Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Top of the Tortoises


There's a whole new area developing in assessing how good companies are performing on the triple bottom line. The latest new Index looking at how good companies actually are (in every sense of the word) is from Tortoise Media - The Tortoise Media Responsibility 100 Index

This index takes the FTSE 100 and rates these on indices relating to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, across the two broad areas People and Planet. There's a full detailed transparent methodology link included on the website for those interested in the nitty gritty and yes, of course, there is a degree of judgement in terms of how the indices are derived and weighted. 

Always worth bearing in mind.

Looking at the results, Top of the Tortoises this year are:

1. Unilever

2. Severn Trent

3. Diageo

4. AstraZeneca

5. BT Group

There are several things I like about this index - first of all, there's the "talk" and "walk" division - what the companies are committing to, and what they are actually doing. And I believe both are vital. Companies that simply donate a bucketload of cash to a trendy cause on the spur of the moment aren't in it for the long-haul, usually. 

It's good to see the top five from a complete mix of sectors - retail & consumer, engineering, pharma and services are all represented. And yes, it is the FTSE Top 100 which is generally about established companies, but it's encouraging to see all the Top 5 were established in the last century (with roots going much further back, in some cases) - these are certainly not "new kids on the block" who have social and environmental responsibility baked-in from the beginnings.

What I'd really like to see accompanying this is a "Hare Index" of growth to see if the third part of the triple bottom line really does go hand-in-hand with the other two to the finishing line.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Back to Business

I recently read a document that was recommended via one of the world's biggest and most influential planning communities. It was called the Visibility Brief and has been produced by a well-established US agency. The brief is described as a "bias firewall" to be used in the creation of "more representative cultural goods". 

Using the search function, I looked for the following words in the brief:

Objective. Sales. Growth. Creativity. Effective.

None of these words have been used at all in the 19-page document.

This experience is similar to one related by Steve Harrison in his excellent book, can't sell won't sell

Steve wondered how he could help his clients in the coming recession, and what role in general the creative industries should take to keep the economy afloat during these "challenging times."  In June this year, he emailed the D&AD asking for a reading list of How To books or articles - useful stuff such as Advertising on a small budget, Writing copy that Sells, Creating a website that generates sales, How to plan media, How to write a brief and generally How to go about developing effective advertising in any medium.

The only reply he got was an "out of office" one.

However, the D&AD subsequently posted a couple of reading lists on their website: one of #staycation reading (rather heavy), replaced by 85 assorted sources to "educate yourself" about BLM.

These examples are symptomatic of the way that the ad industry has lost the plot and taken its eye off the ball, the main theme of can't sell won't sell

Reading this important book over the last couple of days, I realised that these ideas have also been at the forefront of my thinking over recent months.

The ad industry has become side-tracked and distracted away from its core business. One factor behind this is that agency people - particularly managers - are becoming increasingly less divergent in the way they think, and the values and opinions they hold. A consequence is that UK TV ads are markedly more annoying and less enjoyable than they were a couple of decades ago. They're also far less likely to be funny. And it goes without saying that this has consequences for effectiveness.

With a huge recession already kicking in, now is the worst possible time for this to be happening.

I strongly recommend this book - it's highly topical, funny, sharp, credible and readable.

My only little quibble (planner alert!) is that there isn't enough here about brand-building as driving long-term revenue, profit and general prosperity as well as short-term immediate sales effects produced by advertising.

It's given me a kick in the ivory tower for when I get too up in the clouds about purpose (I have my own views on purpose, here). I do hope that advertising doesn't become a completely dirty word, and that everyone in the industry can get on with what we do best - and get back to business.


Monday, 28 September 2020

Having it all (or as good as)

When I was a 20-something bright young thing starting in advertising, the women's magazines of the time were full of articles debating whether we women really could "Have It All." One person who has made a pretty damn good job of it is Rita Clifton, CBE. She's someone I can look at and say - yes, she's both personally and professionally fulfilled and very much still at the top of her game. Rita is the author of a new book, entitled Love Your Imposter.

I worked with Rita Clifton in the late 80s and early 90s at Saatchi & Saatchi London. She was my boss on the British Airways account. Reading Rita's book was like leaping into a rediscovered video-tape in a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland fashion: I was back in the crazy world of yuppies and Concorde, shoulder pads, strange new-agey gurus and The Only Way is Up.

Rita always spoke a lot of sense, but never in a preachy kind of way. She led by example, and what an example she was! Reading this book was like listening to her chatting - so different to many business books, with warmth, openness and a sprinkle of self-deprecating humour pervading its pages.

The honesty - and specifically, that you have to work and understand the language of finance to get to the top - is just one appealling aspect of this book. Rather than the glib advice to "be yourself", Rita is very clear that you have to stretch to get on, that there is a skill to knowing when to toe the line, when to fit in and when to stand out, and an art to getting yourself taken seriously. (Oh, those memories from my early career days on being lectured about "gravitas" - not from Rita, I hasten to add). The chapters on finance and numbers were a well-needed kick and reminder to me that I must always keep one eye on solid ground even if the other is floating up in the ether of visions and purposes.

I'm less of a fan of personal branding and the whole personal development shebang than Rita is, but maybe that's telling in itself. At a few points in the book, I had little aha moments about where I've gone wrong, and toppled off the career ladder a couple of times. I even wondered if I have a reverse imposter tendency now and then. The book certainly gave me food for thought, and encouragement that it's not too late, even now ...

I know that Rita worked bloody hard and made sacrifices to get where she is - and this success couldn't happen to a brighter, friendlier and all-round-good-egg sort of person. Thank you, Rita, for giving me the belief that I could make it - even if in the end my choices in life took me in another direction.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Why can't we live together?

At the end of 2019, I blogged about reconciliation, in the hope that 2020 might be the year, both on the political front and in the world of marketing, that we might be able to reconcile differences, establish common ground and move forward on this basis.

Unfortunately, the common ground that came upon us was something we hadn't wished for - a rather nasty and persistent virus.  The first couple of months did see some pulling together against adversity, which I think gave me renewed hope in humanity and what we can achieve if we work with what can unite us and leave divisiveness behind.

