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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.


Return on Time

This is the thought that’s been helping me most this year.

My to do list is never ending.

Trying to do it all drives you crazy.

RETURN ON TIME is the deciding factor.

Do the things first that can make a big, big difference.

Pretend the rest don’t exist.

People complain.

Look the other way.

Sounds brutal?

Yes, I’m a nicer person than that really.

But, think about Jack Welch firing the bottom 20% of his staff each year.

That was worse.

This is the same principle.

8 Rules for Surviving in the Era of Conversations

(The thinking in this piece first appeared in Contagious Magazine, Issue 16)

1 / You’re part of the conversation, whether you’re managing it or not. And the conversation is getting louder. Fred Reichheld of Bain Consulting says it best: ‘Today, negative word of mouth goes out over a global PA system. In the past, the accepted maxim was that every unhappy customer told ten friends. Now an unhappy customer can tell ten thousand ‘friends’ through the internet.
2 / Everything you do creates conversation, whether you think it’s marketing or not, and whether youknow it or not. Your pricing policy creates conversation. How your people answer the phone creates conversation. In the contagious age, the things that create conversation are not just viral ads. The single greatest driver of positive recommendation is ‘experience beyond expectation’. For advertising agencies, this means you can’t manage the conversation without having a point of view on every aspect of your client’s product experience. If they manage a bank, then most of the
negative conversation is likely to be driven by high fees, long queues or poor service. The advertising won’t fix that.
3 / Changing the conversation to your advantage is what grows your business. Brands with the most recommendation in their category grow four times faster than the category average (London School of Economics). Increasing recommendation by 12% doubles sales growth (Bain Consulting).
4 / Most of what is currently positioned as buzz or word of mouth is completely worthless. It’s transient and disconnected. It doesn’t change the conversation. Getting talked about is not, in itself, the driver of value. Changing the
conversation in the category is. Sometimes that difference isn’t visible until years afterwards. Some Grand Prix winners
have little long term impact. Wassup was certainly talked about, but Apple’s 1984 spot changed the conversation.
5 / You have to be talking about something that really matters to people to really change the conversation. Otherwise you’re just global small talk. Water cooler chit-chat. Suprisingly, even apparently dull categories can be important. Nobody talks about toothpaste, but people do talk about teeth, smiles, and feelings. Nobody talks about constipation, until they have it. But, when they do, you’d be surprised. (Check it out on-line).
6 / Great brands lead the conversation by having a point of view that transcends even the category. They have a vision and a set of beliefs that allow them to redefine the category they work in multiple times, often over decades. Renault, for example, has always beendriven by people-based innovation, not just engineering. This was most famously apparent in the Espace and its creation of the people-carrier segment, but has also allowed them to take leading roles in the low-cost car segment with the nofrills Logan brand, as well as in electric cars. Take a look at this statement of purpose to understand how they are as different from Peugeot as they were in the 1960s, or the 1980s – it’s just the concerns of the time that have changed.
7 / Broadcast marketing can also change the conversation too, but to do so you need to apply a higher standard. Even tooday, nothing gets people talking as much or changes the conversation as effectively as TV advertising. (Little known fact about Barack Obama: he started with Facebook, but he ended up by spending more TV dollars than any candidate in history; likewise, Susan Boyle didn’t get that virally famous by appearing on a small underground show. It was ten or twenty million people who saw her on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. But you do have to think about your ‘broadcast media’ differently. Don’t think about the ad, think about the conversation that starts when
the ad finishes. No conversation? Don’t do the ad.

8 / Symbolic actions have immense contagious power, if they crystallise a powerful vision. Consumers know that talk is cheap. And what you do for them is more likely to get them talking than what you say you believe. The recently awarded Speights Great Beer Delivery created by Publicis Mojo in Auckland was a fine example. The brand is about the importance of beer and mates; putting a pub on a boat and sending it to the other side of the world so that NewZealand ex-pats in England could enjoy their favourite beer was a powerful way of proving that.

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.