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


Stop Thinking Your Audience Is Stupid And Start Realising They Just Don’t Care …

So recently I saw the above scoreline posted by a sports platform.

8-0 is a pretty emphatic win.

But then I saw the sports platform in question had stated FCB had won.

No shit sherlock, even the amazing Stevie Wonder could see that!

And it’s this sort of state-the-obvious statement that reveals so much about the state of research, clients and agencies.

Because somewhere along the line, a bad research company has told a bad client that they need to order their poor agency to put a state-the-obvious fact within their carefully crafted piece of communication because there’s a 0.000001% chance the message they want to convey is not quite clear enough.

That, or because the client wants to ‘own’ a particular word in their category – and it will be evaluated by post campaign research – they want to make sure they say it as many times as possible to increase the odds … regardless of the fact that in the real world. no one ever uses the words ‘vitality’ or ‘efficacy’.

ARGHHHHHH!

Years ago I watched a documentary called Z-Channel about the early days of cable television.

One of the networks, Z-Channel, was very avant-garde … playing programs featuring all manner of obscure content.

When asked why, they said this:

“Too many play to the lowest common denominator. We want to play to the highest”.

If only more research, clients and agencies remembered that, then maybe we would make more work that respected the audience and aimed to enthral, inform and entertain them rather than bore them into submission via work that treats them like village idiots.



I’m Watching You …

When I was at R/GA, I hired this brilliant planner called Joel.

It was weird how we met because it all started at a Google Firestarter meeting I was talking at.

At the end of my presentation, it was opened up to the audience for questions.

I couldn’t see who was asking anything as the lights from the stage were shining straight into my eyes. Anyway, there was one question that shone out from the rest of the questions of the night – basically challenging the London bubble of planning – and while I didn’t know who asked it, I wanted to find who did to say I liked it.

Alas I never found out who did.

A few days later, I got a message on LinkedIn from the person who asked the question.

His name was Joel.

I invited him for a coffee later that week and suddenly the person who asked the best question of the night was asking the best questions of the day.

But what made them extra good was he wasn’t doing it to show off or stand out, he was doing it because he was interested in the topics and interested to hear my perspective.

We talked about his background, his ambitions and then he did the one thing that almost guaranteed I wanted to hire him.

He called comprehensive school, ‘big school’.

BIG SCHOOL.

I hadn’t heard that since I was a kid in Nottingham and immediately I loved Joel for it. Because for all the time he had spent in London, he had not lost his Bradford realness … and then it became clear why he asked the question about the London bubble, why he was asking questions why culture rarely reflected how marketing department express it and why was the ad industry more interested in convenience than authenticity.

How could I not hire someone like that?

So I did.

And he never disappointed because apart from being culturally, creatively and strategically talented – with an obsessive focus on what life is really like for people, especially outside of London rather than the cliched, London bullshit a lot of marketing likes to portray – his greatest trait was he always wanted to learn.

Always.

Now don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t always the model student … he would push back, he would challenge, he would question … but what he doesn’t know is that was when I was the happiest working with him, because it meant he was believing his words rather than just following others.

And while we always have to be careful we don’t blindly think whatever we believe is the right answer, having confidence and conviction in your gut and your talent is an often underplayed, undervalued, under-encouraged skill in a strategist … which is why I was so happy to see when I left R/GA, Joel had a mug made with my face and my words on it.

Not because he missed my ugly face and lack of vocabulary, but to remind him to trust his smarts, his instincts and his authenticity … but never to be a prick about it.

If I was proud of him before. I am even prouder of him now.



Which Came First: The Dumbing Down Of Marketing Or Creativity?

Above is a point of sale sign from a local supermarket.

Look at it.

LOOK AT IT!!!

What a pile of utter shite.

Noticeable for it’s stupidity rather than it’s inspiration.

The sort of stuff you would expect from a 5 year old writing jokes for a Christmas Cracker, than a company with well paid staff, responsible for the commercial growth of an organisation.

So who is to blame?

Well there are many who should feel a sense of shame – from ad agencies to research companies to clients – however when I think of who started this horribleness to begin, I can’t help but feel it was at the hands of the marketing department.

Of course even they are not totally to blame.

The C-Suite, with their demands and expectations have a lot to answer for … almost as much as the investors, who say they want the companies they invest in to be good companies but they better make increasing profits every quarter.

But what I found fascinating coming back to Western markets from Asian – specifically China – was how little ambition there really was.

