Wednesday, January 14, 2015

never tell anyone outside the agency what you're thinking

At the beginning of 'The Godfather', just before the scene of Don Vito Corleone's daughter Connie's wedding, Santino 'Sonny' Corleone is in a clandestine meeting with Virgil 'The Turk' Sollozzo in which they discuss a potential opportunity for the Corleone's in Sollozzo's nascent heroin business, which he plans to bring to New York.

(This discussion is happening without Don Vito Corleone's prior knowledge and ultimately leads to the attempt on the Don's life later on.)

Sonny is already receptive to the heroin idea, narcotics looks likely to be a lucrative business in the near future and worth getting in early on, and proceeds to sets up a meeting with Sollozzo, Tom Hagen - the Corleones' consigliere (who is similarly enthusiastic), and the Don.

Sollozzo arrives in New York and has already 'secretly' allied with the rival Tattaglia family, however still has ideas on bringing in the Corleone family for further financial backing and to ensure heat protection from the police and justice departments in the city, whom the Corleone's have in their pocket.

Vito Corleone - who, unbeknown to Sollozzo - is already wise to the Tattaglia involvement, decides to decline the offer on the basis that heroin is generally a bad business and - in any case - would put a strain his political connections, which he viewed as strategically more valuable in the long game.

During Vito's polite refusal of Sollozzo's offer, Sonny - understandably inscensed by Sollozzo's faintly ridiculous suggestion that the Tattaglia's would guarantee the Corleone's investment - breaks ranks and interrupts his father with an display of temper directed at Sollozzo.

Vito calmly puts Sonny back in his box, and once their guests have departed expresses his disappointment with Sonny's indiscretion.

'Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking again'.

The damage has been done, unfortunately.

Sollozzo, realising that Sonny (Vito's eldest son, family underboss and therefore next in line to the throne) is:

a) more receptive to the heroin idea
b) prepared to speak over the top of Vito and
c) unable to keep his cool in a business situation.

The Turk now starts to think that a good strategy would be to take out Vito.

Sonny's outburst not only undermined the Don but sowed the seeds for and undermining of the credibility of the entire Corleone family/organisation.

As it transpires this will now lead to all kinds of trouble for the family - including the death of Sonny - and Vito's capitulation into the heroin business, a compromise in order to prevent an all-out war among the crime families.

Many years ago I was a designer in a small but emerging agency.

The founders had a lot to say for themselves, a definite point of view on the world and it was an exciting - if sometimes seat-of-the-pants - time.

One Friday afternoon a not very senior client called up and asked the account person if we could make a small change to some element of an ad.

This was right at the last minute before the thing was due out of the door.

Both the Creative Director and the Planning Director were out so the account person agreed, instructed me to make the change, the ad went off and that was that.

Later that evening I got a message from the Planning Director indicating we would be having a chat on the Monday morning.

By 'chat' it became clear that he meant getting the metaphorical shit kicked out of me by him and the CD.

By making a - what seemed to me to be minor - change to the ad on the request of a junior client, without consulting the CD I had undermined the credibility of the entire agency.

I had made us look like we didn't know what we were doing.

I learned something that day.

Several years and several agencies later I sat in presentation to a brand new client at an agency I had just joined. The ECD was presenting a camapign to this new client.

At the end of the show the client started making comments on the work and suggesting small changes to copy, edits and suchlike.

The ECD sat stony faced while receiving the feedback and then removed the work from the table explaining that if the client didn't like the idea then we would take it away and come back with something else.

The client wouldn't be put off, insisting that just a few of his changes and the work would be fine.

To which the ECD responded, 'Thank you Mr [name], but we'll come back with another idea. I don't tell you how to make [product X] so please don't tell me how to make advertising'.

That might look like arrogance to some, to me this was necessary.

The creative credibility of the agency must be preserved, almost at all costs.

This is not about stroking creative egos. I have had many a stand-up fight with CDs over the years. It's the planner's job to make sure the advertising is 'right'.

