Well played, DDB. Well played.
I salute you for making this.
When things are uncertain, it’s very easy for charlatans to capitalise.
That’s always been the case, and probably always will be. That’s because when nobody really knows the answer, it’s easy to listen to someone shouting that they do.
I’ve seen this in advertising many times over the years – most notably in the digital space. People come in, throw around enough buzzwords to bamboozle people and make themselves sound like an expert.
People get caught up in trends, themes, and ‘the next big thing’. Andy Flemming’s summary of a day at Cannes this year captures it perfectly:
“1:00pm. Seminars. The agency model is changing. Do more digital. Tell stories. Be brave. Dream more. Technology will change everything. Content is king. Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.”
Many of these conversations still intrigue me because of the way marketers flock to them as if they were something new. In most cases, they’re not. If you need evidence, just take a look at where the term ‘Soap Opera’ originates. Content, anyone?
It seems that the more things change, the more some things stay the same. Advertising Hall of Famer Howard Gossage (1917–1969), said the following in the middle of last century:
“The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”
So, you can call it ‘content’, ‘engagement’ or whatever you want, but the simple fact is you have to make your message interesting. Now, that may mean making it newsworthy (PR?), or entertaining (ads?), or useful (platforms, utilities?), but nothing has changed since Gossage’s day – only the means in which we deliver it.
Sure, some may throw conjecture on what the media and marketing landscape might look like in the future. However, we do need to consider the fact that very, very few marketers are willing to grasp the concept of making engaging content. They’ve had six decades to make great TV ads, but how many TV ads are great?
Often, in a bid to ‘make the ad work harder’, they slip into over-playing their hand. And when that happens, it usually ceases to be interesting and turns into someone trying to sell you Amway.
And here’s another thing to consider. In today’s world, it’s the bean counters who have taken control of the marketing industry. As John Zeigler writes in his article, The Demise And Rise Of Our Industry:
“The finance department likes predictability of performance, so their default option is to view investment in creativity as a luxury, compared with the necessary investment in media exposure. Media spend can be controlled, modeled and predicted in a way that creativity cannot.”
So, it would seem that as people are crying out that creativity and branded content is the future, in reality, aren’t we drifting further from it?
Well, it’s that time of year again. When thousands of advertising people flock to the French Riviera to look at advertising, judge advertising, talk advertising, and listen to presentations on advertising.
But (and I’m going to throw the cat amongst the pigeons here) how much of it is genuine? No, I’m not talking about the scam work, although that’s a strong talking point (as shown here, here, and here).
I’m talking about whether Cannes has become more about the sizzle rather than the sausage. It seems to be more veneer than substance. I think Micah Walker summed it up pretty well when asked about his judging experience a few years ago. He said he spent the whole week watching case study videos which were, ultimately, an ad for the ad.
Isn’t that a bit like watching the trailer to decide which movie wins an Academy Award? Or which author wins the Man Booker Prize by watching the movie adaption?
In some cases, the actual work doesn’t even get judged. For example, if you had a campaign consisting of 4 TV ads, 3 radio ads, and a couple of print ads, the judges would probably only see how you presented that within a 2 minute case study (the TV ads alone would take that much time if they were 30′s).
And then there is the criteria. Sure, judging things like ads is highly subjective.
But let’s just take a look at one of this year’s big winners – the Live Test Series for Volvo Trucks. (I’m not picking on this campaign. For the record, I like it a lot. I’m simply using it to demonstrate my point because most people are familiar with it, and it won a heap of Lions, including 2 Grand Prix)
Firstly, there’s nothing particularly original about carrying out extreme demonstrations to highlight relevant product features. Just a few years ago, Cannes awarded Google for their Chrome work, and there is always Abbott’s famous print ad (also for Volvo).
However, the thing that I find the most profound about the Volvo Trucks case study is that it doesn’t mention the sale of a single truck.