But unfortunately, the old divisions have crept back and new ones have come to the fore. And yes, I do believe that without differences and a certain amount of friction and tension, there's no progression, but in the world at large as well as the microcosm of marketing, there still seems to be a lot of black and white thinking going on.

Binary debates in marketing Source: Martin Weigel

Rather than aligning myself to one camp or another, I've learned along the way that the truth about these things usually involves "a bit of both", whether its human and machine, purpose and profit or brand-building and activation.

There a super article from Tom Roach here, which looks at the false choice between long- and short-term marketing or brand/performance. The approach is to harmonise short-term sales and long-term growth, with "share of search" as a promising metric to predict market share that both camps (if we really have to have these camps) can get behind. Thus selling "both immediately and forever" as Jeremy Bullmore put it.

Mark Ritson has summed all of this up rather well in his article about "Bothism" - the rare capacity to not only see the value of both sides of the the marketing story, but actively consider and then co-opt them into any subsequent marketing endeavour in an appropriate way.

And yes, I do have The Beatles and The Stones, Oasis and Blur in my music collection. As well as a lot of other weirder stuff, which is another story.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself


In the lead-up to the US Election, the fear-mongering has long since started. Of course, playing on fear has been the weapon of choice for propaganda and political campaigns since civilisation began. Alarming visions of the future should you not vote for us and they get in.

And what better time to play the fear card than now, when most people of the world have just reason to be utterly terrified if they stop too long to think about it.

Fear is one of those nasty psychological levers that's also given advertising and marketing a bad name. It's used in more subtle ways, of course. It used to be fear of what the neighbours might think, fear of not keeping up with the Joneses, fear of being a failure.

Fear of problems you didn't even know you had.

These days it's fear of everything from not being popular enough on social media, through to saying or doing the wrong thing regarding social issues, through to completely ruining the planet for future generations due to lazy, selfish and thoughtless behaviour. On top of all the other fears.

A lot of this fear ballyhoo must come from the culture and worldview that pervades many organisations (maybe more so during these times, when people are genuinely frightened for their livelihoods). The acronym  of the VUCA world is still very much in evidence - as well as the advice on how to arm yourself against it via the alternative VUCA (Vision, Understanding, Clarity & Agility)

Sensible advice. And yet, it all still feels like there's a war on, that everyone is in mortal danger, that we need strong generals and superior firepower. I recently read Empire of the Sun, and the way that young Jim manages to survive the war in the internment camp is to relish it. I thought about my own spin on VUCA here, where volatile becomes spontaneous, uncertainty becomes surprise, complex becomes diverse and ambiguous becomes enigmatic.

Should we be taking it as a given that uncertainty is always bad?

As C.G.Jung put it,

…I had the feeling that I had pushed to the brink of the world; what was of burning interest to me was null and void for others, and even a cause for dread. Dread of what? I could find no explanation for this. After all, there was nothing preposterous or world-shaking in the idea that there might be events which overstepped the limited categories of space, time and causality.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Data, information, knowledge and wisdom

Photo by Martin Schitto, July 2020

Would I rather be knowledgable or wise? Can you be one without being the other?

I see a kind of progression, according to synthesis level, from data to information to knowledge to wisdom.

In a preamble to one of their articles The School of Life picked up the distinction between knowledge and wisdom, suggesting that knowledge is the accumulation of facts, figures and theories, while wisdom is the further synthesis of this knowledge with experience.

Knowledge can be forgotten, while wisdom can't.

Knowledge is specific to subject and context, while wisdom is universal and timeless. 

Regarding the latter point, many moons ago, I did my A-levels following my Cambridge Entrance Exams (this was a bit topsy-turvy, but that's always been my way). I had to swot much more for the A-Levels than the Cambridge Entrance Exam as these were more about regurgitating my knowledge - the structure of DNA and how it all worked, for example. For the Cambridge Entrance Exam in Biology, you'd get asked something like "What is the importance of water to life."

I've written a post or two about A.I, and I fancy that a machine these days may have fared better in my Biology A-Level than I did. I don't discount the idea that a machine could be described as "knowledgeable" - why not, if we already describe machines as "intelligent"?

But I doubt that we'll ever have a machine that is wise in the way that a human being is.

I'd welcome a change from thinking about "data-driven insights" to "the wisdom of insight".

The rather pensive photo of me in my cellar pub had me philosophising, about the Road to Excess and all that stuff.

I know I'm doing something wrong as I don't seem to have cracked the "wealthy" bit of the healthy, wealthy and wise thing, although I'm not sure wisdom brings wealth these days.

Maybe it's a case of "Late to bed and late to rise makes a (wo)man happy, healthy-ish and wise"?

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Method in Madness?

There was a time early in my agency career when creativity just happened - in a mysterious way - and questioning how the the creatives got to their ideas was likely to earn you at best a sarcastic riposte, and at worst eternal banishment from the creative floor.

Of course, we had a high-level idea of how creativity worked, but on the whole we were interested first and foremost in cracking ideas that fit the brief - and if they were really cracking, the brief could be made to fit ;)

These days it's all very different. There are no mad geniuses prowling the second floor and throwing typewriters out of windows. We're all team players, and openness and transparency is all the rage, including the tedious, usually post-rationalised blow-by-blow thought process of how you arrived where you arrived. I blame all this Design Thinking gubbins - the thought of scrums and sprints gives me the heebie-jeebies - it doesn't sound agile to me, rather completely exhausting.

Creative processes are described in flow charts and icons:

Occasionally with a few disembodied arms and hands - or brains - to add the "human-centric" touch:

Can I be the only one that feels as if these standardised processes lead to standardised ideas?

Even in a completely different world - literature and fiction - authors seem only too keen to display their working on social media, usually in the form of a forest-slaying over-abundance of Post-It notes:

I really don't want to read that novel, however it turns out.

My favourite representation of the creative process is this one:
I take a deep breath at this point and tell myself that it's a good thing that there are different ways to approach creativity and as long as I'm not forced into one of these flow-charts of Post-It proliferations, then let it be.