For one's own credibility that means being prepared to scrap.

However, those things happen behind closed doors. It doesn't matter how much I disagree with a Creative Director I would never voice that in a client situation or any other situation where their status could be undermined.

Bob Hoffman says that 'everyone else in an agency are organisers, and the creatives make the ads'.

This is right to a certain extent, but most certainly should be the impression given to people from outside.

Agencies are judged by their creative output.

While we all know that a huge amount of work goes into making the advertising 'right' but when non-creatives undermine the creative product - by unquestioningly agreeing to client whims or making their own suggestions in the presence of anyone outside of the agency - it undermines the entire agency.

The popular notion of 'ideas can come from anywhere' is in part to blame for these incidents.

Of course ideas can come from anywhere, however that does not make them good ideas.

Good commercial creative ideas tend to come from people who's job it is to have them.

When you devalue ideas, you capitulate.

When you devalue ideas, you undermine the whole agency.

Before you know it you become a chop shop and it's a long long way back.

Never tell anyone outside the agency what you're thinking, again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

end of an ear

Thanks and festive greetings to everyone who has read, commented, shared in 2014.

See you after the break for more self-delusion, confabulation and vitriol.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Dunning-Kruger Peak of Advertising

You may be familiar with the case of one McArthur Wheeler.

Wheeler was a man who, in 1995, proceeded to rob two banks in Pittsburg, in broad daylight, using no other method to avoid detection other than covering his face with lemon juice.

As lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, Wheeler was certain that it would render his own face invisible, and therefore prevent his face from being recorded by the surveillance cameras.

Wheeler was supremely confident as he had tested his hypothesis by taking a proto-selfie with a polaroid camera and the result had give him an image of only wall, with no face apparent.

Unfortunately he had simply aimed his shot badly.

The story inspired a series of experiments by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University.

The results were published in 1999 and henceforth the phenomenon - If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent because the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you lack in order to know what a right answer is - became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the early days of its existence the Dunning-Kruger Effect was also sometimes described as the American Idol Effect.

This was because the hapless yet strangely confident performances in TV talent show auditions were an extremely salient example of the phenomenon - a cognitive bias wherein incompetent individuals mistakenly rate their own competence much higher than is accurate.

This bias is attributed to a meta-cognitive inability of the unskilled to recognise their ineptitude

Conversely, many people who actually are skilled or talented tend to underestimate their own talent, and wrongly assume that things that are easy for them to do are also easy for others.

As Dunning and Kruger famously note, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others"

For the talent show hopefuls the sweet Mariah Carey tones in their own head bears no resemblance to the hideous cacophony coming out of their mouth.

Part of the problem is the fact that none of the people around our untalented protagonists - family, friends, colleagues – are prepared to tell them the truth.

Therefore the delusion becomes even more entrenched.

(These people, while well intentioned, can be reasonably described as mediocrity enablers. That's for another post.)

For more on this have a listen to Dr David Dunning himself telling the story of McArthur Wheeler and the development of his theory in this episode of the You Are Not So smart podcast.

Anyway, you now you will start to see how this is leading us into the world of advertising.

There is a point, often labeled ‘Dunning-Kruger peak’ that represents the particular surge of self-confidence one gets upon acquiring some small amount of skill in a field.

It represents the huge leap from novice to semi-skilled amateur.
However the deluded amateur, at this stage both encouraged their new found knowledge yet unable to know the vastness of what they have yet to learn in order to be an expert, begin to imagine themselves to actually be expert.

This period of delusion is common in people who are just starting out in advertising, though by no means exclusive to the young. Based on scant evidence they suddenly believe they are much more knowledgeable about advertising than they actually are.

Moreover, this delusion seems to also happen at a group level, and envelopes people with enough experience to know better, which is why I suggest that a large part of our industry appears to have hit some sort of Dunning-Kruger peak.

