(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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
“More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.”
– Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
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 need for control is obvious. 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 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, and predictable in its outputs and outcomes, then things will always take a turn for the turd-like.
Of course when the legitimate instinct of the corporation is towards the repeatable, the reliable, and the predictable, there is no shortage of enablers and exploiters. MBA courses pretend that culture does not exist and offer little schooling in the psychology of human and consumer decision-making. Marketing degrees promise to reveal the (repeatable, reliable, and predictable) rules of marketing. Off-the-shelf research methods promise to have divined the secret of how advertising in all its forms must work. Salivating at the prospect of universal ‘laws’ lazy readers misinterpret the creative implications of marketing scientists.
Marry all this to shrinking rates of time preference, the corporation’s understandable intoxication with the promise of automation (marketing included), and it is perhaps little wonder that we succumb to the illusion that creativity can be treated like any other part of the manufacturing process.
(By way of a side note, some advertising tasks – most obviously direct marketing – can be reduced to a If This Then That. 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. Something that digital platform owners for the most part utterly fail to appreciate).
This isn’t nostalgia for some non-existent Golden Age of advertising, nor is some kind of wistful romanticisation of creativity that wishes the hard realities that facing businesses did not exist. It’s about good business practise.
For once you squeeze out creativity’s ability to surprise, disrupt and delight, once you’ve taken human imagination out of the equation, you’re entirely reliant on buying as much timely, well-located, well-branded real estate as you possibly can. And as analyses by both Nielsen and the IPA have shown, you’re going to have to spend in excess of your current market share if you want to see any growth. Some lazy readers have bastardised or skim-read the work of marketing scientists to arrive at the belief that well-branded, broadly distributed wallpaper is all that is required. But the simple truth is that as Binet and Field have shown, creativity makes marketing monies work harder. Something that surely even the most hard-nosed of CFOs would surely welcome.
The retreat into formula, best practise, rules, and standardised solutions while it might feel all Serious And Grown Up is in truth a form of communal death, or at least a harbinger of fading vigour. As the social science writer John W. Gardner wrote in his book Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society:
When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions. Call to mind the adaptability of youth, and the way in which that adaptability diminishes with the years. Call to mind the vigor and recklessness of some new organizations and societies — our own frontier settlements, for example — and reflect on how frequently these qualities are buried under the weight of tradition and history.”
So what are we to do? How are organisations and outlooks to remain flexible, and fluid? How are they to avoid becoming paralysed by rigid specialization and unwilling to try anything once? How do we preserve the adaptability, vigour and recklessness of youth? How are we avoid professionalising ourselves to death?
1. Like and respect the consumer
The empathy deficit that afflicts so much of marketing encourages us to treat the whole process like a manufacturing one in which the consumer is but a part. It is hardly surprising. When we’re not locked behind a screen we’re locked in meetings. For many of us, ‘the customer’ is now a entirely theoretical construct. Worse, one that being “average” is so much less intelligent than we (ultra-intelligent holders of marketing and business degrees!) are. The few moments of real world contact are reduced to putting people in an observational tank subjecting them to stupid questions and calling it ‘learning’. To bastardise the famous words of Jacques Cousteau, only studying people in focus groups is like only studying dolphins in captivity.
If only marketing had as high a regard for its audience and George Saunders does for his reader:
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion. And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.”
People are not mute, passive subjects upon which advertising exerts its ‘force’. They’re experienced, complicit, intelligent consumers of marketing communications. If we deny that truth, not only are we horrible people, but we have no hope of creating excellence. Empathy and a sense of duty towards the consumer is the first virtue of the marketer, and without it, he or she is nothing.
2. Abandon the very idea of orthodoxies and unified theories
Whatever research vendors and inherited wisdom might tell us, there is no one way in which communication works. No-one makes this point better than Gary Duckworth. In his 1995 paper ‘How advertising works, the universe and everything’, he takes aim at the notion that “how does advertising work?” is even a valid question. Twenty years later and its still one of the best, most sage pieces written on advertising. and it is worth quoting at length:
‘How does a bicycle work?’ looks like a perfectly reasonable question. We probably feel we could make a stab at getting it right – maybe if we read a science or mechanics textbook. It is also likely that we could rapidly arrive at a form of explanation where most people would agree, and what is more (which may seem obvious, but is in fact interesting for our purposes) our answer does not change depending on which bicycle we are discussing, or where the bicycle is. We do not have to say – well, on a flat stretch the way it works is, whereas on a hill what happens…
Questions like ‘how does a bicycle/the internal combustion engine/a lightbulb work?’ belong to the world of physical, mechanical operations, the world of empirical science, of Newtonian physics where bodies are acted on by forces, and movement is created, energy emitted or whatever…
When the How Does Advertising Work (HDAW) question is asked, the questioner or the person answering frequently assume that the territory we are operating in is ‘How does a bicycle work-land.’ We are operating in the discourse of Newtonian metaphor. The assumption is not usually made explicit. I am sure people even know they are making the assumption. But the attempt is made to construct an answer as if a Newtonian species of reply would be appropriate – as if we can construct a total explanation of advertising, analogous to the way that we can construct a total explanation for the bicycle…
One of the business consequences is that we get companies with greater and lesser degrees of sophistication, promoting ‘we can tell you if your advertising is working/will work-ometers’. After all, if we have at the back of our minds the presumption that there really is a way in which advertising (in general) works, it makes sense that there should be a meaningful methodological apparatus into which we can (in general) slot an ad, go through the motions, crank the handle and emerge with a ‘measurement’ of the ‘force’ our ad will ‘exert’ on our target.
We get advertising philosophies which pervade some companies, and some agencies, which are mechanistic and process-driven, believing that if we follow the ‘process’ we will automatically get a predictable ‘result’. (In the same way that at school in physics I did experiments where trolleys on ramps were repeatedly subjected to precise forces and produced predicted accelerations.)”
Orthodoxies, models, best practises and universal theories might make life more simple and obviate the need for independent thinking. But what makes for efficient time management all too easily squanders creative opportunity. In his survey of advertising history and thought, The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick concludes that:
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”.
I can think of few better starting points than Paul’s book for marketers wishing to liberate their minds from what Rory Sutherland has characterised as “the deeply-rutted convictions of earlier times”.
3. Make dissent safe
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. In other words, we follow the behaviours of the herd.
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.
Lest those in business circles dismiss this dissenting stance as purely the whim and indulgence of mad scientists and wayward artists, it should be said that phenomenon of material and economic advancement is too, by its very nature, an act of dissent.
As Professor Sunstein has observed, the economic success of the United States is due to a culture of openness that enables and encourages the act of dissent that is innovation. Similarly, Jacob Bronowski observes in his history of Western thought, that the most creative periods of human history have tended to be those in which this spirit of intelligent dissent was welcomed.
Ideas, progress, and innovation are by their very nature fundamentally rely on the spirit of dissent, and the refusal to accept common practice, received wisdom, and widely accepted norms. This is the spirit that chooses not to conform to the prevailing opinion, and has enough courage and internal resources not to need to seek out the good opinion of others. It that recognises the inescapable truth that if everyone is agreeing, then the chances are that bad decisions risk being made.
Dan Wieden characterised this dissenting, unconstrained and untamed spirit “chaos”, and in a talk to the agency talked of how it challenged authority:
[Chaos] cares more about truth than power. Political figures are fascinated with the agency and some, like Senator Bill Bradley, have come by on a fairly frequent basis, just to share a meal, get our sense of things. I remember the first time Bradley spent a couple of hours in our conference room with about a dozen freaks from the agency. Clinton had just been elected, and Bradley was being considered for Secretary of State. He wasn’t there to lecture, or press the flesh, but to listen. It was a fascinating meeting, very frank, wide ranging. When I drove him back to the airport, he said, “what an amazing group of people. So young, so bright, so well informed. But I gotta tell you what was most astonishing was the complete lack of deference…to you, to me, to anyone.” He wasn’t complaining, he was just mesmerized by the informality, the absence of authority.”
If organisations truly wish to be engines of sustained inventiveness and progress, then they must make dissent safe. And in that, culture (to which I will return later) is the only solution.