Adobe Create have come up with a rather nifty tool (not a process) to discover your own creative type.  No surprise that I was the Visionary (who looks like the lovechild of a cactus and a cucumber - well, that was a surprise).

And, for things to go pretty swimmingly, I have to get together, not with a cactus or a cucumber, but with a Thinker.

Who I am sure comes armed with a stack of flow-charts and a catering pack of Post-Its.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Digital Quackery

 I am sure that one of the career paths we're going to see developing in the next few years is that of the Digital Nutritionist. This may seem as bizarre today as the idea of someone with no recognisable talent called an "Influencer" earning millions did a decade ago, but hear me out.

The whole idea of Digital Nutrition has been waiting in the wings ever since we started talking of "digital content" (the word still reminds me of stomach contents, so point proved) and "digital consumption" as well as "news feed" and all the other nutrition-related analogies. As I have said before, the whole digital space (aaarrrggghhh!) is one that we started by surfing or exploring, then became happy to stumble and bumble around and finally we've ended up in a passive state of being "served" or "fed." Of course, many of us have overdone it and had to resort to some form of "digital detox".

No surprise that the last few years have brought a plethora of reports and articles about the dire consequences of digital overload to our health and well-being, broken only by a short period at the beginning of lockdown where the internet and all things digital were hailed as a saviour in dark times.

The next logical step is to ask the question: does digital consumption have to be detrimental to our health and well-being per se? Or can we draw an analogy with analogue nutrition (if you like - I mean actual food that you shove in your mouth)?

This article introduces the work of AeBeZe Labs - see also the website from Jocelyn Brewer. It's all about Digital Nourishment, Digital Hygiene, Healthy Digital Diets, Digital Pharmaceuticals. 

OK, I studied a bit of pharmacology and I know that we release mood-altering neurotransmitters (Serotonin, Oxytocin, GABA, Endorphins, Acetylcholine et al) in response to stimuli, which could be watching a film, listening to music, reading an article. And usually one transmitter will alter the mood of most people in a certain direction: calm, happy, motivated, focussed or whatever.

But the flaw is that we all have different tastes and reactions. The awful caterwauling that was Justin Bieber plus Ed Sheeran (who on earth had the grotesque idea of throwing these two together into a studio?) that I heard on the radio this morning might well send some into oxytocin-drenched raptures, but it sent me into an extreme fight or flight reaction.

Bodies are rather more standardised when it comes to what is good or bad in terms of nutrition. Minds and souls certainly aren't.

And, finally, how do you account for good old-fashioned non-digital media in all this? I'm talking about books, be they penny dreadful potboilers, or highbrow works of literature.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Give them all a rest

From the days of the much-maligned Brand Onion (which occasionally shape-shifted into a pyramid, or a key, if you were at Unilever), I remember very few specific good examples.

But I can remember the endless debates:

Is X a functional benefit or an emotional benefit?

Does this go in Personality or Values?

What's the difference between an attribute and a benefit?

Is this meant to be how we're seen now, or where we want to be?

Fast forward a decade or two, and enter Kipling's "honest serving men" - or some of them - in a glorious glowing Golden Circle. It was all going to be simple - chuck out those endless debates and start with Why?

I've noticed in the last few years that those "honest serving men" are getting about a bit. Almost every presentation on a process or strategy is peppered with Hows and Whos and Whats.

However, the debates remain:

Do we mean Who or To Whom? (The grammar fanatics love this one!)

Is that the How or the What?

Is When important?

And in this article by Thomas Kolster the author (previously a proponent of Pupose and Why?) suggests that it's now all about the Who a brand can help people to become (so a kind of Who in the future). A brand is a coach, helping people "be more, do more, see more, experience more!". This Who "focuses on the role you can play enabling their beliefs and dreams, whereas Why focuses on your organisation's beliefs and dreams."

The "honest serving men" have done a sneaky pivot from a circle to an arrow (perhaps still golden?). Why has disappeared and taken Where with him:

This all feels suspiciously like a return to "what's in it for me" - or a simple statement of what your brand does for people - benefit, if you like.

Kipling's poem continues - and this is not often quoted -

But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine to five,
For I am busy then ...

I think he had a point, and don't intend to discuss the Whys and Wherefores ;)

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Travelling hopefully

One description of the current "coming out of COVID" phase that particularly rings true for me is that we're all teetering on a tightrope between hope and anxiety. The anxiety is a form of constant fear of the unknown, acknowledging that we simply aren't as in control of anything as we once thought we were.

I felt this tension as I booked up my first trip back to the UK recently. Travel and tourism is a category that is arguably the most disrupted by COVID, and also one of the most disrupting to the planet. That brings a double tension into play - should I really be making this trip, not just for my health, but for the health of the planet?

I've had flurries of emails in the last few weeks from airlines, rail companies and hotels. These all take much the same form:

Inspiring the hope: talk of renewal, freedom, reopening. New journeys and destinations. A world waiting to be discovered. Wanderlust. Beckoning pictures of azure waters, golden beaches, midsummer mornings in the far North.

And at the same time, reassurance to calm the anxiety: #WeCare, worry-free travel, safe and comfortable, relax, protection, well-being, flexibility, hygiene, Bring Me Home promise.

I suspect the way we travel will change permanently, as it did after 9/11, and there will be no going back in terms of the new safety measures introduced. But I also wonder if there will be a going back in the way that travel is regarded - instead of "jumping on planes" and "ticking off the bucket-list" I agree with James Bidwell of Springwise who says that travel and tourism will continue to contribute massively to diversity, cultural understanding, education, a global outlook and to contribute to a more harmonious and peaceful world for all. 

I see a future for travel and tourism which is more conscious, and goes back to a certain degree of exclusivity - that travel becomes a privilege, not an automatic right. And if the excitement and magic of discovery returns, that can only be a good thing. 

I paid double what I would have done last year for my ferry crossing and don't begrudge the price.

I'm hoping it'll all be plain sailing and will see you on the other side!

Monday, 6 July 2020

So long, spontaneity?

