By way of a follow-up to last week's post on objective-setting and effectiveness, the engraving above is Plate 43 of Goya's Los Caprichos - The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The text caption to the engraving read:
"Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels."
That seems to sum up perfectly everything about effective creativity.
“I think it is still the rule, rather than the exception, that creative people are asked to achieve one objective, and then their work is turned down because it hasn't achieved something completely different”
Where are all the problems?
Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-nine minutes defining the problem and only one minute finding the solution.
Yet too much of both marketingland – and with it plannignland – is to my mind, devoting its energies in precisely the opposite proportion, spending far too much rushing to solutions and executional assumptions.
One would have thought it obvious but “We need advertising” isn’t a definition of a problem. Nor is “we need a social media platform/presence.” Those are asset requests.
Nor for that matter does “we need to stimulate conversation” or – heaven forbid - “drive awareness” adequately define the problem. Those are merely intermediate responses. Appallingly vague ones at that.
Badly thought-through and ill-defined problems undermine creativity and effectiveness. Good problems are the first and most essential step to work that works.
Hard is always better than soft
It’s telling that in their their analysis of the IPA’s databank Les Binet and Peter Field observe that “campaigns that are set hard objectives (business or behavioural results) are generally more successful than those working only to intermediate consumer response targets (e.g. attitudes or awareness).
Indeed according to their analysis, campaigns that set hard objectives enjoyed an effectiveness success rate of 50%, while those that only set soft, intermediate objectives enjoyed a success rate of 11%.
Binet and Field conclude that “marketing metrics should aim to measure changes in the real commercial world of the brand, not just the in the mindsets of the people who buy it.”
What should we say?” or – more fashionably these days – “How should we engage?” has never been planning’s starting point. Back in 1963 for example (hence the sexist reference to ‘Advertising Man’) James Webb Young wrote:
“Finding the best opportunity in the market for the particular advertiser and shaping his advertising to exploit that opportunity is one of the greatest contributions the Advertising Man can make to his client. And the chances of making that contribution… will depend upon his penetration into the real facts and nuances of that advertiser’s situation.”
If we – both client and agency – are to stimulate creativity that works, then this is an agenda we need to take to heart.
The necessity of good problems for effectiveness
Done well, the creative process is of course a messy, non-linear journey.
But without real, rigorous and thorough joined-up thinking applied to the setting of objectives, we are failing to build a framework for how we expect our communications to work. As Stephen King wrote in his JWT Planning Guide, in any communications strategy “there must be a hypothesis of how the advertising is intended to work.”
And working to principle of “of garbage in garbage out”, if we’re not constructing some kind of hypothesis of how our work is meant to work, then we’re failing to construct a model of effectiveness.
Writing of the characteristics of winning IPA Effectiveness Awards submissions, Richard Storey has written: “Without exception, each campaign was effective because its 'creators' developed a theory about the problem they were facing and, from that, found a means of influencing the dynamics in their favour. I guess we call that having a strategy.”
Effectiveness is after all an input into the development of advertising, not merely some post-event audit process done for planning and effectiveness awards. As Les Binet and Peter Field put it: “Agreeing clear objectives… makes marketing more effective, by focusing minds and resources on the tasks that matter.”
The evidence from the IPA’s dataBANK suggests that campaigns that set clear campaign objectives are more effective than those that don't. Campaigns that had a clear objective specified enjoyed an effectiveness rate of 46%. versus an effectiveness success rate of 35% for campaigns that did not have clear objectives specified.
And as we’ve already seen, campaigns that set hard objectives (business or behavioural results) are generally more successful than those working only to intermediate consumer response targets (e.g. attitudes or awareness).
Furthermore, if we’re failing to build a model of effectiveness, then our work will always be hostage to views and prejudices of others. In particular those who claim they know how communications works and insist that our work be tested against their metrics, norms, and assumptions. In other words, we leave our work exposed and vulnerable.
Small wonder that Stephen King was moved to complain all those years ago that “I think it is still the rule, rather than the exception, that creative people are asked to achieve one objective, and then their worked is turned down because it hasn't achieved something completely different."
