The Workers Plea

workers plea.jpg

My father and I were talking recently and he suddenly produced a note he has carried in his wallet for the last 30 years. And this is it, 'the workers plea', in all its typewriter written glory.

I thought you might be interested in it whether you are an employer or an employee. It seems to encapsulate a basic code of conduct between people and hell it might even work in other relationships. For what it is worth the conversation we were having was actually about the relationship between the governed and the state.

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Can we have a more intelligent debate on regulation please?


Will regulation hole advertising below the water line?

As if advertising weren’t challenged enough already by consumer behaviour and technology, the regulators are coming.

They have been circling for a long time but until now self-regulation has kept them at bay.

But with pressure to ban the advertising of ‘junk food’ altogether to follow its prohibition in children’s media and increasing calls to ban alcohol advertising things are getting serious.

The response of the industry is of course outright resistance at all costs and has led UK advertising bible Campaign to launch a petition aimed at marshalling opposition to further regulation by legislation.

Now, I’m not about to say this is the wrong course of action, although it is somwhat predictable. For one thing its seems very clear that those that propose regulation most fervently don’t so much have a problem with the advertising of specific products with high social costs but with capitalism itself. And it is absolutely right to question their motivations.

Moreover, we need to be clear whether restricting advertising for certain products and services will solve a critical problem that faces society (like obesity or binge drinking) and to which advertising has often contributed. Conclusive evidence rarely exists on the likely effect of an ad ban.

That said I do want to try to explore a more mature and thoughtful approach to regulation that steers a course between the vindictive abolitionists and the meatheaded advertising brigade who believe that if a product is legal it should be legal to advertise it.

So I’d like to advance four observations to help inform a proper debate.

Firstly, we had our chance and we blew it. Our persistent opposition to regulation by legislation and our flouting of the spirit if not the letter of the self-regulatory guidelines on tobacco advertising have permanently compromised our credibility in engaging legislators on other issues. Other issues where we might actually have a credible case.

Indeed the more Neanderthal of my advertising brethren still whitter on about the spur to creativity that tobacco self-regulation gave to the industry. The famous B&H ‘Gold’ campaign was not a flowering of British creativity it was a cynical and disingenuous attempt to keep a corrupt show on the road (even CDP creatives that worked on the campaign, like Lord Putnam, now regret the harm that they caused).

From the mid-sixties it was absolutely clear that the product in question caused immeasurable harm to our society and its citizens and that there was no shred of credibility in this industry’s ferocious opposition to an outright ban on tobacco promotion.

As I wrote in a letter to Campaign last month “we were wrong, we know that we were wrong and, most importantly, they know we were wrong”.

Sure, in many ways this is ancient history and thankfully one no longer has to dance around the industry avoiding the shops that take tobacco cash, indeed the last generation responsible has largely moved on from the industry. But you better believe that every time we bleat about advertising regulation to the occupants of the Palace of Westminster we are seen as the bastards that opposed the tobacco ban.

Secondly, we have to accept that society does have a right to a point of view on what we do. Advertising is so powerful in influencing people’s behaviour for good or ill and in influencing the broader cultural climate that we have to accept the citizenry and their representatives as legitimate stakeholders. Even when they are wrong and the action will have little effect

It is not clear that the prohibition of advertising for food that is high in fat, salt or sugar in children’s media will have an effect on obesity in this country. However, society has decided that it no longer finds this activity acceptable, just as it is no longer willing to tolerate fox hunting. And we have to respect that belief since society in some ways measures itself by the things that are deemed acceptable activities. Twenty years ago it was acceptable to advertise cigarettes but not condoms, nowadays we permit advertising for condoms but not cigarettes. Thats just a reflection of the broader change in society.

Thirdly I think we all need think about the debate not just in terms of which sectors can advertise but which techniques are deemed acceptable. As a father of pre-schoolers I don’t have an issue with exposing children to advertising at all but I would absolutely prohibit celebrity endorsement for products aimed at primary age children when the subtleties of this approach are not properly understood. And I have more recently advocated age recommendations for promotional activity aimed at kids. We should be clearer about which sales techniques are acceptable for specific groups that might be at risk.

And finally we should be more open to the way in which regulation can disrupt the market and create new sources of competitive advantage. As a capitalist that is the kind of thing I love – the status quo getting a good kick in the teeth. The fact that products that are not as high in fat, salt and sugar can still advertise in children’s media gives a helping hand to new competitors and reformulated brands and creates an impetus for rapid change in otherwise slow moving marketplaces.

This is far less likely to be the case if an entire category is outlawed (but you have to commit some pretty heinous crimes to get into this pickle), nevertheless as one brand or category is prevented from advertising others, more in tune with the ‘moment’, get a chance to take the limelight. And frankly when they do I’ll be waiting to help them rather than crying over spilt milk.

Just because I work in advertising doesn’t mean that I think that this powerful business building technique should be open to any product or business willy nilly as a matter of principle. I accept that society has a say in what can be advertised and how. And I wish that we might have a more measured debate about this subject than the abolitionists and meatheads want to allow us.

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Is blogging killing planning?

115788703_fcfb180e44.jpg Image courtesy of MrTruffle

There is a mood abroad, often fostered by non-blogging planners, that the emergence and popularity of planning blogs is killing the discipline.

I certainly feel that the community, like all communities, has begun to coalesce around specific 'new marketing' ideas that are in danger of becoming an orthodoxy every bit as dangerous as the antiquated ideas about brands and communications that it is seeking to replace. Specifically it encourages a view that the marketing landscape has already reached a kind of utopian future without offering any clues about how brands and the clients that own them should get there.

But is blogging really 'killing' planning?

This topic first came up in an email from Grey planning chief John Lowery, who raised his concerns about the potentially corrosive nature of blogging.

"One thing I noticed as I hyperleapt from one planning blog to another was an almost total lack of quantification of anything anyone said, at all. To that extent I thought perhaps one could make a case that blogging is killing planning, or at least planning as I know it. The publication of baseless pontification has, it seems, been democratised and offered up as a glamorous new role-model to a whole generation of 'planners' who wouldn't know what a tracking study questionnaire (not to mention an awareness index) was if it bit them in their left hemisphere".

And I have certianly heard a version of this arguement at Coffee Morning, particularly from planners like John Griffiths. His concern is specifically that the pannersphere looks like a brilliant training resource but it fails to discuss or encourage the development of core craft skills.

While I do have some sympathy with this view (most notably that the content of planning blogs tends to be around the more 'out there' thinking that we do in our day to day jobs), after nearly two years and just over 100 posts I can't help thinking that blogging is the best thing that has happened to planners since Moleskine notebooks.
So in a spirit of 'what has blogging ever done for us' here are the reasons I think it is important for our discipline.

1. Community and networking

Blogging has created a planning community online (I call it the Plannersphere) that provides introductions and builds close ties within the discipline based primarily on the commodity we value most highly - how people think. And while this community is strongly represented in traditional planning industries and territories, where considerable mutual support already exists, it obviously works for those planners that work in places where our kind are rather thin on the ground. Whether they are in industries outside advertising or countries outside the planning hotspots. Indeed as a bunch of people who often shy away from traditional networking and schmoozing it has filled a very valuable need amongst planners.

2. Beta testing thinking

Every good planner thinks constantly about brands and communications, but unless this has direct and immediate relevance to their accounts it goes no further than an internal dialogue or idle banter with planning collegues.

The Plannersphere provides a place to crystallise and air thinking for others to build on or contest before it is aired more formally. But more than that it represents a group of people that are interested in your brand thinking no matter how rudimentary, people that encourage you and drive you on.

3. Collective intelligence

I reckon we are getting smarter as a result of the plannersphere. In nearly 20 years in the business I have never experienced as much intellectual stimulation and intense conversation as I have over the past 18 months - both because of thinking that exists on line and offline stimulus that it has led me to. New ideas, however ill formed at first, spread with ferocious speed at the moment making you aware of all sorts of thinking and giving you the ability to contribute to it. Transmedia Planning from Faris and Brand Enthusiasm from John being two clear and very recent examples.

4. Training and education

OK so the plannersphere isn't hot on the craft skills, although it is interesting that Russell's Account Planning School of the Web has gone back to basics more recently to try and respond to this criticism, but the plannersphere is incredibly successful at knowledge sharing. On a daily basis seriously good people are falling over themselves to give away their intellectual property or simply share a new campaign or brand they are interested in. It may not be providing the 3 Rs of planning but you'd be a fool if you were starting and you weren't consumming your body weight in wisdom from selected planning blogs.

More than that, by showcasing thinking at its very best we can help to teach emerging planners the standards that are expected of great strategic thinking beyond the approach or expectations of their current environment.

5. Influence and profile

Planners rarely hug or hog the limelight - I guess we are just built differently to your average account handler or creative. I have often joked that it is only planners that blog in advertising because account people have nothing to say and creatives have better places to say it but maybe its more that blogging was built for us. Creatives have their work and by and large that speaks for itself, account handlers their client relationships and the revenue they sit on or win but planners never really had much of an outlet to show how good they were (although the APG and AAAAs Jay Chiat awards have helped). Blogging has given us planners a way to show we are good and create influence within our agencies, the broader community and potentally with our clients.

6. Effortless internationalism

After years on international business stubbornly failing to understand anything going on outside the M25 I love the way that blogging makes you instinctively international as a planner. You see work from around the world easily and without cost, you are read throughout the world (albeit shamefully the blogs I read in return are English language) and your comments come from people throughout the world. In an industry that has always had a ugly strand of national arrogance running through it (particularly in the UK) blogging and the tools we use to bring our blogs to life (like you tube and flickr) are pulling down national barriers in the communications business.

As far as I am concerned, the plannersphere has created a kind of intellectual soup for a global community of brand thinkers to feed off, contribute to and create value from. As such it is and has the power to significantly improve the quality of planners and planning in the brand advice business.

For my money blogging and planning are a marriage made in heaven.

(P.S.) Since I wrote this I have been pointed at Hugh's thoughts about what makes a good blog. Seriously worth a read.

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Building better brand ideas

Brand idea chart.JPG Thankyou to everyone that contributed to the post on brand ideas and their seeming rarity value.

I had wanted to create a definitive set of criteria for judging whether you had a proper brand idea or not. But this exercise wasn't particularly fruitful - or at least I think its tough to try an legislate for strategic genius. And indeed as decent a list as any was included in the post I wrote about Jon Steel's Perfect Pitch - truth, beauty, excitement, significance and persuasion if you remember.

But I really like this chart - it sort of fell out of the conversations.

The problem - I am a great believer that great ideas start with big problems. And the more fundamantal the problem the better. This has always been my defintion of radical as taught to me by the great Jon Leach - radical means solving problems at their most fundamental level - or root (hence radix or radical) cause.

Your position - this is about showing that you care about the things that we care about. It is partly taken from the Cluetrain idea that people are no longer interested in your positioing only your position and partly from John Grant's idea that brands need to find a bigger enthusiasm to have. Dirt is good is about finding a bigger enthusiasm than detergent. I'm pretty keen now that all brand strategy this more opinionated approach.

Your promise - I think this is an important part of the mix. The promise is the way in which you (implicitly or explicitly) prove to the consumer your credibility in holding that position and what you intent to do about it. Implicit in the dirt is good position is the promise that Persil will get your kids' clothes clean no matter how dirty they get.

Your Brand Idea - This is an outward facing crystallisation of the postion and promise ideally exploiting the tools and tricks of edibility, memorability and transmission I am so keen on. Dirt is good works because it is bold, contrary and based on a familiar structural form. Critically this cannot simply be an idea that the brand has had but should be the idea behind the brand - or as Adrian commented, the brand ideal. Don't confuse this with an advertising idea or a creative idea. These can come out of the brand idea (and great brand ideas should yield great communications in the right hands) but they are unlikely to be the primary manifestation of the brand idea.

Incidentally there should be afollow up chart to show the way then that the activities of the brand should explode out from the brand idea creating the molecular structure Grant talks about.

Simple as that really.

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The strategy cow


My eldest son has this toy. It is a cow (I think) which normally stands erect but when you push the base upwards it collapses. It perfectly describes how I feel when I come across lacklustre or cliched thinking - flacid, deflated and lacking in the strength to perform simple tasks like standing up properly. From now on I will submit the strategies of the moment to the Strategy Cow for her to pass judgement. In addition this service is offered absolutely free to you dear readers - simply submit a strategy of the moment to the Strategy Cow and see what she thinks. By the way following no popular demand whatsoever the Agrarian Ajudicator has set up shop here

Coke Zero
Great product, great packaging but what does the Strategy Cow think of the thinking - 'All the good with none of the bad'?


Man in a panic submitted the new HP work to the Bovine Ajudicator with its thought that 'the computer is personal again'.


Good news Panic. She loves the ads too.

A correspondent writes that the launch strategy for this juice drink is apparantly "Lets stay strong". Over to you cow.


Ohh a shocker - Strategy Cow says its smells of a substance she frequently produces from her rear end.

Toyota Yaris
Apparantly the new Toyota Yaris is a small car that thinks its big, or its the small car that is big on the inside or some such iteration of the oldest and most boring car strategy in the known universe. Anyway it is not for me to pass judgement, that is the sole perogative of the intergalactic head of strategic grazing.


Nil points from the fresian jury.

I couldn't find the ads that were refered to but I did find the lenor website and the idea that 'the pleasure is all yours'. At first I was really keen to see this as a 'dirt is good' idea but alas no. Just read this twaddle from the site "In these time-pressured days, the idea of taking time-out just for you can seem like wishful thinking and any attempts to simplify your life may be easier said than done. However, Lenor recognises that even by making the process of doing the laundry easier and more pleasurable it can allow you to free up a little more precious time to do the things you really enjoy and to re-charge your batteries". That is the 'Birds Eye is the bird of freedom' idea from the 80s(ohh look quick and easy frozen food means I can spend more time playing badminton). Grow up.


And the uddered umpire agrees too. When does she get to review a strategy that restores her to her fully upright position?

Apparantly Ribena uses up almost all of the UK's Blackcurrants to make their tots squash. And, in the belief that this is a)a good thing b)interesting and c)a platform for preference, they have decided it should be their strategy. This despite the fact that it is not normally considered that monopoly is a good thing (see Microsoft) nor that it implies any sort of discretion in the selection of product ingedients. John West didn't say 'we hoover up all the fish we can lay our hands on willy nilly regardless of quality' they said 'its the fish John West rejects that makes John West the best'. Frankly I think that would have been a rather more desirable approach and a way to justify Ribena's inevitable premium over own label. Moreover its not like Ribena have had to fight tooth and nail to lay their hands on all those blackcurrants - there is no other commerical use for our least desirable indigenous soft fruit. I'm afraid the strategy cow's view is:


She adds since this is an M&C campaign her final and singular word on this is "indiscriminate".

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Brands and 2.0 - proceed with caution


I had the pleasure of being at NMK's Content 2.0 conference last week (6th June). We enjoyed some excellent speakers including Marc Canter from People Aggregator, Bradley Horowitz from Yahoo! and James Cherkoff from Collaborate. So I thought I'd put together a set of provocations based on my learning from the day which essentially come under the heading - its all jolly exciting but proceed with caution. This is available to view via slideshare or to download I'm afraid as this is the way the post suggested itself. For a more informed understanding of what went on check out James' blog or go to the NMK link at the top of this post.

Download file

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Why are creative ideas a good idea?

CD.jpg And how can Catherine Deneuve, a flamingo and a bottle of scent help us understand the answer? Ok I lied about the flamingo. Image from the V&A

One question has bugged me for a very long time.

Why are creative ideas a good idea?

We all seem to believe that they are important. From a very early stage in our careers we are taught that creative work with an idea in it is better than creative work without an idea. More than that, perhaps the most pejorative thing you can say about a piece of creative work is that there is no idea in it.

Indeed many of us first became interested in advertising as a career because we saw creative ideas that we loved and wanted to be a part of creating. Obviously this was after we got the train driver thing out of our system.

But why are creative ideas so dear to our hearts? Why do we think that they work? Why do we think that they are a good idea?

Perhaps you think I have gone completely insane. Perhaps to you it is self-evident why the industry produces so much blood, sweat and tears creating great ideas. It’s just that in nearly 20 years in the business no one has ever answered this question to my satisfaction.

And it seems that it is no use asking creatives – they certainly don’t seem to know. The only thing creatives have ever been able to tell me is good creative ideas ‘cut through’ better. Whatever that means.

Well I had put this conundrum right to the back of my mind when Dave O’Hanlon, the legendary Tango planner who ran the account in the ‘90s with a semiotic rod of iron, reminded me of a woman called Judith Williamson.

In the late 1970s Judith wrote a book called ‘Decoding Advertisements’ in which she explored the way that ads communicate, the way that they create meaning.

You’d have thought this was an essential read for anyone in the planning community but it is quite possible that Dave and I are the only planners working in the UK that have ever read it. And I can absolutely guarantee that Dave is the only planner that totally understands it.

Now Judith is no fan of our industry. However, as is the case with most left leaning analyses of capitalism, she offers us a genuinely fresh perspective on this business in her quest to unpick our dark art. And re-reading her book I realised that it holds the answer to my question.