When I first came to Germany, back in 1996, one of the strangest aspects of culture shock was what I called "unspontaneous dancing". I'd been alerted to this to some extent in Austrian ski resorts, but this still couldn't prepare me for the weirdly robotic and joyless spectacle of what the Germans call Disco Fox. The low point had to be seeing a couple grimly going through the mechanical motions to Smoke on the Water. It was enough to make me want hail a taxi to the airport and hop on the first plane back.

Of course, these days, hailing taxis and hopping on planes seem like quaint memories of the past. We have all read enough articles showing how the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated trends in behaviour that were going on anyway. I commented already some years ago about the reduction of (positive) surprise in our lives, both online and offline.

It's apparent in communication and keeping in touch, where phone calls are scheduled, both business and private, and even meetings with friends are organised with the precision of a military operation - aided and abetted by all sorts of apps and software as well as both virtual and real assistants, planners, coaches and organisers.

Even before the crisis, the entire travel, hospitality and leisure industry was going this way with all-important checks on TripAdvisor, and extensive online research even for a trip to the pub. Serendipity was already on its way out of the window for many people who pooh-poohed the "real god of travellers":

All the strangeness, all the distinctiveness of a country will utterly escape you as you are led and your steps are no longer guided by the real god of travellers, chance. - Stefan Zweig, 1926 'To Travel or be Travelled'

After all, who needs strangeness? These days, "stranger" equals "danger" more than ever.

As the world emerges from lockdown, it's clear that chance should play as small a role as possible. It's a world where everything should be controlled, scheduled and traced. Safety and security have become idealised virtues: stay safe, safe spaces. Safety is what is known. Or what we think is known, that is, predictable. And we are armed with templates, frameworks, algorithms and tools to  box in, clarify and capture anything that might care to be numinous, elusive or inexplicable.

But, I wonder. While jumping on planes with gay abandon and merrily ticking off bucket-lists might become a thing of the past, maybe more conscious travel and the knowledge that things don't always go to plan may just open a door to discovering things off the beaten track?

And with social distancing the order of the day could those standardised dance moves foxtrot their way back to the 1980s and make room for something a little more inventive and expressive?

Monday, 29 June 2020

Your business is none of my politics

When I was a bright young thing in my 20s, I joined the ad agency that had put Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives into power. I never worked on the Conservative party account personally. I wouldn't have refused (as I wouldn't have refused working on Silk Cut at that point) although I would have found it quite daunting. I don't know if everyone who worked on the account had to be staunch Tory supporters, or whether a few wild cards were brought in to challenge and play devil's advocate.

It may seem odd to younger readers, but I didn't necessarily know the politics of my colleagues. I knew what their favourite tipples were, which films they'd seen, their favourite bands and possibly who they'd slept with last Friday (if the office gossip machine was working). But politics and religion weren't discussed. Not with workmates and certainly not with clients. Salary was another thing. You didn't go blabbing about it - maybe that was a deliberate ploy from management in general to avoid transparency and fairness. Maybe it was what we thought at the time - decency and respect, and an avoidance of vulgarity. Or, I expect, a bit of both.

The world is a different place today. I've been spending more time on LinkedIn and a couple of Facebook groups for brand and communication strategists.

To be honest, these online places sometimes feel like snake pits.

Should "we" be buying so-and-so marketing guru's book, given his "uneducated" or "offensive" tweets on a completely different theme?

Pushing of pdfs, books, "voices" to follow and other assorted resources to "educate ourselves" so that "we" finally "get it."

People being sworn at, generally harangued and told they have "issues they need to work on" if they dare to say that (maybe) strategy isn't political.

Everything from hate to food has become politicised.

You could be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the desperate-to-impress anarcho-extremist- nihilist group in Fresher's week. I sometimes wonder why on earth these people are working in advertising agencies and for-profit organisations - surely it's all just a trifle hypocritical?

My politics have evolved in the last thirty years. I have achieved some reasonably dizzy heights in my career as well as fallen down in the gutter a couple of times. I've learned from that. But I still don't think I need to talk about who or what I vote for with clients, let alone complete strangers on the internet.

It's not about bravery, or speaking up. Nor do I want to avoid being uncomfortable. A certain amount of discomfort helps growth, I know that.

But it is about understanding people - whether clients, customers, people you're communicating about your brand with. You don't know what they've been through, what their views are, what their experiences are, what makes them tick. And the best place to start for understanding is common ground - something you can agree on as fellow human beings.

From there on you can agree to disagree - a phrase I hear only too seldom these days.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Dirt is ... oh, hang on

Time goes quickly when you're enjoying yourself. It was over two months ago, at the beginning of April, that I wrote a post about the gush of information and opinions about the New Normal. Well, now we're in the midst of the beginning of it (I think).

One question was which mindsets and elements of behaviour would be carried over as restrictions ease. Would the whole world remain obsessed with hygiene, for example?

Certainly, hand sanitisers and soap-related products have taken a huge hike in sales. The emails that the travel companies are sending me now on resumed services are full of #WeCare and Safety First, and providing masks and cleaning seats, tables and armrests, with links to cute little films should you need extra reassurance.

But what about all the other microorganisms that are killed off in the process? Have the role of the good guys - the gut and skin microbiome - in developing immunity been forgotten?

I have a theory, which could be complete nonsense, but might be one explanation why Germany has not been as hard-hit by the virus as the US and the UK. I wrote a couple of articles in my early years here expressing what I saw as a cultural difference between the Germans and Anglo-Saxon cultures in their approach to use of "hard" chemicals in household and garden, and the preference for plant-based remedies and cures in personal health.

Maybe the Germans are just more in tune with their germs - good and bad?

Sunday, 7 June 2020

We and me

One thing I need to get round to is a revamp of my website, which is hopelessly out-of-date from a technical and user-experience point of view. And the photos probably don't - ahem - reflect how I look these days. I had a look at it recently to see if the content was also in need of a total rejig - and surprised myself.

It still makes sense.

I'm reading Jung again in the form of The Red Book, a generous and apt gift from my college chums, and I'm rediscovering a lot of what must have influenced my worldview as I started my career and has stayed with me ever since.

The idea of the personal and the collective - Jung applied this to the unconscious but it has a universal application:

For every brand, each individual has a different personal experience of that brand. We must try to understand the collective elements of the brand that we have as shared experience in order to develop communications.


