“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
The last two weeks have been a chai-fuelled research marathon across India, watching almost fifty hours of focus groups. Taking in Mumbai, Indore, and Lucknow, it was an exhausting, inspiring and enlightening journey. It was my first time back in India after almost a decade, and a five-hour layover in Delhi gave me some time to reflect. India does that to you.
The meeting room is the enemy of customer / consumer / human empathy.
Everyone is guilty of ethnocentrism. The only variable is how quick we are to realise – and admit – that.
All cultural generalisations evaporate on closer inspection.
Your value system is not shared (or understood or even wanted) by most people.
Coming from a culture dedicated to engineering out all vestige of physical proximity and contact from human interactions makes you a bit of a weirdo.
Faith, belief, religion… call it what you will. It might be in retreat where you come from. But it’s an everyday reality for much of the world. We strive to build our gods (sorry, A.I.). Most people already have theirs.
You’re an employee. Pretty much everybody here is a business owner.
You do not have the monopoly on what you faux-apologetically call ‘First World’ problems.
Everybody here is a hacker of some kind.
A culture is impossible to properly understand without a knowledge and appreciation of its history.
If you want to feel the winds of social, economic, and cultural change, visit a secondary city. It’s where tradition dances and negotiates with modernity.
Your ideas about the primacy of the individual and the nobility and urgency of seeking ‘self-actualisation’ do not wash here, buddy.
You think life has got more precarious? Pfftt. Uncertainty is a way of life for most people.
A cultural cold war is being fought. The battle between patriarchy and female emancipation. You’re included too. It’s global.
Your culture is old and tired. Theirs is ancient and vigorous.
People are aware of the price the West pays for its untrammelled, selfish conception of individuality. Having seen the consequences, they’re not convinced they want to pay it.
Wherever there is beauty, there’s ugliness and darkness too. It’s important to see both.
In a marketplace this big, every niche is a profit opportunity.
The new office buildings going up are almost all devoid of any vernacular reference. Efficient to build and run you could be in Chicago or London. Let’s not kid ourselves. For all its upsides, globalism also steamrollers over much that is indigenous, unique, owned, sustainable, and precious.
You can see the demographics on every street corner. And demographics are fate.
Much of the time when we talk about “everybody” we are in reality only talking about our own tiny corner of the globe.
The most productive research process is designed, managed, and owned by both client and agency. Anything else breeds mistrust.
Hire researchers. Not mere ‘moderators’. There is a difference. And it makes a difference.
Empathy and insight depend on understanding technology through the lens of people. Not people through the lens of technology.
Learn. Adapt. Repeat. If you’re conducting strategic research, iterate your approach and materials as you go if you want to make rapid progress. Anything else is mindlessly ‘testing’.
It is not the unique privilege of creatives to be insulated from the reality of everyday lives (and thus, research). Good creatives want to see, hear, and understand who they are creating for.
Needless to say there’s a bunch of more personal stuff I have learnt along the way. But that’s not for this blog.
It is Mothering Sunday, 1924. I have stepped into the body and mind of Jane, foundling, and maid to the Niven household. I am not where I should be. I am above stairs. I am naked. And I am not alone. “Feast on this.” I am lost to myself, immersed completely in the first pages of Graham Swift’s masterful, exquisite novella Mothering Sunday.
Later, reflecting on the experience, and assembling this piece, I will recall the novelist Will Self’s epitaph (far too premature, to my mind) for the capabilities of the novel:
The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.”
Then this presents itself to me:
Maybe audiences aren’t the only ones who benefit by skipping ads. Maybe smart brands and marketers also want to skip ads, skip making them, and skip shoving them down our throats. Maybe “skip ads” isn’t a negative, but a positive statement. Because when you skip ads, you can do so much more: Skip ads and tell stories, entertain, educate, inspire and touch lives. Skip ads and win hearts. Don’t get in the way of what they want. Be what they want.”
Oh dear. I had resolved never to write about or proffer an opinion on advertising’s fixation with storytelling. The supply of ink and hot air on the matter was already a vast enough industry. But this was the last straw. The hubris, the delusion, the philistine rhetoric masquerading as depth, the pomposity parading as wisdom, and the narrowing of our industry’s ambition is too much to bear. For if advertising’s stories are amongst the best our civilisation has to offer then please, shoot me. Robert McKee, puts it well:
Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth… A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.”
