Wednesday 30 August 2017

Mental Jerks

When I was running a department and recruiting new planners, I was usually more interested in how they thought than what they knew. Of course, an interest in advertising, brands and people as well as a reasonable level of numeracy and comfort with statistics were basic essentials. But what really made people stand out was their ability for fresh thinking: analysis, synthesis and creative thought in general.

I recently saw a list of super tips on the Account Planning Facebook page to get your brain ticking away, thinking like a planner. The list comes from Mark Pollard, who is an Australian planner working in New York:

Career secret - if you think for a living, here are ten easy ways to practice thinking things:
1. In your mind, re-caption the first 10 photos you see in your Instagram feed. Give the photos new meaning.
2. In one day, eavesdrop on 5 conversations and write down 1 interesting exchange from each.

3. Watch your favourite Ted talk 3 times and break it down into sections on index cards - understand the 3-act arc and techniques at play.
4. Take two disconnected things - your favourite dessert and novel - and force yourself to write down 5 things they have in common.
5. Ask a barista to tell you something about the world that you probably don't know.
6. Watch stand-up comedy or read a poem and write down 3 insights.
7. Take a recent presentation and challenge yourself to only use pictures to make the same points - find the pictures.
8. Open your favourite novel, write out the first page then rewrite it in your own words.
9. Interview a stranger.
10. Read relevant research then go for a two-hour walk without writing equipment and devices and think about the 3 main ideas you found in the research.

These have obvious application as workshop warm-ups or interview tasks, but I think they can also be applied to cracking a brief or writing a strategy or solving a business problem. I have the feeling that good planners do a lot of this kind of thinking intuitively, without the formal 'oh, let's look in the toolbox and see which trick I can use ...'

There was some criticism on the Facebook page along the lines that this is 'fluffy' and not impressive in the boardroom, but surely the point is that you don't need to bore people with your working as to how you came to your brilliant idea. And you can back it up with all the statistics and technical tricks that you think people need to buy into it.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Empathy by numbers?

A few years back, I invested in the heavy tome above: The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis. I started reading the book with good intentions, and I did get a good way into this history of human civilization, the evolution of empathy and where we might be going. Can we achieve global empathy before we self-destruct and take the planet with us? An even more pertinent question today, perhaps, than when the book was published in 2010.

I'm ashamed to say that I got stuck, and stopped reading. I wasn't bored, nor was it too much for me. Blame it on my 21st century attention span if you like. Other things simply took over. It's not to say I won't take it up again someday, but for the moment the heavy tome remains on the shelf.

Since then, empathy has become a marketing buzz word. Even more so in the last year, when marketeers have become aware of their filter bubbles and we're seeing initiatives such as that of Ogilvy: Get Out There. Nothing wrong with going back to the roots of what market research and planning is all about, I suppose, but the article at least is phrased in some most non-empathetic terms. 'Planning in the wild' - suggesting that the people the planners are going to talk to would rather tear them limb from limb and gobble them up than give them their views. 'Real people' - as opposed to - what?

There is now an agency dedicated to 'transforming the world of business through empathy'. They are called The Empathy Business and are an evolution of an outfit known as Lady Geek, who championed women in IT and technology.

They define Corporate Empathy as follows:

We define corporate empathy, not compassion or sympathy, as the emotional impact a company has on its people -staff and customers- and society-the next generation.

And true to the new business tool requirement these days (as in Meaningfulness Index, Simplicity Index, Sustainability Index) they have an Empathy Index, based (I assume) on a model with the convenient but slightly cringeworthy acronym EMBRACE which lays out the aspects of Empathy.

This does make a lot of sense, but I do wonder whether empathy should be a pre-requisite for anyone working in communications rather than something that we have to discover and learn.

Surely the ability to stand in someone else's shoes and see the world - or just a brand - from their point of view is simply the starting point of what makes a good planner - or creative?

Wednesday 16 August 2017

From Brand Image to Brand = Image

I've got to the stage in my career where I expect there are far more planners who have come after me than have come before me. But one planner who came before me and is still active thinking, writing, strategising and planning is Paul Feldwick. Paul was one of the early BMP Planners in the 1970s and worked for BMP/DDB right up until 2005. I can thoroughly recommend his books and articles to young and not-so-young planners: they are classics. I still refer to What is Brand Equity Anyway? and much enjoyed Paul's most recent book, The Anatomy of Humbug. Most refreshing and intelligent after all those 25 Secrets Of Highly Successful Halfwits And How You Can Join Them business books.