There are elements of brands that are personal to each of us in the way that we perceive brands, and there are elements that form the brand's collective unconscious that unite the users of that brand.

I was pleased to see this theme taken up in an IPA essay entitled The Wide and Narrow of It by Omar El-Gammal from Wunderman Thompson. The author stresses that brands are not built through carefully constructed communication plans that we as marketers somehow control but through the we (shared cultural experience) and the me (personal experience). Thinking about the cultural and the individual is a good way of looking at brand growth.

The collective, cultural, call it what you will would always be my starting point to understand the essence of a brand. I believe that humanity has more in common than that dividing us and it's here that I'd start to find how my brand can be relevant to a broad section of the human world yet still maintain its own individuality and uniqueness.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Searchlight Brands

We're on the road to recovery. We're re-opening, re-setting, re-inventing, navigating the new, emerging at the other side, un-pausing the pause button, writing the post-COVID playbook, re-discovering and probably re-pivoting too.

The challenging times are far from over, though. At least, that's what the flurry of articles and webinars and thought pieces and workshops on what brands should be doing now, in this "recovery phase," would have you believe.

I do hope that we as marketers won't make the same mistake twice. Only a few of weeks ago, marketing managers all over the world noticed that their carefully thought-out and quickly pulled-together "we're here for you, we'll get through this together" commercial was exactly the same as the next one. Especially when the internet wags pointed it out to them.

The mistake was that people were so desperate to demonstrate empathy with what people were going through in lockdown that they forgot (or were too nervous of being insensitive) to show how their brand, services and products could play a role.

I hope that brand communication coming out now will see a return to lighthouse brands - or maybe in the mobile day-and-age, Searchlight Brands. Instead of vague expressions of empathy, a bolder statement of how your brand inspires how people might like to live tomorrow.

Of course advertising should be based on empathy, but an empathy that comes from the brand:

What does your brand do for people, and why?

What's unique about your product/s and service/s?

What is your brand's particular voice, attitude and way of seeing the world?

And the litmus test is always: could this piece of communication come from any other brand?


Friday, 15 May 2020

Is there a template for authenticity? Or novelty?

Lockdown cliche that I am, I'm been listening in to a few seminars recently. To do with work and to do with my rather bedraggled attempt at being an author. This week's seminar from The Society of Authors promised to combine both - the topic was Marketing your Books.

I did pick up a few tips and once I'd got my head round the idea that the speaker was talking more about what I'd call sales, I was happy to listen in to learn what I should really be doing to sell my books - getting an email newsletter together.

I won't be doing that, though, for a simple reason. Sales is not the prime objective of my marketing. And it's for this reason that I found the tenor of the talk slightly depressing:

There are no new ideas in marketing

All marketing is a numbers game

Just copy from those who are doing it well/properly

This flavour of marketing is something I've touched on before, in relation to creativity. Here, and here. The idea that with a mix of templates, frameworks, tools and algorithms, you can create by formula. And I've discovered a myriad of websites that can churn out content to promote your book, from Canva to BookBrush. And yes, I probably will give them a go, and stick it on Instagram to see what happens. Although I'm not sales-driven, I'm never going to say no if someone wants to buy my books. Of course not.

I am sure I could find a antique-looking map background and possibly some representation of a scorpion and create a nice little promo for my book. But I fear it would get lost amongst all the samey coffee cups, socks, flowers in vases and shabby-chic backgrounds that one sees in book promotion.

The map would not be the genuine article of the place that inspired the book, from the early 1960s, still encrusted with a hint of desert sand.

And the scorpion wouldn't be a fluffy one.

The thing is, there's more to marketing than numbers.

There is magic, mystery, creativity, novelty, authenticity, surprise.

And none of these things are available via a template.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Home Comforts

Looking back over the last six or seven weeks, the main thing that's struck me is the rediscovery of  the comforts of your own home. I'm talking about a particular group of people here, who may well have pooh-poohed their home in healthier days, or even denied that their home consisted of something as solid as four walls. The younger amongst this group like to think of themselves as Global Nomads, the older as International Business People or Liberal Elite Citizens of the World. Many of the Marketing and Advertising community belong (although belonging isn't really their thing) to this group of "Anywheres". It's a group who can, on occasion, have a slightly sneery and condescending view of those who are - let's say - more rooted.

A fascinating report came out last week from discover.ai, who have been chronicling the passage of lockdown and beyond more-or-less in real time. Last week's issue looked at enjoyment - how people are talking about pleasure, treats, joy and fun. And so much of what they found related back to home comforts, from TV binges to Burgeoning Booziness.

What discover.ai have termed Age of Nostalgia is only too apparent in a Facebook news stream cluttered with photos of dog-eared albums as yet another friend takes up the challenge (I would personally find running up Ben Nevis a challenge, or jumping into the North Sea on New Years Day, but there you go).

I listened to a webinar where Steve Challouma, the General Manager of Birds Eye talked about growth of 60% for Fish Fingers, and 120% for Chicken Nuggets - comfort food has leapt out from under the duvet to reclaim its place in our stomachs, and therefore hearts.

The booze story with all those Quadrantinis and Furlough Merlots is well-documented.

And, in a Society of Authors (virtual) Tea With ... event, author Joanne Harris admitted to reading Georgette Heyer in the bath.

In the UK at least, all of this cosy, nostalgic, naughty-but-nice, keep the home fires burning stuff will cumulate tomorrow in an outbreak of Stay at Home VE Day Street Parties.

And there will be no excuse from the (former) Global Nomads and Elite World Citizens not to join in with the jollity.

Because now we're all grounded.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Going overground

One of the better articles I've read about Post-COVID-19 culture is this one from Sturm und Drang. What I like here is it's not someone pontificating about the New Normal (groan) and "what we're all going to be doing/thinking" but instead outlines some of the key tensions that will be in play:

Online and Real World
Health & Safety and Getting out and living for the moment
Personal Freedom and Group monitoring
Self-reliance and solidarity
Humanity and nature

One thing that is certain is that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate transformation and movements that are happening anyway. Take the first of Sturm & Drang's tensions - the shift online. Music and film and gaming were being created and played from bedrooms, our lives were becoming increasingly streamed and the couch potatoes and nerds were inheriting the earth.