The role of the creative idea in advertisements is very simple. It is to transfer meaning from something we understand well to something that we understand less well or need reminding about.

Creative ideas transfer meaning. That is their role and that is why they are important.

Or to be more precise, creative ideas allow the consumer to transfer meaning since the idea itself is quite passive. The creative team may have suggested a meaning they wish to be transferred but this can only happen if the reader is a willing participant in the process and understands the comparison that is to be made.

Which brings us to Catherine Deneuve.


Williamson uses many examples to illustrate her theory but the most referenced example is an advertisement for Chanel No.5 featuring that icon of French style and sexy sophistication Catherine Deneuve.

She uses this ad to show the way in which the meaning of Catherine Deneuve is successfully transferred on to Chanel No.5 and in doing so helps us get our heads around those semiotic cornerstones – signifier, signified and referent system. Deneuve is the signifier, French sophistication is the signified and everything we understand about Catherine Deneuve is the referent system.

Incidentally this is why, though we strive daily for originality, there is a basic truth that genuine originality isn’t much use in advertising. Every ad needs to refer to something that we already understand in order to take that meaning and apply it to the product or service we are selling.

I find the Chanel example doubly interesting because of the recent W&K press ad for Honda in which the Chanel bottle itself became the signifier, was filled with oil and sported a Honda logo in the place of the Chanel label. I figure Williamson would also be amused by the constant recycling of meaning that that advertising delights in.

All well and good, however, even the least creatively minded of us would hardly consider the Chanel ad to be a paragon of advertising virtue. It’s simply not very ‘good’.

And that’s the question I now want to address. Why is a ‘good’ creative idea better than a ‘weak’ one?

If the role of a creative idea is to transfer meaning then by that token a good creative idea must be more successful in achieving this than a poor one. This seems to me to be important since it suggests that the quality of a creative idea is not a subjective issue, nor is a powerful idea nice to have. A good creative idea works better.

I think good creative ideas work better to transfer meaning in five essential ways:

1) Speed – The attention of the consumer and the expense of the media we use demand that meaning be successfully transferred as fast as is possible from the signifier to the subject of the ad. Good creative ideas are better at this because the link is established faster. Campaign recently ran an article on creativity in the Middle East and helped illustrate this with an ad for Sony flat screen TVs in which a ‘new’ flash is held to the front of the screen by a single paper clip. In an instant everything we understand about the thickness of the paper the clip usually holds together is transferred to the TV.

2) Communication – Good creative ideas work better because of the richness of the data that is transferred in the process of consuming the ad. The more powerful the signifier that is being used the richer and more complex the meaning can be. The new print campaign for the Daily Telegraph offers an example of rich meaning. In this work the heads of the Telegraph’s sports writers are superimposed on to illustrations of great writers in the English language like Dickens and Shakespeare. In doing this an incredibly rich amount of meaning is transferred from the illustrations to the Daily Telegraph and the prowess of its sports writers.

3) Identification – Creative ideas ‘hail’ the audience. Good ideas not only make it clear that we are being called upon to create and transfer the meaning of the ad but they also help ensure that we identify with the product or brand concerned by using a referent system that we understand and in understanding declare ourselves part of. The Daily Telegraph ads use a referent system that Daily Telegraph readers relate to and in relating to reinforce their identification with its meaning and with the Telegraph as a brand.

4) Memorability – It is clear that an ad that we enjoy becomes potentially more memorable, though there is no guarantee that what is remembered is the important bit. Hence executional memorability is problematic. But a good creative idea becomes memorable for a different reason. Because the consumer creates the meaning and is active in its transfer they become involved in the ad. This is what Williamson describes as hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation) but we might call ‘getting it’. We find solving the puzzle on offer – literally why and in what way the signifier and the object are linked – rewarding. This enjoyment cements the idea and its system of meaning into our minds. The Economist campaign is a very good if increasingly tired example of this at work.

5) Fidelity – in an age where markets are conversations and brand success is dependent on consumer-to-consumer communication the accuracy or fidelity of this communication is critical. Good creative ideas get passed from consumer more accurately and with more of the intended meaning intact. Consider the way in which you would have talked about the Honda Diesel campaign and the fidelity with which you would have passed on the intended message that Honda hated Diesel engines so much they completely changed the way they were made. And contrast this with the way in which you talked about the Sony Bravia ad that is executionally outstanding but arguably a referent system short of a great creative idea.

The ability to transfer meaning and do so in ways that increase the speed of transfer, richness of communication, level of brand identification, and the memorability and fidelity of the message is what makes good ideas a good idea.

Fight for good ideas and defend them against the drift that so often sees them neutered and impotent

Oh and read “Decoding Advertisements’ by Judith Williamson. Here is a link.

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Aphorism toolkit

"You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think" Dorothy Parker I think aphorisms rock and make any strategy, presentation, brief, conversation go with a swing. So here is a little aphorism tool kit....

I find it handy to carry around in my head a clutch of sayings, quotes and famous phrases that can be repurposed willy nilly as neat aphorisms for any occasion.

Its not the most original way to create a good aphorism but it was good enough for Dorothy Parker so its good enough for me. Here are a handful of the most useful

1) "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others" (Orwell) - Handy if you want to elevate one brand in the portfolio, one strategy under discussion or one channel in the media plan.

2) "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" (Blair) - Tough on churn, tough on the causes of churn is particularly good for Sky. Your brand will have its own issues you need to come down hard on.

3) "Education, education, education" (Blair) - Good if you want to highlight just how important something is to the cause. Best if the words concerned end in 'tion' like facilitation or rotation or perhaps irritation.

4) "Its the ecomnomy stupid" (Clinton) - same as above. I once wrote a proposition using this base for Tango aimed at getting the brand focused back on what had made them famous.'Its the Oranges stupid' worked a treat.

5) "There's life Jim but not as we know it" (Star Trek) - I used this one recently to illustrate that in the seemingly own label dominated dairy market there are brands but not as we know them. Works particularly well if your CEO is called Jim

6) "Reasons to be cheerful, one , two, three" (Ian Dury) - I was once involved in an ad for Briatin's leading muesli that used the late Mr Dury's song (indeed he re-recorded it for us) and the line 'reasons to eat Alpen, one, two, three'. Gives any list of recommendations a lyrical boost. But I'm still ashamed of the Alpen ad.

7) "It does exactly what it says on the tin" (HHCL for Ronseal) - Bit obvious but its a phrase for which there is actually no readily available alternative - thats why we use it all the time. Try manipulating it into your own aphorism rather than just quoting it.

8) Anything from Withnail as long as you are only talking to other Withnail fans - otherwise 'here, strategy, here' is likely to be meaningless.

Give me more that we might all shamlessly plunder them.

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Combating cliche


“Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless imitative style”. George Orwell


“Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless imitative style”. George Orwell

In thinking about the role and efficacy of advertising it is very tempting to dwell exclusively on the external pressures the industry is under.

We are all naturally concerned by the changing relationships between people and brands and the emergence of ad-skipping technology, both of which are covered extensively in this blog.

However, regular readers will be aware that I lay much of the blame for advertising’s ills on the inability of brands and their agents to say anything interesting about themselves to consumers.

In particular this industry is swamped by cliché, whether in insight, strategy or creative work. Few brands have anything to say that we haven’t heard a million times before, often from their own competitors.

Of course the automotive category is one of the worst offenders. How many marques or models have told us that they are ‘the family saloon that thinks it’s a sports car’, or ‘the diesel that’s so good you’ll think it’s petrol’, or ‘the car that looks so good you’ll pretend it’s your own’, or ‘the small car that is surprisingly big’? So many strategies and pieces of creative work appear more the product of automatic writing than any kind of conscious thought.

But it’s not just cars. Most categories have their resident clichés – breakfast cereals that are a good start to the day, beers that are cold, bottles water that is filtered by lots of old rocks and any number of organisations that have nice staff.

Which brings us to George Orwell. No really.

I have been re-reading his anthology of essays ‘Inside the whale’. Quite apart from his very moving account of life as a miner between the wars there is an excellent piece called ‘Politics and the English language’, written in 1946.

In this he rails against the corruption of the English language by politicians eager to cover up the reality of their actions from the people they serve.

His bete noir (except that’s the last phrase he’d use) are dead metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious language and the use of foreign words, particularly Latin and Greek, when more appropriate Anglo-Saxon words exist.

He believed that most politicians write on a kind of auto-pilot in which they simply open their minds to a flood of ready-made phrases and metaphors, that obscure any real meaning often from the writers themselves.

I’m convinced that is what happens when most people sit down to think about insights, write strategies or create work. They open their minds and a stream of hideous clichés pile inside.