The necessity of good problems for creativity
As Chairman of Lowe in London, Adrian Holmes was fond of saying that “a great problem requires a great solution.” If we’re not feeding the creative process with well thought through, imaginatively framed problems, then we’re failing creativity.
Freedom is often regarded as the necessary and vital oxygen for creativity. The romantic myth of the wayward artist, living on the fringes of society (usually in some dingy garret), refusing to be bound by any of its conventions is a powerful and enduring one.
However, closer inspection reveals the truth that boundless freedom and latitude is a very poor stimulator indeed of ideas. Robert McKee actively teaches against freedom, insisting that: “Limitation is vital the first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world… The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn't inhibit creativity: it inspires it." the creative mind actively needs resistance for it to operate successfully and productively.
Indeed, without any of the resistance that boundaries and specifics provide, the creative mind is likely to find itself wandering down many an irrelevant or unfruitful avenue or line of enquiry. Or worse, we are likely to find ourselves staring at a blank canvas with absolutely no idea where to begin. Imagine being handed a sheet of paper and a pencil with the invitation to “draw whatever you want”. The chances are that you’ll stare blankly for quite a while, wondering where on earth to begin.
I don’t believe in the infantilisation of creatives. Great creatives aren’t children. They’re as passionately interested in solving client’s business issues as the next person. They want to get into the roots of the problem or opportunity. They want context. They’re not content with just taking a pithy proposition (or whatever you want to call it) at face value and rushing to fire up the ol’ Photoshop or HTML5. They want to know what problem they’re solving, not merely what proposition they’re being asked to create work from. So let’s give them great problems.
Interrogating and defining the problem
The first question the planners of the UK’s Royal Marines ask in any situation is: “What is the situation on the ground, and how does it affect me?” That feels like a good, simple useful question for us to incorporate into our mental toolboxes.
In the same spirit, Stephen King’s “useful, if perhaps a little over-simple” (as he described it) planning cycle gives us all a decent framework for making decisions about communications:
- Where are we?
- Why are we there?
- Where could we be?
- How could we get there?
- Are we getting there?
Obvious questions? Possibly. Neglected ones? Apparently quite often.
In an interview the designer Don Norman has suggested that defining the problem is one of the most important parts of the design. “Do not solve the problem that’s asked of you”, he urges us:
“It’s almost always the wrong problem. Almost always when somebody comes to you with a problem, they’re really telling you the symptoms and the first and the most difficult part of design is to figure out what is really needed to get to the root of the issue and solve the correct problem.”
Planning would be well-served by taking these words to heart. Simply passing on to creatives requests for creative assets or not knowing the difference between advertising’s effects and effectiveness isn’t planning. It’s behaving like a waiter.
According to Michael Michalko, the so-called Phoenix checklist is a set of questions developed by the CIA to enable their agents analyze problems thoroughly. I haven’t been able to verify whether this true, but whatever the case, it is a useful set of questions for examining a problem from every angle:
- Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
- What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
- What is the unknown?
- What is it you don’t yet understand?
- What is the information you have?
- What isn’t the problem?
- Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
- Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?
- Where are the boundaries of the problem?
- Can you separate the various parts of the problem? Can you write them down? What are the relationships of the parts of the problem? What are the constants of the problem?
- Have you seen this problem before?
- Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem?
- Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown
- Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
- Can you restate your problem? How many different ways can you restate it? More general? More specific? Can the rules be changed?
- What are the best, worst and most probable cases you can imagine?
If only we expended as much energy and creativity thinking through the problem as we did thinking through the solution, we might all be a bit better off.
The role for communications
The crafting of that jewel-like single sentence of strategic brilliance – the ‘key thought’ or ‘proposition’ or whatever you want to call it – is often held up as the truest test of planning’s craft, and contribution. But polishing the proposition/key thought/etc. isn’t the hard bit of developing creative strategy. Defining the role of communications in solving the problem is.
And it’s arguably the most neglected aspect of strategy development. As Simon Clemmow has argued:
“Having identified the role for advertising, defining it unambiguously, accurately and clearly is the ultimate expression of a planner's ability, because it represents the advertising strategy in a nutshell. It depends on having established the status of the brand, both in the market and in the mind, having balanced the client's ambition for the brand with his commitment to achieving it, and knowing 'how advertising works', both in general terms and how this piece of advertising is expected to work specifically.”
