What’s the biggest myth in advertising?

I was lucky enough to talk at Adweek Europe earlier this week. The Advertising Association hosted a Last One Standing debate. Each speaker was invited to give their answer to the question, what’s the biggest myth in advertising, and what do you propose to do about it? We were given ten minutes, and asked to be provocative but actionable.

Below is the talk I gave as my answer.

The biggest myth in advertising?

Plans.

Marketing plans. Media plans. Business plans. Each of them a myth.

Not because they don’t exist. We’ve all seen them. We’ve all written them. But we’ve all re-written them too. Plans are a myth because we believe them to do one thing, when in reality they do something else entirely.

Plans no longer drive what we’re going to do. They just reflect where we are.

We have become better at version control than we are at setting direction in the first place.

And it’s a widespread phenomenon, too. We surveyed clients and agencies, through the Advertising Assocation, to find out how true it was.

We asked them whether they finished 2013 with the same plan with which they started the year. 90% said their plan had changed. We then asked by how much the final plan differed from the original. 30% said it had changed by at least 30%. Half our respondents said it had changed by at least half. That’s an extraordinary amount.

Now, no one doubts that change happens. Cliché tells us it’s the only constant. Of course we need to respond to developments. But adapting to change isn’t the same as changing the plan. Changing the plan pretends that change doesn’t happen. We use it to delude ourselves that we’re in control. We need a new approach, one that embraces uncertainty. Organisations must recognise the need to adapt and institutionalise the ability to do so.

It’s always been this way, of course. It’s not just the changing nature of the media and technological landscape that has revealed the myth of plans. A hundred years ago, before marketing adopted its military language, an actual military strategist called Helmut von Moltke said this: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”.

Or, as Mike Tyson put it, perhaps even more eloquently: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Trouble is, these days, that hostile force could come from anywhere. It can come when and where you least expect it. Which gives me a rather tenuous excuse to play my favourite clip from The One Show. This is David Cameron, almost home and dry after another cosy interview on the sofa. If you doubt the unexpected nature of the final question, check the look on the co-presenter’s face, as well as Cameron’s.

It’s an impressive recovery. Cameron turns a question about his morality into an answer about his stamina and his fitness for the job. He uses the temporary threat to re-assert his own leadership. It’s a lesson many brands and organisations could learn from.

What’s strange about the way brands are behaving is that most marketers know precisely what’s coming their way. IBM surveyed CMOs globally and asked them which issues do they feel most under-prepared for, and which issues do they think will affect marketing the most.

The answers to each question were the same. The explosion in data. The changing landscape of social media. The proliferation of devices and channels through which businesses need to conduct their consumer relationships. The constant shift in consumer demographics.

CMOs are caught in a perfect storm but apparently paralysed to do anything about it. How do we tackle this?

I’m currently reading Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. It’s a book everyone working in or interested in strategy should read. Towards the end there’s a great anecdote about Andrew Carnegie. He was a steel magnate and a powerhouse industrialist of the US. In 1890 he was at a reception, holding court, when he was introduced to a man named Frederick Taylor, an expert on organizing work. Carnegie, the skeptic, offered Taylor $10,0000 if Taylor told him “something worth hearing about management.” That was an awful lot of money then.

Taylor said, “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.”

Sounds obvious. But, so the story goes, a week later a cheque for $10,000 arrived on Taylor’s desk.

Why?

This wasn’t about the list. It was about the process of constructing it. Carnegie was forced to focus on the intersection between what was important and what was actionable – what you need to do and what you can do. It asked him to reflect on the more fundamental purposes of his business, and to devise ways of advancing them based on his current reality.

In short, defining our priorities is incredibly valuable. It gives us a direction of how to address the multiple issues we face in a co-ordinated but multi-disciplinary way. It gives us a broader, more purposeful view of the business.

You can see the effect when this is applied to marketing. In another IBM survey, the State of Marketing, leading marketers were those identified as being able to impact each of the 4Ps. They influence the product itself, its pricing and place as well as its promotion. Leading marketers have a broader, more purposeful view and make their presence felt everywhere.

