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  • The Man That Didn’t Blink

    30th May 14

    Posted by Jeremy Ettinghausen

    Posted in strategy

    Author, Jim Carroll, Chairman BBH London
    First published in Advertising Week Europe supplement

    Egon Schiele- Portrait of Albert Paris von Gutersloh
    I knew a man who never blinked. It was quite discomfiting. I’d not considered blinking that important until confronted with its absence. This chap just seemed a bit odd, a little lacking in emotion. Was he perhaps an android? When talking to him I couldn’t avoid the impression that he was unnaturally certain of his own opinions. And that that blind certainty was what I was finding unattractive. I realised that, whilst I like the self-assured, absolute certainty can be troubling, alienating, disturbing.

    I guess that’s why I’ve always responded better to leaders who, though boundlessly confident, exhibit a sensitivity to risk and doubt, a consciousness of paths not taken. I’m rarely convinced by absolute conviction.

    For similar reasons I feel certainty in advertising has always been fool’s gold. Claude Hopkins wrote Advertising Science back in the 1920s. And science has given us analytical tools and techniques that have dramatically enhanced our understanding of consumers and our ability to communicate effectively. But, however much we may wish it, science has never given us certainty.

    I recently attended a stage adaptation of the great Henry Fonda movie, 12 Angry Men. At its heart it’s a celebration of reasonable doubt, and an indictment of the unreasonable certainty that so many people carry around with them. I was struck by the idea that reasonable doubt is a force for good in society. Because life is an ongoing navigation of trade-offs, dilemmas and contrary preferences. Life isn’t about certainty.

    In our business I’ve seen how, many a time and oft’, the quest for unreasonable certainty has actually fostered doubt and indecision. The pursuit of total proof can close windows of opportunity and analysis paralysis can inhibit bold leaps forward.

    Recently we have all been redesigning the marketing model. We have embraced the vision of a customer engagement system that is more connected, more targeted, more knowing and less wasteful. Something that learns, creates, adapts and distributes in real time. But we should not imagine that any new model will deliver unreasonable certainty. All models need ideas to animate them. And the best ideas occur at the intersection of logic and magic, at the meeting point of rationality and emotion.

    What is exciting about the modern age of marketing is the opportunity it affords us to explore this happy interaction between art and science. At BBH we’ve been talking a lot about High Performance Creativity. We believe that technology enables a more intimate relationship between creativity and performance, and that that intimacy will generate better, more effective work. We believe that data should not just be big; it should be strategically insightful and creatively inspiring. We believe that performance measures should not be backward looking proofs, but live, forward-facing guides. We believe that, while High Performance Creativity cannot promise certainty, it can deliver incredible potency.

    I’m reasonably certain about this.

  • When Everyone Talks and No-One Listens

    28th May 14

    Posted by Jeremy Ettinghausen

    Posted in strategy

    Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
    First Published in Hall&Partners magazine, Matters.

    Max Schodl - Still Life with Samovar and Chinese Teacup

    It’s often said of the characters in Anton Chekhov’s plays that ‘everyone talks,but no one listens.’ The cast of feckless aristocrats inhabit a troubled world of melancholy, loss and ennui. They speak endlessly at each other of their dreams and disappointments, but they rarely pause to listen. Their relationships seem compromised by their own emotional deafness, their solipsism. They live lives of empty chat and listless languor, punctuated only by another trip to the samovar.

    I wonder has the world of brand marketing something in common with Chekhov’s? Could modern brands be accused of speaking without listening? Talking loud, but saying nothing? Always on project, never on receive? Do they sometimes come across as egocentric and emotionally needy?

    Sign up, sign in, sign on. Check in, check out. Like me, friend me, share me. Blipp me, bookmark me. Rate me, recommend me. QR code me. Upload me, download me. Facebook me, fan me. Tweet me, re-tweet me. Hashtag why?

    There’s a tremendous assumption in much current marketing that consumers have infinite time and attention to dedicate to brands, regardless of the category they represent or the content they serve up for them. With a wealth of new media channels available to us, it’s often easy to confuse talking with conversation, to mistake interaction for a relationship. And as long ago as the nineteenth century the writer HD Thoreau was observing,’We have more and more ways to communicate, but less and less to say.’

    In my experience strong relationships tend to start with a little humility and self knowledge. The best advice for brands seeking a relationship might be: don’t talk too much and only talk when you have something to say.
     
    But can contemporary brands really be accused of not listening? Surely all serious players nowadays manage substantial research and insight programmes. Surely we’re endlessly soliciting feedback, measurement and learning?

    Well, yes, but are brands engaged in the right kind of listening?

    To my mind much of modern research practice could be deemed ‘submissive listening’. ’Hello. What do you think of me? What do you think of how I look and what I do?  How would you like me to behave? Do you like what I’m planning to say to you? What would you like me to say?’

