and rely on individuals who have either limited or myopic experience in their field for understanding what’s happening, the results can end up killing potential rather than releasing it.

But that’s just my opinion and I’d be interested in hearing yours.

Especially George, Pete, Baz and Lee … who I know interact with it at the highest levels and with the most qualified of all people.

Over to you …