If advertising truly represents great storytelling then we would almost certainly be on the brink of our civilisation’s decline. But it does not. And to the prophets, fluffers, trumpeters and theorists of the Golden Age of Storytelling I say this – you’ve got it wrong.
I am not a fan of Hollywood, let alone a student of it. I rather lost interest in its output when it stopped making movies for adult minds. But I am a fan (though no student) of the written word. Not least of all because it is the one domain of the arts that has not given up on offering us an ethical vision. So I shall limit my references and comparisons to that.
You confuse structure for story
Aristotle famously argued that the essence of story was “a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.” He had a point. If the story ends in precisely the same place it began, if the arrow of time makes no progress, and if there is no advancement made for better or for worse, people audience will wonder what the point of it all was.
If there is to be momentum, there must of course be conflict. Newton’s third law makes itself felt not just in the world of physical objects but that of the narrative. But reducing story to “somebody wants something and something gets in the way” is merely the stuff of plotting and structure. I suspect that somebody wants something in Fifty Shades of Grey and something gets in the way, but I am not sure if we’d want to hold it up as the best of the storyteller’s art. Stories – good, lasting ones – are so more than just structure, plot and momentum. Pattern does not a story make.
You have a limited appetite for conflict
“The heroine or hero has a goal and encounters obstacles to achieving it. Inevitably there is some sort of trouble. If there isn’t, you don’t have a story,” we are told. Well yes, indeed. But while you talk of overcoming ‘conflict’, the fact of the matter is that you have next to no appetite for the kind of conflict that is the real stuff of story.
Murder, oppression, sexism, vanity, alienation, jealousy, rape, abandonment, war, betrayal, envy, loneliness, megalomania, corruption, exploitation, avarice, addiction, revenge, depression, bereavement, seduction, racism, loss of innocence, lust, heartbreak, madness, incest, imprisonment, loss, greed, death, hunger, rivalry, injustice, isolation, desire… this and more is the stuff of great, enduring, insightful stories. Stories that succeed in shining a light into the crevices of the human soul. Stories that illuminate our place in the state things.
Yet anyone who has had to endure the seemingly endless workshop/meeting/brainstorm in which we seek to “align” on a brand’s ‘personality’ attributes and heard descriptors such as ‘opinionated’ or ‘daring” rejected for being “too negative” knows – or has got to face up to the truth – that no marketing department on the planet has any appetite for any of this stuff. The really interesting stuff. The truly human stuff. The stuff of stories.
Conflict? Pfft. Mild inconvenience at best is the stuff of most of adland’s so-called storytelling.
You have no interest in deep exploration
The lack of true conflict reveals advertising’s true intentions. It has little interest in truly exploring the human condition. And here perhaps, is advertising’s greatest departure from the agenda of the storyteller. Writing for the Chronicle, the essayist Arthur Krystal puts it thus:
The only mandate here is one of exploration. Writers have an obligation to interrogate reality, to make sure that our relation to the world is or is not what it appears to be. This sounds rather grand but can be accomplished in a number of ways: through layered Shakespearean rhetoric, nuanced Chekhovian observation, lengthy Proustian ruminations, collagist Joycean soliloquies, or minimalist Carveresque touches. What it boils down to is an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity, which, if we’re honest, contains a good dose of ignorance. What are we or the universe doing here? What is the meaning of existence? In this capacity, literature is, at bottom, a wondering, an attempt to get to the bottom of things, or, at least, a faithful, if oblique, portrayal of how things are.”
Picasso allegedly once noted that the role of art was “washing the dust of daily life off our soul”. So when pray, did advertising’s storytelling ever offer up a truly penetrating revelation about what it is to be human? When did an insight unearthed and authored by a planner ever hold a candle to the examination of the human condition offered up say, by Chaucer or Dickens? When in its quest for insight and understanding did advertising ever exhibit the same fulsome embrace of the conflict, ambiguity, paradox and grubbiness that makes for human nature and relations?
