Category Archives: conversation, marketing, publicis

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.


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.

Are we 40 Years Behind, or 40 Years Ahead?

You could hardly be a planner and not ask yourself what you can learn from Mad Men.

Surely, we all want to relive the days when we were regarded as Delphic oracles by our clients, princes of capitalism by the public, and could still be blazed on Martinis by 12.30 (Oh happy days…)

Strangely, there might be a little more to it than that. In A Series, Episode 3, Don Draper kindly endorses Publicis’s global positioning….’if you don’t like it, Change the Conversation’ (Video to come later!)

‘Mad Men’ of course, came from the days before TV distorted everything. And therefore, there was more focus on ideas and on genuinely media neutral execution. You might recall that in Series 2 when they pitched for American Airlines, there was much mention of the menu cards. Something that today is often hived off to another supplier, while the ‘Advertising Agency’ is asked to focus on the ‘Advertising’.

For students of the history of advertising, it’s not surprising that in those pre-TV days there was a greater emphasis on recognisable properties. The Leo Burnett ‘critter family’, of the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger et al, to say nothing of the Marlboro Man, was largely created to give tangible standout in a world before TV storytelling.

Now, of course, we are once again past the age of TV omnipotence. With huge fragmentation, it’s hard to stand out. And once again the very definition of an ‘advertising property’ is in flux. There are some who think that ‘critters’ might make a comeback. Certainly, there’s a case for saying that now, as we are once again in many multiple media, standout is back to being important.

But, increasingly, another school is gaining the upper hand – which is to say that critters, by their nature are owned by a company not by the customer, and that something different is required. More like an epicentre, or an eco-system, which guide people into being part of the brand.

Examples like the Converse Gallery, Project Refresh, or even branded utilities like Nike+ give a centre to the brand’s activity that acts like a black hole – drawing in the people who want to interact with it.

Our feeling is that this needn’t necessarily be purely digital, although as time goes on, most of them are likely to have a digital component. But, the shape of epicentres might be driven by the things other than the brand that the customers are interested in. For example, Maliboom-Boom is our project for Malibu. Not too surprisingly, it’s epicentre is music, with a digital radio  station. Likewise, our award winning and highly effective project for British Army Recruitment, uses gaming as an epicentre.

Now Fashion Really is a Tribe

For a while now, luxury brands have been moving on-line. The first switch came with heavily   flash driven applications, that could give you the rich, video driven, personalised experiences that a luxury brand deserves; then the i-phone & smart phones turned luxury customers from luddites into early adopters (‘they’re easy to use, you just need the money to buy them!); finally, a bit of recession never did anyone any harm. Saving money…..On-line fashion show anyone?

Now, one of the more interesting developments in recent years, Burberry’s Art of the Trench ( which has received over 4 million hits since November.

Interesting because it is:

–          A state of the art community building exercise (technically, we all know that a fashionbrand’s fans are a tribe, but rarely has it been made tangible quite like this).

–          A functioning social utility (Need ideas on how to wear your Burberry? – if I suggested a site on this, you’d probably have me arrested for criminal tedium – but done  by real people, it sort of works.)

–          A spectacular switch from the fakery of fashion to a real-life ‘street fashion’ approach, which is a very smart way to create anti-bling….

But what is really interesting about it, at least to me, is the way it brings to life something which we’ve always sort of known. i.e that brands really are more like tribes than logos.

As social utilities and social networks mature, that will become more and more self-evident.