4. Do not learn from testing vendors
Research is the practise of open-minded enquiry. To seek to know how things work. To strive to understand how they work they way they do. Purveyors of off-the-shelf testing methodologies have no such agenda. They’ve already determined how things should work. Their focus is evaluating your efforts against that. Their business model is predicated on replicable methods and outputs – and making lots of money from that.
Treating them like universities and institutions of learning is ill-advised. If you’re learning best practise from testing vendors you’re learning from the wrong people.
5. Do not learn from marketing scientists
Marketing scientists have much to teach us about how markets functions, how brands grow, and how consumers behave. All this is invaluable. But do not look to them for profound guidance on the creative application of their expertise. Just because a person can dismantle a bicycle into its constituent parts does not mean that they know how to build a bicycle.
6. Fear the obvious
Marketing long ago elevated ‘relevance’ to near sacred status, and in the icon and words of Bill Bernbach, it even has its high priest and holy incantation:
At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him.”
Relevance to our minds, unlocks everything. But we approach being interesting or different with much less reverence and obsession. Yet good strategy does what the competition does not, cannot, or dare not do. The more we treat the development of creative solutions as a step-by-step process, the more we subscribe to standard orthodoxies, the more our outputs will look like every body else’s. Organisations and individuals need to develop as Sutherland puts it, “a paranoid fear of the obvious” to complement our pursuit of relevance.
7. Create adaptive mechanisms.
If are organisations and their outlooks are to remain flexible and fluid rather than be paralysed by the illusion of professionalism, they need to allow for the free and natural flow of people and ideas. And on this, the business theorist Arie de Geus has a useful perspective on how a organisation – as distinct from an individual – learns. This is a story from his book The Living Company.
Allan Wilson, was a late professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley. According to Wilson’s hypothesis, an entire species can improve its ability to exploit the opportunities in its environment. Three conditions he argued, are necessary. First, the members of the species must have and use the ability to move around, and they must flock or move in herds rather than sit individually in isolated territories. Second, some of the individuals must have the potential to invent new behaviours – new skills. And third, the species must have an established process for transmitting a skill from the individual to the entire community, not genetically but through direct communication. The presence of those three conditions, according to Wilson, will accelerate learning in the species as a whole, increasing its ability to adapt quickly to fundamental changes in the environment.
To test his hypothesis, Wilson revisited a well-documented account of the behavior of titmice and red robins in Great Britain. In the late nineteenth century, milkmen left open bottles of milk outside people’s doors. A rich cream would rise to the tops of the bottles. Two garden birds common in Great Britain, titmice and red robins, began to eat the cream. In the 1930s, after the birds had been enjoying the cream for about 50 years, the British put aluminium seals on the milk bottles. By the early 1950s, the entire estimated population of one million titmice in Great Britain had learned to pierce the seals. However, the robins never acquired that skill. Being territorial birds, not social ones, they lacked the necessary social system for propagating innovation.
The implications for the organisation would seem to be clear. Hire for social and collaborative skills. And blow up the silos and processes and attitudes that prevent sharing and collaboration.
8. Let go
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 the contrast between how cities and corporations operate is instructive.
Professor West’s analysis of the workings of cities reveals how cities scale sub-linearly. In other words if you double the population of a city, the networks that support it (number of gas stations, length of roads and electrical cables, etc.) do not double, but increase by 85%. A systematic saving of 15%.
However where West’s analysis gets really interesting is that the social and economic dimensions of a city (wages, patents, GDP, etc.) all appear to increase super-linearly with city size. In other words when we move to a city that is twice as large, we become, on average, 15% more wealthy, more productive, more creative. And we do this using a fraction of the infrastructure.
For West the engine of this super-linear growth is the fact that cities are homes of extraordinary diversity:
The thing that is amazing about cities is as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases. And the data shows that. If you look at job categories, it continually increases. I’ll use the word “dimensionality.” It opens up. And in fact, one of the great things about cities is that it supports crazy people. You walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people. There are always crazy people. Well, that’s good. Cities are tolerant of extraordinary diversity.”
In contrast, as they grow companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, strangling variance and diversity – 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. Here is Geoffrey West again:
Think about how powerless a mayor is. They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”
The exercise of control will eventually kill a company. The protection and nurturing of culture, is its only hope.