The results section of the case study cites the following:
– 100 million views on YouTube
– 8 million shares online
– Thousands of spoofs (spawning an extra 50 million views)
– The Volvo Trucks fan base grew on YouTube by 1870%, 1375% on Facebook
– Earned media to the value of $170 million
– A 46% increase in consideration amongst truck buyers
I know I’m taking a very simplistic view of things here (like the purchase cycle of a large investment item like a truck, the limited time an awards jury has to view and assess work, and the obvious cultural differences that may not translate well). However, I do know that companies can’t pay bills with Facebook likes. Sooner or later, this kind of stuff has to have real, tangible results.
Sometimes, you can lose sight of that, particularly in a place like Cannes. Don’t get me wrong. It is is a great place. However it’s easy to take a warped view on reality there. The weather, the people, the cars, the yachts.
When I first went, I found the talks and gallery of work to be truly inspiring. But I also remember walking through the finalists on exhibition in the Palais and thinking, ‘Wow, Amnesty International must do more advertising around the world than Proctor & Gamble’.
Why? Well, I reckon it’s a bit like putting a comedian on the spot by asking him to ‘say something funny’. Sure, he might manage to get a smile, but it will hardly be his greatest work.
In my experience, the ones who most like brainstorm sessions are those who don’t have to do ‘the heavy lifting’, so to speak. Their theory is you get a whole heap of people in a room and bash out some stuff on a given topic or task. You usually end up with a variety of stuff scribbled on sheets of paper.
Then most people walk away from the job, and some poor bastard has the task of converting those pieces of paper into a working solution.
It’s important to note here that this is a generalisation – some brainstorm sessions do provide fruitful solutions and ideas, however many merely give the appearance that work has been done.
The real problem is that all too often, the person who called the meeting treats the end of that meeting with a ‘Job done. Tick’ mentality rather than a ‘Okay, this is an interesting starting point. Now the real work begins by exploring if any of these ideas have legs’.
Great creative work is very rarely ‘bashed out’ by a group of people. Sure, two heads are often better than one, but too many chefs and too little time just makes a mess.
The brainstorm workshop never allows for any depth of thinking. It’s like the fast-food equivalent of idea generation – it might suffice momentarily, but it’s not really a healthy way of living.
What’s your opinion of brainstorm sessions?
A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to this online video (below).
It’s funny because at some stage we’ve all sat in a meeting like that – where things don’t quite make sense but people insist on pushing ahead regardless. (Note to anyone who has worked with me before: you’d probably know this as the time I ask something like, ‘Are we confusing momentum with progress?’ or ‘Are you sure we’re not trying to build a house on sand?’)
Anyway, I think this video is a great representation of where the power lies in most business transactions. But more importantly, it can also make you wonder how things will work in the future.
So let’s just look at that.
There are 5 people in the meeting and for the sake of this article, I’ve labelled each of them.
The actual transaction is happening between Person A and Person D.
Person A is supplying the product/service that Person D is seeking.
However, Person C owns that relationship and has positioned A as his commodity.
E is a minor stakeholder in D’s purchase.
B is simply training to be like C in the future.
This is how business has tended to work throughout the industrial age.
In most cases, the power has always rested with ‘the gate’ rather than the expert.
For example, Apple doesn’t make music but by owning the means in which people access it, they take the biggest cut.
Likewise for Google. They don’t make the information, but they facilitate access to it.
Supermarkets don’t grow food, but they control the gate by which people obtain it.
However the dynamics of this model are being challenged and this can offer up a number of scenarios for how the advertising business (and many others) will operate in the future.
It’s now easier than ever for Person D to directly contact Person A. This doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Person C (or B) as it cuts them out of the loop.
However, new opportunities exist for people to invent themselves as a ‘Person C of the future’ (like the creators of Airbnb being a gate to accommodation, or LinkedIn being a gate to labour).
Whichever way it plays out, one thing is for sure – there are too many people at that table.
Only one person is doing the work.
Two people are making the arrangements.
One person is the major buyer.
One person is a minor buyer.
In a world that is always looking for greater efficiency, where do you think the axe will fall?