We can peddle the rhetoric of insight all we want. But there is a world of difference between brushing dust off the human soul, and merely adding through the power of our imaginations, a bit of gloss to it. Which, for the most part, is the bread and butter of our business.
You have little appetite for genuine human truth
Unwilling to embrace conflict, advertising deals in a very different kind of truth from that of the storyteller. For story is a vehicle, argues Julian Barnes, author of the Booker prize-winning The Sense of An Ending – perhaps the very best one – for telling the truth:
It’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts… I think a great book – leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on – is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truth – about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both – such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television.”
The great American writer Annie Dillard similarly reflects on literature promise of truth and enlightenment:
Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed? … Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?”
Susan Sontag believed that in seeking such truth, the writer was a moral agent:
By writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live. Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”
Short-or long-form, one struggles to think of any advertising that has expanded and educated our capacity for moral judgment. That assumes as its primary purpose the pursuit of an ethical agenda. That enquires deeply about how we live, could live, should live. But then why should it? It has another agenda. For in the final analysis, and however it achieves it, advertising is always about the brand.
Most of what you make just isn’t a story
A gorilla limbers up and starts playing drums. A woman throws a hammer at a big video screen. Coloured balls roll down a hill. A man tells us we could smell like him. Gerbils are shot out of cannon. A fat kid runs down an empty road. A puppy steals a toilet roll. A bronzed man walks down a beach in Speedos. Martians laugh at humans. A man hurtles through the air in a wing suit. Things get distorted when seen through a bottle. A meerkat talks to camera. Young people gather on a hill and sing. Sofas, kitchens, and carpets are offered at low, low prices. An offer must end. If you think that any of this is a story, you need to think, as Andy Nairn suggests, very long and very hard about the basic ingredients of a good yarn, before telling the world that we spin them for a living.
From time to time, we do tell something that at least approximates a story. Sometimes those stories are good – touching, memorable, tender, moving, entertaining, spectacular, thrilling, even. Indeed some of them have created enormous economic value for the businesses on whose behalf they are told. So by all means point to the 0.1% of our industry’s output that does actually resemble a story. But do not tell us that this represents the totality of our output, the ideal, the standard, or the future.
So for Chaucer, Austen, Defoe, Dickens, Bronte, Stoker, Grimm, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, James, Conrad, Kipling, Woolf, Joyce, Orwell, Shelley, Melville, Carroll, Trollope, Eliot, Conrad, Proust, Forster, Hemingway, Huxley, Greene, Nabokov, Grass, Marquez, Amis, Ishiguro, Kundera, Ellroy, Pullman, Lessing, Murdoch, Ballard, Swift, Fitzgerald, Hesse, deLillo, Steinbeck, Updike, McEwan, Fielding, Waugh, Hardy… for all those who came before, and for all those who toil now in the hope of scant reward, I believe stories deserve to be taken back from the adguys, and protected from our shallow, and specious theorising. As an industry we’ve devalued enough language as it is, and the idea of a story is far too valuable to be fracked to exhaustion by those in the business of selling other peoples’ goods and services.
Having defended the virtue of stories, let me defend the future of our industry. For amongst the great many things that threaten not merely to “disrupt” our industry but render it impotent or irrelevant, the insistence that we must tell stories is high on the list of threats.
You obsess on what you tell, not what you leave behind
Telling. Time and time again we are encouraged, exhorted, and even mandated to tell stories. It’s a myopic and dangerously short-term vision of our value. Tell a story. Over and out. Job done. Simples. The telling is the story.
Yet any writer will tell you that there is no story without a reader. Interactivity is not an invention of the digital age. For until a story comes to life in the mind of another, it simply does not exist. Our insistence on storytelling makes a mockery of the notion of an active, interested, participating, nay, ’engaged’ consumer. We can fill the Palais this summer with all the keynote addresses and grandiose rhetoric we want on modern storytelling (as I am sure we will), but in doing so we will only reveal we do not understand the first thing about real stories.
