An Ode to the Alternative

In our world of commercialising every idea, every thought, every piece of creative work, this is an ode to the alternative. This is an alternative.

An ode to the sub-cultures, the underground scenes.

To the venues you would have never discovered. Never experienced.

The people you would have never met.

The smell, the sweat, the tears, the blood.

The madness. The delusion.

The raw energy and emotion nothing else has ever captured.

The passion right in front of your eyes, just a few feet away.

Purity.

It transcends you. You’re in it. You’re part of it.

There is no transaction, no benefit, no goal.

Only an intensive and overwhelming feeling piercing through you.

Time is being forgotten. Memories are lost.

The artists are no different from you and I.

But they’ve exposed themselves. Like we never will.

 

ThisquietarmyThisquietarmy

Tropic Of CancerTropic Of Cancer

AmenraAmenra

Dirty BeacheDirty Beaches

LifeloverLifelover

Haus Arafna.jpgHaus Arafna

PrurientPrurient

Abattoir FermeAbattoir Fermé

Willis Earl BealWillis Earl Beal

MonoMono

Cult of Luna
Cult Of Luna

An Ode to the Alternative

Touched by the Hand

… you have been touched.by the hand.accept your fate. now lead the way.ascend.to rise.above the whole.this is a calling.on you.I will beat you without anger and I will draw from your eyelid a tear. I bare.my arms.now drive your nails through my palms.when we meet.drive those.nails right through my feet.I have given you something real.you thought that you’d never feel.I have given you something so real.a wound.that will never heal.

– CHVE/Amenra

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Rudolf Bonvie – Dialog 2, 1973

In the age of plentitude, an overflow of information, a constant presence of everything & everybody nearby and one’s own vast self-awareness that derives from that, it seems we are in need for those particular moments that can cut through and leave a mark once again. It is not the question whether we are in need to add more sensories in an already overcrowded sensory world. For we are in need of sensories of a different kind, of a better quality.

In the advertising world, we are in need of stimuli that touch people on a different level. It requires a certain intelligence and a certain artistic skill to deliver and affect the intrinsic core of our being. And that is exactly what we should aim for and seduce. A laugh, a tear, an uncomfortable reception, a question to ponder about. Something that demands a reaction. Something so powerful it cannot be ignored. Something that overcomes indifference. For we need to create a moment where time stood still for 60 seconds and had the power to change something in such a brief moment. Something that can be build on.

Provoking for the mere reason to provoke can be ineffective, but provocations that demand genuine reactions or even resistance, those are the ones that have something honest and interesting to tell. Even if there are no words or even if there is no higher purpose. It is our duty when interrupting somebody to deliver something that person can take with him afterwards.

And those triggers that tickle, provoke and influence are quite stable and permanent traits. They are embedded in our human and animal DNA and it will take a very long time for them to change, if they ever will. It therefore is our job to explore and reach out to them. To grab people and make them experience something that feels familiar yet surprising and sudden.

Do all communications work like this? Of course not, for I am a firm believer nobody really knows how it all precisely works, just like Paul Feldwick is his recent, but already classic ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’ (2015) lays out.  But I do am a strong advocate in aiming for a certain intensity and seduction. It pushes us in rethinking our message, our delivery and our tone. It makes us rethink our brief and evaluate how exactly we are going to make people care and contemplate about what we have to say and what we have to bring them. And it definitely adds some creative and intelligent integrity to our profession, which is very much needed.

Touched by the Hand

Against Creative Testing: The Need for an Erotics of Advertising

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” – David Hume

harry-holland_falling

Harry Holland – Falling, 2008

It is the bitter old debate whether the advertising trade is one of science or one of art. For we still hold on to the idea we are in the creative industry, as we are, both the client and agency strategy side has become one of justifying, examining and confirming too narrowly creative executions, rather than developing and steering conditions so creativity can flourish to unforeseen territories. The science of marketing strategy has infiltrated in advertising planning too much; and while both territories are closely related and overlap in many areas, a rational strategic methodology can not and should not be applied in validating the quality of creativity.

In the development of creative concepts, ideas, and executions, it has become self-evident that each step of the process is being measured, analysed and validated; mostly with only a handful of carefully chosen (and often paid or incentified) participants. These are mostly people who know nothing about marketing or advertising, let alone how great influential and creative ideas work. They are brought together to voice their opinion and that’s exactly what they will be doing, even if it’s just for the sake of it.

Judging a piece of creative should never be done in the laboratorium or the boardroom. For the internal and external conditions in receiving this piece of work are completely divergent.

In her essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964), the art critic and writer Susan Sontag argues art and creative work should not fall in the trap of rational analysis. For art is not created for post logical deduction, it is created to make you experience it in a certain way. She argues that in this new approach to aesthetics the transcendent importance of art has been replaced by the emphasis on the intellect, rather than recognizing great creative works as possible sources of intensity. She writes:

“Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer manipulation of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties […] What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

Brought to my attention by Martin Weigel (Wieden & Kennedy), the market researcher and consultant Alan Hedges argues in ‘Testing to Destruction’ (1972) that the role of advertising research should be there to research early in the process, research late, and never research in the midst of the advertising or campaign development. Researching early, to get to the proper business and comms objectives, to find an interesting angle (insight) to talk about, to understand the marketplace and the consumer context long before you start developing anything creatively and get into logistics. Researching late, because advertising should establish and be able to proof the long-term effects on sales, brand recall, awareness, fame, changed brand perception, or even behaviour. These things often adapt slowly and should therefore be given enough time to manifest any significant long-term changes. But, as he argues, you can’t research the effects in the middle. You can’t research and quantify the ‘why’ behind a creative idea; why exactly it made people tick and change in a certain direction. And therefore research should let go and not interfere during this vital stage of exposing your creative work to the outside world. That is the “magic of creativity” you need to trust in and can’t control.

This magic is the reason why we all hate and never remember any of those product messages that look all the same, and are not unique or original in any way. And this magic is the reason why a drumming gorilla sold plenty of chocolate, colourful balls down the San Francisco streets sold plenty of TVs, and one penguin pet sold plenty of home decorations and household goods.

There are two reasons why testing and analysing creative work is one of the dumbests things to do.

Firstly, this focus group or quantitative testing always involves people who have no or little understanding of how (commercial) creativity works. They often don’t understand that it’s about simplifying and entertaining rather than informing and selling directly to the viewer; that it often involves a long-term process of building a brand step by step consistently; that sometimes things don’t have to make sense from the very first time; that it’s always more important to be interesting, memorable and distinctive, than to deliver the ‘right’ message; that the devil is in the details and with one piece of the work missing (e.g. the right music), the entire experience can be lost.

I am fairly confident that Nike’s tagline ‘Just Do It’ would have gotten the reactions and feedback the creatives should emphasise and clarify more the sporting part; that ‘Just Do It’ doesn’t really made sense (“do what exactly?”) without a proper context and further explanations. Nor would anybody in the room have agreed that a consumer electronics company with big and serious ambitions should name itself after an ordinary everyday piece of fruit. A perfect example for all of this is Apple’s ‘1984’ Super Bowl commercial, often voted as one of the best TV commercials that has ever been made. When shown in front of focus groups, all rejected the work and advised not to go forward with this piece of creative. It was said to be too dark and grim; that it didn’t made sense for not showing the product or brand; as well as the suggestion was made of having dancing robots.

If we as an industry are to live up our expertise and status, and take our creative consulting role seriously, we should leave these justifications and viewpoints to our own professional opinions. In the end, we can only hope that’s the reason why clients are paying and trusting us.

The second reason why money and resources should never be wasted on creative testing is a more sophisticated and serious argument. In ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011), Daniel Kahneman has introduced the wider world with the System 1 – System 2 framework. While System 2 is the self-conscious, explicit and slow agent of our decision-making process, System 1 is the implicit and effortless one. System 1 is responsible for almost all of our day-to-day routine decisions, while System 2 is the one that switches on when presented with a more effortful choice such a maths problem, what time your taxi should pick you up or what the most reliable insurer on the market is at the moment. People who learn how to drive rely almost completely on System 2 in the first hours and days, while bit by bit System 1 takes over when they have become experienced drivers and can do it “automatically”.

Why this model is so valuable for advertising is that it shows people are operating, making decisions and processing information in two very different mindsets. For people are much more likely to be in a System 1 context when they are exposed to an advertisement (in between TV shows, whilst driving, evening grocery shopping, browsing Facebook …) they will receive and process this work much more implicitly. The problem with focus groups and creative testing is that it requires all participants to be in a System 2 mindset. It urges people to focus, analysis and rationalise. To think through and to interpret. Everybody is mentally available; nobody is in a rush, hungry, distracted or having their thoughts on something else. Nobody has System 1 taken over impulsively and intuitively.

