Escape from Fantasy

(In which I afflict the comfortable – and comfort the afflicted).

The value of ‘contrarian’ thinking would seem to be pretty obvious…

From vague philosophies to sure–fire trademarked processes and techniques, there’s no shortage of advice available to us.

But I want to suggest that the starting point for doing what others do not, can not, or dare not to is perhaps much simpler. And that the world already provides us with all the material and resources we need.

 

For all its undoubted advantages, thrills, and benefits, where most of you are located is not where most of your consumers are located:

And yet despite this geographic (and cultural divide) it would seem that marketers don’t have time these days to think about the people they ostensibly serve…

Meanwhile client organisations no longer willing to fund and enable agencies to conduct rigorous research of their own because it isn’t “objective”, far too many planners are no longer in constant, direct, unmediated contact and dialogue with people. 

So now, as Richard Huntingdon has bemoaned, we have a generation of planners who simply do not have the skills to facilitate group discussions – and if they are talking to real people in the real world it’s invariably of the ‘quick and dirty’ kind for pitches or to prove some creative wheeze the client isn’t buying.

The fact of the matter is that we are not like most people.

And relying solely on our self-styled intuition is not a solution.

Research from Ipsos Connect and Thinkbox surveyed 288 advertisers and 795 ‘normal’ people during July and August 201, and shows a significant disparity between advertisers’ assumptions of TV viewing habits and the real figures:

One has to wonder what else we get wrong if we get basic stuff like this wrong.

There is of course a role for intuition and gut in what we do – but creating things based entirely on our personal tastes, behaviours, experiences, assumptions, and preferences is what Bob Hoffman has characterised as “marketing by selfie-stick – narcissism disguised as strategy.”

Time and again we insist on viewing people through the lens of our brand, producing horribly distorted versions of reality.

Google for example – unable to see people other than through the lens of its own search capabilities –  seems to think that all people are “obsessed” about research all their purchases all of the time:

Meanwhile marketing briefs are filled with breathless fictions purporting to be accurate portrayals of our desired audience:

As an aside, one has to wonder why these people would ever need or want our brand. They’ve achieved the absolute zenith of self-actualisation. They’re superheroes, not mortals. What on earth can we offer or promise them that they would have need or desire of?

Certainly our unwillingness or inability to embrace the ordinariness of the people we rely on and need to engage speaks volumes about us.

And if we’re not inventing fantastical superheroes, we’re wielding the airbrush to create the “stock image consumer”:

Blander than bland.  Creatures so one-dimensional that if they turned sideways they’d actually disappear. Devoid of all conflict or anxiety, faces caught in rictus-like grins of vanilla-flavoured delight.  Safe. Inoffensive.  And utterly non-existent.

We are like the prisoners of Plato’s allegorical cave, chained-up, unable to turn our heads. You know the one. The one where a fire burns behind us and puppeteers are casting shadows of objects. Unable to see these puppets, we think the shadows we see on the wall are the real thing. But they aren’t. They are just shadows and approximations of the real thing. That’s us. We think that as customer-centric, customer-serving, customer-delighting marketers we are seeing people. We aren’t. We’re just seeing shadows of people. Distorted. And incomplete.

Or worse, we are conflating our own self-image with that of the customer.

Perhaps it’s because the very act of advertising is an act of confidence – or at least demands the appearance of it – that we’re not exactly oversupplied with humility.

Certainly our appetite for that which bolsters our belief that we are at the centre of things is undiminished.

This, despite the efforts of Byron Sharp et al to rid our world of such persistent, zombie-like ideas.

And the truth that learning about brands and making purchase decisions is for the most part really not that important to most people most of the time still melts some people’s minds.

Not seeing people and making it about us never ends well.

Microsoft’s inability to see beyond itself and its ambitions means that it provides solutions for those lovely men and women of ICE, enabling ICE to “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.” All part of its mission presumably to “help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential”.

Google’s inability to see beyond itself and its ambitions means that it was contracted by the Pentagon to use its AI capabilities to analyse video and still imagery captured by drones, detect and identify “objects of interest” in as many as 38 categories and track individuals as they come and go from different locations. All part of its mission to “do no evil”.

Meanwhile Hushme’s inability to see beyond itself and its ambitions leads it to this:

For our part we can be so keen to make something and make it about us that it can render us utterly deaf to what’s happening around us.

Consider for example, our response to a dangerously divided society:

When we don’t see people all we can ever hope to do is create for audiences that do not exist.

For there is nothing like distance and disconnect to undermine respect, understanding, and empathy.

Exhibit #1:

You only have to attend a focus group to get a true measure of how some of us (too many of us) feel about our current or potential customer. For it is a truth universally unacknowledged that heaping scorn over respondents on focus groups is par for the course. Trust me, I’ve been sitting behind the mirror listening to respondents and with it the condescending, elitist sniping in the backroom for over a quarter of a century. 

Perhaps because respondents are being paid we feel it negates any need for us to have respect or gratitude for them.  And of course there’s invariably some melodramatic rolling of eyes at how much respondents are getting.

Exhibit #2:

It’s not very hard to come across marketers who disagree with David Ogilvy’s advice.

Indeed it is not unusual to come across marketers who suggest that their consumer is a moron. Or as we say in marketing circles “literal”. 

Over the years and decades I have been told:

Clearly swathes of our industry believe that other people are unimaginative, unsophisticated, and incapable of interpretation or decoding. And that we must therefore treat people as empty and passive vessels into whose tiny, simple and grateful minds our messages must be poured.

Unimaginative, unsophisticated, and incapable of interpretation or decoding.

Oh yeah?

So what does this painting represent?

Illiterate peasants and labours who had made the long pilgrimage to Rome and found themselves, at last, inside the city walls at the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo would have known. And Caravaggio knew that they would have known.  Which is why in 1600 he painted The Conversion of Saint Paul.

How dare we dismiss people as being ‘literal’.

Not convincing enough evidence of our careless indifference?

Exhibit #3:

Recall how David Campari went about commissioning some of the most celebrated poster artists in Italy for his campaigns: Leonetto Cappiello, Marcello Dudovich, Adolf Hohensteino, etc.:

And recall the works commissioned by Transport for London that were artworks in their own right:

 

Without wanting to suggest that there was some kind of Golden Age of advertising,  this was advertising that while relaying its message also wished to contribute to the environment. That intuitively understood the notion of value exchange.

We ripple dissolve to the year 2017.

Look at how advertising has given up having any regard for the fact that it exists within and rents out a piece of our public spaces.

Look how it has given up any idea of aesthetic contribution to our environment. At how it’s forgotten the basic notion of value exchange. At how it cares about nothing other than your awareness of it. And your money. At how it is content just to barge in uninvited and shit on our lives.

No wonder São Paulo chose to purge the poison from its already unhealthy urban environment.

One more example.

Exhibit #4:

The fashion industry doesn’t even try and disguise its contempt for people.

Particularly women whom it relentlessly represents as meat puppets – commodified bodies whose role is our gratification.

Or gang-raping.

Or murdering.

Scratch the surface of advertising’s efforts and you’ll too easily find indifference bordering on contempt.

We all know this depressing data:

Whether the ads got worse or the programmes got better – or both – is largely immaterial. The fact is that while we bang on about “creating culture” mass culture is better than us.

It’s more generous, more respectful, more intelligent, more rewarding, more challenging – than the vast bulk of what we as an industry put out.

But so much for afflicting the comfortable amongst us – it’s time to comfort the afflicted.

Operating outside the corporation’s centrifugal forces creative agencies (of all flavours) are uniquely placed to help client companies build bridges to reality.  And the planning/strategy discipline (should it choose to) is uniquely skilled to make that happen.

Opportunity awaits those who do.

So some bridges back to reality.

And we really do love naming and classifying and compartmentalising things. And people.

Labels are of course, seductive. In their pithy, bite-sized memorability they sound like useful summations of and shortcuts to knowledge. But in fact they conceal more than they reveal.

The physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the great minds of humanity and talked about the difference between knowing the name of something and actually understanding it.

He points to this:

And says:

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”

Labels give the illusion that you mean something specific but in fact you don’t at all. 

This is what Montaigne was hinting at in his Essays when he wrote:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbour’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?”

