Category: Innovation

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.”



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



Exactly what does Cannes celebrate?

cannes-red-carpet-hed-2015-1260x840 (1)


But there’s too many people in our industry spending too much time worrying about appearing unique, innovative, and disruptive to their peers. Instead of focussing on making things that are actually great, and might one day be seen by a actual real people.”

from our own Iain Tait.

I’ve never met anyone who has seen a vending machine reward them for laughing, I’ve never walked through a door marked ugly, got a Coke from a drone, or been offered a crisp packet with my face on. I’ve never had a friend share their personalised film, I’ve not seen outdoor ads that are also street furniture or had an ATM give me a funny receipt. I’ve not received a magazine with a near field communication thing and I’ve not had a virtual reality experience outside advertising conferences. I’ve not once seen a member of the public 3D print anything. The one thing that binds together the more than 200 Cannes winners I’ve seen, is that they are ads only advertising people have a good chance of seeing. I’m not sure that’s what the industry should be about.”

from Tom Goodwin at Havas Media.

I wonder if it isn’t time to put Cannes in its place — as a source of inspiration and provocation, rather than a celebration of the best work the industry has done for clients in the year gone by. I’d liken it to a fashion show.  No normal people buy the haute couture designs but they nonetheless set trends and influence high street fashion. Isn’t it best to see the Cannes winners in the same light? To set them on a pedestal and challenge the industry to do more work like this, or which takes inspiration from this, with mainstream budgets in the real world. This would be a useful filter for judges too — and might lead to the weeding out of “clever-clever” ideas that aren’t scalable.”

from John Owen at Dare.

In other words, it’s a celebration of innovation in creativity, not (with the notable exception of the Effectiveness Lions) brand building.

There is a role for recognising and celebrating that.

But we forget the distinction at our peril.



Hacking the business with Stephen King


The need for more (and better) problems

When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?

At a time when technology enables boundless creativity,  when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all – clients and agencies alike – in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:

The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”

Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need  to be ‘growth hackers’.  Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:

In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn’t get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.” 

Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.

So all this begs some questions:

How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?

How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?

How can we identify opportunities for growth?

How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?

How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?

How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?

In all of this, theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.

I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future.  For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work – A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.

King’s Consumer Buying System

King’s model  – the ‘consumer buying system’ – appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.

It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.

King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.

However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that.  As King wrote in his introduction to the model:

The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”

I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.

(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates  McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).

The model

Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.

It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.

And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:

The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some  stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example,  when “buying” a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are  simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer,  whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance  providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”

buying system.001 buying system.002 buying system.003 buying system.004 buying system.005 buying system.006

At each stage we should be asking – what exactly is happening?

buying system.007

New questions, new solutions

If we must, we can call it a framework for ‘growth hacking’. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people’s behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn’t advertising:

examples.001 examples.002 examples.003 examples.004 examples.005

If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen.  As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.

As King said of his model:

Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people’s sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity.”

That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility.  Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and  ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.

King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:

Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency. What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job”

If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.

Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.



Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King

Josh Elman, ‘What Is “growth hacking” really?’

McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey