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: