Every nice girl

Nice girls, sailors

I’ve talked before about my amazing Maths professor at Bristol university, Dr Mayberry, and in particular about his dissection of the phrase ‘every nice girl loves a sailor’. Is it: “For each nice girl, For each sailor, the nice girl loves the sailor”, or perhaps “For each nice girl, there exists a sailor, such that the nice girl loves the sailor”? Each of these possibilities, and I recall there being many more, was written out in logical notation. The point was, I suppose, that language is sloppy, logic is not, and… you know… be careful.

Perhaps the most infuriating lack of care is when a marketing person gets hold of a ‘unifying idea’. And the best example of this was a former employer (I was an adopted child in a marriage of the shotgun variety), who shall be know as XYZ Corp.

Two sorts of super smart people worked at XYZ’s massive head office, it seemed to me at the time. Type A went and did complex acquisitions. Type B went around behind them explaining why such and such an acquisition was ‘strategic’. This is all well and good of course, you can’t possibly announce you’ve just bought companies for the sake of getting bigger, or to conceal and distract from some other failed corporate activity. Protocol dictates that for a period of at least one year, all involved will pretend they were genuinely in love and not remotely drunk. After a year, it’s time to start arguing over who owns the CD collection and what you’ll tell the kids.

Anyhow. The rightness or wrongness of corporate mergers is not the point. The point is the mangling of logic which often ensues. For XYZ, faced with integrating a digital design consultancy with a company that made things with flashing lights, the story was that we were both ‘information’ businesses.

I suppose we could have just said we were both in the sales business, or the bullshit business.

Aside from the pure bravado of this manoeuvre, which is breathtaking, the most amazing thing about it is that it sometimes worked. People would nod along, half asleep in meetings. The air would be punched at sales conferences as we discussed how ‘information’ was that the heart of our growth strategy. The fact that not a single employee understood a word of it was not discussed.

And XYZ corp were certainly not alone in this madness. I’ve seen all sorts of companies stitched together on the thin understanding they are about ‘results’, about ‘communication’, or shared a ‘passion for customers’. Someone once tried to tell me our digital agency (a different one) should merge with a bill stuffing company because we were both ‘about customer data’. This last one must have taken a supreme effort of self will to keep a straight face for. Equally brazen, and potentially more incoherent, I once heard that a music retail company was ‘already a social network’ because people used to socialize ‘in their stores’.

If your objective is to make two things that aren’t equal sound equal by positioning each at the end of a similar sounding definition, then you have only served to slightly weaken our ability to communicate. And if it’s your job as a branding agency (who I believe have to take at least most of the blame for this sort of behaviour) to do this, then I fear you’ve not responded candidly to the brief. Go back and tell your client it doesn’t all fit neatly together, and that’s not the end of the world, so long as you can create customer value. There are other branding strategies than ‘one big brand’, there are worse things than being diverse. Namely being incoherent and self-obsessed. And if your client doesn’t want to hear that then let them hire someone else.

Enquiring minds

SKing001edit-773824

The recent release of Stephen King’s collected writings is brilliant and – this is lost on no-one – extremely prescient.

Many of the issues that face current communicators appear to have been tackled, in outline at least, by King 30 or more years ago. We may only be able to guess what his detailed thoughts would be on the issues which face marketers (advertisers in King’s terminology) today. Although, we can bet that they’d be clear, insightful and closely argued.

In the collection, each of King’s original papers is introduced by a modern day advertising thinker. In the most part, these introductions are excellent, refining and highlighting the best of the original pieces and explaining them in today’s terms; picking out nuance and explaining terms which may since have changed usage or meaning. Rory Sutherland’s introduction to ‘Advertising: Art or Science’ is particularly funny (including the observation that ‘[…] All creative people must submit their thinking for appraisal by more rational people […] but […] this does not apply the other way around’, and Jeremy Bullmore’s introduction to the entire book is – as usual –  captivating and insightful.