Like all jargon, labels are about projecting the illusion of expertise, signalling membership of technocratic elites, and avoiding doing the hard work of actually understanding the subject. They don’t care about truth or insight knowledge or understanding.

Worse, labels dehumanise. And in so doing they too easily undermine empathy. And tolerance and generosity. Which is precisely why merchants of division deploy them with such ruthless and cynical dexterity.

As those most close to the lives of ordinary people and the reality in which they live, we urgently need the help of planners to resist the tired labels, the simplistic classifications and clichéd observations and to make our language more human again.

For the most part we are as removed, sheltered, and alienated from ordinary life in the real world as those attending that annual gathering of 1%-ers we know as Davos.

Time spent in meetings amongst ourselves is not time spent amidst culture. 

We cannot simply subcontract that time to ‘vendors’ and tell them to come back from their exploring and tell us all about it and expect to be injected with an innate, intuitive understanding of the World Out There. We cannot kid ourselves. You do not understand the world. You just understand the words of the debrief presentation.

This is old advice. It is basic, good practice. But let’s not congratulate ourselves too heartily when we rediscover it – we should never have lost it.

We rightly focus on finding or creating the remarkable. But what of all that happens around and outside of those moments?

What of all the space not filled with the extraordinary? The everyday.  The habitual. The unthinking.  The familiar.  The unremarkable. The dull. The uncommented upon. The shabby and the average. The commonplace and the unarticulated. The stuff that reaches no closure. All that does not make it into newsfeeds and struggles to deserve a hashtag. All that is experienced but remains unexamined and unreflected upon. The small gestures and half-formed words. The commonplace. The unconscious rituals. The stuff that fails to surface in surveys and focus groups and search enquiries.

This is the stuff that’s invisible to marketers. It’s the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the more visible moments.

This in other words, is to marketing what dark matter is to the astrophysicist. It’s the stuff that eludes our powers of observation and detection. That does not interact with the electromagnetic force. That does not absorb, reflect or emit light. That cannot be seen. And yet for all that, actually makes up the majority (a full 95.1%) of the universe. And that makes possible the large-scale structures in the universe we can see.

So how do we see it? And, crucially, how do we feel not merely observe it?

But let’s not disappear down the rabbit hole of debating methodologies and tools.

That said…

Journalists, documentary makers, those embedded within communities we wish to understand, artists…. they all offer us new eyes, new perspectives, and new ways of experiencing the reality of our audiences.

For example:

In a world in which three million people around the world are moving to cities every week, Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia puts us into the shoes of one amongst the millions making the exhilarating and terrifying migration from countryside to city – and with it from tradition to modernity:

If I had one piece of advice for marketing, it would be to dispense entirely with reading those breezily-written, evidence-selective, ego-nurturing books all of your peers are reading. There is more practical, applicable insight in Charles Dickens than there is in anything written by the likes of Gladwell, Godin, Rushkoff, et al.

 

For the more we see real people, real lives, the more we see humanity, the more we are prepared to listen to the stories people have to tell, the more we are prepared to open the windows of our corporate cloisters and let reality blow through, the more we see the muck and joy and pain and striving and dreaming and grafting and hoping and creating… the more we understand it, see it, embrace it and have empathy for it, the greater our chances of creating something of genuine value for them.

Howard Gossage argued that:

Until advertising really believes there is someone out there … we will never develop the personal responsibility towards our audience, and ourselves, that even a ninth-rate tap dancer has. The audience is our first responsibility, even before the client, for if we cannot involve then, what could will it do him?”

And make no mistake. The failure to see people clearly  – and the absence of a personal sense of responsibility towards them – is everywhere:

The Case for Chaos (revisited)

Last month I was kindly invited to speak and revisit the theme of chaos at the Agency Leaders Symposium in Hunter Valley.

Since quite a few people asked if the presentation I gave would be available, I’m reproducing the version 2.0 (mostly marginally improved art-direction) of my talk here.

(If you have the opportunity, the Agency Leaders Symposium in Hunter Valley is terrific event. Proper shop talk without the posturing – and with the added advantage of operating under Chatham House Rules).

 

The result?

What the corporation wants and what creativity needs are different. We will make no progress until we understand this. And navigate the tension with intelligence.

So let’s consider briefly the corporate instinct.

The corporation has always been an exercise in control, process, and replicability. And indeed much of the corporation – from supply chain management to human resources to legal to logistics to manufacturing to finance to legal – can be subjected to repeatable rules, formulas, and standardised practices. And, in the fullness of time given over to algorithms, A.I., and robots.

The instinct for order and control is understandable.

As Schumacher put it in his 1973 classic, Small Is Beautiful :

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline – without these nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates.”

But

 

For when we succumb to the fantasy that we can professionalise creativity, that we can extract the play, unpredictability, and human element out of the process, that it can be treated like the manufacturing process, repeatable and reliable in its methods, then we place the potential of creativity in serious jeopardy.

That’s fine if you’re running a manufacturing plant, but not if you’re in the market for creativity. 

And we know the value of creativity.

It’s eleven.

We know from the work of Binet and Field published by the IPA in its report The Link Between Creativity And Effectiveness, that creativity amplifies the impact of marketing monies (measured as share growth) by a factor of eleven.

But the creativity – the stuff that captures the imaginations of people and enters arteries of culture and that creates this value cannot be born out of orderly, logical, linear IF THIS THEN THAT processes and systems.

Now it is worth noting at this point that some advertising tasks  – particularly those at the bottom end of the funnel where we’re converting interest into action – can be reduced to If This Then That systems.

But what works for converting existing interest or intent into purchase does not automatically translate into what works for exciting the indifferent, creating that interest (or indeed, for sustaining pricing – the oft-overlooked turbocharger of profit creation) – a distinction that we ignore or misunderstand at our peril.

Now this tension between what the corporation wants and what creativity needs doesn’t have to freak us out. It’s not new. It’s not unusual. It’s not an aberration. The tension is a feature, not a bug.

Nonetheless, creativity must strive to become undomesticated.

So some suggestions for how to create the space, conditions, and environment in which creativity can realise its promise and potential.

Locked in meetings or glued to screens too many marketers have too little meaningful contact with real people in the real world.

A entirely theoretical construct encountered only in research reports.

When we only see ‘consumers’ or ‘impressions’, or ‘traffic’ or ‘clicks’ we dehumanise the whole enterprise, and reduce people to just another component into a piece of machinery we call marketing. And in so doing, we reduce marketing to Newtonian physics where bodies (formerly known as human beings) are acted on by forces (or messages), and sales, revenue, profit or whatever is emitted.

The few moments of what passes for real world contact these days are reduced to putting people in a sterile windowless environment, telling them they’re being watched by anonymous observers, subjecting them more often than not to stupid questions and calling it ‘learning’.

It isn’t real life.

It’s people ripped out of the contexts of their daily lives, their homes, their families, their jobs. At best it provides us with a distorted version of reality.

And lest anybody believe it’s the cure-all solution, while its powers, benefits, and applications are legion, more data is not the solution.

The truth is that marketing done well, or effectively, demands contact.

You can’t claim to want to shape culture if you never make contact with it.

We are surrounded by this stuff.

Orthodoxies, models, best practises and universal theories might make life more simple and obviate the need for independent thinking and lighten the marketer’s cognitive load. We can follow the rules, accept the wisdom, tick the boxes or throw everything into a black box testing process and let it tell us what to do.

They make us slaves to other people’s creative ideologies, prejudices, wild theories, zombie ideas, and assumptions.

And they blind and limit us to the infinite ways in which creativity can work.

As Paul Feldwick puts it in his survey of advertising history and thought, The Anatomy of Humbug:

There is much more possible diversity in ways of thinking about advertising than we normally allow… we could use this diversity to give us greater scope ion what we do. For all its talk of ‘creativity’ and ‘thinking outside the box’, the ad business today is in danger of losing its diversity. Creative people and marketing people alike each go to the same schools, learn the same things, and the same things they learn are too often a third-hand mash-up of Reeve’s USP theory and Bernbach’s vague creative rhetoric.  But in creating ads, we still have the full resources of human culture at our disposal.  Ads don’t need to look like they were written by Bernbach sixty years ago, or like last year’s Cannes winner”.

So whatever research vendors and inherited wisdom might tell us, there is no one way in which communication works.  And any research provider offering a one-size-fits-all methodology or model is kidding themselves – and you – if they think they’re open-minded.