Alan Hedges sums up perfectly why testing a creative idea in the boardroom or laboratorium is never appropriate:

“There is no way of ‘testing’ an advertisement in advance of market place exposure which gives you a simple yet reliable guide to the effectiveness of the advertisement in question. The tools of measurement are too crude and of too uncertain relevance; the laboratory situation is too little like the real-life one; the factors which may affect success or failure are too many and too complex; the ways in which different campaigns work are too varied; and the competitive circumstances in which the advertising must work are too unpredictable.”

We need to let go. We need to let professional creatives do their thing and put it out in the world without strategic and research methodologies trying to define and design its quality & rationale, and its direct explicit impact; especially by people who enjoy no creative or commercial understanding. We again need to appeal to the senses, the intrinsic emotions and passions. We need to spend all our time to make something simple, beautiful and touching without interference of any rational interpretation, deduction and analysis. We need to aim for sharpening the sensory experiences and to aim for intensity. We need to grab, tick and move people, even if they don’t realise exactly why and how. Even if we don’t realise exactly why and how.

In her acclaimed essay Susan Sontag concludes:

“From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.”

and ends her paper with the brilliant words:

“… in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

Against Creative Testing: The Need for an Erotics of Advertising

On the Importance of Negativity

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden,” – Viktor Frankl

birthmachine

H. R. Giger – Birth Machine, 1967

I’ve always been fascinated by H. R. Giger’s ‘Birth Machine’. The bullets that carry life have always been a strong reminder that to construct or build something new, something else needs to be destroyed. A negative force is needed for a positive to arise or to awaken. As designing something new often requires violence, sacrifices, annihilation or suffering.

As morbid and depressing it may seem to some, it carries however profound truth. Whether we talk about new ideas, new civilizations throughout history, or all organic life on earth in general. Or as Victor Frankl shows us in the opening line, it can help us in finding meaning and direction in life. Nor shouldn’t it be a point of discussion anymore to realise that great art, if not some of the best and most interesting, has been originated out of negative or adverse motivations, be it depression, anger, hatred or fear. There’s too many examples to name here, with Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893) being one of the best and most known ones. And when you read ‘Things The Grandchildren Should Know’ (2009) you immediately understand where Mark O. Everett’s inspiration and incentives for Eels’ music have come from; to give a less evident example.

In ‘Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy’ (2009), Eric Wilson argues our current culture is obsessed with happiness, the dogma of pursuing it, and the naivety that happiness is the sole key to be able to live the most fulfilling and meaningful life. On the contrary, he states, we need a certain focus on negative thoughts and feelings so they give us a better and deeper understanding of life and ourselves. By focussing on both the good and the bad, we stay in a much more healthy relationship with the real world and are in a better position on how to thrive in it. He writes:

“Our task somewhat is to stay strong in the middle […] We want to find the secret interdependence between and among things, the untold concord covertly holding together the cosmos. We want, for once, to know that our pain will yield us a vision of rugged and vital unity unavailable to those who live only for mere tranquility, the shallow place.”

For once, it seems, staying in the middle is the least shallow place you can be in. For it provides us with a dual perspective from both ends. The truth always lies in the middle and by acknowledging all going on that is positive in this world, as well as by focussing on all that is negative and wrong, a more accurate picture starts to show itself.  In that sense the British poet Lord Byron was right when we once wrote: “… melancholy is a fearful gift. What is it but the telescope of truth?

And it was the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who argued that those people who have given death more contemplated thought during their lives are the ones who are able to cope with it much better. He suggested that those people who lived in the constant awareness that life might end any time, are also the people who will die resigned and reconciled, “patiently and tranquilly”.

While we now have seen the importance of negativity in the quest for the meaning of life as well as in the creation of the arts, can we apply this thinking for commercial advantages as well? And if so, how would we use it wisely?