Somewhat ironically, however, it is two of King’s successors at JWT who provide the only unsatisfactory introductions. In critiquing ‘The Advertising Idea’, Rosemarie Ryan and Ty Montague (President and Creative Director of JWT New York), completely misappropriate the concept of stimulus and response to mean… interactive media and then tread a somewhat clumsy course back to the primacy of the ‘The Big Idea’. Talking about the same piece Tom Doctoroff (JWT’s North East Asia Director) does an even more cack-handed job of assuming what it is he’s trying to prove. Ending up once again with the concept that Big Ideas (or Engagement Ideas) must rule the day.

Doctroff writes:

[…] ‘Those of us who master the art of idea management will thrive. That’s why JWT Asia, we have introduced “Engagement Planning”, a conceptual framwork that builds on Stephen King’s traditional thinking while bringing it into alignment with the new reality of blogs and podcasts.’ … ‘Importantly, unless engagement ideas are properly articulated, we cannot extend them across relevant media, both traditional (television, radio, print, promotion, direct) and new (websites, micro-sites, blogs, mobiles etc). […] Engagement ideas also tame the potential of viral marketing by enabling marketers to mould the brand experience on their own terms’.

What nonsense. As Martin Sorrell once said: ‘If you’re hammer, everything starts to look a bit like a nail’. And so for big creative advertising agencies, ‘big ideas’ become the solution, no matter what the problem was. But in the quote above, surely this is precisely why ad agencies have sucked so badly at communicating in non-advertising ways. Meanwhile talented individuals like Hugh Macleod out-strategise major agencies by actually thinking about how to market to networks rather than treating these new forms of communication as just more bought media. I think we can safely assume King would have looked at blogs, youtube, whatever; would have tried to understand how they work and how they can be used commercially to influence consumer perception of brand (across the who sphere of those perceptions), rather than just extend ‘traditional’ thinking where it wasn’t wanted.

Doctoroff attempts to explain how they put this into practice, ‘To underline the need for the consumer’s involvement, we have relabelled the “advertising idea” an “engagement idea,” a concept that is “bigger” than any single execution but still “creative”.’ (his speech marks).

Amongst these ‘bigger’ ideas Doctoroff includes a line for Siemens mobile phones: ‘Intelligent phone for intelligent people’, and for sports shoes in China, ‘Forge yourself’ (are those even ideas?). An attempt, if I’ve ever seen one, to systematise the solution to any advertising problem, and once which leverages only ad agencies’ best asset: creative thinking.

Of course, this is not what Stephen King wrote at all. He talks about the role of ideas in amplifying the intensity of consumer response as part of a carefully planned advertising campaign. The first part of that process is identifying what the problem to be solved is.

King himself says: “The call for original advertising ideas is not just because we want to give creative people full and interesting lives. There are two sound commercial reasons for it… Intense response and Sophisticated consumers.”

‘Intense response’ means ‘involving the consumer’ (i.e. activating the consumers brain, not just pouring ideas into it). ‘Sophisticated consumers’ is talking about about the other media the audience is exposed to and their level of sophistication in deconstructing advertising and brands.

King is always analytical – not jumping from one example to the next but asking step by step – how does this advertising work, how can it be used commercially?

Even in the 70s and 80s, King looks not-at-all for a single one-size-fits all solution to advertisers’ problems, instead encouraging planners (the job function he invented) to be the guardians of effectiveness by any means, able to mine all available data, construct their own experiments and research, and set detail measurable targets for any work that is carried out.

Instead, if we listen to the wrong end of the advertising market, its all about these mystical big ideas and all we need to do (however hard it is) is come up with one. Surely this is exactly the sort of thinking that King would have hated.

And it’s exactly the sort of simple way of thinking which I think Russell Davies identifies here. It was always about communication before, so it’s still all about communication. And that’s how we end up with all these microsites – for example – that are ‘only seen in boardrooms and award ceremonies’.

That’s why we need ‘enquiring minds’ (alongside commercial minds and creative minds of the traditional advertising partnership). There is no cookie-cutter solution to communications problems, as much as agency managers, new business people, or creative directors would like their to be, whether inside the world of advertising or not.

(As a taster I’ve posted some of the best quotes here).