Liberating creativity demands organisations make themselves safe places for dissent.

Organisations will always provide reward for conformity. As Cass Sunstein, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has written:

In the real word, people will silence themselves for many reasons. Sometimes they do not want to risk the irritation or opprobrium of their friends and allies. Sometimes they fear that they will, through their dissent, weaken the effectiveness and reputation of the group to which they belong. Sometimes they trust fellow group members to be right.”

The rewards of dissent are far less certain, but they can have enormous value.

When it comes to group decision-making for example, studies have demonstrated how the existence of even just one dissenting voice can dramatically reduce both conformity and error and that without the existence and voicing of dissent, we lay ourselves open to potentially limiting and sometimes downright dangerous phenomena.

Without the voice of dissent we will very often use the decisions and actions of other people around us as the best source of information and guidance on what to do. 

Similarly, without the voice of dissent, so-called ‘social cascades’ can occur, in which social groups blindly pick up and mimic the behaviours of other groups without actually examining the information they themselves hold.

And without the voice of dissent group polarization can occur. In this phenomenon, our tendency towards conformity means that when it comes to collective decision making processes, group members end up exaggerating their in-going tendencies and taking an even more extreme position.

Yet studies have shown that how even just one dissenting voice can dramatically reduce both conformity and error.

Just imagine…

Marketing long ago put insight and relevance on a pedestal.

And linear, logical process can get you to relevance – “people want This so give them That”.

But relevance alone just isn’t enough. 

Relevance today is no longer enough because we compete in an over-saturated, hyper-charged cultural marketplace in which every citizen now has access to the creative tools and networks of distribution. They’re all vying for people’s time and attention – unrestrained most of the time by good taste, legal departments, policy teams, PR minders or the brakes of copy-testing.

We need organisations capable of learning and adaptation – where ideas are allowed to roam free, flow, and interact, That being the very essence of creativity. And here we have much to learn from how cities function and prosper.

The theoretical physicist Professor Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute is interested in the subject of vigour and has been turning his attention from scaling effects in the natural world to the causes of corporate mortality and the dynamism of cities. And his analysis of  how cities and corporations operate is instructive.

Cities are creative, productive, innovative, and wealthy because of their incredible diversity and multi-dimensionality. 

And it’s the freedom of the city that keeps it so vibrant. City Mayors manage only a fraction of a city’s life.

And what of the corporation? Well as the social scientist John Gardner notes…

In contrast to cities, as they grow companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, strangling variance and diversity – signing in effect, their own death warrant.

The solution quite obviously lies not in more or different mechanisms of control, but in resisting their stranglehold on both minds and ways of working.

The protection and nurturing of culture, is creativity’s best hope.

For culture operates through shared values, shared ambitions, focuses on outputs not inputs and processes, and provides the space for individual initiative.

So for the corporation wishing to stay agile enough to survive in a world of flux and uncertainty, culture is or should be everything.

It seeks to replace the subjective, individual human element with common, standardised practices.

This is fine if you are a food producer, doctor, or accountant.

But…

The creative process and the shape of its outputs are evolving and diversifying.

This for example, is Wieden in 2009, shooting our ‘Write The Future’ commercial for Nike with an A-list Hollywood director and a crew to match.

This is Wieden in 2017. Here’s the creative team shooting 33 films for Instagram. On an iPhone. With the app. Themselves.

Clearly how we work and what we make is expanding and diversifying.

We must all make the most of this magnificent opportunity.

If the marketing organization is to stay flexible, fluid, willing to try new things once, if it’s to remain vigorous, and adaptable, if it’s not to become buried under the weight of best practice, benchmarks, process and inherited ‘wisdom’ then it’s going to need reclaim its empathy, cast certainty to one side, stop pretending we can professionalise what resists codification, and stop taking it (and ourselves) so seriously.

Or as Professor West puts it, “Allow a little bit more room for bullshit.”

 

 

 

 

 

Because it was time for a ‘side-hustle’

WEIGEL : CAMPBELL WEB & TWITTER HEADER.001.jpeg

 

We had a pointy point of view.

We’d talked about it for long enough.

We needed a hobby.