The commonly held ideas of those operating in Dunning-Kruger peak mode are some sort of party-mix that contains ‘advertising is dead, everything is now about content, participation and conversation’, ‘creative departments are no longer required as ideas come from anywhere’ and ‘anyone with a smartphone can be an ad agency’ amongst many others.

Dunning and Kruger discovered that people who are unskilled at something — in this case advertising — are often unable to see how bad they are.

Incompetent people will
1. Fail to recognise that they are incompetent,
2. Fail to recognise how good competent people actually are.
3. Fail to see the scale of their incompetence.

To an extent this story is my own story.
Armed with Twitter and grab bag of Seth Godin one-liners I spent a number of years parroting much of the same ‘advertising is dead’ drivel.

Until eventually reaching that moment of true insight when I realised exactly how incompetent I actually was.

This is where one falls from the Dunning-Kruger Peak into a trough* of enlightened ignorance where you begin to realise that the things you don’t know massively outnumber the things you’ve learned.

(* In photographers' lingo this is called the Jon Snow trough, after a character in Game of Thrones apparently).

On the upside, despite being in the trough, one is now actually skilled to some degree though conversely now saddled with the tendency to underestimate one’s own skill when compared to the over confident noises made by the mass of incompetents.

For the adperson to hasten his or her descent from the peak, one important insight that is best absorbed sooner rather than later comes from  realising that the consumers we have to communicate with spend precious little time thinking about brands, do next to no evaluation around most purchase decisions, and even brands that they use and like are trivial in comparison to the rest of their daily lives.

Rather than engagement, conversations or participation people’s actual buying behaviour is about reducing complexity, reducing choice and making easier, good-enough decisions.

Our job is simply about getting brands noticed, remembered at the appropriate time and then bought.

Just getting that teeny tiny bit of attention needed is hard enough, never mind all the other bollocks.

Like the fella once said, ‘Never make predictions, particularly about the future’.

Perhaps a wish, then. 

A wish that 2015 is the year when all of us in the business of marketing communications – of all flavours – fall from our Dunning-Kruger peak, and recognise that while we have some skills and influence, what we don’t know about human behaviour is so much more than what we do know, and no amount of lemon juice  flavour kool-aid can hide this.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

presenter's toolkit

I don't normally do these 'lifehack' kind of posts, and there's no danger of this turning into any kind of self-help blog.

[On occasions when I've had to talk to students and suchlike I'm inclined to respond to career advice type questions with something along the lines of 'See what I did? Don't do that'.]

The items above are ones that I carry with me for any pitch, presentation or client meeting in which I may have to show stuff on a screen.

Exhibit A:
A mini dv mac to HDMI adaptor. 
When turning up at your meeting you may have to plug in to a massive TV and these days the regular PC in slot is starting to become less common.

Exhibit B:
A mini dv mac to PC adaptor. 
This will be pretty familiar, you usually have to plug in to some PC contraption.

[Note: I'm fond of the Guy Kawasaki 10-20-30 rule.
10 slides, and a minimum of 30pt font.
The 20 stands for 20 minutes (this is how long you should expect to talk for in a one hour pitch or meeting).
This allows you 40 minutes to answer questions etc (expect to use about 20mins).
Guy also recommends reserving the other 20mins to set your presentation up while having to navigate the Microsoft operating system.]

Exhibit C:
Your mac remote control.
Never trust the fangled space age looking PC remotes that may be provided.
A remote is essential to allow for maximum pacing up and down, pontificating and strolling menacingly round the back of your audience like Robert DeNiro in the Untouchables.

Exhibit D:
Portable bluetooth speaker. 
I've been caught out by no audio equipment too many times.
In a small boardroom type meeting you can simply whip out your speaker and place it in the middle of the table and play your videos or audio.

While there is no substitute for knowing your material inside out (this will get you through any tech problems better than any gadget) being prepared makes you at least look like you know what you are doing - a lot of the time this is half the battle.