This is the top 20% of marketers. They are the ones who don’t run away from the issues for which everyone else feels under-prepared. Rather, they run towards them. They are proactively influencing the customer experience across channels. They are innovating in their use of new technologies. These are the businesses that embrace uncertainty. They learn from what’s happening in the market and act on new inputs. They identify challenges and address them. They don’t have a plan simply for mobile, or for social, or for media. They know what they want to achieve but can adapt in their approach to achieving it.

And they are not only leading marketers compared to their peers. They’re also driving growth for the businesses they work for, which are outperforming the market when it comes to growth in income, profit and stock price.

They are businesses that epitomise Jeff Bezos’ idea of an organisation that is “stubborn on vision, flexible on details”.

And this is our way out of the plans myth. A new dual approach. There will always have to be certain elements of what we do that will need to be fixed: the vision we work to; the outcomes we want to generated; the priorities we agree to. But we should become better at being flexed in others: the actions we take in pursuit of our vision; the means of generating our desired outcomes; the roles and responsibilities we give to people who fulfil our priorities.

This adaptive approach allows us to track progress in an actionable way. Real-time metrics that allow us to identify opportunity. That way, when we do change, it’s for the right reasons.

Easier said than done, you say. And you’d be right. Simple is hard. The bigger your organization, the harder it is. But I’ve sat in workshops recently with global clients who want their marketing departments to think just like this. Everyone needs to get going.

And  on that note I’ll leave you with this final thought, from Elbert Hubbard. It’s another 100 year old quote that’s even more relevant today than it was then.

“THE WORLD IS MOVING SO FAST THESE DAYS THAT THE MAN WHO SAYS IT CAN’T BE DONE IS GENERALLY INTERRUPTED BY SOMEONE DOING IT.”

Thank you.

 

Being human

Bob Crow died last week. Somebody, presumably a member of RMT, wrote this at Covent Garden tube station the same day. Tube tribute to Bob CrowIt may be written on a ‘service information’ board. But it’s written as a social media post.

It has all the tropes of something made for sharing. An RIP tribute, a profound quote and scamped Twitter and Instagram logos. I saw it on the Guardian site.

It’s touching, though – whatever your politics. It’s personal. It’s human.

Service staff on London Underground have been doing this since long before last week. Passengers are used to seeing notices like these – not tributes so much, as personal messages that depart from the official tone of the service information board. So much so I’ve had a post on this sat in my drafts since January. I kept seeing them and wanted to think about what it might mean.

And I keep coming back to human. We talk a lot about human brands these days. Organisations that are more responsive, more empathetic, less top-down.

That’s difficult when you’re a complex organisation communicating its service or product at scale. It can feel contrived. Or it can descend into fourth-wall flirting between community managers. It’s not always particularly edifying.

But on the tube they seem to strike the right note. Here’s some examples.

Recently the Victoria Line was suspended because wet concrete spilled into a control room. The official line early on referred only to flooding. Word got out eventually.

Then this appeared at Warren Street.

victoria-line-concrete

At Halloween this appeared.

Halloween LU

Around the same time I took this photo at Earl’s Court on my way to a meeting.

InstagramCapture_3e37b4ac-58ab-4c0c-955c-63a6ac1b273c_jpg

And then I saw this, from the same station, in a Buzzfeed list.

buzzfeed tube sign

I love the idea that individuals at specific stations are doing this. It’s playful, subversive even.

Someone has used an official canvas to deliver a non-official message. Something to make themselves and others smile, or think, or reflect. There is no payback agenda. No behaviour change intended. No consumer out-take being tracked.

As with the classical music piped into the concourse of my own station each morning, I like to think this is impromptu. Organic, not top-down. The result of some rogue aestheticism rather than a centralised initiative.

More meme, less mandate.