One more thing
I cited Schumpter at the beginning of this piece:
Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline – without these nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates.”
But it is what he goes on to say that really matters:
And yet – without the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon, the entrepreneurship venturing into the unknown and incalculable, without the risk and the gamble, the creative imagination rushing in where bureaucratic angels fear to tread – without this, life is a mockery and a disgrace.”
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 to 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.”
Les Binet and Peter Field, The Long and the. Short of It. Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies
Jacob Bronowksi, The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel
Gary Duckworth, ‘How advertising works, the universe and everything’, Admap, January 1995
John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society
Arie de Geus, The Living Company
Stephen King, ‘Practical Progress from a Theory of Advertisements’, 1975
George Saunders, ‘What writers really do when they write’, Guardian, 04.04.17
Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent
Rory Sutherland, ‘Marketing to confuse the competition‘
Geoffrey West, The Universal Laws of Life and Death Scale In Organisms, Cities And Companies
Yesterday evening one hundred and thirty people biked from our agency to a cinema to view in its unfiltered entirety our reel of work from 2016. An annual tradition.
There was this, for Russia:
And this, for Europe:
And a lot more besides that has yet to be released into the public domain.
The journey home gave me time for some reflection, and prompted this thought and suggestion.
Of course our role as advertisers is to sell our clients’ products and help sustain profitable businesses.
I have no issue with that.
But perhaps we have another, not unconnected agenda too.
Now I personally cringe at the sight of brands exploiting real human suffering and division and indulging in empty virtue-signaling in the name of making themselves cool or salving the guilt-ridden egos of adfolk.
It does nothing in the world other than to demonstrate that there is absolutely no aspect of life and culture that advertising will not exploit. And how utterly detached so many of us are from the real lives of real people.
But that evening’s viewing made me think that along the road to flogging stuff, we are also given (more often than we might think) a precious opportunity.
To illuminate the better side of ourselves.
Amidst the anxiety-inducing 24-7 rolling news cycle, the filter bubbles resounding to the sound of mutually uncomprehending rage, and the techno-info-entertainment-media complex’s unending efforts to steal our attention with mindless pap… that feels like a small (let’s not get carried away with ourselves) but welcome contribution in the world.
A brief but valuable respite.
A vote of confidence in those we really serve – ordinary people.
A reminder that perhaps you, we, me, they, us… don’t suck.
And that we might actually be pretty awesome human beings after all.
The journey home was short.
And so, necessarily, is this thought.
There is a powerful, emotionally-charged moment in The War Room – the great documentary about Bill Clinton’s ’92 presidential campaign – where James Carville, Clinton’s lead strategist, says to the assembled campaign team:
There’s a simple doctrine: Outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labour.”
Andy Grayson and Graham North have recently written about how the advertising industry is wasting its talent. It’s a provocative piece that holds agencies (their dysfunctions and processes) themselves responsible for that waste.
It’s a good, smart piece, but the broad solutions they offer represent perhaps the smallest end of the problem. For if we are wasting our talent, it is because of our assumptions as to what that talent serves – to what we devote our labour.
I’d suggest that our industry allows its talents to go to waste because:
It labours under a far too limiting definition of what it does – namely advertising (it also interprets ‘advertising’ far too narrowly, forgetting the origin of the word means to “turn towards’).
It defines itself by output (advertising) not outcome (the building of brands).
It confines itself to a sector that has been static for almost 100 years (since the 1920s, advertising has represented about 1 percent of U.S. GDP) and it ignores all the other aspects of company spending that help build brands.
It chooses to chase ad-shaped problems (invariably pressing and short-term), rather than searching for growth opportunities which brand building can contribute to.
And for the most part it’s still in the business of asset delivery, rather than the building of long-term platforms and systems.
I’m sure there’s stuff that can be done to streamline and modernise how we work (as well as protect the sanity and dignity of our people). But I cannnot help but feel that rethinking our processes is rather pointless if we also don’t think to what end(s). After all, if our labour is sacred, it’s worth spending some time contemplating to what we give it.
Source: Neri Oxman, ‘Age of Entanglement’, MIT Journal of Design and Science, 01.13.16