Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Art of Thought

There are a few words that I have an unexplained aversion to - and one of these is "process". I don't know why, but it always conjures up horrible Powerpoint slides with boxes and arrows. It seems to suck the magic out of anything. I don't like the expression "creative process" or worse still "process for generating insights" as both of these seem to imply that one day, both could be turned over to a computer.

So digging back through my old psychology books, I was pleased to see that one of the seminal essays on creativity, written in 1926 by Graham Wallas (above) is entitled The Art of Thought. Wallas studied the writings of scientists such as Poincare and Helmholtz, to arrive at a theory of how creativity could work. The stages he defined were:
PREPARATION: focus on the subject or problem
INCUBATION: whereby the subject is internalised into the unconscious and nothing appears to be happening
INTIMATION: where the creative person has a hunch that something is coming
ILLUMINATION or INSIGHT: the idea bursts forth into consciousness
VERIFICATION: conscious elaboration

I was particularly struck by a quotation from Hermann von Helmholtz, the German physicist, speaking at a banquet on his 70th birthday, about the incubation phase:

“happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table. They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.”

It's the incubation stage that suffers most in the current day and age. Compelled to be "always on" we turn to the internet when we have a free moment - sometimes using the excuse of "finding inspiration". But we should have more faith in our own internal capacity for inspiration.

Incubation requires time and space.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Maps and Metaphors

I read a very interesting blog post by Martin Weigel on his Canalside View blog recently, in which he argues for scrapping the "brand as human" metaphor in favour of a new metaphor more applicable to the 21st century - "brand as software."

The argument goes that human personality traits don't really differentiate brands and quotes Guy Murphy: "the democracy of information has allowed consumers to focus on more rational and "real" aspects of the product itself" - the observation here that a string on one-star product reviews can destroy even a strong emotional brand.

It's a thought-provoking article and well-worth reading, as are the comments relating to it.

But maybe I'm not geeky enough, or simply too old, but I didn't feel an overwhelming urge to adopt the "brand as software" metaphor.

A few reasons. First of all, I have never bought this "brand exists just in the consumer's head" stuff. All brands, as far as I am aware, exist in the world as products or services. I can't think of any brand that has no concrete products or services attached to it. And surely getting the product or service right was always the basis. In all the various models and metaphors that I have had the dubious pleasure of using over the years, all of them had some sort of stuff about what the brand is or does, or benefits, or attributes before you got onto all that airy-fairy personality and values stuff.

And, in the end, although metaphors may help marketers to think about brands, we shouldn't be held prisoner to them. And brands and marketers are different. Some brands may suit the software metaphor,  if it simplifies the thought process. Others not. Some marketing people like all those pyramids and onions and keys. Others find them self-indulgent intellectual you-know-what.

The map is not the territory. It's one way of looking at it. You use the right kind of map to suit your purpose.

I wonder if "brand" has ever been used as a metaphor?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Googlephobia and other German idiosyncracies

I had a visit from my insurance rep today. A personal visit. He knocked my door, came in and sat down in one of our armchairs. I offered him a cup of coffee and he chatted me through the various changes to my policies. Although I ended up signing on a dotted line that was on one of those nifty digital gadgets, it was otherwise to all extents and purposes like a visit from the man from the Pru, fifty years later and in German.

Yesterday I tried to get into my National Savings and Investments online account. Oh dear. When I set it up I had to remember a picture, a phrase, the answer to five or six silly security questions plus concoct a password containing at-least-one-but-not-all-of-upper-case-lower-case-symbols-blah-blah. It all ended in tears (or swearing) and a wait on a customer call line.

Personal, face-to-face relationships with private customers have not died out in Germany. I am sure that a lot of it comes from the natural German resistance to doing too much online, and a general risk-aversiveness.

Sometimes the bureaucracy, rules and regulations and wariness of just doing it drive me nuts. It must be a horror to try and set up a business in Germany, especially anything that's online-based. Just look at the pickle that Uberpop got themselves into here.

But a lot of it stems from a very real concern over privacy of the individual and openness on the part of companies, which can't be a bad thing. In my encounter with the insurance man, although I invited him into my home, I have the impression that my financial and household details are just between me and that firm, not floating around for all to hack into. And that the company won't have disappeared next year.

Although Germans still seem happy to use Google's services, the company has become something of a bogeyman here, described as octopoid by some. The cynical may say that it's the old-guard Germans, stuck in the 20th century with their reliance on manufacturing who don't want the cool geeks from Silicon valley snatching their business.

But I think we can all learn a bit of cautiousness from a people that spent 60 years under state surveillance of one sort or another.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

We get paid to make choices

Before all staff emails, there were all staff memos. I remember them well from my time at Saatchi in London. I've even kept a few, because they felt important, worth hanging onto. If they were written by one of the creative directors, they would be as carefully and brilliantly written as a long copy ad.

This 20 year old memo from the late David Abbott to all the staff at AMV has recently surfaced on the Creative Review. It's well worth a read as it makes an important point that is even more relevant today, I think, than in the 90s. The point is about ownership and responsibility, suggesting that one creative team should own a project and agencies should be focussing on quality rather than quantity of creative ideas.