So why is it happening? What does it achieve? There’s no brand preference to build. People either have to use the tube or they don’t. But maybe that’s it. Perhaps it just makes people feel more positive about doing something about which they have no choice. Perhaps it turns a functional experience into an emotional one.

Maybe people who work on the tube just wanted to brighten the day of people using the tube. Because they’re people and they experience empathy. Or because they’re people and they want others to empathise with them.

Either way, that’s very human.

Can that impulse be codified? Can an organisation mandate that at scale?

I don’t know whether they’re trying to but other LU initiatives do seem connected in some way.

You may have seen these poems.

etiquette poem2

So far, so health and safety.

But they’re linked to a campaign called  Travel Better London. It used poetry to get people to re-engage with travel etiquette. Poets-in-residence were installed at individual stations. Passengers could enter a competition to have their poems featured in the campaign.

It offers a human, interesting perspective on the tube experience. It uses empathy. It reframes the tube as a cultural experience we all share in, not just a functional  travel experience we endure.

Same with these.

IMG_2039

They are books that were commissioned to celebrate 150 years of the tube. Writers were  asked to write about a specific line. They bring their perspective to the history and cultural legacy of the underground. They tell stories. You can buy them in the Museum of London. Or any bookshop.

I think they’re fantastic. Will they improve the ‘brand preference’ of a ‘tube rejector’? I doubt it. Are they only going to be read by people who already hold a romantic view of the tube? Probably.

But as content, as artefacts, do they allow different, richer stories to be told about the service and its place in our shared history?

Yes, surely.

Does their very existence confer some kind of affection or humanity on the tube?

Clearly.

Does it feel a thousand times more human than most advertising you might see?

Absolutely.

True emotion

Along with a smattering of other people, I watched on the weekend the latest episode of True Detective to air in the UK.

Just, wow.

I subsequently found out about the famed six-minute tracking shot that brings the episode to a breathtaking close.

I say ‘found out’ because I hadn’t actually noticed as I was watching it.

I hadn’t noticed because a) I’m an idiot, and b) because I was so caught up in what was happening that I simply didn’t give any thought to how I was being manipulated into that state.

All the adrenalin and the excitement and the fear and the breathlessness was just as it should be.

It was true emotion. I experienced the effect the director wanted.

I just couldn’t give him credit for it.

Sometimes you only know you’ve done your job when no-one knows you were even there.

 

Talent, guts and condition

Or, what a moment of reflection from Charles Bukowski can teach us about work.

I love how densely packed it is. It starts with an anecdote and finishes somewhere extraordinary. It says that your struggle is everything but really means nothing. Yet it’s so simple to read.

It’s from Hollywood.

I cracked a beer and turned on the tv. There was a fight on ESPN. They were really slugging it out. The fighters were better conditioned now than in my youth. I marveled at the energy they could expend and still keep going and going. The months of roadwork and gymwork that fighters had to endure seemed almost intolerable. And then, those last two or three intense days before a big fight. Condition was the key. Talent and guts were a must but without condition they were negated.

I liked to watch the fights. Somehow it reminded me of writing. You needed the same thing, talent, guts and condition. Only the condition was mental, spiritual. You were never a writer. You had to become a writer each time you sat down to the machine. What was hard sometimes was finding that chair and sitting in it. Sometimes you couldn’t sit in it. Like everybody else in the world, for you, things got in the way: small troubles, big troubles, continuous slammings and bangings. You had to be in condition to endure what was trying to kill you. That’s the message I got from the fights, or watching the horses run, or the way the jocks kept overcoming bad luck, spills on the track and personal little horrors off the track. I wrote about life, haha. But what really astonished me was the immense courage of some of the people living that life. That kept me going.

5 things…

… I learned listening to Russell Davies at last night’s Firestarters. He was talking about GDS and their work on GOV.UK.

1. If you’ve made something brilliant, and it doesn’t explain itself, you’ve not made something brilliant. 

Or, show the thing. Better to make what’s needed than explain what needs to be made. It’s quicker, and you’ll find out more accurately whether you were right.