Monday, November 24, 2014

bring the noise (or...why quiet fixing is the enemy within)

In any given week there’s no shortage of writing on ‘the new agency model’ or ‘why advertising is broken and how to fix it’.

I’ve no wish to add to this number.

What this post aims to outline is a common problem in agencies of all flavours – new model or otherwise.

And it’s nothing to do with the fragmentation of media, consumers-in-control, the collaborative economy or how content strategy will eat advertising.

Nor is it in anyway connected to marketing 3.0, purpose before profit or how branded communities of millenials are demanding marketing from the ‘the spirit’ and psychic satisfaction (© Philip Kotler - Marketing 3.0 and I am not joking)

No, the biggest problem in agencies is when people quietly, and without fuss, fix things.

The reason this is the biggest problem is because no-one notices it’s a problem.

In fact, it looks like it’s efficiency.

A problem arises, someone notices it, applies some little ‘fix’ and moves on with minimal disruption to anything else going on.

Why is this such a big deal?

Listen to ex-Toyota chairman Katsuaki Watanabe.

‘Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually.
If problems are revealed for everyone to see, I will feel reassured.

Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn't notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.

In Toyota, if a problem is noticed, production on the line stops, the entire team comes together to identify the root cause of the problem, to ensure that it does not happen again.

This can be noisy and a little heated, but it leads to better quality and productivity in the long term.’

Quiet Fixers cause two principle problems.

If the quiet fixer solves a genuine issue then we never get the chance to know that it was a problem - therefore the root cause never gets addressed and in all likelihood that same problem will come up again in the future.

The quiet fixer ‘solves’ a problem that wasn’t a problem and therefore creates a problem. 
These type of quiet fixes normally happen further down the line of production, and usually begin with the words ‘can you just…’ followed by ‘move that button’ ‘make it red’ or ‘change that word to…’. To the fixer these can seem like trivialities, minor no-harm-done tweaks to perhaps appease a client.
To the fixer it may even feel like they are doing the right thing.
But it’s the small things that make a big difference and do serious damage to a piece of communication which only gets discovered when it’s too late.

We are reminded of one of Rory Sutherland’s early TED talks in which he famously noted this in regard to the growing influence of decision science and behavioural economics on informing how choices are presented in advertising and other brand communications:

‘Unfortunately, [the] science is probably closer to being climatology in that in many cases, very, very small changes can have disproportionately huge effects, and equally, vast areas of activity, enormous mergers, can actually accomplish absolutely bugger-all. But it's very, very uncomfortable for us to actually acknowledge that we're living in such a world.’

In such a world, for agencies of any sort, a culture of quiet fixing is the enemy within.

Bring the noise.

HT to the @psychwork blog – ‘Thinking atWork’.

correct planning

In 1968, Stanley Pollitt, along with Martin Boase and Gabe Massimi, started the agency Boase Massimi Pollitt.

The three of them had worked at Interpublic agency Pritchard Wood Partners.

(No relation, as far as I know, btw)

BMP emerged after the trio had un-successfully attempted to buy Pritchard Wood and started up their own agency instead.

It was while at BMP that Stanley Pollitt was able to fully form his idea of Account Planning.

Coincidentally Stephen King at JWT was having similar ideas at the same time, and the pair are recognized as the godfathers of the discipline.

Here’s Pollitt’s description of  the role of the account planner.

‘The account planner is that member of the agency's team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used - not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client's advertising problems’.

For the ‘expert’ that Pollitt describes, his or her single most important task was to get the advertising ‘right’ and both Pollitt and King advocated an approach based less on gut feel and more on scientific foundation.

I mention this as Pollitt and King  came to mind while reading the following passage from evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker’s book ‘How The Mind Works’.

Pinker is making the argument for proper science vs 'pseudo' science.

He could just as easily be making the case for correct planning vs pseudo planning, such is the proliferation of ‘experts’ in the now expanded realm of quackery that passes for ‘strategy’ of some shape or form in agencies. 

(The principal skill of many of these strategists being the ability to 'find the data' that promotes their particular case and specialism.)