Whether one looks to the IPA Effectiveness Awards or the APG Planning Awards, it is striking that (even allowing for some post-rationalisation) all the winners spent time thinking through the problem and the specific role of communications.
No lazy “drive awareness” or “start a movement” nonsense. But attitudinal and behavioral objectives attached to a real business issue. And the role of communications in effecting change imaginatively and clearly defined.
Tasks that matter
Planners in particular have perhaps so fallen in love with the idea of being the collaborators with creatives that we’re in danger of forgetting that some of our most important, challenging and vital work actually precedes the creative process.
Because arguably the most important contribution of planning (whoever it’s done by) is the diagnosing and framing of the problem, the setting of clear and concrete objectives, and the identification of the role of communications in all of this.
Or as Binet and Field put it, “focusing minds and resources on the tasks that matter.”
Les Binet & Peter Field, ‘Briefing in the Era of Accountability', 2008
Les Binet & Peter Field: Marketing in the Era of Accountability
Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
Arnoud Franken, Chris Paton, and Simon Rogers, ‘How the UK’s Royal Marines Plan in the Face of Uncertainty’, Harvard Business Review, Leadership lessons from the military
Michael Michalko, Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative-thinking techniques
Richard Storey, ‘Effectiveness is not just something you measure’, IPA 2008
We'll have all of them covered at our Cannes workshop – Planning By Planners Who Aren't 'Planners'.
(An update on the final speaker lineup)
At Wieden+Kennedy there's no formal planning process. We like it that way. It works better that way. So we're not interested in planners talking about planning. That's boring. What we're really interested in is how stuff gets made.
So rather than ask planners about planning, we’ve assembled a group of people who have to plan – rigorously, creatively, imaginatively – but who are from outside our small world of advertising:
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Paton, Royal Marines:
How To Plan Military Operations In Afghanistan
Gurleen M Puri, Independent Event Designer and Wedding Planner:
How To Plan An Indian Royal Wedding
Jennifer Lyon Bell, erotic filmmaker, Blue Artichoke Films:
How To Plan For Real Chemistry
Kat Clark, Head of Campaign Communication, Greenpeace:
How To Plan Non-Violent Intervention
We're not selling any agency or planning shtick. All we want to do is provide some food for thought. And have some fun along the way.
You’ll find the details here: http://www.canneslions.com/festival/full_schedule.cfm?event_id=172
"It is my job to create universes"
Philip K. Dick
There is a prevalent myth (at least in some quarters) that strategy defines the What of advertising – What are we trying to do? What do we want to say? – and that creativity defines the How.
To my mind, this fights human nature. It fights the nature of advertising. And it gets in the way of creating really good advertising.
Let’s recap first the argument in favour of the importance of the How.
Messaging in context
The psychologists Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson have distinguished between so-called ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ communication.
‘Digital’ communication they argue is logical, conscious, explicit and intellectual. This is used for the sharing of information about objects and for the transmission of knowledge.
In contrast, ‘analogue’ communication encompasses virtually all non-verbal communication. It is implied rather than stated, and it is experienced to a large extent unconsciously.
A digital clock givens us unambiguous replicable information about an abstract number. While an analogue clock expresses time spatially – it’s open to interpretation.
Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson conclusion draw from their studies and analysis:
“Wherever relationship is the central issue of communication, we find that digital language is almost meaningless. This is not only the case between animals and between man and animals, but in many other contingencies in human life, e.g. courtship, love, succor, combat…”
Voice matters more than message.
It’s the How, not the What that matters in human communication. And if strategy focuses purely on the What, then it’s not thinking about a very significant part of the communication process.
Responding to aesthetic wholes
Looking to advertising, Stephen King in JWT’s Planning Guide noted back in 1974:
“An advertisement as a stimulus is a combination of medium, words, pictures, movements, symbols, associations, tones of voice, etc. The stimulus is received as a totality; the receiver does not separate content and form. The individual elements of an advertisement have no meaning on their own. They can only be judged in combination.”