And that’s the sad fate that appears to have met the new BA campaign. Here is a brand that is absolutely desperate for a new role to play in people’s lives and what does it get? A bottom drawer visual device in the form of cloud formations and the longest list of inane airline clichés, both visual and verbal, in aviation history.

Ads literally stumble from “at BA we believe” to “your holiday should start on the plane” to “air travel shouldn’t cost the earth” to “cutting costs not corners”. There are also one or two cut-aways to the kind of flight-attendant-servicing-grateful-passenger shot that we all thought had been evicted from airline advertising a decade ago.

If BA and BBH ever knew what they were trying to say to us about their brand they have succeeded in concealing it. A shameful result for one of the most anticipated new campaigns of the past few years.

So here’s the call to action. Commit yourself to fight cliché whether insight, strategy or work. And show that brands can say things to people that are genuinely fresh and genuinely of interest.

As Orwell says “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn out lump of verbal refuse into the dustbin where it belongs”.

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There is no such thing as a low interest category

Far_from_Dull--Dull3.jpg You see it all the time - Client briefs, agency presentations, awards papers - the great cop out. This is a low interest category. It's the universal panacea, the ultimate excuse, the dog ate my homework of the marketing world. No wonder the work is dull, the thinking is lame or the creative is vacuous it is after all a low interest category and we might as well all go home. Image from 'far from dull' by Dominic Greyer.

You see it all the time - Client briefs, agency presentations, awards papers - the great cop out.

This is a low interest category.

It's the universal panacea, the ultimate excuse, the dog ate my homework of the marketing world.

No wonder the work is dull, the thinking is lame or the creative is vacuous it is after all a low interest category and we might as well all go home.

There is no such thing as a low interest category only low interest thinking.

I first aired this idea in the post on aphorisms and I thought it might benefit from an example.

A little while ago we worked for a windscreen replacement company called Autoglass.

Everyone thought this was the ultimate low interest category. No one is remotely interested in windscreens until they need one replaced and then its usually down to the insurance company to make the choice of supplier.

The previous agency in particular thought it was a low interest category (no names, no pack drill). No doubt they had a powerpoint presentation to prove this was the case because they clearly decided the only option was a little hollow salience for the brand. Hey presto hilarious ads in which we chortle at the sight of poor hapless people who have no windscreen and therefore have nothing to protect them from the attention of safari park monkeys. Oh how we laughed.

Low interest categories and brands are of low interest precisely because we haven't thought of anything to make them high interest.

Our planner - Giselle Okin - found out that your windscreen represents 30% of the structural integrity of your car. If your car rolls or the air bag goes off its the windscreen that protects you and gives the airbag something to work against. Fit a good windscreen properly and you potentially save lives.

End of low interest category and a platform for brand preference and most probably a premium to boot.

So never peddle or accept the notion that you are working for or in a low interest category. Suggest that the job of the agency is to get people interested and not in a few funny ads but in the very role that the brand plays in peoples' lives.

Comments (9)

Adliterate aphorisms

oscar.jpg "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative" Oscar Wilde - Aphorist par excellence

"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative" Oscar Wilde - Aphorist par excellence
Aphorism (From the Greek, to define), literally a distinction or a definition, is a term used to describe a principle expressed tersely in a few telling words, in such a way that when once heard it is unlikely to pass from the memory. Source: Wikipedia

Here ten of mine with the emphasis on the word terse.

1) In my day we make our own entertainment

2) New media is too important to be left to new media agencies

3) There is no such thing as a low interest category only low interest thinking

4) Every brand needs an opinion, opinions are the life blood of conversation

5) Ad avoidance has become so endemic it is almost a national sport

6) The IPA effectiveness awards wouldn't win an award for effectiveness

7) Only poor advertising has a predictable result

8) You are more likely to be right by trying to be interesting than by trying to be right

9) What good is the fame that comes from having your ads talked about without the fortune that comes from having your brand talked about?

10)Great brands create culture, weak brands copy it

Comments (14)

In my day we made our own entertainment

game.jpg My Grandparents were farmers in Somerset. They never really saw the necessity for television and indeed only got one in the early '90s when my grandfather got ill. Consequently childhood visits were rather delightful since in the evenings we were required to make our own entertainment just as they had all their lives - the last vestiges of an Edwardian upbringing full of tennis parties, journal writing and the vigorous consumption of slim volumes of poetry. And it rather tickles me to think that our sources of entertainment are coming full circle - back to ourselves and a world my grand parents might have been familiar with. But instead of keeping diaries we blog, instead of amateur dramatics we have You Tube and Googleidol and instead of dusty slide shows of people butchering endangered species with gay abandon we have flickr. In my day we make our own entertainment.

My Grandparents were farmers in Somerset. They never really saw the necessity for television and indeed only got one in the early '90s when my grandfather got ill. Consequently childhood visits were rather delightful since in the evenings we were required to make our own entertainment just as they had all their lives - the last vestiges of an Edwardian upbringing full of tennis parties, journal writing and the vigorous consumption of slim volumes of poetry.

And it rather tickles me to think that our sources of entertainment are coming full circle - back to ourselves and a world my grand parents might have been familiar with. But instead of keeping diaries we blog, instead of amateur dramatics we have You Tube and Googleidol and instead of dusty slide shows of people butchering endangered species with gay abandon we have flickr.

In my day we make our own entertainment.

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Legendary repositionings

None of that Lucozade nonsense here. I am trying to gather together set of utterly legendary repositionings from any part of culture or society. There are bonus points for total originality and deductions for mentioning the Fourth Emergency Service (tell me something I don't know). rosebury.jpg The World's first planner?

The World's first planner?

None of that Lucozade nonsense here. I am trying to gather together set of utterly legendary repositionings from any part of culture or society. There are bonus points for total originality and deductions for mentioning the Fourth Emergency Service (tell me something I don't know).

The Commonwealth
I think this rates as my top repositioning of all time. You take something ghastly and venal like the British Empire (no amount of bicameral parliaments or efficient railway systems make up for the Amritsar Massacre in my book) and relaunch it as the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth) in the same way we replaced slavery with indentured servitude. OK so now its just about sport (The Empire games as the Commonwealth games used to be called)and having harsh words with renegade regimes and as such rather benign but all in all a crafty way to make it seem like former colonies still had a passing interest in the mother country. The idea was first suggested by by Lord Rosebury (1847-1929), Liberal politician and sometime Primeminister, to my mind earning him the title of the first planner.

Comments (32)

Advertising engagement - lessons from the PVR revolution

Bit of an aquired taste this but for those of you interested in some of the implications of the timeshifting revolution on ad engagement in general and pre-testing in particular here is the paper I gave to Admap's pretesting conference on the 9th Feb 2006. Don't all rush at once. I cover some perenial favourites of mine like ad avoidance being a national sport and brand dawinism. But also introduce some stuff on the geometry of the break and the creative imperatives of the new communications world order. There is also some new research in there - both quant and qual. Hurrah. Both the speech and slides (you'll need both) are available as downloads. A couple of the slides are missing (the mpeg of a fast forwarded break and a house ad we ran on ad avoidance) because they make the file too large. Frustrating! I will try and solve this.

Download speech
Download slides
And until I work out how to embed you tube stuff you can watch the fast forward ad compilation here

Comments (6)

Douglas Holt has come to save us all

Some books I read and some I chew on. Chewy books are those where the thinking is so profound or ideas so counter intuitive that they are tough to digest. Douglas Holt's How brands become icons is a chewer.

Some books I read and some I chew on.

Chewy books are those where the thinking is so profound or ideas so counter intuitive that they are tough to digest.

Douglas Holt's How brands become icons is a chewer.

Holt’s belief that brands achieve iconic status because they provide real identity value for consumers is pretty much received wisdom. However, the concept that they do this by resolving a fundamental contradiction between the expectations placed upon people by society and the reality of their day to day lives is a little more challenging. He does this with brands like Budweiser and VW which make loads of sense but it’s when you try to apply this to your own examples that things get interesting. Is Apple a run away success because of great products and great marketing or because the brand allows millions of people to feel they are part the creative economy when the reality of their lives is very different?

Add to that his challenge to the dreary dogma of relationship marketing and you have a book that messes with a lot of our assumptions about the way brands achieve and maintain iconic status.

One day this book will make it onto my bookshelf but for now its still in my bag close at hand for a daily chew.

For an overview of his work click here. Or to take a leap into the unknown and actually purchase the thing using the link to amazon in the books section.

Comments (7)

Advice to young planners

I was recently interviewed by a Romanian advertising blog called iqads. Amongst other questions they asked whether I had any advice for young planners and I thought I would share this with a wider audience. They are short, sweet and incomplete.