In an essay on the power of the written word, Philip Pullman champions what marketing cannot cope with:
Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy. Once the reader opens the book, they enter a space as private and secret as the polling booth… The private space between the book and the reader is something utterly precious and individual. The conversation a reader has with a book is none of the writer’s business, unless the reader chooses to tell them about it. … To limit a reader’s permitted response to what the writer himself or herself knows about their own work is an infringement of freedom. Reading should be free.”
How well a reader’s interpretation reflects the writer’s intention in telling the story is not something that can be controlled. But it does not matter. Because that is the point. As the psychologist Jerome Bruner notes:
The author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory.”
Yet how many marketers would be comfortable with people not taking out precisely what was intended? Who would be willing to trade in measuring “key message takeout” and measure “personal takeout” instead? I suspect that for the most part marketing’s tolerance for subjective experience and personal interpretation is far, far less than that of the average – albeit bona fide – storyteller.
Worse, reducing our contribution to the telling of stories is fire-and-forget marketing. It is marketing that is fixated only on the moment, the act of telling. But the true source of our value (if we ever have wish to realise it) is to be found not in what we make, but in its lasting effects. Despite the easy rhetoric of “it’s about the work”, it isn’t what we make that matters. It’s what that leaves behind that matters. For ultimately it is not the story we tell that is important. But the story that the consumer tells about the brand. Whether to themselves, or to others. And it was ever thus.
Your grand desires obscure opportunity
And herein lies the truest, most clear and present danger for marketers in falling for the storytelling rhetoric. Convincing ourselves that we are storytellers might make us feel important. Culturally significant. Belonging to a community and tradition stretching back to the very origins of art and language. Possessed of a cause and purpose far more noble and ethically sound than selling stuff and creating profit. Sought out by people rather than at best tolerated, and at worst blocked from view altogether. But it obscures the endless vistas of creative opportunity that now reach out before us.
For in the quest to render brands visible, interesting, meaningful and memorable, there are many, many more ways to accomplish this than solely through storytelling. A man jumps out of a very high balloon. A girl falls off a treadmill. A man in nothing but a towel responds in realtime to people’s tweets. Fans tip their hats in thanks and respect and the hat can be bought. People control the flightpath of a plane through the power of thought. We need not tell a story for the consumer to tell a story. And indeed sometimes just making something useful, or beautiful is enough. So we might do well to remember that ‘advertising’ is derived from the Latin advertere meaning “turn toward,” (from ad- “toward”and vertere “to turn”). We are in the business of turning gaze and attention.
Meanwhile culture passes you by
The thundering tsunami of pop culture unleashed by the falling cost of production and the sidelining of the traditional gatekeepers of distribution should remind us that much of what garners attention, fame, participation, notoriety, conversation, comment, adulation, envy, and imitation is neither a story, nor told.
What we in Adland make has for the most part, already been shunted out to the margins of culture, when once we helped shape and define it. If we wish to hasten our marginalisation and irrelevance, then the best thing we can do is continue with our insistence that as advertisers we are ipso facto, storytellers – and fail to embrace all the other ways in which we can render brands visible, interesting, memorable, and meaningful.
What an irony it would be if the advertising industry’s response to the opportunities now before it would be to narrow down its definition of creativity to the one thing it doesn’t do very often, or very well.
Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165, Paris Review
Jerome Bruner, ‘Actual Minds, Possible Worlds’
Annie Dillard, ‘The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New’
Arthur Krystal, ‘The novel as tool for survival’, Chronicle, 06.03.16
Robert McKee, ‘Nothing Moves Forward Except Through Conflict’, 10.03.15
Andy Nairn, ‘What it takes to be a true brand storyteller’, Campaign, 04.01.16
Philip Pullman, ‘Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy’, New Humanist, 19.01.15
Will Self, ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’, Guardian, 02.05.14
Susan Sontag, ‘At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches’
Our problem is not that we are short of information about this new force in our lives. On the contrary, we are awash with the stuff. It’s just that we have no idea what it all means. In that sense, we are in the state immortalised by Manuel Castells as that of “informed bewilderment”. Sure, we have some idea about what digital technology means for our economies and our daily lives. But what does it mean for us? What happens to our humanity in a digital age?”
Source: John Naughton reviews Laurence Scott’s The Four Dimensional Human