Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The theory vacuum

Image by acb

Here’s how it goes. Lots of smart people spin out lots of very smart theories, expressed in whiteboard scrawls, in contact reports, in .ppt presentations, in venn diagrams and the like. No one will have a solid understanding of their applicability until they get turned into something real, ie something not .ppt.

But no one can decide which theory to go with, because each competing theory has its advocates and enemies. The conversation eddies around, becoming theories about theories about theories. The theory vacuum.

Creative agencies still believe that using creative to ‘find’ the strategy is a poor use of resources. But in reality, it’s a great way to break the theory vacuum. It's fast for one. But more importantly, it makes theory reality.

We recently did a project for a retailer. Their (very large) agency was stuck on a vexing issue for six months. The theories got headier, the rationales became more detailed, but nothing of actual real physical value got done. The client became so frustrated, they even questioned their own judgment - “maybe there ISN’T an answer”.

We took a different approach. We quickly put together a presentation free of theory. No rationalization. Just multiple, diverse ideas on how the brand could behave in the world. The concrete nature enabled the client to see clearly what would and would not work.

The result:
Client no longer questioning sanity.
Something to point at.
Momentum re-established.

Creativity is powerful. It is brilliant at expressing theories.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is speed gathering momentum?

Image from macronin47

We’ve been banging on about the value of speed since the day we started work on our business plan.

The people responsible for bottom lines would cheer. The high priests of creativity and planning prognostication would nod politely and back slowly towards the exit.

Never mind that some of the most dazzling examples of imagination are premised exactly on speed. (Groundlings, Second City, Upright Citizen’s Brigade et al.)

Forget that speed is seen as a premium in so many other categories, from automobiles to freight services to internet access.

How about these for some other heartening reference points?

First of all, a formative piece from my friend Lisa Seward, that asks 'Can faster be better?'

And now, none other than the IPA, the UK’s equivalent to the 4A’s, is conducting a conference entitled Fast Strategy this coming Monday.

Here are the details. Cast your eyes upon the subjects to be discussed, and the quality of the people discussing them:

How can you come up with the right strategy fast? A selection of Adland’s finest will be giving practical advice on how to achieve this at the IPA and Times Media Strategy Conference on Monday 28th April.
Speakers will include:
- Tim Lindsay, President, TBWA Group: 'How taking the disruption approach can help you get to the right answer fast.'
- Tim Hames, Assistant Editor & Chief Leader Writer, The Times: 'What planners can learn from those that write the news and the pressures of doing it fast and accurately.'
- Gurdeep Puri, Head of Effectiveness, and Janey Bullivant, Board Planning Director, Leo Burnett: 'How, counter to popular belief, data can help you to get to the answers fast'.
- Jon Wilkins, Founder, Naked: 'Fast strategy in a media environment'.
- Stuart Smith, Head of Planning, Wieden & Kennedy London: 'Strategic and creative dovetailing - Fast'.
- Rob Forshaw, Founding Partner, Grand Union: 'How to develop thinking quickly from a digital perspective'.
These short, sharp and fast presentations will be presented throughout the morning, whilst leading communications consultant Mark Earls; Phil Georgiadis, Chairman of Walker Media; Johnny Hornby, Founding Partner of CHI & Partners, and their respective teams, will be putting into practice what they do best and responding to a highly realistic but fictitious COI brief, set and delivered by Peter Buchanan, Deputy Chief Executive, COI.
You, the audience, will then get the opportunity to vote for who you think is the fastest strategist in town, when these three teams return to the stage in the afternoon to pitch live in front of the audience.
Says Guy Murphy, Chairman IPA Strategy Group and Worldwide Planning Director, JWT, “The most important skill that strategists need to learn in this era is speed. The quality of a strategic answer is now partly determined by the time taken to create it. Slow-baked strategy, no matter how good, can never be great.”
The conference will take place between 9am-5pm on Monday 28th April at the Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London, W1G 0AE.

Could it be speed is finally moving from ‘enemy of great’ to ‘definition of great’?

(Special thanks to digicynic for bringing my attention to this gathering.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

How to ensure zero-based thinking

Image from DeFeBa

Sergio Zyman glared across the table at me. "You don't care about my business. Want to know how I know? Because you don't care about my money. This commercial should cost no more than $70,000."