Dom Boyd (adam&eve/DDB) spoke at an APG event in November last year on the importance of provoking primitive emotions and intensity in order for great and influential ideas or stories to happen. He opened and ended the talk with Justice’s ‘Stress’ music video which portraits and emphasises brutal violence, anger and drastic destruction. To him, and I agree, a video as such has all the perfect ingredients for an amazing and intriguing story to take place. It may have been a coincidence, but when he showed a periodic table on empathy and the emotions for planners to connect with, the majority of them are to be labelled into the group of negative ones.

Empathy

Dom Boyd – Empathy Table, 2014

Repressed, disgust, agony, guilt, lonely, defiant …  All wonderful and compelling conversation starters, no doubt.

But how can planning help here? If we are to understand the profound effect it has on a certain truth and the origin of beautiful arts, how can we master something negative and turn that into a commercial advantage?

Let it be clear I’m not talking about having a creative execution that communicates negativity. Apart from provoking charity work such as Save The Children’s “No Child Left Behind” tagline or the St John Ambulance work, it would be a hard thing to do commercially and effectively.

As in the arts, I want to focus on the motivations and why a certain piece was created, whether the end execution turned into something beautiful or something grotesque, for a wider audience to judge. Can strategy be motivated by negative emotions, for creativity to be liberated?

A famous case is Wieden + Kennedy’s 2005 APG paper for Honda “Hate doesn’t always suck ass”. It demonstrates how they were able to turn hate into a force of good: ‘Positive Hate’. The paper presents how they rebranded Honda as the company that hated the current automotive landscape and engineering, and decided to manufacture their own cars and parts against that current standard (e.g. “the diesel engine from the company that hated diesel engines”). In this paper Stuart Smith wrote:

“Wrong is right. We liked the idea of a strategy about hate. We thought it would disarm. Get us noticed. Provoke thought. Hate felt conspicuous. At school, we’re often told off for using the word. We liked the idea of bringing hate and positivity together even more. Like potassium and water, or Den and Angie, we felt that mixing the two would create a combustible reaction. Above all, we liked the idea of positive hate, because it sounded wrong.”

But maybe ‘hate’ is the most obvious of all. In the end, almost any challenger brand mindset has a certain hate for the status quo of its category. Its motivations to do things differently often derive from a certain dissatisfaction and resentment, combined with a commercial market opportunity it has found.

What about a strategy build on fear, cynicism, disgust, betrayal, or even depression? Again, charity work excluded from this. Can we persuade a brand to be motivated based on such negative emotions in order to both tell a compelling story people want to listen to, and have a commercial impact for the business? While one of the biggest criticism upon our industry is the fact we constantly try to spread cheap and blunt happiness, would we be able to put ourselves in a much more humble position if we would pursue exactly the opposite?

Human insights such as the betrayal against a past behaviour from your inner self; the fear of ever becoming a certain stereotype; the antipathy for what is going on in a cultural landscape or society; the embracing of your loneliness in an all too busy and connected world; the rage against the dying of the light … etc.

I believe all these motivations can have a place and have the power to start an influential story, and be distinctive in a landscape too often focussed on dull and banal enjoyment. Thought starters as such should be able to inspire creatives to make great and provocative work that has an effective commercial impact as well.

As Eric Wilson writes on the importance of this near the ending of his book:

“It fosters fresh insights into relationships between opposites, especially that great polarity life and death. It encourages new ways of conceiving and naming the mysterious connections between antinomies. It returns us to innocence, to irony, that ability, temporary, to play in potential without being constrained to the actual. Such respites from causality refresh our relationship to the world, grant us beautiful vistas, energize our hearts and our minds.”

Without any doubt this is a hard sell to your client. Even if you are able to make it work and sparkle great creative work on the back of it, would your client want to be known for such negative inclinations, the way certain artists do in their personal work? But as always, it will be the bold clients and brands who are willing to take risks, and who will lead the way and succeed; leaving the competition behind them who “live only for mere tranquility, the shallow place”.

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Mgla, 2006

On the Importance of Negativity

This Jilted Generation

marina-abramovic

Marina Abramovic – The Family III, 2008

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

While this paragraph above might sound like music to your ears, and while this might confirm and reinforce some of your own prejudged thoughts on our current youth, it actually is a quote from Plato credited to Socrates and is therefore dating back more than 2,400 years ago. It should be a reminder and a wake-up call to all of us, for we continuously over and underestimate the traits and connotations within the categories we build in our heads to define the world. We should be very cautious, especially when it regards labeling the people who come after and have power over us.