And we were lucky enough to have supportive and enlightened employers* who were happy to see two grumpy bastards pursue their passion. 

So we thought we’d actually do something, rather than just complain about it.

Because there’s enough by-the-numbers training available to strategists of all hues and backgrounds. But there’s not enough that’s dedicated to supporting and developing truly dangerous minds. Not enough that questions our inherited status quo. Not enough that’s properly fit for the twenty-first century. Not enough that’s actually dedicated to effecting change in the world. Not enough that gets us to better ideas and better solutions. And not nearly enough outside of planning’s historic geographic enclaves.

So here it is. 

Our very own ‘school of strategic arts’.

Despite the portentous name we’ve given our little side-hustle, we’re going to start modestly. We’ve still got day jobs, after all.

We’ll be announcing details of our first bootcamp in due course. In the meantime if you want to sign up and get updates, here’s our little place on the internet.

And if you want to talk about your organisation’s training needs (whether you’re on the agency or client side) drop us a note at info@weigelcampbell.com.

It almost goes without saying that I’m massively chuffed to be doing this with one of the loveliest and most fearless shit-stirrers on the planet.

 

* My personal thanks to Neil, Blake, Mark and Eric for saying “hell yeah”.

The Case For Chaos

I was kindly invited to speak at the DMX conference in Dublin last week. Since so many people asked if the presentation I gave would be available and since so many of the slides make so little sense without the voiceover, I’m reproducing  my talk here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the corporation wants and what creativity needs are different. We will make no progress until we understand this. And navigate the tension with intelligence.

So let’s consider briefly the corporate instinct.

The corporation has always been an exercise in control, process, and replicability. And indeed much of the corporation – from supply chain management to human resources to legal to logistics to manufacturing to finance to legal – can be subjected to repeatable rules, formulas, and standardised practices. And, in the fullness of time given over to algorithms, A.I., and robots.

The instinct for order and control is understandable.

 

 

As Schumacher put it in his 1973 classic, Small Is Beautiful :

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline – without these nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates.”

 

 

 

For when we succumb to the fantasy that we can professionalise creativity, that we can extract the play, unpredictability, and human element out of the process, that it can be treated like the manufacturing process, repeatable and reliable in its methods, then we place the potential of creativity in serious jeopardy.

 

 

That’s fine if you’re running a manufacturing plant, but not if you’re in the market for creativity. For predictability kills the value of creativity.

And we know the value of creativity.

It’s eleven.

 

 

We know from the work of Binet and Field published by the IPA in its report The Link Between Creativity And Effectiveness, that creativity amplifies the impact of marketing monies (measured as share growth) by a factor of eleven.

But the creativity – the stuff that captures the imaginations of people and enters arteries of culture and that creates this value cannot be born out of orderly, logical, linear IF THIS THEN THAT processes and systems.

 

 

Where’s the logic in putting a man on a horse to advertise body wash?

 

 

Where’s the logic in putting a unfit teenager in a Nike commercial?

 

 

Where’s the logic in not putting any planes in a commercial for an airline?

 

 

Where’s the logic in telling tales of human virtue to sell chocolate?

 

 

Now it is worth noting at this point that some advertising tasks  – particularly those at the bottom end of the funnel where we’re converting interest into action – can be reduced to If This Then That systems.

But what works for converting existing interest or intent into purchase does not automatically translate into what works for exciting the indifferent, creating that interest (or indeed, for sustaining pricing – the oft-overlooked turbocharger of profit creation) – a distinction that we ignore or misunderstand at our peril.

Now this tension between what the corporation wants and what creativity needs doesn’t have to freak us out. It’s not new. It’s not unusual. It’s not an aberration.

 

 

 

 

So some suggestions for how to create the space, conditions, and environment in which creativity can realise its promise and potential.

***

 

Locked in meetings or glued to screens too many marketers have too little meaningful contact with real people in the real world.

 

 

A entirely theoretical construct encountered only in research reports.

When we only see ‘consumers’ or ‘impressions’, or ‘traffic’ or ‘clicks’ we dehumanise the whole enterprise, and reduce people to just another component into a piece of machinery we call marketing. And in so doing, we reduce marketing to Newtonian physics where bodies (formerly known as human beings) are acted on by forces (or messages), and sales, revenue, profit or whatever is emitted.