People are learning to live without coffee to-go, or anything to-go for that matter. There's a certain power in having the world of work, leisure and everything in between at your fingertips, from the comfort of your four walls.

Maybe there will be a massive, irreversible shift online in all spheres of life.

Or maybe not. In the two world wars of the last century, entire young generations had their freedom curtailed by having to do their duty and go out and fight, or otherwise work night and day for the war effort. For the current young generation, COVID-19 is their war.

People of my generation used to bewail the fact that being confined to their bedroom was no longer a punishment for a teenager.

But maybe it's beginning to be. Days and weeks of unrestricted online access. Not just that, but parents, grandparents, teachers all invading the online world of the young: from making idiots of themselves on TikTok to hi-jacking YouTube for serious learning. One can sense an urge to rebel, to get out. Not going underground, but overground into the wild world of the Internot.

Perhaps this is another trend that will be accelerated by the crisis.

Who knows, maybe the young will spend their summer like Richard Jefferies' Bevis:

"It was living, not thinking. He lived it, never thinking, as the finches live their sunny life in the happy days of June. There was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground."

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Goodie-goodie brands

The current COVID-19 crisis has brought them all skipping out across the daisy-strewn meadow - the oh-so-virtuous po-faced brands with their interchangeable #inspiringhashtag films, beautifully parodied here.

The films aren't the end of it, either. All the goodie-goodie brands in class have their hands permanently raised to get the teacher's attention. Look what I've done, Miss, look-at-me, look-at-me, aren't I a good little boy/girl/whatever? Actions speak louder than words, but most of these actions aren't for their own sake, but to shout about on social media, or to get on "great things brands are doing" lists.

It's said that the current crisis will accelerate a few things that are happening anyway, like digital transformation. I suspect another is brands raiding the virtuous dressing-up box for values which they'll try (in a not particularly virtuous way) to "own". Interestingly, some of the classic virtues seem more in demand - humanity, kindness, empathy, compassion and charity being top of the pile - while others are relegated to the bottom of the said box - can't see many brands positioning themselves on diligence, patience or humility these days.

There's an interesting extract from an article here entitled From Gorilla to Generosity about the Cadbury brand. Back in 2007, everyone was raving about the Gorilla commercial, but it now seems that history is being rewritten - the ad "failed to reflect the brand", despite being hugely memorable and successful in its own way.

It seems to me that the Cadbury story was a classic case of planning post-rationalising an inspired piece of creative that in all probability just happened, with no rhyme or reason. Someone, somewhere worked out that maybe Gorilla was about "joy" so that became the positioning officially in 2012.

But by this time Cadbury had been taken over by Kraft/Mondelez, adding all the complications that a global owner brings. What's happened to our chocolate, came the cry as factories were closed. This may or may not have prompted the move from the generic, somewhat self-orientated and distinctly unownable "joy" to a "reconnection with the roots" and the current positioning, based on kindness and generosity flowing from the product truth of "a glass and a half."

There's been some nice work done for the brand, but part of me questions the credibility. Can you go back to your roots and be accepted there if you've turned your back on your origins for the global high-life?

And is something like "generosity" a bit too goodie-goodie for chocolate? I miss the silliness and humour of chocolate advertising that played, not with the virtues, but with the sins - envy, greed, gluttony - in a light-hearted and very human way.

Monday, 6 April 2020

This. And This. And This ...

The streets outside may well be empty, but the dear old information superhighway is getting mighty congested.

Dormant WhatsApp groups are springing into life with the vigour of April tulips.

Long-lost relatives are emailing and Skyping and FaceTiming and StrangeTiming and StaySafeing.

The middle-aged have taken a crash-course in the media of the young, from Zoom to TikTok to Houseparty.

Streaming services have turned into less of a stream and more of a torrential, gushing river in danger of breaking its banks.

Museums, galleries, cinemas and educational establishments have flung open their virtual doors. I have even joined a virtual pub.

Along with all the memes on overdrive and "useful stuff to do if you're bored" (bored????) there's a unstoppable current of mis-information about COVID-19 and previous pandemics, from conspiracy theories to misleading medical advice to manipulated statistics to fake stories.

"Anywheres" are being forced to becomes "Somewheres" with all the inadvertent hilarity that Home Office brings.

And meanwhile, many of the "Somewheres" are out of the front line, or wondering whether there will be a Somewhere - a small business, a livelihood, a home - when all this is over.

Talking of "when all this is over", there is also a deluge of seminars, studies and articles speculating on what, exactly, will be the "new normal". No-one knows, of course.

I'm not convinced that the world will become obsessed with hygiene. Maybe in combination with more interest in immunity and how to be better prepared next time.

I'm also not sure about the "online as default" prediction that's flying around. There isn't really a substitute for reality and face-to-face meeting. People are social animals and social media will only take you so far. There's already a yearning to get back together, with "meeting friends"  as the Number 1 thing people will do after the crisis.

And will we be better people? Again, for every high-minded soul that's meditating in the morning, dashing off a novel or symphony in the afternoon and delivering essential groceries in the evening, there are plenty sitting around, guzzling down comfort food and too much booze, while bombarding the world with "hilarious" memes. Not to mention the spinners of conspiracy theories and bogus medical advice, the con-artists and the opportunists (thanks, whoever you were with your kind offer of a "free financial consultation" so that I don't lose all of my pension).

Times change, but human nature doesn't.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Those less fortunate

About a week ago (I have lost track of time in this weird pandemic pandemonium), in the light of supermarket shortages, the photo above went viral on social media. Comments focus on how "heartbreaking" it was, with plenty of weeping emojis and self-righteous indignation about the lack of brain cells of the loo-roll hoarders and their like.

I can imagine that most of these comments saw a tragic scene of a "poor elderly (anonymous) gentleman", sadly bowing his head in silent submission of his fate. The reality, I read later, was a little different. Anthony Glynn, a retired merchant seaman aged 79, had gone out shopping on behalf of his elderly neighbours and had forgotten his reading glasses so was squinting at his shopping list.