I myself am often perceived as a conservative old grumpy man who looks down upon this anti-social technology-driven generation; a generation that doesn’t know how to play carelessly and freely in the streets anymore; a generation that is surrounded by screens and has all the material possessions in the world, yet lack the proper personal guidance.

It is times like this I ought to reflect as well, and again realise I am very much mistaken. For I do believe and have lots of hope in this generation to come after us. While I am more pessimistic on the state of the globe, I agree very much with the writings from the French philosopher Michel Serres who praises this new Internet-generation and its mobility and access to knowledge, its open and mutual trust, and its critical mindset for anything authoritative. It’s the first generation to truly understand as well as embrace the big challenges it will face; and that is definitely something unique and worth talking about.

In his book ‘Petite Poucette’, or ‘Thumbelina’ (2012), Serres writes on this new individual:

“Young people can take in lots of divergent information simultaneously. They understand, adapt and associate differently than their ancestry. Their heads are different. […] They maneuver through a topological space of proximities, while we used to live in a metrical space that was built up from distances. Their spaces are different.”

And it is exactly this access and connectivity to information within mutual spaces, which he names the third big knowledge revolution coming after the invention of the writing system and the printing press, that will be the liberation of all next generations and humans to come. “Their mind and their spaces are different”: they perceive and construct the world differently. For the first time in the history of our planet, humans are able to see better what is really going on in the world (to a certain extent), and on top of that have been given more chances to make – small but sometimes significant – changes to it.

Yet there is a big downside to this environment people have to grow up in today. Despite all information, complex relationships, critical thinking and proximities of everybody everywhere; there is also a big threat we are facing. And that is the one of our individual competitiveness.

More people are going to college than ever before yet fewer jobs are available; more people are moving to the cities in search for a better life yet fewer salaries are able to cope with the rising rent and housing prices; more people are getting several degrees yet companies look for experience while internships are scarce, let alone paid; more people are being told (if not drilled) each and every day they should aim to be the next Steve Jobs and succeed in what it is they do, no matter what cost. Climbing the job ladder instead of leading a life of fulfillment seems to be the new sacrement. Because the meaning of ‘fulfillment’ is now reflected in the social and economic success one can have, rather than an intrinsic state of mind or being.

A strong observer and critic of this fierceful individual competition is the Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. In his book ‘What About Me?’ (‘Identiteit’) (2012) he challenges the neoliberal culture & economy, and what it has done to our individual personality, attitude and values. He makes the case that the globalised free-market economy might have given a certain better lifestyle, it has not however made us happier. On the contrary, he argues it has done exactly the opposite. In The Guardian (29 September 2014) he wrote last year:

We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited […] Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless. We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference.

Now, while I think this is a bold (and therefore very interesting and intriguing) statement, I think he’s more onto something when he talks about how the economic landscape has shaped our sense of identity. Today, everybody needs to be a winner. Anyone who fails to succeed must have something terribly wrong with him, even labeled as ‘sick’. The competitiveness of the market has infiltrated and replaced that of our personality. In the chapter ‘Enron Society’, he writes:

“Throughout history, economies have always been embedded in religious, ethical and social structures. This no longer applies in the case of neoliberalism. On the contrary, religion, ethics and society are subservient to ‘the market’. In that sense, neoliberalism is no longer an economic theory, but a much broader ideology.”

He argues we therefore have come to a point where educational and academic value have merged with an economic value; in the sense that intellectualism or knowledge that has no financial value anymore has become worthless and obsolete. Everything needs to be put in a monetary cost and everybody needs to follow that pattern. Smart people are therefore seen as a failure if they’re not rich at the same time. People who are comfortable in their current job role and have no need for an immediate promotion are seen as lunatics. He argues neoliberalism has created exactly the opposite it was meant to do. We have freedoms, but only those that are dictated by the market and have a price or commercial value attached to it.

nobuyoshi-araki

Nobuyoshi Araki – Satchin and his brother Mabo, 1963

And that’s why we might have cultivated a jilted generation. Not only because the baby boomers have taken in about all the financial assets and housing property in the western world (and beyond), but because the economic climate of the past decades combined with the recent financial crisis have conceived a hostile environment for the younger generation to grow up in. While more and more people are becoming more ‘politically correct’ than ever before, when it concerns the individual chances to succeed in the job market and in which neighborhood you want your children to go to school to, it is slowly turning into a passive aggressive contesting climate.