1) See the world differently to everyone else
2) Try to be interesting first and right second
3) Read weird shit it always comes in handy
4) Speak in analogies – the more bizarre the better
5) Even if the thinking that you are forced to go with isn’t the most inspiring always know you had a better strategy up your sleeve
6) Think about brands and categories you don’t work on – develop latent strategies for these – it is good practice and they may be useful at some point
7) Think and communicate clearly always – radical doesn’t mean complicated

Comments (20)

Strategy safari

Slightly high risk this. But I wanted somewhere to put the strategies that I love but Clients have never bought. Feel free to put to better use or simply to reflect upon my mediocrity as a planner. In part the idea is to illustrate that good thinking should be simple, radical and well packaged - rather than the dreary meandering nothingness that characterises most stategic thinking in the ad industry. I am going to update these gradually so that the exit of intellectual property is orderly. Enjoy.

Alfa Romeo
I read this article about the new Alfa Brera in Evo magazine. In it the designer of the Brera, one of the great Italian car creators was described as the "Georgio Armani of sheet steel". Nice insight, bish bosh, bash one strategy for the Alfa Marque.

Alfa Romeo. Couture in sheet steel.

Yellow Pages
It's the ads stupid. Everyone bangs on about peculiar useage opportunities or the comprehensive nature of the listings but the real power of the Yellow Pages comes from the ads it carries in which hundreds of thousands of businesses tell them loads of intimate details about themselves. This intelligence is the heart of the brand whether it is delivered in paper form, on the telephone or online.

More of a phrase than a pithy statement but my idea is:

Yellow Pages. More businesses tell us more about themselves so we can tell you more about them.

If you give money to most charities and NGOs you end up saving some humans. If you support Greenpeace you save humanity (contrary to their assumed interest in whales and the like).

Greenpeace. Save the humans.

The Daily Telegraph
Not my read of choice but I was interested in giving this paper a role in more people's lives. Given how redundant the Conservative and Unionist party is as an effective opposition to Labour the media has had to step in and fill the vacuum. This is a role that a paper like the Telegrpah should embrace with open arms.

The Daily Telegraph. Her Majesty's official opposition.

ING Direct
This is a low cost, high rate direct banking operation. I'm interested in exposing the economics of direct banking and striking up a reciprocal deal with the consumer. You leave us alone as far as possible, our costs stay down and your rate stays high. Very adult to adult. Very 'you scratch our back and we'll scratch yours'.

ING Direct. Reciprocal banking.

To be honest this would work for any airline brand. I got to thinking that the competitve threat airlines face isn't other airlines it is not travelling and doing whatever it is you want to do by phone or online. Virtual communications are the enemy for an organisation that specialises in the rather superior idea of face to face communications. Emirates needed to reposition themselves as the champion of face to face communications.

Emirates. The face to face communications company

The Science Museum
Arthur C Clark has 3 Clarks laws about scientific discovery. The third states that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And if you think about it every major scientific achivement from the steam engine to manned space flight to genetic engineering must have seemed an act of pure magic when first experienced. Voila, an exceptional new positioning to engage the Potter obsessed generation.

The Science Museum. A history of magic

I'm tired of coffee strategies built around taste and sociability. This is possibilty the greatest recreational drug discovered by mankind - a fundamental facilitator of civilisation. By replacing alcohol as the beverage of choice in the western world it created an populous that was wired and wildly creative rather than drunk the entire time. Little wonder the establishment has always been more interested in closing coffee houses than pubs. Coffee continues to play a potent role in human mental endevour making our brains sharper and more agile - albeit in short bursts. What is interesting about coffee is what your brain can and does do while caffeinated.

Coffee quickens the genius

I worked for the Wales Tourist Board and lost it to Wiedens in a statutory review. All's fair in love and advertising and the Wiedens' work is very good if not very ambitious. Here was my strategy. I wanted to say something about Wales that was competitive globally not just against the local competition and for me that had to come from the people and not the landscape - a people that have an eternal loathing of the establishment and establishment values. From their resistance to Saxon invasion, the survival of one of Europe's most ancient languages, non-conformist religion and the radical politics of the twentieth century Wales has fought for values that run counter to the orthodoxy. Infact for its thousand years of spirited opposition to the status quo I vote Wales the original counter culture, a place that makes Amsterdam, Haight Ashbury or Marrakesh look positively lame.

Wales. The original counter culture

Mothercare is all about motherhood and its been in all sorts of trouble over the recent past. It is missing a trick and the clue is in its name. These days mums need one thing more than anything else - their mums. Traditionally a mums mum would have supported her daughter throughout pregnancy and the childhood of her kids. Not any longer. One of the results of women having children later is that their mums are themselves alot older. It is years since they will have been a mum themselves and even if they haven't forgotten the score the theory and technology of child rearing has left them behind. Add to that the greater distances that mums mums live from their daughters, decades of being told to butt out of her life and the rather more attractive role of grandmother and you realise that mums need their mums and the latter no longer play ball. Mothercare should take on the mantle of being a mum's mum.

Mothercare. Care for mums.

No way am I telling you about this - hope springs eternal that they will knock on my door. Its genius though.


Comments (19)

PVRs - less talk and more action

It is time we all stopped talking about the future of advertising in a PVR world and started doing something about it. I am working on 20 concrete ideas to get people started. It may end up as a more chuncky ten or as a more Cluetrain like 95. Maybe you can help me on this?

Giving your brand a voice in the fast forward future

How long before PVRs start to seriously effect your brand’s ability to communicate with consumers?

I reckon you have got 5 years

By 2010 Sky estimate that time shifting devices like PVRs will be in 34% of UK households

And as we know 92% of all ads watched from the hard disk get zapped.

That’s 5 years to come to terms with the most fundamental change in TV viewing behaviour since the invention of the remote.

Lets get to work.

1. Launch now.

The principle of Brand Darwinism means only the most powerful brands with the greatest creative reputations will survive in the new TV landscape. This will not be the place to launch brands in the future. Pull forward your brand launch plans.

2. Create must watch live programming.

If people watch TV live not off the disk then they can’t skip the ads. It is in every advertiser’s interest to ensure that the schedule contains a healthy proportion of programming that consumers must watch live. Work with broadcasters to ensure this is the case.

3. Change your criteria for pre-testing.

The most important question for any new campaign is not whether it communicates but whether anyone will bother to watch it. And if they do how long they watch it for. The way you evaluate new ideas needs to answer these questions before anything else.

4. Get the sponsorship habit back.

Whatever he value of associating your brand with particular programming there is a big new reason to get keen on sponsorship. Idents are a key navigation tool for PVR owners signaling the end of the break. Surrender your pre break bumpers and double the length of bumpers at the end of the break.

5. Understand the power of the fast-forwarded ad.

At present ad recall is no lower in PVR households than in linear TV households. This suggests that either live programming advertising exposure is sufficient or that fast-forwarded ads have some value. You need to understand what this value is and pay for it appropriately.

6. Be first in break.

Get them before they have time to reach for the remote and zap the break. And ensure that nothing comes between the last frame of the programming and the first frame of your ad. Of course whether people stay with your ad is ultimately down to how good it is.

7. Put your TV expenditure behind the right brands in your portfolio.

PVR research shows that ad avoidance is category specific. Financial service brands have a far tougher time than leisure and entertainment brands. And within this we can predict that ad avoidance is also brand specific with more engaging and familiar brands more likely to have their ads watched. Put your TV cash behind the brands best placed to return that investment?

8. Challenge media planning orthodoxy.

Should coverage and frequency still be your media planning mantra? Arguably TV advertising will reach fewer people less often than at present but with the power to be far more relevant and offering a far richer brand experience. Relevant contact and depth of exposure should replace coverage and frequency.

9. In the short term play with the technology.

PVRs allow consumers to do extraordinary things with the TV – to time shift (even if by a few seconds) to pause, to rewind, to record two programmes simultaneously and to organise their own schedules. The same functionality can now be applied to ads, looks like its time to have some fun.

10. In the long term harness the technology.

Millions of TVs with whapping great hard disks underneath them, containing unparalleled information about the viewer and their behaviour. Far from a threat to marketing PVR technology might resolve many of the downsides of TV as a medium from atrocious targeting to shallow brand experiences.

11. Get serious about interactive TV.

Few advertisers have really explored the full potential of Interactive TV. Interactive TV lets us take the consumer into a brand space that offers unprecedented levels of experience and reward. Interactive TV will no longer be about brand response but about brand involvement.

12. Rethink the structure of your advertising.

In a PVR world not only will the ad sell the brand but to a very real extent the brand will sell the ad. If you brand is potent and has a strong creative reputation brand the beginning not the end of your commercials. If it isn’t you have 5 years to change this.