The few moments of what passes for real world contact these days are reduced to putting people in a sterile windowless environment, telling them they’re being watched by anonymous observers, subjecting them more often than not to stupid questions and calling it ‘learning’.

 

 

But it isn’t real life.

It’s people ripped out of the contexts of their daily lives, their homes, their families, their jobs. At best it provides us with a distorted version of reality. To bastardise the words of Jacques Cousteau, only studying people in focus groups is like only studying dolphins in captivity.

 

 

Too many marketers now resemble military drone operators, distant and detached from where the action really is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And lest anybody believe it’s the cure-all solution, while its powers, benefits, and applications are legion, more data is not the solution.

 

 

The truth is that marketing done well, or effectively, demands contact.

 

***

 

 

We are surrounded by this stuff.

 

 

Orthodoxies, models, best practises and universal theories might make life more simple and obviate the need for independent thinking and lighten the marketer’s cognitive load. We can follow the rules, accept the wisdom, tick the boxes or throw everything into a black box testing process and let it tell us what to do.

But orthodoxy and best practise enslave us.

 

 

They make us slaves to other people’s creative ideologies, prejudices, wild theories, zombie ideas, and assumptions.

And they blind and limit us to the infinite ways in which creativity can work.

As Paul Feldwick pust it in his survey of advertising history and thought,  The Anatomy of Humbug:

There is much more possible diversity in ways of thinking about advertising than we normally allow… we could use this diversity to give us greater scope ion what we do. For all its talk of ‘creativity’ and ‘thinking outside the box’, the ad business today is in danger of losing its diversity. Creative people and marketing people alike each go to the same schools, learn the same things, and the same things they learn are too often a third-hand mash-up of Reeve’s USP theory and Bernbach’s vague creative rhetoric.  But in creating ads, we still have the full resources of human culture at our disposal.  Ads don’t need to look like they were written by Bernbach sixty years ago, or like last year’s Cannes winner”.

So whatever research vendors and inherited wisdom might tell us, there is no one way in which communication works.  And any research provider offering a one-size-fits-all methodology or model is kidding themselves – and you – if they think they’re open-minded.

 

***

 

Liberating creativity demands organisations make themselves safe places for dissent.

Organisations will always provide reward for conformity. As Cass Sunstein, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has written:

In the real word, people will silence themselves for many reasons. Sometimes they do not want to risk the irritation or opprobrium of their friends and allies. Sometimes they fear that they will, through their dissent, weaken the effectiveness and reputation of the group to which they belong. Sometimes they trust fellow group members to be right.”

The rewards of dissent are far less certain, but they can have enormous value.

When it comes to group decision-making for example, studies have demonstrated how the existence of even just one dissenting voice can dramatically reduce both conformity and error and that without the existence and voicing of dissent, we lay ourselves open to potentially limiting and sometimes downright dangerous phenomena.

Without the voice of dissent we will very often use the decisions and actions of other people around us as the best source of information and guidance on what to do. 

Similarly, without the voice of dissent, so-called ‘social cascades’ can occur, in which social groups blindly pick up and mimic the behaviours of other groups without actually examining the information they themselves hold.

And without the voice of dissent group polarization can occur. In this phenomenon, our tendency towards conformity means that when it comes to collective decision making processes, group members end up exaggerating their in-going tendencies and taking an even more extreme position.

In other words, we follow the herd. Or flock.

 

 

Yet studies have shown that how even just one dissenting voice can dramatically reduce both conformity and error.

Just imagine, it would probably have only taken one voice for this not to have been inflicted upon the world.

 

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Marketing long ago put insight and relevance on a pedestal.

And linear, logical process can get you to relevance – “people want This so give them That”.

But relevance alone just isn’t enough. 

 

 

Relevance today is no longer enough because we compete in an over-saturated, hyper-charged cultural marketplace in which every citizen now has access to the creative tools and networks of distribution. They’re all vying for people’s time and attention – unrestrained most of the time by good taste, legal departments, policy teams, PR minders or the brakes of copy-testing.