Being a psychologist (psychoanalyticus), Mr. Verhaeghe goes further and shows the profound impact this has on our ‘Self’. How we start to see everything as a rat race, ourselves and the outside world. Slowly everybody starts to feel like a failure among his own group of friends or community. The Internet proximity and connectivity Serres is talking about, even adds up to this perception and problem: “It looks as if the entire world is having fun and is being productive, while I was happy with having no plans tonight”. We constantly have to selectively fool ourselves and everybody else we’re giving 200% and how wonderful and exciting our lives are, while bit by bit we actually start to feel more empty and lonely inside. And while everybody seems so close, meaningful relationships are scarce.

Taking in the hopeful and positive look from Michel Serres on young people’s assertiveness, consciousness and connectivity, and the more adverse perspective that Paul Verhaeghe gives us on the current climate we’re educating this new generation in, a more balanced and nuanced outcome might start to appear, as mostly is the case.

It seems we are growing towards a competitive culture, driven by market prosperity. This has brought us a generation of people needing to financially and socially succeed in order to feel appreciated and respected. The pressure is clearly on. While at the same time we have a generation that is better than ever able to understand and hopefully cope with its situation and challenges. They’re connected to the world and everybody in it, and they live in a more open and honest environment.

Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid as much on what might come, nor should we glorify this next generation too heavily either. For they might end up just like any other generation: full of hopes, anger, trust, deceit, happiness and betrayal. Imperfect all-natural human beings.

This Jilted Generation

Our Collective Failure

our collective failure When you turn on your TV or radio; when you walk the streets or sit on a bus; when you go online on any device; or when you even print out a-ticket; you can conclude only one thing: the world is full of advertising and almost all of it is shit. It’s blunt, mundane, boring, brainless, annoying and it’s offending our intelligence. And on top of that, it seems it only is getting worse year after year.

Why is this? Why have we as an industry not yet been able to turn ‘intelligence into magic’, as John Hegarty puts it so simply? Why are there only so few great communication ideas out there while many more are doing the same meaningless processes over and over, while each time expecting better (business) results?

One would think that in our current day and age, any industry or topic of knowledge becomes a little bit better day after day. Each time, a little piece of the puzzle is discovered and with the reach and access of all information available, more people are able to profit from such discoveries and everybody (and each industry) wins. This is true for medicine, technology, engineering, and science. Yet it seems that for marketing and advertising this is far from the case. While we have so much brilliant information and knowledge at our fingertips, we fail miserably to understand even the simplest rules of thumbs to make any of our work slightly better and more relevant to people. Let us quickly go over a few basic yet all so important and fundamental findings we have been celebrating in our industry:

We know from the writings of Jon Steel (1998, 2006) that the storytelling we do in our communications should be focused on a single-minded proposition that comes from an insight from the consumer, business or category. We have learned from his case studies that we need to mine for this insight, not from behind our office desks, but in the world our consumers live in. He has again and again reinforced the power of storytelling and the commercial impact it has.

We know from the IPA databank that emotional ads are far more likely to drive sales than rational ones. The work that Les Binet and Peter Field (2007, 2010) have done for our industry is probably to best argument we have ever received in proving that what we do when we’re at our best, works. We have learned from them that the most effective advertising campaigns are the ones that are more likely to: be creatively awarded, set a hard objective, focused on brand fame and used emotion over information to tell their story; to name a few.

We know from the work from Byron Sharp (2010) that market penetration and customer acquisition is far more effective for a brand or business to grow than driving loyalty and retention. We learned that only a very small portion of consumers is brand loyal and many more switch between brands within the same category. We have seen that these loyal consumers are not different from one another and that therefore distinctive advertising and branding should be far more important as an objective that trying to differentiate your brand based on personality and attitudinal traits.

We know from the brilliant research from Daniel Kahneman (2011) that people are irrational beings who are driven more by intuition and instinct than by thought-through decisions and arguments. Kahneman has introduced the System 1 – System 2 framework that has given us a better understanding in how people consume and process information, and why the bullet points above are more likely to work. This System-framework has given our industry a great argument against creative concept/idea testing, because it has taught us the situation in which information is received is so dependent on how it is processed later on. There should be no surprise here that Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for this work, rather than psychology.