13. Treat communications like content.

Read my lips – why would anyone want to listen to what you have to say? That is the fundamental lesson to be learned if you brand is going to continue to have a voice. It’s not a hard lesson but a discipline programme makers learned decades ago.

14. Go shorter and longer.

Sure the 30 second ad looks like it’s in for a rough ride but maybe it was always a bit of a compromise – too short for the people interested in what you have to say and too long for those who couldn’t give a damn. The future belongs to the short form directional advertisement (an ad for the ad) and more involving long form communication outside the broadcast stream. Hey isn’t that like online advertising?

15. Don’t be seduced by easy answers.

I love product placement and branded content as much as the next person. But it is folly to suggest that they are the panacea for all the ills the PVR will visit upon our business. There simply isn’t an easy answer so resist the advances of the content charlatans who suggest otherwise.

16. Become media prejudiced.

Different media channels do different things well. Find out which combination of channels can take up the slack if TV becomes less effective for you. Welcome to the new golden age of the poster.

17. Everything is viral.

Even if the television medium works less effectively in the future that does not mean that the brand film will cease to be the single most powerful long-term selling tool. Find as many ways as possible to distribute your brand films to consumers from the cinema to mobile telephony. But remember that the best distribution is consumer driven and that means creating work that people want to pass on.

18. Be excited, be very, very excited.

Fear has no place in the future. The sooner you get excited about the PVR world the sooner you will work out how to make sure your brand will maintains a strong voice in the market.

19. It’s the creative stupid.

Establish a reputation for creative excellence because creativity matters like it never has done before. It’s not about cut through any longer but about the way you chose to engage the consumer in dialogue. It’s a fundamental reason why anyone should give you the time of day when they are armed to the teeth with kit to kill your comms.

20. Stop reading this and start doing it.

Right now you have time to experiment, take some risks and make some mistakes. But be under no illusion time is running out.

Comments (5)

Opinionated Advertising

Opinionated Advertising Opinionated advertising is a new idea about the role that advertising should play in the marketing mix and the form it should take. Implicit in this approach is a disdain for well branded entertainment and the language of...

Comments (7)

Will your brand have a voice in the fast forward future?

If 92% of all ads are zapped when TV is watched off a PVR hard disk what are the implications for advertising? This presentation offers a number of ideas and scenarios about the implications of PVRs on brand communications. If...

Comments (1)

Here come the meme doctors

People have talked about the value of the meme concept in advertising for a while. I like to think I have gone that bit further, suggesting that we substitute memes for the brand concept wholesale.

Here come the meme doctors

This paper acknowledges the power of the brand concept for marketing in particular and business in general. However, it suggest that we have so abused the idea that the term ‘brand’ is no longer of practical use. Thankfully the emergence of memetics and the idea of memes provides an ideal replacement and one that more adequately prepares us for a future in the meme laboratory.

The weaknesses of the brand concept

The brand is the single most powerful marketing idea.

As the collected attitudes towards and experiences of an organisation, product or service it represents the key to differentiation in today’s confused and overcrowded marketplace.

Our competitors can copy our product formulations, service innovations or structures and processes but they can’t nick our brand - those attitudes and experiences are not easily transferable. And if there is something that consumers want that we have and the competition doesn’t (and can’t easily copy) then we are well on the way to creating effective monopoly conditions - and the financial benefits this represents for any organization.

One of the best examples of this is Levi’s. For enough people in Europe the potency of the Levi’s brand means that other jeans cannot be substituted for Levi’s - they do not represent acceptable alternatives. As such Levi’s has created monopoly conditions in that marketplace and can proceed to push up prices and push down retailer margins. Indeed so powerful is their brand that they can also afford to put a brake on advertising expenditure creating a three way boost to profits.

What a wonderful thing the brand is whether you are a Marketing or Financial Director.

There is just one problem - its bankrupt currency. So weighed down with baggage is the term, and indeed the concept in general, that it has ceased to be of much practical use. Either the brand concept requires a radical repositioning or its time to replace it with something new.

What went wrong?

We confused and abused the brand through misunderstanding and short term gain.

Fundamentally we neglected the fact that brands do not belong to us and do not reside in the HQ’s of organizations but rather exist only in the minds of consumers. This has lead to a number of assumptions that are counter-productive and have effectively neutered the power of the brand.

We got confused about products and brands believing that they were one and the same thing. We forgot that brands are the perceptual halos around products, services and organisations not the products themselves. We used the term brand to apply to all the products in our portfolios even new products which self evidently can’t have brands since consumers have no understanding of them.

Crime of crimes we developed the idea of brand equity which we could ultimately apply a monetary value to and started to believe that this would allow us to trade brands - brands don’t belong to us and so it is ridiculous to believe that we can buy and sell them.

We developed long lists of what we called brand values which were entirely aspirational and bore no resemblance to the way people really felt about the products we sold.

We invented a strand of communications called brand advertising, which in claiming it alone had a bearing on brand perceptions marginalised the brand, alienating it from the real business concerns of most clients. Just mention the word ‘brand’ to many retailers, for instance, and they develop a nervous tick.

We also believed our own publicity, that the futures of the brands associated with our products are under our control rather than understanding that we only have the power to influence the development of brands.

We have lost sight of what a brand is and is not and what they can and can’t do for us. As a term it therefore means different things to different people - hence the reason it has ceased to be of real value.

This is not to say that the concept of the brand is redundant, just that the terminology with which it is associated no longer serves its purpose.

The preservation and growth of the brand concept into the future and the demands placed on those who seek to use it in the service of business demands an new vocabulary devoid of the baggage that currently weighs it down.

Fortunately there is already a such a concept that exists that is perfect for the task - the meme.

What is a meme?

The best way to understand the concept of a meme is to see it in the light of the function and behaviour of genes. Indeed it was a biologist, Richard Dawkins, who first coined the term in his 1976 book ‘the selfish gene’. Just as genes transmit biological information from one human to another, memes transmit ideas and beliefs from one human to another. So in short a meme is a unit of cultural transmission and memetics describes the process of cultural evolution.

And if the body is created from and in turn replicates genes, the mind is made from and replicates memes. This idea of replication is essential to the meme idea, or to be fair the meme meme. In Dawkins paper ‘the Viruses of the mind’ he takes this further seeing memes as behaving like viruses. He uses the concept to launch a stinging attack on his bete noir - religion - but it is also helpful to us. If memes behave virally that says something very clear about the mode of transmission, the way they infect the mind and the way that they poison the territory of the mind against other ideas or memes.

So how does this affect marketers and the cherished concept of the brand.

Any idea, belief or attitude is a meme. Consequently the halo of such attributes that we are used to calling the brand is essentially a meme. All products, services or organisations therefore have memes with some stronger than others and therefore better at transmission, replication and defence from competitive memes.

The key to success for any product is to launch into the world - and remember it is purely a world of minds - a powerful meme about itself. The initial catalyst may well be advertising but the measure of its power is that it becomes in large part self replicating, that consumers spread and augment it themselves.

Returning to jeans we can see that both Levi’s and their main mainstream competitor - Wrangler - have memes. Levi’s meme is about originality and to a certain extent accessible individuality, Wrangler’s is very much less clear but essentially its about authenticity. However, the Levi’s meme is considerably more potent than that of Wrangler. As such it is better at transmission from mind to mind and, critically, in making life tough for the Wrangler meme which finds minds vaccinated against it by the Levi’s meme. In a mind where the Levi’s meme has taken up residence any other jeans meme is either seen as irrelevant or as a blatant me too.

Why memes are better than brands

Notwithstanding that my contention was that the term brand was problematic rather than its concept, thinking about products having memes rather than brands has a number of clear advantages.

Its new terminology and as such has a reasonably clear set of definitions. We would all know what each other was talking about because we would all have learnt it from the same origin.

It makes it clear that the place these ideas reside is the human mind not the balance sheet or the marketing department

It better shows the nature of transmission of brands. That it is essentially viral and dependent on consumers not advertising or other forms of communications. These can provide meme catalysts and help shape its development but they are meme shepherds not the sheep themselves. It is clear that the catalyst for the Tesco meme was new stores and ads but its success has been in the way it has been self replicating in customers minds.

It helps us see that all communications add to the meme pool and that there aren’t specific channels that do this at the exclusion of others

But most important is what it says about the function of marketing departments and their agencies in the future.

Why we should all become meme doctors

If the world of genetics has doctors or scientists who manipulate genes to their own ends then on the world of memetics their should be a equivalent role. If we have given up the antiquated position of brand guardians or worse brands owners as I have argued, then this is a logical occupation to assume.

Meme doctors invent new memes or versions of existing memes believed to be more powerful and more successful that those at present. We might see the ‘very nice man’ meme for the AA as a once powerful meme that had lost its potency particularly in the face of the ‘new knights of the road’ meme from the RAC. A spot of reengineering by the meme doctors and the devastatingly successful 4th emergency service meme was released into the world.

