Back to Life. Back to Reality.

Posted on March 20, 2007

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On Swedish planner, Jonas Söderstrom’s blogg, there is an interesting discussion going on (in Swedish only, sorry) about the use of metaphors and brand models in the planning context.  

What models and metaphors do people use out there, and does it really matter? If brands are fluid, dynamic and ever-changing, should we perhaps use a cloud as a more suitable metaphor instead of the more conventional, static prisms, pyramids, onions and diamonds? Can a cloud be used as a brand model? And how are models best applied to begin with? These are some of the thoughts being raised and debated. 

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I love a good debate, but this one indirectly hit on a raw nerve with me, which is why I’m typing right now. Whilst brand theory can help us advance our interpretation of brands in the broadest sense, bring about an understanding of their meaning, affix them in “light versions” onto documents for efficient proliferation and so on, experience tells me that far too many planners in the agency world live and operate entirely in Theoryland. I see this place as a quasi purgatory in which planners can dwell for a short while before either falling into management consultancy hell or being purified and achieving salvation. The former destination is largely a greed-ridden, overly rational world void of humanity, empathy and warmth. Here, it’s all about business, business and business, which is fantastic if you’re in the oil or microchip industry, but quite the opposite in the business of human motivation. 

Now please don’t think for a second I am accusing lovely Jonas or any of the people contributing to his great blog of the dreadful misdeed of living in Theoryland.  (For the record, I actually like Jonas a lot. He also writes a consistently good and interesting blog. As an aside, blogging commentary wouldn’t qualify as incriminating evidence in Fred’s harsh and unforgiving planning court anyway).  

So what’s this muttering really about then? Just stay with me and I’ll move to strike.  

Revenue above all else is the network agency parole. Not always, but typically, the omnipresent financial pressure on large network agencies often counteracts the creative standards of their output; the client often gets exactly what he wants, not necessarily what’s best for him. And there is quite often a large discrepancy here. Just take a look at 95% of ads out there today and you’ll understand what I mean. Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainty. Most clients are not equipped with this courage; they’re not prepared to be wrong. And you can’t really blame them. There is simply too much at stake. But as a result, many planners in these agencies spend a disproportionate amount of their time generating theoretical, intellectual (not intelligent), fee-justifying assurance/alibi for their clients and their employers.  

This is the result of several factors combined, most noticeably fear, ego and greed on different levels on both side of the fence. And of course, last but not least the endemic, systemized flaw of short-term performance evaluation for both individual employees and the organizations they’re in. I find “Fear” in particular to be what drives the convention-cementing, creativity-murdering accountability aversion that we all experience in the world today. This emotion is undoubtedly the biggest motivator for anti-creative behaviour out there.    

My view is that this pointless Powerpoint poetry of sorts – the intellectual alibi kind – is completely inconducive to raising the effectiveness of communication, which to my mind is the reason we have planning and I have a job.  

You may argue that this is a necessary evil and that it’s part of the game, a game we all have to play. But isn’t it more a case of our entire industry playing the wrong game? And if so, why should we continue adhering to a destructive set of rules. Surely, we all agree that our goal is to generate creativity.  

It’s in both clients’ and agencies’ best interest that planners’ time be spent on gaining a deeper understanding of consumer’s hearts and minds. After all, this is where they key to great, creative communication lies. The clients get better advertising that move more products of the shelves. This builds the agency’s reputation, which in turn generates more business. If advertising is to preserve its epithet as a creative industry, agencies must fundamentally rethink the way they measure their own success and evaluate their employees’ achievements.   

Creative agencies and their planners should never try to be management consultants. And yet this is a development that is rampant among the global agency networks. Agencies shouldn’t compete with McKinsey & Co and should give up all attempts trying. They do certain things a lot better than we do. It doesn’t serve an agency to be a jack of all trades. Great creative work is about empathy and understanding human motivation first and foremost. This is what we do best. Naturally, you need both empathy and logic in order to produce effective communication but out of the two, empathy is chief. Unfortunately, this aptitude is in short supply out there. Someone put it well when he said that there are too many people and too few human beings in this world.  

Commercial demands and pressures are some of the explanations for this undesirable state of affaires that I have outlined. But what upsets me greatly is that there are agency planners out there who actually choose to engage in work as quasi management consultants out of their own free will. Take my word for it, I have met several. No, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with process-driven, data heavy, quantitative, logical, rational consultancy work that keeps client people in their jobs. However, I personally think most of these people would be a much better fit for companies such as Accenture, BCG or McKinsey & Co.  

Management consultants should do what they do best – business consulting. Creative agencies should focus on what they do best – creativity and human motivation. There isn’t a company on the planet that has managed to successfully straddle these disciplines and create a name for itself doing it.   

I believe agency planners should function as the architects of “the creativity behind the creativity” which is why logic alone won’t cut it. Planning cannot only be the processes of narrowing down of strategic possibilities into a logically sound but emotionally stillborn proposition. Not if we agree that advertising is about motivating human beings.  

My guess is that few would dispute the statement below by legendary adman Raymond Rubicam. It’s how one achieves the “sell more” bit where a shockingly large amount of planners lose the plot.  

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If the objective of advertising is to sell goods, what should planners do to help meet this goal? Well, I know for a fact that great planning – the kind that inspires great creative work that connects with real business issues – doesn’t happen in diagrams, process flowcharts, brand onions and PowerPoint slides.

I think great planning begins when planners lose their toadyesque, business-political, suit-clad correctness (read: embrace life and abandon their aspirations to become management consultants). Then it actually happens when planners are able to use their heart and gut, as much as their brain so they can feel what the consumer feels as much as figure out what the consumer thinks. That’s why Richard Branson would have made an absolutely brilliant planner. (Luckily for him, he was smart enough to aim higher.) Whereas Bill Gates, on the other hand, would have been an utter disaster at it.  

Posted in: Planning-related