All of this should be nothing new to you. If you are in the marketing and advertising industry and hold a strategic responsibility to the work, all this above should be conventional to you, rather than new state-of-the-art thinking.

But while we might think all this above has only come to the surface in the last 15 years, it is not. We might have better numbers and data to support our claims today, all this has been known for a very long time, be it more intuitively. Brilliant creatives such as Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy or Steve Harrison have always operated under these principles and it is exactly because they understood them better than anyone else, their agencies succeeded. And more importantly, their client’s businesses succeeded as well.

Now, it might feel there’s almost a perfect formula for creative work, when taking in all those findings above. Luckily there isn’t. For great work only derives from unique creative brilliance and magic. Great work comes from truly understanding the brief and the unique problem. Our job as planners is merely to create the best possible conditions for that to happen. And therefore it’s our responsibility to keep track on these findings; to know them; and to pitch and sell them to our clients.

So why are we failing on even this basic know-how professional marketers should be able to understand intuitively? Despite all the knowledge, research, data, case studies, awards, books, blogs and events, why is almost all we make not worth talking about, let alone staying late at work for and slaving away our younger years?

shitPierpaolo Ferrari & Maurizio Cattelan, 2014

Having only been in this industry for not that long, and knowing there are so many people out there far more intelligent and brilliant in their work than I will ever be, I will try to be humble here.

I don’t believe it’s individual agency people who are responsible for this. After all, nobody starts in this business to make below-average work. People that have made it to the senior positions and hold some strings, have far more bigger ambitions. We all want awards (be it strategic or creative), recognition and fame (for ourselves and our clients).

I also don’t believe it comes from individual clients. If we could sit down with each one of them separately and just go through on what we know about great ideas, how they work and how people react to them, we would be able to do so much greater. We would also be able to do so much more, since less time is wasted on convincing these basics.

Because, and this is the fundamental paradox of our industry I still can’t get my head around, agencies and clients want the same things. We both want to produce great work that will transform a business, work that is embraced and loved by people, work that drives sales through the roof and work that people will actually remember and talk about. Our relationship should be a painless and straightforward one, for a win-win outcome actually becomes one single big gain for both. But it seems while the goal between client and agency might be the same, the path on how to do that seems to be very disparate.

I’m afraid clients are stuck in their own business and political structures. Either their personal short-term prospects at one company are not long enough to make any fundamental changes before they move on to the next job. Or their long-term prospects are focused more on pleasing their boss and having a straight-A performance review, rather than challenging anything or taking a particular risk. Especially when this risk is consumer-facing. And that develops a company culture that becomes more rigid and slow to adopt. That’s why, over time, you are left with two types of clients: those who have a clear vision and are willing to make sacrifices for it; and those who don’t. While everybody wants to be the next Nike, barely anyone is willing to take the risks for that to happen. On that note, I do strongly agree with Dave Trott who once wrote: “Clients get the advertising they deserve”.

I am not insinuating that if we take care of the few points mentioned above, great work would flourish everywhere. What it could change however is that the likelihood of great work increases. And a lot of time, (client’s) money, people and resources would not have to be wasted as they are right now.

Nor am I saying that the sole responsibility lies in the strategic camp. It would be naïve, self-deluding and plain stupid to think it is. Great creative work is rare for the simple reason that it’s hard to do and only a small portion of people in our business are brilliant at it, and can do it properly and consistently. You can have the best clients, accountants and planners in a room, if the creatives don’t live up their promise, all is lost. It’s the reason why creatives should have the last say and why they should be paid the most.

So where does this all leave us? It would be easy and dumb to put all this on the client’s lack of willingness and the anomaly of creative brilliance. For now, I can only think on doing what lots of us (but not enough) have been doing already, and fulfilling our responsibility agencies should take up: to keep track of what has been proven to work and what hasn’t, to keep on convincing everybody in the room on these findings, to keep on being resistant and critical of anything people claim to know without any data or support; to keep on trying to liberate creativity instead of restricting it. I would also suggest trying to talk to the clients who actually have control and those who make the final call, make them understand, make them passionate, make them fucking care.

Our Collective Failure

The Brain And Its Shortcomings

A presentation I made for the lovely people at Saatchi last week:

The Brain And Its Shortcomings