Feldwick has similarly done much to remind us that advertising, like art does not work through reductionist concepts, but through the experience of aesthetic wholes.
So the What and How are inseparable – we exercise, as MT Rainey has rather nicely put it, ‘brand impressionism’. We don’t ‘take out messages’, but are left with general impressions from what we’re exposed to.
Planning for brand worlds
Chris DeFaria, Executive Vice President of Digital Production at Warner Brother has talked about just working out the plot of a movie isn’t enough:
“There is a certain type of movie where world-building is at the core. The measure of the success and value of the film isn't as simple as what's in the script, or as with many movies, who the attached stars are. There is a group of films for which those things aren't unimportant, but there are other criteria or elements that help market the movie, and also define the audience experience of the film… Those movies tend to be heavy with visual effects, or an entirely animated… And one of the things they all seem to have at their core is an idiosyncratic, internally consistent worldview that has been made visual. And that's where we get this idea of world-building… The story is going to rely on the creation of a whole universe that has its physical laws, its social laws, its aesthetic laws and consistencies. And that's sort of the first step in creating a production plan is creating those worlds.”
I like the idea of thinking about the physical, social, and aesthetic laws and consistencies of a brand’s world.
DeFaria cites two examples of movies where the plot (the What of a movie) alone doesn’t capture adequately their true magic and power:
“Because often you're looking at a story, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as an example, you say, this is a story of a little boy who runs away from home, goes to an island and interacts with some fantasy creatures … and that sounds okay, but not really until you begin to see the world that the movie will take place in do you get excited. You see the tone of the characters and the environments and [those within the studio] can begin to see the potential of the movie. Or with ‘Watchmen’, you have a very complicated political drama, and in a pitch, it sounds interesting, but it doesn't necessarily feel like a compelling pop culture film. But when you begin to build a world around it, which is what Alex did with Watchmen, of course drawn from the original graphic novel, suddenly it brings the story to life. It gave it a look.”
One need only look at the difference between the original storyboard for Tron: Legacy (at the top of this post) and the finished product to recognize the truth of what DeFaria is talking about:
That we can characterize James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Pocahontas in space’ demonstrates that much of the innovation in human storytelling is in how we find new renderings of existing stories:
All this suggests that the collection of adjectives we shove into the part of the brief we label ‘Tone of Voice’ or ‘Personality’ really does little or no justice to significance of the How.
In as much as the briefing and subsequent conversations matter more than the brief, if we’re to have properly high quality creative conversations then one of the most important contributions of planning must therefore be to feed the creative process with a clear and stimulating point of view on the brand, its purpose, its convictions, and its voice.
And however we might choose to accomplish this, it surely demands more than just a half dozen adjectives. Because all this provides important clues and stimulus for thinking about the executional rendering – the physical, social, and aesthetic laws and consistencies of the brand’s world.
The inseparability of strategy and execution
When so much of the magic and effectiveness of advertising lies in the How rather than the What, strategy isn’t just the bit that precedes the creative process. And (as I’ve argued before) execution isn’t merely the dressing up and colouring in of a strategy or message. Execution is the content.
So distinguishing between strategy and execution ultimately really isn’t that helpful. Because every executional choice and decision – from casting to user experience – has strategic import and influence.
Strategy then, is execution. And execution is strategy.
The inseparability of strategy and execution – of the What and How – has important implications for how we work and make decisions.
The implications for evaluating strategy
It means that we cannot fully and confidently evaluate the right-ness of any given strategy in advance of actually having an execution. Or at the very least, in advance of having tried out in some shape or form its executional possibilities. I think it was John Hegarty who once opined that “You haven’t got a brief until you’ve got an ad.”
Which is why I argue that 'strategy' is overrated.
The implications for evaluating work
All this suggests that without taste, vision, and the ability to imagine executional possibilities, we cannot possibly make informed and confident decisions about advertising.
And what holds true for ourselves holds equally if not more true for the non-advertising professionals in our lives. Namely the audiences for our work. Otherwise known as consumers.