On Paul's website are links to more articles, including one originally published in Admap March 2014, entitled, simply Brand = Image.  This is a provocative title, as 'Brand Image' has become a dirty word - or phrase - for those of us in the industry. Why have something as ethereal as an image when you can have an Experience or a Platform?

Anyway, the article starts with the creation of what was to become the Nike logo, which earned its creator all of $35 initially. The point is made that maybe it's neither necessary nor desirable to start building a brand from a 'brand essence' definition in words. Many brands start with a visual image, which becomes imbued with meaning via the stakeholders of that brand.

Why does this work? Let me drag out my ancient copy of Man and his Symbols (see illustration above.) In this, Carl Jung states:

What we call a symbol is a term, name or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown or hidden from us.

Many brand symbols or logos seem to arise by chance - Paul Feldwick cites the Dulux Dog and the Andrex Puppy - rather than via a conscious process. Chance, yes, but intuition and serendipity also play a role. I have written about a couple of my favourite brand symbols here and here.

Paul talks about the strength of images: they are polyvalent, meaning they carry a multitude of meaning.

I wonder, especially in this global world, whether brands would do better to find a 'one symbol equity' rather than a 'one word equity.'

Thursday 10 August 2017

The Cluetrain comes of age

The Cluetrain Manifesto first surfed onto the internet (as you did then) in 1999, meaning that this famous piece of business literature has now come of age. A somewhat Lutherean piece, with its 95 theses, the manifesto explored the impact of the internet on marketing and corporate communications. The idea running through is that online conversations - the new 'markets' - would make traditional marketing tools and techniques obsolete.

The manifesto has a 'Brave New World'  (in the original Shakespearian sense) feel about it, in its celebration of the human voice. This tonality is a far cry from the cute cats, grotesque gifs, saccharine  motivational quotes, Trump memes and rants that made up my Facebook stream this morning. But let me think back to 1999. It was probably four or five years since I'd first gone online, my Homepage was Yahoo! and my social media activity consisted of something called the Wedding Forum (later Baby Forum) which was a kind of forerunner of Mumsnet. The internet was not for everyone in those days - we were surfing and stumbling, certainly not being fed.

So how is the Cluetrain Manifesto looking on its 18th birthday? I had a re-read, and was inspired all over again by many of the 95 theses. Some of these are basic truths that have nothing to do with the internet, and are just as relevant today as they were in 1999, and probably 1899 too:

2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
21. Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view. 
23. Companies attempting to "position" themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about.
24. Bombastic boasts—"We are positioned to become the preeminent provider of XYZ"—do not constitute a position. 
86. When we're not busy being your "target market," many of us are your people. We'd rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar website. But you tell us speaking to the market is Marketing's job. 

But I do think the authors over-emphasised the potential 'smartness' of the majority. 'Informed' covers a multitude of sins. Informed by whom? With truth or alternative facts? With what you choose to listen to? 

10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally. 

And more worryingly, it is the 'new' internet corporations that are taking the mantle of the 20th century bad boys, speaking in contrived voices (the chummy dude Californian tone Facebook adopts is just as contrived as the old-style corporate pomposity) , gathering data, invading privacy, controlling newsfeeds, bullying and manipulating.

15. Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman. 

Another example, perhaps, of where Huxley got it right?

So, Happy Birthday, Cluetrain Manifesto - and let's see how things look in another 18 years. I do wonder what effect bots, Alexa and AI will have on the belief in the 'human voice.'

Monday 7 August 2017

Ads are made by fools like me

Back in the 20th century, Ogden Nash wrote a parody of Joyce Kilmer's famous poem, 'Trees' in which he stated:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all. 

And in a recent article in Campaign, writer and director Paul Burke also celebrates the billboard, or poster and bemoans its current state. He lays the blame partly on the renaming of the poster into 'out of home media' or 'OOH' for short (although very few examples these days elicit OOHs, it seems.) And partly on the clients, of course.

He has a good point, I think. But I wonder if there are other reasons for the demise of the poster. One of them may be the disappearance of what used to be called commercial artists, who weren't necessarily ideas people in the sense that modern art directors were, but who certainly had the craft and skill to touch people's souls through their art as any of the posters on this post will show.

And then there's the other thing. Certainly in urban areas, very few people are looking up at trees or indeed billboards these days. Their focus is on their device. I wonder what Ogden Nash would have made of that? I'd certainly rather be looking up at any of these billboards in its full size glory than down at most of the rubbish that floats across my smart phone screen, like so many falling leaves.