Tag Archives: advertising

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.

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.