From Message to Totality – Talking to Humans in a New Reality

Posted on November 6, 2008



Judging by the rubric, you may think you’re in for a healthy dose of planner babble. I’ll let you be the judge of that. What’s certain is that the same rubric highlights a fundamental shift the advertising industry needs to mobilise in order to ensure effectiveness of what it delivers. That is if agencies are going to be able to be able to help its clients secure an unfair share of the future, as opposed to merely ensuring incremental growth at the pace of category growth. Mediocrity will achieve the latter, quite frankly, but it’s unlikely that any client in their right mind would want to pay for it. I wouldn’t.

Advancements in psychology and neurology research, coupled with good old fashioned gut-feeling in many of us have pointed to the impeding flaws in the theory behind what has come to dominate our view of what makes effective advertising, let alone how we ‘test’ advertising. Even in today’s illuminated day and age, most of ad agencies’ tools and planning processes rigidly follow this yesterday’s school of thought.

A deafening wake-up alarm, triggered by advancements in our understanding of the human mind, has been ringing for quite some time across Adland. And I would urge everybody to stop hitting the snooze button. Of course, it’s much easier to keep ignoring it, especially since waking up demands the need to re-think the fundamental principles of how we do things.

Today’s predominant theory of how advertising works is rooted in people’s love for control and our delusion about the rational behaviour of man. Evidence of this failing theory is ubiquitous in Adland. Some agency briefing forms, for example, clearly reflect this comfortable ‘theory of reason’. Essentially, this theory is predicated on the presumption that effective advertising is about getting the target audience to ‘understand’ an ad’s message before it can become its preferred choice. So for an ad to have the desired effect on its audience, it needs to bring about a conscious ‘understanding’ about what it is saying.


“What is the single most important message we want to convey?” This kind of “theory-revealing” question often found on creative briefs can be perfectly valid in certain situations, I’m not denying this at all. My point is that when it comes to creative strategy in the broadest sense, an obsession about ‘message’ can be incredibly limiting.

‘Message’, the way the word is used in most agency contexts, more often than not refers a piece of verbal information, which can be logically and consciously understood. Subsequently, the assumed role of a creative ad is to place this ‘message’ in the mind of the audience in a way they can consciously grasp. ‘Creativity’, so to speak, is used as an executional amplification tool in this transfer process.

And if we listen to market research companies, well most of them, it is subsequently valid to ask an audience if they understood the message and whether they have been persuaded to buy. From this information, you can supposedly conclude whether the ad works or not. It seems logical doesn’t it? It does to me. And that’s precisely the problem.

“I don’t know what this is trying to tell me. I don’t get it. What is the message?” If you’ve ever sat through the kind of focus group research that’s usually referred to as  “pre-testing”, you would undoubtedly have heard this response in one form or the other quite a few times. This sort of statement  is a typical research response predicated on a ‘theory of reason’. Yes, it’s actually not just marketers who prescribe to this theory; consumers, albeit subconsciously, also assume their behaviour is rationally motivated and presuppose that the point of an ad is to make them come to a ‘conclusion’.

A raft of research has proven that neurology professor at the University of British Columbia, Donald B. Calne’s words are a fact. And I believe no one in the industry can afford to ignore this any longer:

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusion.”

Don’t get me wrong, changing the creative brief format to something along the lines of “What do we want the audience to ‘feel’ about the brand?” isn’t automatically going to open the gates to creative heaven either, but what this means is that the industry has to accept and learn to deal with a communication theory that’s vastly broader than ‘message and proposition’ and most probably also more complex. Now, I don’t like the latter part of that any more than you do, but I do believe that agencies and brands that realise and decide to act on the truth of how our minds really work are going to get more than their fair share of the future.

So how do we capitalise on this knowledge? What do we need to change? I believe we have to place greater importance to the totality of our communication and realise that execution is in fact strategy. Fundamentally, we need to adopt a new conception in which the strategy is creative and the creative is strategic. Literally.

Advertising agencies have to start approaching human beings for what we are – human beings. That means we have to start adapting our planning processes and creative development to a reality where communication is much, much bigger than message/proposition – a reality where everything is communication, whether you can put words to it or not. And let’s remember we’re not rational creatures.

Think of a model, or working process if you will, in which the creative brief would be replaced by conversations only: conversations between planners, creatives and suits – people working closely together as one. Now, I realise this may be highly ill-suited to the linear operating process in today’s agency where the creative brief serves as a link between departments and indeed responsibilities. But then again, I don’t believe today’s linear agency process is what generates great work. Because it’s not a model that liberates creativity.

‘Communication without a message? Is this guy smoking weed?’ Yes and no respectively.

Communication without the traditional proposition is thriving and does wonders Think of ads like Cadbury’s Gorilla, Ariston’s Deeply Different and Schweppes’ Schweppervessence. None of these TV spots will affect your behaviour on a conscious level. Sure, we can all post-rationalise a link to a rational proposition, but these ads work because they make us associate a specific mood/feeling with each of these brands.

And take the Haka by the Allblacks. It gets its point across very clearly and yet it doesn’t need a verbal message / proposition … one that the target audience can ‘understand’.  The whole point of the Haka is not to make the Allblack’s opponents come to a ‘conclusion’; it’s to affect their behaviour on the pitch by playing with their emotions. Brilliant.

Tonality often communicates more powerfully than a rational message. Tonality affects us and influences our behaviour. So let’s  do something about it. Rugby boys in New Zealand get it, why is it that the ad industry doesn’t?

Posted in: Planning-related