I recently attended a talk given by James Hutchin on the subject of funding new innovations and start-ups. He was assisted by a guest panel of Venture Investment and Private Equity specialists.
While it was a great talk, the subject of this article is in reference to a slide Jim put up during the lecture (see below).
It’s a simple chart illustrating the different approach of how academics usually digest information, compared to how investors absorb it .
So what’s this got to do with advertising? Well, I think it also clearly illustrates how different disciplines and departments within an ad agency approach a brief.
A creative briefing is an interesting thing to observe in an ad agency.
The account management people and/or planners will sit down with the creative team. They’ll have the intention of following a particular order: perhaps a little background of the business, the business challenge or opportunity, then the proposition (main point), followed by some support points, deliverables, mandatories, timings and budget. (This closely resembles the left side of Jim’s chart)
However, watch the creative team if they’re handed the brief to read (sometimes the account person or planner will withhold it until the end because they know how it usually plays out).
The creative team will go straight to the proposition, then the proof points, then the other stuff (i.e. the right side of Jim’s chart)
Why do they do this? Well, that’s because the creative team is digesting it in the same way a customer would (the customer can be thought of as an ‘investor’ because we’re going to be asking them to invest money or time, or both).
When a customer sees an ad, they quickly assess:
What are you telling me ? (main point / proposition)
Why should I care? (details / support points)
It seems obvious, but when writing a brief or planning any sort of brand communications, sometimes we need to be reminded of this.
If our ads resemble the left-hand side of the chart, we end up talking to ourselves rather than our customers, or we have to spend so much time getting to the point, we’ve lost them before we get there.
In the advertising film Art & Copy, there’s the following comment from an advertising great: “I always thought advertising was the most whore-ish business a person could get into”.
And in some ways that’s true. After all, an ad agency will help shape an argument/story/perception around almost any organisation’s offering. And to create that perception they tell the story from a particular perspective – a bit like a lawyer defending her client. Or put another way, we act in a similar fashion to mercenaries.
As advertisers, we take the time to understand our clients’ background and see things from a certain point of view. We’re able to step outside of ourselves, adapt and walk in the shoes of the prospective target market in order to find a way to appeal to them.
Throughout my career I’ve seen vegetarians create great ads for the meat and livestock industry. I’ve seen people create successful campaigns for a political party they didn’t vote for. And I’ve witnessed people make particular banks into powerful brands even though, personally, they’d never do business with them.
However, on a personal (and sometimes agency) level, most of us have our limits on the types of businesses, products and organisations we’ll help represent.
Many years ago, I knew a junior copywriter who resigned when asked to work on a tobacco account. And more recently, I read an article about one MD who declared his agency would never work on a gambling client.
For me, I’d be really uncomfortable working for an online gambling business. Not sure why, as I haven’t had firsthand experience of somebody with a serious gambling problem. Maybe online gambling just feels a little too accessible and therefore easy to escalate out of control?
So what about you? Which client would you refuse to work on? A fast-food? A company with a bad environmental record? Alcohol?
We’ve all sat in those meetings when people pull out the latest buzzwords and newfound formulas for success. It reminds me of an old saying: ‘If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit’.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for keeping up with trends, innovation, opportunities and measuring things. I’m just not for the bullshit that many people put with it. Big words, sentences that don’t mean anything, and stuff like this gem below, that crossed my desk last year:
It’s jargon. It’s waffle. It’s saying something, without saying anything.
As a piece of communication, it’s severely lacking. It’s one of those things that looks good in a document or presentation slide, but everyone asks in a more private setting, after the meeting, ‘what does that really mean?’
Years ago, the founding partner of an agency I was working at gave a great reason for why people do this. In his career of 30+ years, he realised a pattern. It’s illustrated in the diagram below. Essentially, he said junior people in the industry wanted to sound more senior, like they knew what they were talking about. As a way of doing this, they use a lot of jargon and industry buzzwords. Then, he said, as people become more confident in their ability and experience, they usually parked these bullshit terms, and tended to speak like people again.