‘Experts are invaluable and are usually rewarded in esteem and wealth. But our reliance on experts puts temptation in their path. The experts can allude to a world of wonders — occult forces, angry gods, magical potions — that is inscrutable to mere mortals but reachable through their services.

Tribal shamans are flimflam artists who” supplement their considerable practical knowledge with stage magic, drug-induced trances, and other cheap tricks.

In a complex society, a dependence on experts leaves us even more vulnerable to quacks, from carnival snake-oil salesman to the mandarins who advise governments to adopt programs implemented by mandarins.

Good science is pedantic, expensive, and subversive. ‘ appears to have a different view of ‘pedantic’, describing it as:

'The nitpickery of the english language that drives the less detail oriented insane...often mistaken as a tool to impress others when in fact it is annoying.'

For planning to get the advertising ‘right’ this is a necessary risk.

To round off I’ve mapped Pinker’s pedantic, expensive, and subversive trifecta onto three attributes that Stanley Pollitt believed to be essential for effective account planning.

This means total agency management commitment to getting the advertising content right at all costs. This means creating effective advertising instead of focusing on maximising profits or keeping the clients happy.

The agency commits the resources to allow planners to be more than temporary role players. Account planners must be given the leeway to work with the data and research that they see fit.

It means changing some of the basic ground rules. Once consumer response becomes the most important element in making final advertising judgments, it makes many of the more conventional means of judgment sound hollow. "Conventional means" representing the affection a Creative has over an idea or the prejudice of a client that challenges research evidence.

As an interesting footnote, while poking around for some nuggets for this piece we were naturally delighted to find that aside from Pollitt’s contribution to the advancement of the ad industry, he also made a major contribution to the punk canon as his daughter –Tessa - was bass player in The Slits.

Monday, November 17, 2014

sincerity is bullshit

‘Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.

It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

[But] there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.

And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.’

The above is a shortened version of the closing remarks from Harry G. Frankfurt’s famous philosophy essay ‘On Bullshit’, first published in 1986 and still widely regarded as the closest thing we have to unified theory of bullshit.

‘Sincerity itself is bullshit’

Those closing remarks of Frankfurt’s theory sprang to mind as we noticed an article on this week entitled ‘Let’s all be a lot less Honest’ in which author R. Jay Magill Jr. asked if it's time to:

‘...drop our authenticity fetish and get real about the neglected art of playing social roles’.

Magill’s article begins by addressing a piece by Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, in The Daily Beast entitled ‘Why Your Waiter Hates You’, in which Purdy argues that modern capitalism performs:

‘...a pervasive intrusion on a key aspect of autonomy: the right to be yourself.’

Purdy means that many workers - low paid service workers e.g. waiters and waitresses - are being extorted because they have to be nice to customers (presenting a public self) in order to receive tips for insatnce, even though the act makes them betray their real feelings (their private self).

Magill, however, contests this and argues that to keep the private self and public self separate does not demean the latter just because it is not ‘real’ or ‘authentic’.

He goes on to state that ‘the public self is as real as the private self; it is our overvaluation of the latter that has thrown the long-standing importance of the former into doubt.’

It is this idea of the overvaluation of the ‘private’ or ‘authentic’ self that crosses over into some of the popular ideas in what seems to represent a significant portion of modern branding and advertising theory.

Scarcely a week goes by without the deluge of articles from marketing experts and commentators (most commonly from the digerati, curiously) demanding authenticity from brands.

That a brand should ‘provide honest and authentic representation of itself.’

And if that’s not enough, it’s claimed in some quarters that these authentic brands should not even be concerned with the grubby business of making a sale!

I’m not sure what industry some of these people think they are in.

It is widely claimed that rather than being simply social and transactional brands should instead be concerned with seeking a deep connection, engaging on a personal level with the individual.

And that advertising which attempts to put memorable campaigns in front of mass audiences with the intention of getting a brand thought of momentarily the next time the consumer wants to buy from the category, is somehow inauthentic.