That was quite some time ago, when Sergio was at Coke and I was a CD at one of his agencies.

Sergio, if for some reason you have your name on Google Alerts, and you're now reading this, I have to confess you were right. (Except for the bit about the production budget. There's no way that spot could have cost less than 200k.) No, we didn't care about your money - not in the way you wanted us to, anyway. All we knew was you had a budget, and we passed our days thinking of clever ways to spend it.

As beaten up as it is, there's still a sense of entitlement in the agency world. Specifically, the money is on the table, and the assumption is it is there to be spent. In fact, if you DON'T spend it all, be prepared for a lousy performance review from your boss. So, spend and justify, justify and spend.

The agency's vast reservoirs of ingenuity are applied to thinking up what magazine campaign to run, what website to build. The simple question "should we?" is rarely heard.

The solution: cut the budget to zero. Now what would you do?

Slowly add in layers of funding, and each time ask what new actions are made possible. You'll find the creativity demanded by this exercise is not about the message, but the venues and actions themselves. And that at the end of it, you'll have a much clearer set of priorities.

We've done it for clients, both as an exercise and out of necessity (we love start-ups!). It always leads to surprising and very valuable answers.

I'm collecting examples of zero-based 'we have next to nothing' thinking. Any contributions?

Friday, April 18, 2008

For students of persuasion


Our friend Tim Brunelle has posted this very helpful compilation of advice for anyone wanting to get into our beloved industry. (And what is it called these days? The advertising industry? The brand industry? Design? Communications? Marketing?)

Anyway, good stuff from Tim, and an interesting sampling of what the creative department gatekeepers believe is important today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Crisis? Let's do some more research.

Image from the photostream of gwENvision

This has happened too many times to be anything other than actual, real life, default behavior. When faced with a major issue, such as a shift in circumstances for a client, an advertising agency is likely to hit up their research department for some new facts and figures upon which to base any recommendations.

Well, we know you know this, but agencies make money from research studies. Plus, they like to custom make their questions. They gain deeper control of the issues - not necessarily mastery, just control!

Great if you have the budget and the calendar. But what if you are short on time and money? Say like in a recession.

Over and over again, we’ve seen that clients already have the research they need. It was commissioned by some long forgotten agency/consultant/insights director. It’s now languishing on a shelf, gathering dust, to be tossed out next office move.

Pull that stuff out, all of it, and lay it out on a table. Connect some dots that have never been connected before. Apply a keen eye, an open mind, and a healthy dose of creativity.

Instead of six months out in the field, try instead a week of blowing through the dust. That has to be worth a few sneezes.

Monday, April 14, 2008

So you want to be noticed

Your category is not the number one most important thing in your customer’s life. You’re not the number one brand in your category. You’re way down the ladder. What chance do you have?

Focus your message down to one simple essence, then speak it loud and clear whenever and wherever you can.

It’s not impossible. Take a look at this great video. An entire orchestra of vibraphones, played by a team of glamorous women, some also wielding maracas. What chance does a lowly bass player have?


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The shoulders we ride upon

We wanted to write this appreciation earlier, but as we had only just paid tribute to the late Arthur C. Clarke, we felt it too gloomy to make three of our first five posts about people who were no longer with us.
But we are compelled to recognize our heroes, and it cannot wait another day...

Anyone who cares about the business of persuasion has had plenty of cause for reflection the last couple of weeks.

First of all, Mr. Hal Riney passed away. We have all learnt so much from Hal, both personally and professionally. To pick one small example on the business side, there is no more compelling demonstration of what it takes for communications to succeed than Hal’s all-encompassing efforts for Saturn. Even the greatest ads are feeble when compared to deeds. So, he created the actions that built the mystique of that brand.

Then, soon after, Mr. Paul Arden also left us. Paul is revered in British advertising circles for his many groundbreaking pieces of work. I remember arriving in London for the first time, seeing those initial expanses of purple silk posted along Cromwell Road, realizing that this whole communications thing had some levels to it I had never even dreamed of. His book “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be” is so calmly truthful, it’s not just a must-read, it’s a must-reread, whenever you feel you’ve lost your place in what you’re doing.