Look, we’ve all talked a bit of bullshit at one time or another. I guess the trick is trying to limit or eradicate it from your work.
Or put another way, try and be an island of reality in a sea of bullshit.
Well, it’s the start of a new year. A time when we usually step back and take a look at where things are at. Our fitness. Our finances. Our job. Our relationships. Around this time of year, there’s not much that doesn’t get reassessed. Sometimes we take action, sometimes we don’t.
Unfortunately, it’s also that time of year when the ‘predictions’ lists come out. You know the ones – things like ’10 apps you will need to survive 2014′, ’10 ways big data will reinvent marketing in 2014′, ’10 ways TV will be dead by December’. Many marketers are looking for a formula for success. The problem is that advertising isn’t all science. It’s half art, and art is unpredictable. (Actually, even science is unpredictable if you recall the film Jurassic Park).
Art that is loved by an audience at one point in time might not be so well received at another point in time. Fashion is art. Architecture is art. Music and film is art. And, a large part of marketing is art.
While science can be applied to marketing, there’s certainly no 100% foolproof formula for success (not even the one featured in the video below, explained by David Droga).
I have a confession to make: I don’t read a lot of books.
That’s not to say that I don’t read a lot. It just seems that a lot of what a read tends to be the stuff that comes in smaller, bite-sized chunks. Things like blog articles, news stories, magazine articles, ads, Facebook posts, etc.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I have a short attention span, or because I’m a slow reader. That said, there are plenty of book that are on my ‘To Read’ list.
I once worked at an agency where an older writer found it very strange that, as a copywriter, I wasn’t one of those people who knocked over 500-page novels every week. And that got me thinking. Do you have to read, in order to write?
While I do think reading is a great way to broaden your horizons and look at other styles, I reckon the act of listening is just as, if not more, important. And I hold this belief due to a few reasons.
First, there’s the simple notion that in the history of humans, language was audible before it became visual. Or put another way, words were spoken a long time before they were ever written. Just look at your children – they all learn to speak before learning to read. Written language is simply a way to record information in order to take it to a wider audience or keep it for the sake of posterity.
Second, the spoken word communicates much more than a written word ever will. A written word can be more easily taken out of context, or the intended tone can be lost or mistaken. Less so with a spoken word. Even a dog can understand a spoken word, due to the tone used to deliver it.
Plus, spoken words are loaded with subtext. They communicate so much more than simply the meaning inherent in the words themselves.
Many years ago, when I was a university student, a voice specialist delivered a talk to the entire class studying Communications. It was mainly aimed at the students majoring in Theatre/Media (aka ‘acting’) but as an Advertising student, I got a lot out of it as well.
The speaker (forgive me – I can’t recall his name) spoke about accents and how they’re achieved by delivering the word from different parts of the mouth. North Americans get that louder, rolling sound because they actually ‘say’ the word further back inside their mouth. Us Australians, we ‘say’ a word when it’s almost out of our mouth – sort of just mumbling them as they exit.
But accents can easily miscommunicate if you don’t know how to listen to them.
Take a South African accent, for example. After a recent meeting, a colleague and I were discussing the feedback given by a South African client. My colleague thought the feedback sounded harsh. That’s because, to an Australian ear, a South African accent can sound quite stern. It has little inflexion, so it can come across as unfriendly and terse. The Saffas also tend to use the word ‘must’ more liberally than Australians do. In Australia, the word ‘must’ is very authoritative and doesn’t really fit with the culture.
The other thing Australians tend to do is have an inflexion at the end of each sentence or statement. By ‘going up’, it softens a statement, almost making it a question, and makes it more friendly.
The English also tend to do this by putting a ‘yeah?’ on the end of a statement.
So I don’t read a lot of books. But I do listen to the way people speak and the words they choose – whether it happens to be a movie scene with great dialogue or two people simply talking on the train.
That’s what a good ad should sound like – someone talking, rather than a faceless corporation.