Change of place

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Conspicuous Abstinence

(You can read more on this in next month’s AdMap)

We are no longer the Mad Men generation, when more consumption
equalled more progress. The Facebook generation do not define
themselves by what they own, but, by whom they know and what
they experience. This opens up the way for very different forms of ownership.

Today, increasing numbers choose not to have a
car at all, and those who do take a more utilitarian
approach. Smart cars and other small vehicles throng
European cities, reversing decades of trading up in
size; and the phenomenon of fractional ownership
seems to be taking off, especially in the US.
Zipcar is a sign of things to come. Nominally, it’s a
‘rent by the hour’ service, with the practical advantage
that you can deliver the car wherever you like.
Dig a little deeper and it’s more like a form of community

Shock, horror, the death of the idea.

I was surprised in Cannes last week to hear someone say, ‘It’s not really about the idea any more’. Surprised because it was the creative director of a major London agency, and one which has been doing some excellent work recently.

His point was not, really, that you didn’t need an idea. It was that an idea is now definitely only the starting point. He believes, and I think he is right, that an idea is only a starting point for an ongoing conversation.

That agencies need to be structured like newsrooms. They need producers and listeners at the middle. They don’t need a pre-production meeting, they need a daily editorial meeting. And they need a way to make money from a conversation like this.

Metaphorical Smoking

I’m ashamed to say, I’ve always admired smokers. That instant when they light up and take a deep breath before answering a question always seems to promise so much more wisdom than the rest of us, who just blurt out what’s in our heads as soon as the question is over. I guess it’s why candy cigarettes were so de rigeur in the playground.
So, here’s an idea: metaphorical smoking.
Maybe that’s a big part of what planning is about. Stopping for a minute to breathe great clouds of pale blue smoke expansively through your hypothetical nostrils, and ask, to yourself or aloud, whether this course of action we’re rushing off down is really worth doing.

You could inspired laziness, or ‘putting your foot on the ball’. But isn’t it better to be right than to look busy?

Conceptual Natives

Amongts all this hoo-hah about digital natives, isn’t there something more important?

For sure, we need people who are digitally comfortable. But, surely it’s more important to be conceptually native?

Why Advertising Should Be More Like Politics.

(The Thinking in This Piece first Appeared in Admap, August 2009)

The many mediums we use, from the humblest in-store sampling to the most expensive Superbowl ad, are only important in so far as they are contagious (they make people talk about them) and they change the conversation.

How do you change a conversation?

First, let’s visualise that conversation. The conversation that is going on (right now) about your brand is rowdy, fast moving and unpredictable. It involves millions, even billions of people. It involves category experts and that loud guy from last week’s groups, who knew nothing and wouldn’t shut up, but is now blogging about the session on-line

The conversation is sparked off by TV last night, when you said ‘that wouldn’t happen in real life’: random news events, celebrities unconnected to the brand, a factory scandal in China. It involves the big things, which evolve over years as global trends, and where brands only appear incidentally: you can’t trust the banks anymore, really can’t afford brands these days, not with the way the economy’s going, and worries about how your children will live.

To change a conversation like this isn’t easy. It takes vision, time, discipline and money.

Some of the best lessons (in success and in failure) come from politics.

Politicians have been trying to influence such a boisterous, impassioned discussion for years, and we know the people who succeeded, and those who have pushed their words out there, never to be heard again. I’m assuming here that you want your brand to be the Barack Obama of brands, the Gandhi, the Tony Blair or the Margaret Thatcher. Not the tawdry back bencher, here today, gone tomorrow.

Contrary to popular opinion, the politicians who change the conversation in a whole country (or even worldwide) are not just those who use Facebook best. They are the people you would find compelling if you were talking to them in an airport lounge. They are the people who really understand the rules of conversation…

1)      They listen. The best politicians and the best brands are natural listeners. They are not silent waiting to talk; they are listening deeply. And they make sure that you know it. It was often said that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair could speak to a whole room and leave you feeling that you were the only person there.

2)      They have a point of view. When they enter a conversation, they stand for something. They know what they want to say, and it’s not to tell you why they are better. It’s to tell you why your life will be better.

Now, in the teeth of a recession, brands must stand for something. They need to be clear about how they will make a difference. How they will earn their keep and their premium.

A point somehow lost in the discussion about Barack Obama and Facebook is that he has a profoundly different vision for the future of America and the world.  He discusses different topics to his predecessor, and uses different words. He has changed the global conversation from isolation and pessimism to hope and inclusiveness.

3)      The best politicians choose the right moment to speak with greatest effect. They are aware of the symbolism of their choice of place and time. They find a central image that expresses their meaning simply, warmly. Can you remember what Barack Obama said in his Berlin speech? Probably not. Can you remember what he was symbolising by choosing to speak there? Yes.

4)      Their stories are peppered with talking points. At best, they say and do things that people find remarkable, in the true sense of the word. They relate to popular culture. Their stories are the oxygen for conversation. They are what gets passed on.

5)      They carry on a dialogue. A great politician tells and re –tells stories that illustrate a point of view, flexing them to reflect contemporary events, cultural notes and evolving concerns of their listeners. They listen, and respond.

How Does this Matter for the Industry?

If you believe this analogy, advertising in the future will be much more like PR. We’ll be run more like a daily TV show or an interactive newspaper than an advertising factory.  Faster, able to take in more information and respond to it. Sensing the stories.

We’ll be borderless; we may use teams from different places to speed up response times, and to increase cultural connections. Digital will be at the heart. Allowing us to listen better, to create faster, to track and understand more accurately.


‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.’