Meme doctors also inject new attributes into existing memes so that they don’t loose their potency and also try to ensure that they are not corrupted by the very minds that they infect.

But meme doctors do not believe that they have the power of life or death over the memes they create and they know that the key to success is self replication not wacky ads or new packaging alone.

Comments (2)

The ads are as good as the programmes

A gloriously simple chart based on TGI data that indicates exactly why people might want to use PVRs to zap ads. It was originally given to me by John Lowery - Planning Director at Grey. Download file...

A gloriously simple chart based on TGI data that indicates exactly why people might want to use PVRs to zap ads. It was originally given to me by John Lowery - Planning Director at Grey.
Download file

Comments (6)

Monopoly, magic and meaning - the enduring power of advertising

I am advertising's number one fan. Despite all the issues that its faces it still delivers three things to businesses uniquely well - monopoly, magic and meaning. This article is based on a talk to the UK Financial Services Forum in February 2005 about which marketing discipline should get the lion's share of the marketing budget and sets out this thinking. Download file

Monopoly, magic and meaning - the enduring power of advertising

In so many ways advertising is on the defensive.

For starters there is the proliferation of new marketing disciplines all of which add powerful new weapons to your armoury and demand that advertising share a little of the financial action.

That’s kind of understandable.

What is less flattering is the increasing degree of consumer disaffection with advertising. People didn’t always dislike the dark art, indeed way back in 1991 32% of all adults in this country believed that the ads were as good as the programmes. That figure is now languishing at 17% and has declined every year since the early ‘90s.

But to be honest this wouldn’t be a tragedy if we could guarantee that they were still paying attention. Who cares whether people like an ad as long as they are being communicated with? Well the bad news is that increasingly consumers are armed with technology, like Sky+, that allows them to fast-forward through the ads. Evidence from Forrester in the US suggests that 92% of all ads get zapped when watchced off a hard disk.

Sounds like we are up a certain creek without a paddle.

Well I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Far from it.

At best advertising is an extraordinary business tool and I still love it. In many resects - and to paraphrase Kathy Bates in Misery - I am advertising’s number one fan.

And as such I want to introduce you to my 3 M’s of advertising.

Now I’d like to suggest that I have been working on the 3 M’s for the past 5 years and they are the centerpiece of a new book on marketing that is shortly to be published and is likely to make me rich and hugely famous.

But the reality is that I made them up.

Or rather I have pulled together three ideas about the potency of advertising and added a neat little alliterative twist. But hey I’m a planner and that’s what we do.

My 3 Ms are Monopoly, Magic and Meaning

These do not represent the sum total of reasons why you should advertise but what advertising can uniquely deliver.

First up I want to talk to you about monopoly or specifically monopolies of the mind.

One of the first things that Tim Parker did when he joined the AA last year was to declare his intention to return to the positioning and strapline of the 4th Emergency Service.

He didn’t do this because the 4th Emergency Service is more famous than the ‘just AAsk’ campaign that was running or because he thinks that it will lead to better creative work. He did it because he knows the power of the campaign to fight the commodity conditions that bedevil his category.

At present there are over 100 organisations that can furnish you with breakdown cover, a low interest category, where every provider is seen to offer the same service and where purchase decisions are made almost exclusively on price. It’s tough to maintain a premium service with a premium price in these conditions.

However, while there may be 100s of breakdown cover providers there is only one 4th Emergency Service. When advertising talks about the AA in this light it creates a monopoly in the mind – an idea about the AA that actively fights substitution and justifies a premium. Its not a real monopoly – few of us will ever be fortunate to run a business in these conditions – but an effective monopoly that fights against the forces of commodification.

Advertising’s power to create monopolies of the mind in commodified markets is one of the principle reason any business should be excited about it.

The second of my M’s is magic and advertising’s lack of predictability.

In the middle of the ‘90s I worked on Its Good to Talk for BT – you know the advertising that almost destroyed Bob Hoskins career. It was another campaign in a long and distinguished tradition of call stimulation advertising that included Busby and Maureen Lipman’s nightmarish vision of motherhood – Beattie. However the effectiveness of ‘It’s Good to Talk’ was in a different league all-together. For every pound that BT spent behind the campaign it delivered six pounds to BT’s bottom line. Both Its good to talk and Bob’s observations about male phone behaviour became part of the vernacular of the late ‘90s.

But for all the success of Its Good to Talk this could never have been predicted. Because great advertising literally goes out of control – or rather out of our control.

And this is what I mean by magic. The strength of thinking and creativity that goes into the best advertising is a magical multiplier. This magic is what propels the brand’s message out of the ad break - which you pay for handsomely - and into people’s day to day conversations - that cost you absolutely nothing.

I’d go further and say that increasingly advertising’s role in the media mix is to act as a catalyst that ignites conversations about the brands we all represent. Catalytic advertising is all the more essential in this category where few purchase decisions are made in isolation, without reference to other people’s opinions whether they are IFAs, journalists or your mates.

So celebrate advertising’s magic and its down right lack of predictability. For one thing it means that the size of your budget isn’t the only determinant of success – smaller brands can walk tall with a sprinkling of the second M.

The third M is meaning.

When James Murdoch arrived to run Sky his appointment stunned the city. Not only were they sceptical about his ability, his youth and his surname but critically his intention to stem the decline in subscriber acquisitions by massively increasing his adspend. BSkyB shares lost 20% of their value on the day he announced the plan last summer.

By close of business on the 31st December 2004 the plan was paying off. Sky had acquired 192,000 net subscriptions in 3 months. This was the first quarterly increase in 18 months, it compared with just 62,000 subscriptions in the preceding quarter and totally outstripped city expectations.

It was direct response press, mail, inserts and online activity, that converted the lion’s share of these new subscribers. However, in the final quarter of 2004 these tried and tested approaches had a different context to operate in. This context was delivered by an entirely new approach to Sky’s advertising – the ‘what do you want to watch?’ campaign.

This campaign gave new meaning to Sky for hundreds of thousands of digital resisters and added impetus to the harder nosed acquisition activity. In particular it turned its back on sports obsessed ‘ransom note’ advertising in favour of work repositioning Sky as a more female focused entertainment brand.

The point is that the meaning that advertising can give a brand not only delivers success in its own right but it creates a positive context for all the brand’s activities and a more fertile environment for the other marketing disciplines to excel.

Love it or loathe it, you have to respect the HBOS Howard campaign. Not only has it directly driven more customers to the brand more efficiently but the other marketing disciplines have successfully fed off it from the reduced cost per response for direct mail to more column inches for PR.

Critically it also galvanized an enormous organisation over a short space of time in a way that no other marketing discipline could match. In fact the best advertising for living brands such as yourselves arguably pays back before it goes on air. By giving the whole company a clear sense of direction, pride in what they do and a standard to live up to – by giving your brand meaning to your people.

So there they are my 3M’s – monopoly, magic and meaning.

These are the achievements that advertising can deliver to your business that the other disciplines can’t touch. Monopolies of the mind help decommodify markets, the sheer magic of advertising can deliver a disproportionate return on investment whatever your budget. And the meaning that advertising can create provides a context for all your organisation’s activities.

Yes advertising is under pressure. It is also one of the most adaptive business tools at your disposal and when its good – its very very good, doing extraordinary things for brands and businesses.

But here is the catch. You see what I have described – my 3Ms of monopoly, magic and meaning – are nothing more than advertising’s promise. They are what advertising does at its best. Whether your advertising lives up to this promise only you can tell.

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Creating responsible desire

This is some thinking I did about ethics and advertising around the beginning of the decade. It lead to the idea that in order to promote sustainability (the ultimate aim of any business) advertising has to find ways to create desire more responsibly. This paper tries to explore the issues that surround this idea.

Responsible desire – creating more ethical advertising

“Business has become the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole.”
William Willis Harmon, Co-Founder of the World Business Academy

Ethics and the idea of ethical advertising have recently become an extremely hot topic in the advertising industry. The whole issue has captured peoples’ attention both for personal (doing some good for our consciences) and professional reasons (doing some good for our bottom line as well as our Clients’). However, there are a wide variety of interpretations of what this means and how committed individual people are to the idea.

This paper is intended to help you explore a more ethical approach to advertising by providing a better explanation of the subject.

What the hell does ethical mean?

One of the key issues here is that ethical is such a subjective term – what is ethical to one person may not be to another. Moreover the concept of what is ethical is not fixed in stone – for example it used to be thought ethical to advertise cigarettes but not condoms however, these days the position has completely reversed.