This reminds me of my parents, who, in their retirement helped out with "the old people" - in fact, in her 90s, my mum was still doing voluntary work for Age Concern, visiting older people who were housebound. Some of these were a good few years younger than her, of course.

In real life and in marketing (which shouldn't actually be different, but they are), there is an increasing tendency to cast everyone as a victim, to describe huge swathes of the population as generally "vulnerable" - without really saying to what in particular. And yes, human beings are vulnerable - to the COVID-19 virus for example.

But you can be resilient, courageous, even, as well as vulnerable. Society is not simply divided into "heroes and the vulnerable" or (in pre-corona days) into "the toxic and the victims". I found this article by sociologist Frank Furedi particularly illuminating on the current crisis. He calls for a cultivation of courage, and its attendant qualities of altruism, responsibility and wisdom.

Courage is not the same as fearlessness. You can't have courage without fear.

I do hope that one (admittedly not terribly high on the world priority list) consequence of the current crisis is that we'll see all those ridiculous "empowerment" campaigns for the nonsense and home-grown problem:solution guff that they are.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Th' milk of human kindness

I've got a little prediction. Brand managers will notice that the poster girls of 'Purpose' - female empowerment, body positivity and gender stereotyping - are getting a little long-in-the-tooth and been there/done that, and will start casting around for replacements. Maybe something that's a little less MeMeMe?

A few strands of thought will coalesce. Reports about the divisions and fault lines in society. The movements against online bullying and trolling - #BeKind - and the debate surrounding this. The trend to "uplit" in the publishing world. The call for more empathy, even though people that work in advertising and marketing aren't as good at that one as they think. And, of course, brands that have already taken the first step.

Coca Cola has recently announced its refreshed purpose as "unite and uplift". To me this sounds rather like the opposite of the old Playtex Cross Your Heart line which was about lifting and separating. Brushing that aside, though, as Graham Booth states in the blog post, Coca Cola kind of has uniting in its DNA, although there's been some dilly-dallying around with other ideas in the last few years.

The launch commercial, "Could I be wrong?" has been out for a couple of weeks. We've yet to see if it joins the realms of classic Coca Cola ads such as "Hilltop".

And another variant on the "be nice to each other" theme is Cadbury's, whose brand moved (in 2018) from catalysing moments of joy (which are a little MeMeMe) to moments of kindness to others, specifically generosity, with the idea that "there's a glass and half in everyone."

I'm not sure what the best translation is for "kind" in German - there's "freundlich", which also has connotations of friendliness and approachability. Or "nett" which is simply "nice" with the same sort of connotations. And the words "gütig/gutmütig" which are to do with Goodness.

And this is the thing with kindness. I do think it's a valid area for a brand purpose, but it really isn't a one-size-fits-all thing. I'd hate to see the advertising world awash with "th' milk of human kindness" in the way it's been over-run with increasingly cliched babble about female empowerment.

You can ask children to play nicely if you're a nanny or or primary school teacher. But you can't tell adults to be kind. Kindness comes from within, from your values, and isn't just about some stunt involving random acts, or forcing people with extreme opposing views to drink a beer together.

What unique role does your brand play in kindness? Is it about bringing people together, sharing, helping, caring, understanding ...?

I do hope that the idea of kindness will be a rich seam for marketers.

Yet, advertising industry, do I fear thy nature when it comes to band wagons.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Book binding

The notion of the customer relationship seems to be going out of fashion a little, perhaps muted by the increasing volume of "consumers don't want to have a relationship with your brand"-type clickbait headlines in marketing articles. Or maybe due to the obsessional focus on "the customer experience". But long-term experience, relationship, call it what you will is what this post is about.

Amazon is one of those brands that made a huge difference to my life. I often wonder whether it's the brand itself or the generic service of an online bookstore, but if so, Amazon was certainly the right brand in the right place for me in the late 1990s. No longer did I have to trek into Frankfurt to buy books in English. And in the early 2000s, as my son was young, Amazon was a godsend, both for the latest children's books and for tracking down old favourites from my childhood to read to him.

I started reviewing relatively late into my Amazon relationship - I've tracked down my first review, which was in May 2006. In the following 14 years, I've contributed over 300 reviews, mostly books, with the occasional CD or DVD thrown in. My reviews were always intended more for my own reference, but I was flattered when others commented on them or found them helpful. I had a brief season of fame as a Top 1000 reviewer, and was amassing 30, 40, 50, 60 helpful votes on each review on a regular basis. I felt valued, not just in terms of my custom, but also for my contribution and opinions.

It all started to go sour about six or seven years ago. Ratings, and putting a work of literature on the same level as a piece of cable or a packet of paper napkins, fake reviews, world domination, dubious business practices ... Amazon seemed far removed from the benevolent bookseller of the early days.

I carried on posting reviews, but with less enthusiasm. My Top 1000 crown had slipped, maybe because I wasn't reviewing the popular books, and maybe because I was only reviewing books, and not pieces of cable or packets of paper napkins. I started hearing reports about reviews being deleted if Amazon's algorithms detected a relationship (ha!) between the reviewer and the author.

Since October 2019, Amazon have made it official: ratings are what counts, reviews are by-the-by. And the star rating a book, or any other product, displays is not the simple average of all the ratings. Oh, no. That would be much too clear. Here's their explanation:

Amazon calculates a product’s star ratings based on a machine learned model instead of a raw data average. The model takes into account factors including the age of a rating, whether the ratings are from verified purchasers, and factors that establish reviewer trustworthiness.

Given that Amazon's ethos is about shiny new things, I seriously doubt that ratings are like wine: the age factor is, in all likelihood, a negative one. So the rating accompanying my well-thought out review in 2008 will be factored down compared to a bot giving a one-tap rating yesterday.

