Amalgamation Of Confucian And Platonic Thought Undermines Creative Originality

Posted on August 22, 2006



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I hate to say it and it really bothers me that I have to think hard, really hard, to think of a great, major pan-Asian campaign out there right now. I mean a campaign that really makes people feel something both because of it’s insightfulness into the human mind AND because of the creative brilliance in which it is executed. You know…a campaign that real people talk about, not just pontificating people in agencies. 

I was out talking to people earlier this week on the streets of Singapore armed with a video camera just to learn more about their general views on advertising. I found that people out there in consumerland find it equally hard to think of a really good ad they like.


Well, the shortage of truly good pan-regional advertising in Asia is definitely not the result of Asian agencies being any less creative than elsewhere in the world. That’s just dead wrong. So what’s causing this bore-the-consumer-to-death situation? Are brand owners and agencies alike too myopic in both their self and world view? Yes, and there are at least two reasons for this. Confucius and Plato.

Culturally, the region as a whole is risk averse, particularly the Chinese culture-dominated countries with its strong Confucian influences. Playing it safe, following a beaten track is the modus operandi for most individuals and subsequently for organizations as well. Risking repercussions by doing anything unconventional is a price most decision-makers are unwilling to pay. Because of this endemic risk-aversion, nasty little devices called “processes” are put in place in companies’ marketing departments. Without fail, they always include a part that effectively makes decision-makers vaccinated against any responsibility for the decisions they make and the advertising they buy. Everything needs to be tested. Tested to destruction. Or concensually approved. (The fact that the word “testing” is even used in this context is deceptive given the grave flaws of methods used, but that’s another story.)

Although there are exceptions out there, when it comes to buying creative work, the norm seems to be to either exercise consensual decision-making-by-committee (to eliminate any individual responsibility) or to let the focus group serve as a prophetical crystal ball for any communication-related matter. The former set-up, the committee process, normally results in the creative work being diluted into an over-sanitized, rational message that blends in perfectly with the competitive landscape and cements the category convention. The focus group normally assures everything stays exactly the same as what consumers have seen before and are familiar with. Truly original thoughts and ideas are always recieved with initial scepticism. That’s simply they way the human mind works.    

It’s the emperor’s new clothes to people on both side of the fence, client and agency. We all know that too many cooks ruin the broth. We also know, although very few are willing to admit, that the focus group methodology wrongly assumes the consumer knows and is able to articulate the effect advertising has on him or her. Madness!

In addition to this nonsense, just to make things a little bit harder for original ideas to see the light of day, there is this platonic belief that absolute truth really exists. Floating around out there in cosmos is a single, perfect solution to any given positioning/communication problem. Therefore, there is one and only one, single ideal way to position a brand. And with the right processes and research in place, many clients (and agency people) believe, absolute truth or “the ideal” can be achieved. (The more data, the better the chances.) This is where Plato and I have disagreements. I preach there are many ways to skin a cat. And although I can’t blame Plato for the misuse of focus groups, I think planners would add a lot more value to clients if Confucian-rooted risk aversion and the Plato-proclaimed “ideal” wouldn’t dilute creative originality by the rigid and counterproductive processes they generate.

So how does this undesirable state of affairs impact on the role of agency planning and creative output? In most cases, clearly negatively.

Here is why. When we planners have distilled everything we’ve learnt about the consumer, the brand, the product and the competition into an original thought for creative development, clients demand it be tested and validated by “credible” people…researchers…people who speak the perfect truth. You obviously can’t trust planners and creative agency people any more than you would trust a used car salesman. I reckon researchers outweigh agency people 3:1 in terms of credibility in the boardroom (it’s always safer to agree with the researchers). This becomes a serious issue every time researchers venture into creative territory.

This fixation on eliminating risk is why the omniscient decision committee or quasi-scientific focus group kill anything truly original and we’re left with something that we’ve all seen before. So in trying to please everyone, terrified to alienate a single consumer out there, brand owners effectively end up insulting and alienating every single consumer as the ads they buy (often after writing them themselves) are as bland as cucumber sandwiches. This constant insult to the consumer’s intelligence must stop.   

This also has implications on the role of the planner, whose role effectively shifts from insight miner, people expert and creative strategist to a management consultant who help clients validate their job roles by churning out large number of data packed PowerPoint slides that serve no purpose whatsoever from a communication standpoint. Is this sound use of planning resources? Hardly.

I know this is a rather cynical perspective on the planning craft in Asia and it may be slightly exaggerated….all for a good cause, of course. But it’s a direct result of the frustration I feel right now about peoples’/clients’ indecisiveness.

Fortunately, there is hope. Not all individuals and organizations are the same. There are some brilliant people/clients out there who value creativity and believe in us planners. I actually have the pleasure of working with some of these, which I am truly grateful for. However, it can’t be denied that an increasingly important role for planning is to back people in client organizations who value creativity so that creative originality can prevail amidst negative Confucian-Platonic forces.

I feel better now.


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