The reality is that ethical is not an absolute term and the word ethics, strictly speaking, merely means the moral code by which someone decides right from wrong and is therefore highly personal.

That said, the term ethical has acquired a very specific meaning over the recent past. When we use the word ethical we mean an activity that doesn’t do harm. For example the term ethical investment fund implies that money will not be invested in companies that cause harm to people, animals or the environment.

In a sense then ethics really boils down to respect. Ethical people, ethical companies and ethical activities show respect for the world around them and are aware of the consequences of their actions upon others. Contrast the respective reputations of both Esso and BP both of which are engaged in the same industry. Esso is currently subject to a global consumer boycott because its denial of climate change is seen to show enormous disrespect to the environment and the people of earth. BP on the other hand is seen as more ethical because they show increasing respect for the world beyond the boardroom table and the oilrig.

What should we respect?

Clearly the concept of ethics becomes a little unmanageable if you are watching out for ‘all things bright and beautiful’. Fortunately there is now a really easy way of understanding what you need to respect in order to be more ethical.

This is the idea of the triple bottom line.

Traditionally the business world has operated with one bottom line – the profitability and financial sustainability of the company. However, the concept of a triple bottom line suggests that this is an oversimplification since the sustainability of a business depends on more than profitability alone.

The three components for a company’s triple bottom line are:

1 Profitability – respect for a business’ effect on the economy
2 Social responsibility – respect for a business’ effect on society
3 Environmental responsibility – respect for a business’ effect on the environement

In other words, for a business to be sustainable it needs to generate a profit, not harm society and not degrade the ‘natural’ capital (the earth’s resources) that it requires to function.

What the hell has all this got to do with advertising?

Because advertising is guilty of a lack of respect.

The advertising industry has rarely looked beyond the immediate success of its work and the profitability of individual agencies. It has tended to operate in a vacuum with its only responsibility being to the Client’s marketing objectives.

Sustainability, either of the advertising industry or its Client’s businesses has also rarely featured in the consciousness of agencies. Selling today is of paramount importance not respecting people or the environment so that you can also sell tomorrow and the day after that. For all the rhetoric about building long-term brands advertising is riddled with short termism.

In short advertising has lacked respect for the wider world. And people in the advertising industry have traditionally seen it as ethically neutral. Witness the way advertising people used to justify the continued advertising of tobacco in the face of overwhelming opposition. The argument went that it wasn’t for the advertising industry to decide what was right or wrong, that was the job of governments. As long as tobacco was a legal product, people in the industry argued, we should be allowed to advertise with impunity regardless of the harm it was doing to people.

And there is the small issue of sanctioning strategies and creative ideas that manipulate consumer desire by making people deliberately dissatisfied with what they have and with their lives. Think, for instance, about the way insurance companies scare the living daylights out of people in order to sell them a policy or the way that the relentless advertising of expensive trainer brands to children has helped fuel the increase in playground bullying.

Its not that advertising people are bad people hell bent on making the world a worse place but that we don’t take responsibility for our actions and we don’t respect anything but our client’s immediate business success and our financial bottom line.

So what?

Well for starters there is your own sense of self worth. In a recent Gallup poll advertising was ranked 43rd out of 45 professions based on ethics and honesty. While for many of us advertising is a stimulating and rewarding way to make a living, it is also increasingly criticised. At best people think our work is entertaining if trivial at worst many despise what we do and to a certain extent we only have ourselves to blame. Is it any wonder people think you and I lack integrity and honesty when we have treated these values with so little respect?

The bizarre thing is that it would be hard to find a group of people anywhere in Britain that are as bright, creative and and well intentioned than the people you tend to meet in the ad industry. If for no other reason than personal pride you should engage in the debate on ethics in advertising.

It is time that we all recognise the powerful influence we have both intentionally and accidentally on our economy, society and environment and behave in a more responsible manner. At one level we need to ensure that our work never does harm by respecting the unintentional consequences of our actions. At another we need to start to harness that power to do some good – not only to make our clients more profitable but to make our society happier and more cohesive and our environment healthier and more sustainable.

Isn’t this the longest suicide note in advertising?

The idea of ethics in business is not a flight of fancy. It is all part of a powerful new agenda with in the business community and a topic of constant discussion around the boardroom table. Whether its called corporate social responsibility or business ethics there is a sea change happening in the way that businesses regard their roles with in society. As Sir John Brown, CEO of BP maintained “these days businesses have to be a positive force for good” and this from an oil man!

For instance the FTSE4good monitors the performance of companies that comply with a series of ethical benchmarks that precisely match the elements of the triple bottom line. The very existence of the FTSE4good is proof of just how seriously business is taking the issue. Not least because they have to as by law all pension funds now have to disclose whether they are taking in to account environmental and social issues. And these days many fund managers threaten to vote down the annual accounts of any FTSE 100 company that does not include an environmental report.

The long and short is that while it may not have reached the marketing department yet but all of the issues that we have raised here are being discussed within Clients organisations.

Increasingly business believes that good is good.

What is the answer?

There is a future in which more ethical advertising builds brands that behave more ethically and I call this the creation of responsible desire.

Responsible desire is the idea that though we are still in the business of creating powerful desire for our client’s brands we have to start doing this responsibly. If for no other reason this is because we want to go back to people and create the same desire year after year without hindrance either from regulation or consumer rejection.

Responsible desire is a new way that we think about the way advertising works and a way of developing challenging and engaging strategies and creative work. Above all responsible desire is about better work and more successful clients.

Applying responsible desire to your work

There seems to be a general interest in making advertising and marketing more responsible but when it comes down to creating work few people seem clear on what is expected of them.

There are two ways to approach responsible desire.

1) Not doing harm

At a basic level creating responsible desire is about being aware of the unintentional consequences of the advertising you are creating.

Is there anything about ads, the idea, their casting, the dialogue or even the media plan for instance that is likely to show a lack of respect to people who will see it? For instance every time that an ad is played out that suggests that the average Briton is white, all men are incompetent and all women are interested in the quality of their wash we do harm.

Its important to understand that this is not about creating bland advertising that is uncontroversial or is overflowing with lowest common denominator political correctness. Responsible advertising can be controversial especially when it is exposing the lazy conventions of the rest of our industry and the many advertising and marketing conventions that people never question.

The easiest way to approach responsible desire is simply to be aware of the unintended consequences of the ad you are making and doing something to prevent this. The majority of advertising that does harm does so out of laziness not intent.

2) Doing good

The second approach is a little more fundamental. It involves harnessing the power that brands and advertising has to do some good.

This is a far more challenging area because its about how the client presents their product or service to the world and requires the client to be far more engaged in the concept of responsible desire.

Let’s take strategies first. Here responsible desire is about creating and manipulating brands so that their appeal is wholly or in part because of the ‘good’ that they do or the respect that they show the world around them.

Of course some client relationships don’t always allow for such fundamental influence on the brand strategy but they usually allows us to create work that exhibits responsible desire.

For instance, at hhcl we have always rejected the sort of advertising that promises a Client’s products will give its customers a better and more fulfilling life – so called image advertising.

When it comes to developing creative work responsible desire can be about ensuring that you aren’t using dishonest or misleading techniques to sell the brand in question. It is clumsy manipulation that most increases consumer cynicism towards the work we do.

The historic hhcl advertising for Egg for instance challenged the cynicism consumers have about financial services advertising by overtly attacking the techniques that these brands use to communicate with customers. We exposed the claims and stereotypes that they use to peddle their wares in ads like token black man (which won a Council for Racial Equality Award for its troubles).

Responsible desire can also be more directly concerned with society and the environment, using these as central to the creative idea.

In the past hhcl’s work for Fuji used the opportunity that photography presents to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions. While our work for Homepride cook in sauces dramatised the authenticity of the product by using ethnically diverse British families.

Both were engaged in fostering greater cohesion in our society by representing its diversity and the need to accept difference.

What about greenwash?

Greenwash is the essentially ethical spin. It is where companies present themselves as ethical without any, or at least a commensurate, change in their behaviour. It is vitally important that you avoid greenwashing clients and so like all advertising it is our responsibility to ensure that any strategy, creative idea or execution is credible.

So should you just handle ethical clients?

It is the responsibility of all businesses to address the ills on their doorsteps, to look at their sectors and clean up the harm that they do. The concept of responsible desire is an attempt by an advertising and marketing communications agency to reform advertising and marketing. It is not an attempt to reform business as a whole and it is not our responsibility to try and do this.

Of course I believe that businesses that build more ethical brands using more ethical means will be the long term winners and people in our industry should want to be a part of the success of any organisation that is engaging with this process. More than that responsible desire is about elevating the debate on ethics beyond one of risk management towards one of demand generation because brands that do good should use this as way of building business – after all trust is the bedrock of all brands.

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