And most recently, I haven't even been able to post reviews on Amazon.co.uk at all, where they'd be most relevant, as I review English-language books. I can still post on Amazon.de as I spend more than I'd like to on books for my Kindle - but who is going to read my reviews there? Here's another example of Amazon making me feel like a valued customer, in their explanation as to why "this account has not met the minimum eligibility requirements to write a review":

To contribute to Community Features (for example, Customer Reviews, Customer Answers), you must have spent at least £40 on Amazon.co.uk using a valid payment card in the past 12 months. Promotional discounts don't qualify towards the £40 minimum. You do not need to meet this requirement to post Customer Questions, create or modify Profile pages, Lists, or Registries, or to read content posted by other customers.

It's not one of the world's (or even my) most pressing problems, but it does make me nostalgic for what seemed in retrospect, like a Brave New World in the mid 2000s, where anything was possible.

I'm stuck with Amazon, mainly through my Kindle. I could give up on the reviews, and go back to just doing them for myself, or on a blog, or on GoodReads. I could try and extricate myself, buy a new e-reader and start again. But it's all too much of a faff. Amazon have got me where they want me - just another customer, bound-up and too apathetic to make a fuss. 

And that's what they mean by customer-centricity.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Older but no wiser?

A questionnaire landed in my letterbox yesterday, from the local council. They are looking to improve the offer for "older citizens" in our town.

There are questions about mobility (or lack thereof), whether I'd want to live in a care home, whether I attend tea dances for seniors and whether I have an internet connection.

I have a strong desire to write "I'M NOT THAT OLD!" all over it.

It seems I've been put in a box (yet again) and it's reminded me of some new start-ups I've observed in the last few weeks.

First and fearless is FEARLESS. An agency that believes creativity is ageless and promotes that belief with a provocative, badass/punk attitude.

On the either side of the pond is London agency Ancient & Modern - proudly proclaiming that they're "the oldest advertising agency in London" and championing care, craft and ideas rather than quick hits and performance marketing. The attitude (and experience) here draws on the golden age of UK long-copy and TV ads of the 70s and 80s.

Personally, I find the look and attitude of these two new agencies very appealing.

But I'm not sure what I'd think as an ambitious young marketing manager - or whether I'd know what "Ancient & Modern" referred to.

Another approach is to focus less on the demographic profile of the agency founders and more on the opportunity that's up for grabs - the huge discrepancy between the wealth/income that people over 50 enjoy and the minuscule % of the marketing budget that goes their way.

That's the angle the new consultancy Flipside are taking - which is seems a wise move to me.

And yes, full disclosure, I do indeed have a personal connection to the agency ;)

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Come together

Reading the stream of marketing newsletters and articles about younger people (or GenZ if you must), you'd think they are all utterly obsessed with social activism and eco-activism and think about precious little else.

I often wonder about the difference between my online reading (which is predominantly UK/US or other English language media) and what I observe around me here in Germany. So I was interested to come across the organisation More in Common who are dedicated to looking into the divisions in society, finding the source of these and working towards more social cohesion.

One report concentrates on Germany. The received wisdom in Germany is that society is divided politically (Right vs Left), geographically (former East vs West) and probably by age, although there isn't quite the obsession with Boomers, GenZ and the rest, which I find refreshing.

Instead of political views and demographics, More in Common groups people on the basis of values and beliefs - for example, authoritarian tendencies, perception of threat, personal responsibility and ability to take action and so on. Six groups emerge (I do question whether grouping people in this way and creating new "tribes" as well as talking about "fault lines" is possibly counter-productive, but I guess it's a means to an end). And what's interesting is that these 6 groups fall into three layers.

There are the Polarised, who are the loud and opinionated ones who dominate public debate and social media.

There are the Stabilisers, who are generally satisfied and optimistic, and could be called the backbone of society.

And then there are the Invisible Third - less integrated, less visible and less engaged.

There's little evidence of an East/West split, contrary to popular opinion.

How can marketers and brands use this? Well, instead of doing the easy and obvious thing, and getting embroiled in a debate with the polarised, through a "social experiment", for example, maybe brands can look to engaging and involving the Invisible Third, or harnessing the optimism and community spirit of the Involved and Established.

Going back to the young people, 45% of those aged 18 - 29 belong to the Invisible Third (Detached and Disillusioned).

Rather than listening to those that shout loudest, perhaps we should tune in to those on a different wavelength to see what they really care about.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

I can feel it in my bones

Back when I was a young thing, being a vegetarian was part-and-parcel of a slightly alternative, leftie lifestyle that probably also included protesting at Greenham Common and throwing paint at women wearing fur coats. I don't think I knew what a vegan was until the mid-80s (although the term has been in existence since the 1940s) when a friend of mine announced she'd "gone vegan". I remember thinking that not being able to eat any dairy products was tantamount to torture, and that refusing to eat honey was simply a bit batty.

As the 80s rolled into the 90s and I was working in London, I'd occasionally saunter off to Neal's Yard or Cranks and gobble up a plastic (hmmm) takeaway dish of something healthy. These occasions, it has to be said, usually followed a night of over-indulgence, of which there were many in those days.

I'm not sure whether I paid for this book or whether it's something my flatmate left behind. But I still have it. Sarah Brown was, I believe, the first vegetarian cook to be let loose with her own TV show.

Fast-forward 30 years and I must say that I probably hear or read the word "vegan" about four times as often as the word "vegetarian". To say it's gone mainstream is an understatement. In this article - which is already a year old - we read that a quarter of 18 - 24s in Europe have gone vegan in the last year.

The "why?" behind all this must be the direct link that is now understood between diet and sustainability. The 1980s vegetarians rarely mentioned the connection. Sarah Brown's cookbook stresses the healthiness (for the individual) and cost benefits (also to the individual) as well as the "deliciousness" of a vegetarian diet. Many vegetarians at the time would cite cruelty of meat-farming methods as well as the health benefit, but these arguments could usually be brushed aside by anyone not keen to have a nut-roast forced upon them.

With figures such as these, individual diet and responsibility for protecting the planet go hand-in-hand:

And the mainstream are already on the case:

My view is that this is going to move quickly. I foresee a not-too-distant future where meat-eating is consigned to a collection of decadent, shameful, unjustifiable crimes including smoking, drinking, driving a car, watching 1970s comedy shows and taking a flight.

I can feel it in my bones.