The commentators who espouse this theory seem very certain that this is the way forward for brands, yet there is scant evidence that any consumers out there even want to engage with brands at all, and even thinking about brands is something that most people spend very little mental energy over.

It's worth noting - with some irony -  that many of those commentators who demand this of 'brand authenticity' are among the worst bullshit offenders.

Returning to Frankfurt's text briefly...

'Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.

Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

This discrepancy is common in [marketing journals], where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.'

This clamour for authenticity from brands seems also to be connected to what Magill describes in his article as the ideology of intimacy.

‘The ideology of intimacy promotes the idea that social relationships are only real, authentic and meaningful the closer they approach the inner life and vulnerabilities of a person.

[It] encourages ever-increasing closeness - between people, nations and cultures - and decries interpersonal or intercultural distance as cold, fake, distant or aloof.

This assumption runs so deep in culture that we no longer see it, let alone question its worth.’]

But do we really need this ideology of intimacy to dominate the discourse around brands and consumer relationships?

Magill concludes ‘social culture is only “cold” or “distant” if you go in to social interactions expecting warm and fuzzy feelings from people you do not know.’

It works in both directions too.
Modern marketers have a misguided obsession with knowing the details of consumers' private lives (principally driven by that other marketer fetish; big data) - believing this will make their efforts more effective.

In a social and market context however, impersonal behaviours are far more useful, simply because they create 'a boundary between one’s real feelings and the impersonal world of transactions'.

The principal difficulty with the brand authenticity lobby is that it crosses the streams.
If you're familiar with Ghostbusters then you will understand just how problematic this is...

As Dan Ariely pointed to in Predictably irrational, we live simultaneously in two different worlds.
One where social norms prevail, and the other governed by market norms.

'Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required: you may help move your neighbour’s couch, but this doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours.

The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it. The exchanges are sharp- edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs- and- benefits. 

Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean-in fact, they also include self- reliance, inventiveness, and individualism-but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments'. 

Emotional honesty may be a nice personal quality to have, but it has nothing to do with solving anyone’s washing powder problem, and by keeping things on a ‘social relation’ level – with all it’s inherent fake-ness – is a more authentic relationship than any sincerity bullshit.

Rather than pursuing the futile quest for brand authenticity we’d all (brands and consumers) be perfectly happy with brands that are ‘impersonal, but friendly’ (a phrase coined by social historian Peter Stearns about the American smile’) and allow us to transact without crossing the streams.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

a no-brainer for you

The brain is a physical system. 

It functions exactly the same way as a computer. 

Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate the environmental circumstances in which it needs to function.

The above statements are part of the first principles of evolutionary psychology.

(This is our current area of study, by the way.)

This means that all of our thoughts, hopes, dreams and feelings are simply the product of chemical reactions going on in our heads.

In this sense there is no 'self'.

(While evolutionary psychologists are generally the most vocal opponents of anything that smells of religion, it's curious how much of the theory corresponds with the same ideas in buddhism, for example.

Although buddhism is not strictly a religion, of course.)


The circuits of the brain, firing together, are designed to generate different kinds of motion.
This is what we would call behaviour, and it happens in response to information from the environment.

Now we've got that out of the way it's interesting to note how many behaviours we share with other species.

This particular example that I found in an uncredited EP primer reminded me of some people I've encountered in the advertising agency and marketing world.

'Organisms that don't move, don't have brains. 
Trees don't have brains, bushes don't have brains, flowers don't have brains. 

In fact, there are some animals that don't move during certain stages of their lives. 

And during those stages, they don't have brains. 

The sea squirt, for example, is an aquatic animal that inhabits oceans.

During the early stage of its life cycle, the sea squirt swims around looking for a good place to attach itself permanently. 

Once it finds the right rock, and attaches itself to it, it doesn't need its brain anymore because it will never need to move again. 

So it eats (resorbs) most of its brain.'