 


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We need organisations capable of learning and adaptation – where ideas are allowed to roam free, flow, and interact, That being the very essence of creativity. And here we have much to learn from how cities function and prosper.

The theoretical physicist Professor Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute is interested in the subject of vigour and has been turning his attention from scaling effects in the natural world to the causes of corporate mortality and the dynamism of cities. And his analysis of  how cities and corporations operate is instructive.

Cities are creative, productive, innovative, and wealthy because of their incredible diversity and multi-dimensionality. And as they grow, they actually become more creative, more productive, more innovative, and more wealthy.

And it’s the freedom of the city that keeps it so vibrant. City Mayors manage only a fraction of a city’s life.

The creativity of a city thrives and grows as a city expands precisely because it cannot be managed.

 

 

And what of the corporation? Well as the social scientist John Gardner notes…

 

 

In contrast to cities, as they grow companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, strangling variance and diversity – signing in effect, their own death warrant.

The solution quite obviously lies not in more or different mechanisms of control, but in resisting their stranglehold on both minds and ways of working.

 

 

The protection and nurturing of culture, is creativity’s best hope.

For culture operates through shared values, shared ambitions, focuses on outputs not inputs and processes, and provides the space for individual initiative.

So for the corporation wishing to stay agile enough to survive in a world of flux and uncertainty, culture is or should be everything.

 

 

 

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It seeks to replace the subjective, individual human element with common, standardised practices.

This is fine if you are a food producer, doctor, or accountant.

But…

 

 

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This for example, is Wieden in 2009, shooting our ‘Write The Future’ commercial for Nike with an A-list Hollywood director and a crew to match.

 

 

This is Wieden in 2017. Here’s the creative team shooting 33 films for Instagram. On an iPhone. With the app. Themselves.

 

 

Clearly how we work and what we make is expanding and diversifying.

We must all make the most of this magnificent opportunity.

 

 

 

If the marketing organization is to stay flexible, fluid, willing to try new things once, if it’s to remain vigorous, and adaptable, if it’s not to become buried under the weight of best practice, benchmarks, process and inherited ‘wisdom’ then it’s going to need reclaim its empathy, cast certainty to one side, stop pretending we can professionalise what resists codification, and stop taking it (and ourselves) so seriously.

Or as Professor West puts it, “Allow a little bit more room for bullshit.”

Chaos.

 

 

2018: A new year, an old resolution

not funny

It’s the first working week of a new year for me.

A good enough reason as any to revisit and recommit once again to an old resolution.

Because here’s the thing.

Look past all the rhetoric, the confident future gazing, the self-congratulation, the slick case studies, the awards, the campaigns du jour, the smartass blogs, the authoritative keynote speeches… and it’s plain that the vast majority of what we produce as an industry isn’t brilliant or even good.

Most of what our industry puts out into the world is banal, mediocre, unremarkable.

Some of it is much, much worse – patronizing, insulting, hectoring, polluting, stupid, intrusive, toxic.

Perhaps this is not surprising at all.

Perhaps advertising simply conforms to what the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon termed ‘Sturgeons Revelation’ (or ‘Sturgeon’s Law’ as it is often referred to). As he put it in in the March 1958 issue of Venture magazine:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.”

And yet.

All that effort, all that ingenuity, all that inspiration, all those years perfecting one’s craft, all those long hours, all that Powerpoint, all those brilliant rationales, all those conference calls… all those missed school plays and cancelled dates, all those postponed vacations, all those lovers never loved, all those bedtime stories never told, all those plans postponed, all those promises broken, all those passions never pursued…

To produce crap?

I confess I know from years of firsthand experience that producing crap takes almost as much time and effort as producing stuff that’s good or better.

So it strikes me that we have a choice.

We can choose to make those sacrifices in the name of producing crap, or in the name of producing something good.

As a new year begins, as we switch the laptops back on, as we resume the rhythms of the working week, picking up unfinished tasks and starting fresh ones… as clients, as creatives, as account people, as planners, let’s all say No to crap.

Crap conversations. Crap teamwork. Crap ambitions. Crap expectations. Crap standards. Crap objectives. Crap briefs. Crap advice. Crap feedback…

Because if we aren’t going to reclaim more of our lives, then at the very least we should maintain (or reclaim) our standards.