Oh companies would talk about it – wax lyrical about it – but when you delved a little deeper, you saw there wasn’t much there.

Instead the focus was far more about defending rather than growing, corporate convenience rather than customer understanding, explaining rather than communicating and short-term conformity rather than long term change.

But of course, ad agencies need to take their blame for this situation as well.

Too many doing whatever clients want rather than what they need.

Profiting from process over creativity.

Celebrating speed over substance.

What makes it worse is some think this leads to good work.

Effective work. Using ‘proof’ that ignores the myriad of small, separate elements that combine to drive success so they can place themselves on a self-appointed pedestal.

But there are some who have a bit more self-awareness.

Who know what they’re doing is not as good as it could be.

Or should be.

But rather than face their responsibility in all of this, they blame others for how this came about … turning to questionable research that is based on a few tweets, a couple of chats around the agency or claims every single person on the planet can have their attitudes and behaviours characterised by a singular colour or some other bollocks.

And from this, they will claim the public don’t care about smart stuff.

That they ‘don’t understand’ good ideas and writing.

They they’re simply not interested in creativity and ideas.

Bullshit.

Bullshit.

Bullshit.

I’ve got to tell you, I’m absolutely over it.

I’m over the focus on the lowest common denominator.

Let’s face it, life would be pretty horrible and boring if that is how we really operated … and contrary to popular belief, we don’t.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of predictability in what we do, but to ignore the nuance … to suggest everything we aspire to is exactly the same, delivered via an identical approach … is just plain bullshit.

But here’s the kicker, because more clients and agencies seems to be adopting this approach.

White labelling, phoned-in solutions with a cool sounding names that actively destroys any sense of differentiation and distinctiveness of their brand from countless competitors while also directly insulting the intelligence of the customers they rely on to survive.

I get it’s less hassle to just agree with clients.

I get that having income coming in right now is very important.

I get that a single point-of-sale sign is not going to change the world.

But when we are willing to allow our standards to be determined by how quick we can make money, then all we’re doing is ensuring the long-term value of our industry – and the talented people in it or wanting to be in it – dies even more quickly.

And that’s why I am also over people being quick to piss on anyone trying to do something different.

Claiming it’s self indulgent.

Labelling it a failure before it’s even run.

Saying it won’t appeal to the audience … despite not knowing the brand, the brief, the audience or how people actually think or act outside of some hypothetical customer journey / strategic framework of convenience.

And yet, when you look at the brands, the work and the agencies who consistently resonate deeply and authentically with culture and drive long-term loyalty, growth and profit – it’s the usual suspects and a few newbies, like Nils and the fabulous folks at Uncommon.

Yes our job is to help our clients achieve more than they hoped. Yes our job is to attract rather than repel. But our job is also to help build the future for our clients … influencing, shaping and – sometimes – forcing dramatic change even before the masses are quite ready for it, which means doing work that challenges and provokes for all the right reasons … sometimes asking questions of the audience rather than boring them into beige submission.

And while I acknowledge there are risks in all of that, I personally believe it is far riskier to dumb everything down to it’s lowest common denominator, because every single thing we love, respect and covet has come from someone or something doing something different.

Whether that’s an idea, a product, a story or a new way of looking at the World … it has come from people who understood who we are but take us further than we imagined, pushing the journey and the story with every new chapter of what they create.

They could have taken the easy route.
They could have focused on optimising the rewards.
They could have spent their time ‘removing friction from the transactional process’.

But they didn’t. Or at least, they didn’t just focus on that.

They embraced the risk to create something bigger and more unexpectedly resonant.

Or should I say unexpectedly resonant by those judging them, because they knew exactly where they were going.

And this is why the people who are so quick to dismiss anyone trying to do something new need to understand their actions say far more about who they are and what they value than anything else. And in an industry that is fighting for its life, I put my faith in those using creativity to change the game rather than those who just talk about violation of some old rules.



If You Know Who You Are, You Don’t Have To Say Much About Yourself …

A while back, I wrote about a chef we met on a research project for Tabasco, who said something that had a big effect on me …

“The more confident the chef, the more simply your dish”.

I love this.

It captures so much in so few words.

As you will be able to tell from this blog, I find it hard to be succinct in pretty much everything and anything I do.

I spend ages thinking about things … what is important, what isn’t, what might be that I haven’t thought about yet and what I just want to try to see what comes out the other side.

This is incredibly annoying for almost everyone. Including myself.