Now, I think it may be unrealistic to go back to the days of taking the brief from the client and not letting him or her into the creative process at all until a few weeks later when THE one idea is presented with a flourish. But I do wonder if all the endless tissue meetings and briefings and rebriefings and presentation of ideas in double figures - and at the extreme, throwing the whole thing out to crowdsourcing - mean that we lose focus and quality.

In the end, it is about responsibility. To quote David Abbott: "the person who owns a house tends it more lovingly than the person who rents it."

It's all about making decisions and being able to fight for the choices we have made.

As David Abbott says, that's what we get paid for.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Pseudo Choice

I'm reading a dystopian/speculative/sci-fi whatever-it's-called-these-days novel at the moment: Future Perfect by Katrina Mountfort. 150 years into the future, the human race live in CitiDomes rather reminiscent of Center Parcs, subscribe to a set of MindValues that wouldn't be out of place on a boardroom wall and have given up worshipping anything remotely spiritual. Instead, the idols are those that have BodyPerfect status and are the media darlings of the non-stop diet of reality shows. Needless to say, the BodyPerfect guys and girls look as if they have swooshed out of advertising stock photos.

It's fiction but it doesn't feel so far from the truth that we're seeing now. Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail is now 8 years old and while it's true that we do have endless choice, not only does Google make it difficult for us to find the end of the tail (or even the beginning of the end of the tail) - did you mean X? Show results for etc. etc. etc - but when it comes to it, most people are more comfortable not having to bother. Who goes beyond the first page of search engine results on a regular basis?

I wrote about conformity in my last post and I sometimes wonder in branding and advertising if we are seeing a mass-homogenisation, a group tending towards the mean. Although globalisation does have its benefits, it does mean that everyone is using those same corporate values, chasing the same perfect customer experience, latching onto the same cultural insights while believing they're creating something unique. It's not just the stock shots that we're all dipping into, but the strategic part, too.

I read a brilliant article in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, which mentioned Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School regarding "Pop Culture as an instrument of economic and political control, enforcing conformity behind a permissive screen."

Are we offering genuine choice with our brands and communication? Or, to quote Adorno, "Freedom to choose what is always the same?"

Monday, 22 September 2014

Rebel, rebel?

In this blog post from Contagious, Sam Ball of Lean Mean Fighting Machine introduces the recently-published book about the future of the UK advertising industry, entitled Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief.

Ball's main point is that the creative industries are becoming more and more conformist, a tendency that ties in with the increased use of pre-testing, ratings and other research that claims to be predictive of market success. Rather than taking a risk on something new and innovative, creative departments don't want to rock the boat and stick to tried and tested formulae.

And when one looks at advertising and other creative industries for signs of rebellion, one sees only a sort of sanitised version, a plastic toytown rebellion, not the real thing. In my son's school book, Christina Aguilera is named a singer of protest songs in the same breath as Bob Dylan. Protesting all the way to the bank, if you ask me.

And advertising? Well, Puma have decided to "call all Troublemakers" in their Forever Faster campaign. I can't say hand on heart that Mario Balotelli and chums are really up there for me, breaking boundaries and rules like the rebels of old:

Beyond this kind of bland, ersatz rebellion, where are the brands and creative that is really challenging the status quo? My worry is that the more we rely on the safety net of database norms derived from the past, the less likely we'll be to fly.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Sugar, spice, slugs and snails

Seeing these German gender-specified crisps recently got me thinking about the whole area of gender marketing. I'm not talking about who you target your campaign at, but at product development itself. And I get the impression there's much more of it about these days.

Now, there are plenty of products and brands out there that target men or women specifically, with pretty good reason in the main. Toiletries and clothes, perfume and cosmetics are all areas where there are male products and female products (including the oddly named "boyfriend jeans" for which there seems to be no equivalent for men who might fancy the "just squeezed into my girlfriend's jeans" look once in a while.)

And there have always been attempts into cigarettes and beer specially for women. Do Kim ciggies still exist?

But the area where the gender-specific stuff seems to be have really taken off in the last few years is the area of children's products. I don't remember such a preponderance of pink and purple when I was little. Lego, for instance, has gone girly mad with its Friends series, leaving the boys (one presumes) to their Star Wars and Transformers. And in the books market, the Die Drei ??? (The Three Investigators) have been joined by Die Drei !!!

After 50 years of the boy detectives solving mysteries, I can only guess that the girls were called in to solve such tricky cases as Duel of the Top Models, Cheating in the Casting Show, Danger in the Fitness Club and The Mobile Phone Case.

Of course, when I was young, there were stories specified for boys or girls too, but the girls didn't have to to be styled up like Germany's Next Top Model to have adventures. And note that the title is not pink, it's blue:

Which brings me back to the crisps. OK, there were always certain brands of comestibles that positioned themselves for men, or women (Yorkie). But I always assumed that was ironic. 

The Chio Chips  above come in the variants Mädelsabend and Männerabend (Girls'/Boys' Night Out). The girl pack is purple and the flavour is Creamy Paprika, while the guys get a more butch Smoky Bacon colour with a Flamed BBQ flavour.

I really do hope it's all tongue-in-cheek.

I wonder if they breed if you mix them up?