2. Say less.

Not only do less. But also, say less about it. Make fewer claims on behalf of what you’ve done. And don’t even mention what you’re going to do. Solve problems with humility, don’t fret about recognition.

3. If government can mandate and effect a digital transformation of its organisation, so can your client.

No organisation had it easy. But it’s not intrinsically impossible, either. Our role is to help our clients, not bemoan their situation. Every organisation lives out its embedded assumptions. Understand them, work with them, but focus on the how to change, not why.

4. Don’t squander people’s time for the sake of reputation. 

Don’t try to impress users. Just solve their needs. The job at hand is to create digital services so good that people prefer to use them. I can’t think of a brand that wouldn’t want that as their brief.

5. There is no 5.

I thought there would be. But I’ve sacrificed a lot of what I might have said so I can save you the time. It wasn’t complicated to do. But it was hard.

Truth, lies and The Story

An enlightened client remarked to me last year that marketing is witnessing a fundamental shift.

In the past businesses like his had relied on brand fictions – the lies organisations tell so that people fall in love with them. Now they’re obliged to deal in what he called non-fiction storytelling: the actions a business takes, and the commitments it makes, that are more important than what their brands say on their behalf.

I guess that’s right.

But I’m not sure it’s quite everything.

I admit I’ve become worried about the word ‘storytelling’. I fear people use it when they don’t want to say ‘advertising’. Like they say ‘user’ when they don’t want to say ‘consumer’. It sounds more thoughtful than its predecessor did, but its overuse renders it a bit vague, a bit devoid of meaning.

But each time I go to The Story, storytelling feels potent again. Not woolly, or fluffy, but fundamental. It’s a currency, something we exchange with each other. After a day at Conway Hall the story feels like our cost of entry to social interaction.

The Story – the event, that is – is nothing to do with work, and yet has everything to do with it.

And this year I realised that the client I quoted is essentially right, but the distinction between fiction and non-fiction isn’t quite everything.

In fact, really powerful stories combine the two.

They come alive in the spaces between truth and lies.

I have no idea if Matt intends a theme like this, but after letting the granules percolate for a few days this is the inescapable aroma flooding my memory.

The film-making duo behind the new film about Nick Cave declared that the “truth didn’t doesn’t matter.”

“It’s such a narrow road for our imaginations to go down,” they said.

Instead they wanted to embrace the myth. Allowing Cave to keep the mask on would reveal a deeper truth about his art than if we forced him to take it off.

This conversation, the one between fiction and non-fiction, between fact and emotional truth, occurred throughout the day.

Like when Alan Rusbridger claimed that, without the journalistic nous of The Guardian’s writers, and their ability to surface the material in the right way, the Snowden NSA files would have simply remained information. It took editing to make it a good story.

Or when Meg Rossof told us the only way to write well – to write convincingly – was to write “from a really deep place.” Somehow, the stuff that’s there but no-one wants to admit to, makes for better novels.

When Lisa Salem said her Walk LA With Me project, where she filmed herself walking and talking with strangers, the city’s dispossessed, showed her that “deep down people were telling the same story, even though the facts of their life on the outside were different”.

When the Vine maker showed his work and it became clear his stop-motion sleights of hand were way more compelling than his everyman biography.

When we heard – literally – the Foley artist whose deliberate, studied fakery is used to make moving images on film seem more real, and therefor more powerful.

When we watched the videos and songs of the made-up pop star, created by a 9 year old girl and her aunt – the performance artist who now plays the role everywhere from schools to Women’s Hour.

And so on.

Whether they we’re creating make-believe or bearing witness, embracing the myth or disclosing important informations, all of these speakers shared a desire to make what they said as vivid and as powerful as possible. To resonate with the audience.

To protect the story at all costs.

Because that is everything.

The easy life?

I watched Danny Baker’s nostalgic excursion into the music of the 1990s last week. I enjoyed it enormously too – it was the era I grew up in. The programme was a distilled hour of all the NME reading of the back half of my teens and the front half of my 20s.