Two giants. Still teaching us plenty.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Speed is quality

Image remixed from amenoma

It’s time speed was seen, not as an enemy of quality, but a quality in and of itself.

When we see the immense business advantages our clients receive by being in market earlier than their competitors, there’s really not much of an argument to be had. Especially if you find efficiencies within your system that do not compromise the brilliance and clarity of the work you are developing.

Here are some things that work for us, maybe they'll work for you:

Stop fighting it. Agendas and self-justifications are an incredible drag on the timeline. Not only that, they can lead to foggy work. Instead of arguing why not, accept the incoming idea and amplify it.

Live by your words. We all have those dogoodisms about ideas not caring where they come from, but how many of us actually live by them? For example, instead of fending away a client’s ideas, take them in and make something of them. You never know, they might just turn out to be genius.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. No idea is perfect at birth. Put it out there, even the worst ones. Who knows, some of those people who aren’t fighting anymore (see suggestion number 1) will have a way of making it great.

Alignment is everything. Get all the decision makers in the same room, or the same phone call, as often as possible, to build agreements sooner.

Get numbers fast. Not too many marketers these days work in companies that go by gut. So know that you’re going to need some hard data to support your decisions and plan for it.

Don’t Kick The Pig. (see our most previous post)

When we put speed as a priority for our clients, we help them stay ahead of their competitors; they’re first to the big insights; they can communicate in step with the culture.

Now that’s quality.

Monday, April 7, 2008

We don't Kick The Pig anymore

Image courtesy of Tomas

Kick The Pig was a game we played in the creative department of one of the 90’s hot shops. The Pig was a large, stuffed toy rescued from a dumpster, and the goal was to see who could kick it the furthest.

Back then, we’d often work late, but really, it was more like we were waiting late. Waiting for the ad muse to arrive and spur us into a flash of concept creation. And while we waited… we’d Kick The Pig.

Now, at the risk of ending up like the dog in the Kurt Vonnegut story, who is torn to pieces by the other dogs for revealing that the entire canine species can, in fact, speak English, I am going to let slip a secret about creative inspiration: it is not 100% magic. It might not even be 50%.

It turns out you don’t have to wait for inspiration, you can actually chase it down. There’s a process to this thing – and it’s only a process, not a machine – that helps turn up a wide variety of ideas quickly. We’ve been using it with our clients for a while now, and it works.

We will never again Kick The Pig. Who has the time?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Where stories start

We’ve written recently about how persuasive stories must stay rooted in the truth.
There’s a post on the highly bookmark-able Springwise this morning that reminds us of what that truth consists of. One way or another, it inevitably connects back to human beings - the people who had the original inspiration; the people who spend their days and their careers perfecting that one single item on a shelf; the people who allow the brand into their lives and share it with others.

The product in mind here is Iglo’s Rahm-Spinat, a frozen spinach from Iglo, a top European frozen foods brand.

At Iglo’s website, customers can enter a code from the package and find a biography of the farmers that grew that very spinach.

Whether we end up talking about the utility of a brand, whether there’s even a mention of provenance, the most resonant stories retain a link back to a human animating spirit.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Who fools who?

Image remixed from toei

Brand stories fall in to two categories. Non-fiction and fiction. The difference between the two is the difference between persuasion and deception.

Not that I would assign such a dark designation to a local restaurant I recently visited, but the example serves well. The restaurant in question uses the French-Vietnamese heritage of its chef and owner as an on-line appetizer. The name of the restaurant itself follows up on this theme. As does the carved wood d├ęcor, and the touching story at the back of the menu about the chef’s Vietnamese grandmother.

Right… we are so ready for some of that delicious French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine, yes?

Well, sorry. The food turned out to be your standard sushi, admittedly with an exotic price tag. The only thing French was the aioli in one of the hand rolls. The only thing Vietnamese was Grandma. The disconnect between story and reality created an unnecessary disappointment.

When telling a brand story, start with the facts and build from there. Find the beauty in the truth. It’s always in there somewhere. Finally, check your finished story against where you began. Still hold up? Good. You’ve got something that starts persuasive and stays that way.