Category: Creativity

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

***

 

 

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 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.

 

 

 

***

 

 

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…

 

 

***

 

 

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.

 

 

‘Bravery’: The folly and the vanity

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn
And I dream of what I need

Bonnie Tyler***

***

Bravery, writes the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, is about being intimate with fear”. Bravery after all, is about encountering the possibility of disaster. So why do we bemoan the lack of ‘brave’ work? Why do we ask where all the ‘brave’ clients have gone? Are we encouraging our clients to make work that might fail? That might have no brand or business effect? That might actually be a total waste of time and money? That might indeed prove to be a total disaster?

If that’s what we are suggesting then we (self-styled students of psychology and human decision-making) are indulging in some truly Class-A dumb psychology. Phil Adams nails the self-indulgent naivety of this approach:

If you want to use reverse psychology to talk a cautious client out of approving an ad, tell her it’s a brave idea. It demonstrates a startling lack of empathy. Bravery is a function of risk and danger and she knows it. You apparently don’t.”

We are so keen, it would seem, to cast ourselves as heroes and iconoclasts, so hungry to massage our fragile egos that we choose to misunderstand both human psychology and the collective psychology of the corporation. But we should heed the words of John Hegarty:

There is no point in saying ‘I want you to be brave’, you’re not going to succeed. We’ve got to challenge this notion that we’ve got to sell more bravery because people won’t like it”

Exhorting clients to be ‘brave’ enough to buy ‘brave’ work is not just poor psychology. It misrepresents and undermines creativity, passing it off as some roll of the dice, or reckless shot in the dark in which the possibility of total failure is deeply embedded. Yet if we look at what makes for effective work we see that it entails eschewing category norms and conventions, being distinctive and interesting not merely relevant, evoking visceral reactions, and leaving behind long-term memory traces. 

None of this is being ‘brave’. It’s not embracing of failure. It’s not reckless. It’s just prudent, effective brand-building. And so if as Nils Leonard has put it: “There is no such thing as creative bravery, only true creativity”, then the most foolhardy, risk-embracing and reckless thing a marketer can possibly do is to pursue the safe, the tried-and-tested, the formulaic, the unremarkable, and the unoriginal. As Bill Bernbach opined in an interview:

Playing it safe can be the most costly thing in the world”.

But talk of ‘brave’ work obscures the real heroes. For the true acts of bravery are those of clients who in championing creativity choose to take on the systemic biases of the corporation that employs them. Shepherding creative ideas – “true creativity” in Leonard’s words – through the layer cake of ‘stakeholders’ so often means navigating organisations that are process-dependent, entrenched in formula, slave to the advice of so-called experts, mired in so-called best practise, beholden to zombie ideas, uncomfortable with the unfamiliar and the new, and even downright hostile to the very idea of creativity.

Choosing to swim against the cultural tide of the corporation is proper bravery. As the psychologist Cynthia Pury puts it, courage is “the ability to act despite general social or cultural pressure.” And if Adland could just hit pause on its incessant need to lionise itself and think about the circumstances and needs of others, we and our clients might just make a little more progress.

Pury’s research has found that courage is more likely to emerge when a person sees a meaningful goal and then believes he or she has the ability to achieve that goal. Thus, argues Pury, a person is more likely to run into a burning building to save kittens if they have the training and equipment to do so.  Conversely, a person who has the training and equipment but doesn’t see saving kittens as a worthy goal will simply stand on the sidelines. Action then, depends on a person’s goals, as well as evaluations of personal risk and one’s own ability to achieve the goal.

So if we want good ideas to see the light of day, it falls to the us as originators of ideas to demonstrate how the new and unfamiliar is in fact, the right thing, the sensible thing, and the best thing to do. It demands that we articulate how and why it is fit for purpose. How it will work. And how we will know if it is working. All those things that we devalue so casually and so thoughtlessly when we ask for a few slides of Powerpoint ‘setup’. As if this were merely some audience-fluffing warmup act ahead of the main event, rather than the exercise of rigorous idea stewardship.

Good agencies – good idea stewards – will be well-attuned to the assumptions, practices, personalities, politics, biases, quirks, and pathologies of the corporations they service. They recognise that the agency is not the only advocate for the work, that clients too must act as internal salespeople for ideas, and that the ‘sell’ continues long after the agency has left the room. They dedicate themselves to arming their clients with the argument, evidence and yes, confidence to make the case internally. And to ensuring that what might seem in the eyes of outsiders as utterly bananas, is understood and embraced as absolutely the right thing to do.

Not ‘brave’. Right.

***

Sources:

Bill Bernbach interview, 1971

John Hegarty speaking at Advertising Week Europe panel, 2014

Phil Adams, ‘Why bravery is a bad idea

Cynthia Pury, in Greater Good Magazine

 

How to stop professionalising ourselves to death

***
“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?

Eight thoughts.  

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.”

***

Sources

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

 

 

Q. How well do advertisers think of their audience?

 

***

“What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.

But why did I make those changes? On what basis?

On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.

This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.

Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.

Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.

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.”

Source: George Saunders: ‘What writers really do when they write’, The Guardian, 04.04.17

A: Not this well, for the most part.