But after I’ve messed about with it all and got an idea about where my energy lies, I can eventually get things down to their bare essential – by which I mean reduce it down to the most important thing I need others to understand and feel.

I must admit, I used to give myself a really hard time on how long this process took – especially when I could see others pull it off in the blink of an eye – but the reality is it takes a lot of hard work to be simple and rigour means what you do is right rather than just fast.

I say all this because I recently came across Apple’s marketing philosophy from 1977.

Look at that.

LOOK AT IT!!!

One page. One single little page.

Now I know some will claim it is simplistic.

Or it features words that people may not get, like ‘impute’.

But when you read it – which at one single page, means you definitely will – you quickly understand the 3 essential values that the brand stands for, believes in and values.

They give a fuck about their audience.

They are brutally focused on what they do.

They place great value on how they communicate themselves.

But there’s a couple of other things.

One is they openly talk about ‘creativity’.

To do that in 1977 is amazing.

To do that in 1977 when you are in the computer business, is almost unheard of.

But what I like is they link creativity with professional.

Because not only does it mean Apple don’t see these as being mutually exclusive – which was definitely not a commonly held belief back then, maybe even now – but it’s a clue to the work they want to be known for.

Not creativity for creativities sake, but how they look at the world.

What being professional looks like to them.
What the values of being professional means to them
What the word professional represents in terms of how you live and act.

And given they placed huge importance in understanding their audience, it meant they could do work that moved away from the typical suit and tie, business communication of the day and make work that spoke human to human … acknowledging the creativity in all of us and talking about human values not just corporate efficiency.

And if that wasn’t enough, there is one more thing I love about all this.

They talk about how, if they do it right, their customers will feel about Apple and their products.

Not a bunch of words … but emotion.

Of course this is all very obvious, but there are way too many clients who try to define the exact words they want people to play back to them.

Generic … overly-defined … corporate-talk … words.

It’s as if their bonus is linked directly to the quantity of words a focus group plays back to them.

Which is probably the exact reason why they do it.

But Apple in 1977 didn’t follow that path – and still don’t – because they, like NIKE and countless other brands who have a huge influence in culture, appreciate the simpler you are, the more powerful you become.



Research Is Great …

I heard a great story recently about the iconic movie, Die Hard.

Apparently in early test groups, viewers were confused why the lead character was pitched as a hero when he “keeps hiding and calling for help”.

I must admit, I laughed out loud when I heard this … mainly because it was a viewpoint that I don’t think I would have ever come up with, even if I was working on it 24/7 for a year.

It also probably says more about where the minds of American men were back when the movie came out than anything else.

And while learning this has ensured I will never watch the movie in the same way again, it does highlight the best and worst of focus groups.

I must admit I’m not a fan of this approach.

To be fair, it’s less the methodology and more about how clients are using what they find/hear.

Treating it as undeniable fact … something that needs to be followed to the letter.

But the reality is focus groups are – at best – a guide, rather than a blueprint.

Factors like group dynamics, vacuum thinking and the focus on answers, not understanding all combine to ensure there are a number of major flaws with this approach, and yet some blindly believe this is pathway to success.

Fools.

To be fair, I feel this way about pretty much all research methodologies.

Not because I’m a prick, but because context and dynamics continually shape our viewpoints and behaviours, which is why I don’t like relying on one form of research but a combination of different kinds … as long as one is spent out in culture, talking … listening … learning from the way the core of subcultures live.

Not just in terms of the specific thing we are working on, but life in general.

The language.

The associations.

The labels they use.

The pressures, laughter, fears and concerns …

Clothes … music … games … hashtags … iconography …

Their thoughts about situations not just their reactions or behaviours …

What they’ve started doing rather than what they’ve always done … the ‘edge effect’ that Martin and I talked about in our Cannes talk on Chaos last year.

But that approach is still seen as the exception rather than the rule.

Interacting with real life is still viewed as a novelty rather than a reality.

Which is why, if you have to use research, I like the way Dreamworks does it.

They don’t care about what people think about their stories or characters … they don’t give a shit about the highs or lows or things they’d change, they ask just one simple question …

Were you entertained?

That’s it.

It’s the only thing that matters to them.

Simple. Focused. Clear.

Because while they want people to enjoy what they do, they don’t want people to decide what they do …

Sure, they listen to what is said.

Sure, they sometimes decide to make changes based on what is said.

But they never do what they don’t agree with because you can’t steer a ship to port when you have a thousand captains all telling you where to go.

There’s a lot of people who could learn from this.

And I don’t just mean clients …