When so much of advertising’s effects depend on how it is rendered, all evaluations of people’s responses to rough work must be caveated with the proviso “depending on how it’s done.”
Which is why advertising decisions must always carry with them an inevitable, inescapable burden of risk.
The implications for how we work
None of this should suggest that we dispense with planning. Or that planners assume the role of creatives.
I’ve been perhaps a little dismissive of the contribution of the What to the creative process, for there is still an invaluable What to answer.
Planning’s contribution to the creative process still needs to be anchored in defining and articulating what the opportunity or challenge is that creativity, branding and communications must solve.
As Adrian Holmes, the former chairman of Lowe once observed speaking about the creative process: “Great solutions require great problems”. Identifying the nature of the challenge, the behavioral change sought, and the role of communications in this has always been the real sharp end of planning.
So there is still a What that matters. ‘What are we trying to solve?’ is still the most vital question to be asked in any creative process.
But strategy also needs to come with some sense of what the possible How’s might look and feel like. The inseparability of ‘strategy’ and ‘execution’ means planning cannot stop thinking and come to a screeching halt at the borders of strategy and execution. It must think beyond ‘strategy’.
If planning treats ‘strategy’ merely as the bit that precedes the ‘creative process’, treating the creative brief and the definition of the ‘message’ as its key deliverable and output, then not only has it utterly sold itself short, but it has also woefully misunderstood how much of advertising (and human communication) actually works.
And of course if strategy and execution are inseparable, then it demands that planners stay involved throughout the creative process (the Fire And Forget approach to planning being nothing short of absurd) and that creatives stay involved throughout the strategic process.
Mindsets, skillsets, processes and structures that get in the way of this happening are in the way of success.
Interview with Chris DeFaria at http://www.jawbone.tv/articles/item/498-world-building-at-warner-brothers-chris-defaria-on-the-power-of-digital.html
JWT Planning Guide, 1974
MT Rainey, ‘A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’, Admap, May 2010
Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, Don D Jackson: Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interractional Patterns, Pathologies, And Paradoxes
- Abandon any snobbery about multi-market work being lowest common denominator stuff. Remind yourself that Shakespeare and Lady Gaga are both global phenomena, and that they’re both (in their own different ways) pretty good.
- Subscribe to the belief that while lives and cultures may differ, the stuff of story, myth, and human biography – love, sex, war, politics, jealousy, altruism, heroism… is enduring and universal.
- Recognize the truth that if you go looking for differences (between people, cultures or markets), you’ll find differences. And if you go looking for commonalities, you’ll find commonalities.
- Know when to seek differences, and when to seek commonalities.
- Abandon any lingering thought that your experience, values, assumptions, or reality lie at the center of the world.
- Bear in mind that most people you’re creating stuff for haven’t seen that campaign (or case study) that everyone back home is talking about.
- Be patient. It’s a long process. You will need to be able to sustain your enthusiasm – and that of people around you over the long haul.
- Build strong relationships of trust quickly – creating global work often involves getting the support and endorsement of a lot of people.
- Create a common language for global work. You will have an easier time getting global buy-in to a campaign, idea, or whatever you want to call it, when you can be precise about how the campaign works, what the idea is, etc. A lot of global clients are effectively salesmen within their own organizations, so arming them with the right language and helping them getting their own internal stakeholders to embrace it is critical. It doesn't have to be too clever or too complicated – but don’t underestimate the amount of help people will need to understand and effectively merchandise the work you are asking them to buy.
- Let go of your reliance on fancy words and keep things simple. You will not speak all the languages your audience speaks. Most people you will be making stuff for will not speak your language. And many people you work with will not speak your language fluently.
- Great global work doesn't exist without strong relationships and the trust that they foster. And you don't create strong relationships through email alone. Invest in human contact.
- Above all, treat globalism as an exercise in generosity, not (self)aggrandisement. I once heard somebody liken global marketers and adfolk to seagulls: “They fly over, shit on everything, and then leave.” Don’t be a seagull. Your role is not to control and impose, but to enable people to succeed. We don’t create global strategies, insights, ideas to benefit people with ‘global’ in their job titles or roles, but local markets and their customers.