But towards the end, there was an intriguing moment.

The headlines outlined a predictable trajectory: Manchester, grunge, britpop, dance music. It ended more bleakly than I’d remembered (honestly, when the decade starts with Happy Mondays and Nirvana and rave culture and ends with Travis and Stereophonics and Coldplay, you know something went wrong somewhere).

Then they came to the awkward, miscellaneous bit – the section filled with people that didn’t fit the narrative.

The square pegs.

PJ Harvey featured, in riotous 50 Ft Queenie mode. In the studio, Danny Baker posed a question. Was the life of a maverick somehow easier than that of a mainstream artist, he asked. People leave you alone, he said. Let you get on with it.

One of his guests agreed: mavericks were more free to plough their own furrow. This was Louise Wener, who had sung in a band called Sleeper. Sleeper were not square pegs. They were anonymous and bland, and thanks to a surge in popularity elsewhere, that spilled over to them, they briefly enjoyed some otherwise inexplicable attention, from people who should know better.

You know, like when London families look at three bedroom houses in Hertford.

Wener admitted that Sleeper had previously been a grunge band. Two years later they had mod haircuts and skinny T-shirts. You get the feeling they’d have been happy to smooth all edges they might once have had to be sure of a place in whatever culture-shaped hole greeted them on arrival – ugly sisters trying to squeeze into the slinky glass slipper of Britpop. Never awake to their true selves, they would have sleepwalked into whatever style was popular. Hence their name.

PJ Harvey’s first album, on the other hand, was neither grunge or Britpop. It came out in 1992 but she cared about neither. She was only interested in doing her own thing. 

Harvey wanted to be Captain Beefheart. Wener wanted to be Bananarama (her words, I promise). Selling records, checking the midweeks, being famous – she was made for Britpop.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What I found problematic was the idea being floated in that brief exchange. The notion that people like PJ Harvey somehow had it easier. That she’d somehow felt less pressure to fit in. That the music business had acknowledged what sort of person she was and chosen simply to leave her alone.

I’m not so sure about that.

Some people, and perhaps Polly Harvey is one of them, I don’t know, find it easy to be a maverick. They’re hardwired to plough their own furrow. They have a distaste for the obvious or for received opinion that is innate rather than cultivated.

It’s hard with 20 years’ hindsight to imagine that anyone would have tried to stop PJ Harvey being PJ Harvey. But people like her are black swans precisely because nobody predicts their long-term success. Going against the grain requires a grain in the first place.

For most of us that’s really hard work. Believing in your own ideas enough that they withstand the pressure of conformity, however unconsciously it’s applied, is tough.

In real time people only tire of getting you to fit in once they’ve realised they can’t persuade you.

If you show them it won’t work. If you stick to your guns.

Now, we don’t make art. We make advertising. But our world is filled with these choices.

Where an artist starts with what they want to say, we start with people. We can only assert what a brand stands for if we’re sure we have an audience for it. We work out what people want and try to please them. We combine novelty and familiarity in pursuit of something singular and engaging.

But we also know that fitting in, doing what’s expected of us – by the client, by consumers – yields only a short-term win. The long-term win, the epic win, isn’t achieved by doing only what’s expected of you.

We have to plough the furrow we know is right, not the one that’s easiest.

To resolve the tension between integrity and commerciality.

That takes a fight. Something different is scarier than something that’s familiar. Something that’s tried and tested feels easier than something  haven’t done before. What’s fashionable can be more acceptable than what you believe to be right.

We confront those choices every day, as individuals, agencies, organisations and brands. Selfishly protecting your vision isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. Anyone looking at PJ Harvey today would envy her artistic freedom. Her musical journey has outlasted many of her contemporaries. She can boast of a devoted audience and an unalloyed critical reputation. Perhaps when she sees PJ Harvey Louise Wener is wondering if she gave up too much too cheaply.

Integrity is a long-term game. But the longer you play it, the more everyone else wishes they had too.

You just have to be good.

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