I was in New York recently, as a judge on the Global Effies. Without giving away who won, (or more importantly who didn’t) there was some extraordinarily poor thinking. And most of it hinged around unconvincing definitions of the problem.

It seems that in our headlong run towards creative planning, we focus all of our attention on the proposition, or even the idea, and very little on the ‘role of advertising’. Of course, these days, the ‘Role of Advertising’ is about as old-fashioned as the mechanical, or editing films using a reel to reel, a razorblade and some sellotape, but wise old people used to say that the role of advertising was MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE PROPOSITION. i.e., if you figured it out what you were trying to get people to do, in a credible way, then the proposition would follow as night follows day.

So, imagine my surprise when the case for one brand that has been highly successful for 40 years said that the objective was to ‘make the brand more liked.’

The creative work was, as you can imagine, ‘likeable.’ Downright funny, in fact. However, there was absolutely no evidence that being liked or not liked had anything to do with this brand being one of Interbrand’s highest valued brands.

Which brand? I’ll tell you after the show.

Notes from a Paris Cafe

This is a shortened version of a column in AdMap May 2010,

The AdMap round table on the Future of Planning  certainly made good reading. Comprising the thoughts of some of the most eminent planners in Anglo-Saxon advertising, how could it not?

But I started wondering if these are the people best placed to see where the answers lie.

Seen from France, there’s an obvious direction for planning to evolve: further along the road it is now. While UK planning started as a way of optimising communications, and has evolved to make creative planning a high art, planning in France has always been more about the brand. It was never about giving creatives the communications idea, more about giving them a differentiated brand idea.

French agencies think more like English brand consultants than English advertising planners. Our agency in Paris, the biggest in France, is called ‘Publicis Conseil’ i.e. Publicis Advice, not Publicis Advertising, and for many years, its positioning was ‘The Holistic Difference’. The big agencies in France have large corporate affairs units of ‘Consultants’ that do the high-level brand thinking that UK and American clients have often moved in-house. So it’s easy to see why Disruption came from TBWA Paris: it comes from a holistic brand approach that is typically French.

This space, which agencies have vacated in many countries, is going to become the high ground more than ever before. As the role of the agency mutates from producing content (chiefly advertising) to managing the conversation about brands, you cannot avoid managing the brand holistically.

There is an increasingly thin line between brand and advertising. As agencies, we like to think that the advertising is the brand. In fact, it’s the other way around: the brand is the advertising. What use is it, after all, producing advertising that tells people nice things about your bank brand, if the internet is awash with vitriol about its poor call-centres? Conversation analysis makes it evident that each thing you do is part of the brand, whether you think it’s marketing or not.

Why advertising innovations don’t happen at head office

Innovation in an advertising network is a notoriously difficult business. So hard, in fact, that most people who want to innovate give up and start their own agency, with 12 people and 2 clients, to make it easier.

So, maybe the solution is to accept that the network itself is its best source of innovation, and make its 80 offices the vital ingredient. After all, the Disruption Day (widely viewed as the vital ingredient in TBWA’s ‘Disruption’ popped up from its South African office.

In reality, there are 2 sources of new management ideas in an agency:

1) The Management. Typically, they are well-informed, experienced and tasked to think big. Ideally, they would spend 40% of their time ‘envisioning the future’ (according to Hamel and Prahalad’s ‘Competing for the Future’. The fact is, they don’t. (Obviously). And, they might be too distant from the practical issues. Lastly, they can only have one pov.

2) The Local Teams. They, of course, have a more localised view. But, they are practical and in touch with day to day needs – so they are the ones with the test bed for new ideas, to see what really works. Best of all, there are tens of them, so each one brings a unique set of of stimuli to the overall problem.

The best answer is surely that both sources of ideas need to work in tension. Local offices will, in some cases, choose the wrong tack. But, they can be pulled back.

The key to this is a different idea of ‘network’ and ‘network management’.

It is not, unlike frequent practice, about control. It’s much more like ‘loose control’ – the management equivalent of ‘fuzzy logic’. A little like HP’s famous labs of ideas, each of which could be spun off if they got big enough.

To run great businesses that learn and grow, we need to set clear gates about performance, and directions for development, but empower (nay oblige) people to experiment with new ways to organise themselves to reach that goal. Then re-apply winning ideas across the network.

If we have the right talent, that will happen.

If that happens, then the network can become a learning network. And innovation can become a network strength not a network weakness.

The Changing Nature of the Idea

1930s-1950s – Living in a Print World

The key was to have a distinctive visual idea that gained cut through in a cluttered, predominantly print and poster world. The Marlboro Cowboy ruled the world, along with the Man in the Hathaway shirt, Tony the Tiger and various other lions, tigers and bears.

The Art department ruled.

1960s -1990s – TV shaped what we thought of as an advertising idea.

The reach and sheer intrusive presence of TV meant that you din’t have to insist too much on branding or impact, whatever Millward Brown said. Clear core thoughts (and ‘Just Do It’ was the benchmark) could be endlessly re-interpreted with relatively little continuity from one ad to the next. The challenge was to keep audiences interested by new chapters of the idea (though many marketers ignored this, and just bored people to death.)

TV writers and TV art directors ruled the land.


Brands are networks of people talking about things, and ideas are more like eco-systems. Loops, applications, sites, communities etc, that are useful, entertaining or in some way rewarding. Nike+ is a good example, as is i-Tunes.  In many cases, you have an ongoing relationship with them. The media efficiency is clear.

The industry does not know how to ideate for them, build them, or charge for them.

Nor does anybody know how to research them, or measure them. The very metrics should be different. Not cut through, or communication but engagement, and brand proximity.

Maybe the new partnership is creative planner + technologist.