    Is this the stuff of a healthy relationship? Surely brands’ engagement with consumers should begin from a position of equality and mutual respect, not submission and deference.

    Au Pairs - Playing with a Different Sex

    You’re equal but different. 
    You’re equal but different
    It’s obvious.
    So obvious.

    Au Pairs, It’s Obvious.

    We could also categorise much of our research  as ‘reflective listening’: recording what people say, wear, like and do, so that brands can play it back later to them in communication. There’s an underlying assumption that consumers empathise with brands that share their values and outlook on life. I’m sure they do. But one man’s insight is another man’s cliche. And reflective listening, interpreted literally, often produces communication that is curiously unrewarding. Because dialogue is more than elegant repetition and relationships are more than an exercise in mimicry.

    Surely listening and talking should exist in close proximity and dynamic relation to each other. It’s called a conversation. And you’ll find spontaneous, instinctive, organic conversations at the heart of any healthy, happy relationship.

    Of course, the hyper-connected, real time world of the social web affords us an opportunity. It’s the opportunity to demolish the distance between listening and talking; to inspire conversations between brands and consumers; and thereby to create vibrant, enduring, sustainable relationships. It’s now possible for listening to drive brands’ thought and action, tempo and timing and we we should all be striving to put it back at the centre of our communication models.

    There is, nonetheless, a nightmare scenario. What if brands continue to propel their mindless chatter through the infinite arteries of the electronic age, without respecting our audience’s limited time and attention? What if our attempts to listen continue to betray a submissive and reflective orientation towards consumers?

    At the end of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, twenty year old Irina decides to give up on love before love gives up on her.

    I’ve never loved anyone. I dreamed about it for a very long time – day and night – but my heart is like a piano that’s been locked up and the key is lost.

    It’s one of the saddest lines in theatre. I worry that if we don’t start listening properly to consumers, then consumers will stop listening to us.

  • Talk Like a Tech Brand

    14th November 13

    Posted by Jeremy Ettinghausen

    Posted in strategy

    Authors: Jim Carroll, Chairman & Nick Fell, Strategy Director, BBH London

    artgame

    From Art Game, by Leo Caillard

    The Marketing World is in awe of tech brands.

    It has visited the Valley, gathered at the Googleplex. It has listened to their leadership and consumed their case studies. It has invited them in for partnerships, hangouts and huddles. It has adopted their products, processes, principles and patter. It has acquired their interior design, appropriated their casual clobber.

    But has the Marketing World learned how to talk like a tech brand? Is there an underlying assumption that tech brands can teach us how to behave, but not how to communicate? An ongoing suspicion that the engineer-led cultures of tech brands don’t quite ‘get’ communication?

    We suspect the Marketing World has a long held, deep rooted belief that tech brands obsess too much about their own product and experiences; that they’re introverted.

    Tech brands may make cool products, but they’re not so hot on insights and benefits, emotions and humanity. They don’t understand empathy. And whilst tech brands revel in the complex, coded and arcane, they’re not schooled in single-mindedness and sacrifice. They don’t know how to drill down or ladder up. They may get big data, but they don’t get big ideas.

    So for all their many virtues, there’s not much the Tech World can teach the Marketing World about communication. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

    But conventional wisdom may actually be an albatross around our necks. This same wisdom tends to create a convergent mush of mood board marketing, a farrago of facile insights and shallow lifestyle posturing. Modern brands from all sectors would do well to look properly, not just at how tech brands behave, but at how they communicate.

    Let’s consider a few themes.

    1. Pride in product

    Tech brands spend the vast majority of their time and energy in the pursuit of innovation; creating astounding products is their main obsession. There is always something new to say, whether it’s a big breakthrough or a modest upgrade. Which is why their communications are so firmly rooted in product truth.

    This might be considered old-fashioned in a world of purpose-led brand building. But it provides a refreshing break from the pseudo-insights, hyperbole and overly-elaborate ideas which fill much of today’s communications landscape.

    2. UX meets advertising

    User experience has been defined as “the totality of an end-users’ perceptions as they interact with a product or service” (Kuniavsky, 2010).

    Tech brands employ user experience design to create products which we love to use, but the influence of UX is also clear to see in how tech brands talk.

    Thinking in terms of “end-users”, not audiences, means the usability of the communication is given primary importance. The result is often a visual language which is clean, precise and with plenty of white space (more on the rise of “flat design” in Adam’s post here). Tech brands also use as few words as possible to meaningfully make the point. This type of communication is disruptive precisely because it respects our desire for space and time.

    3. Narrative through product

    Tech brands cannot rely exclusively on the elegant delivery of product truth to succeed.

    As in all other categories, communications which evoke an emotional response help brands to create affinity and preference. However, tech brands do not treat emotional and rational approaches to communications as mutually-exclusive, like oil and water. Instead they intimately combine the two; using the product as a medium to weave rich and emotionally-engaging narratives.

    For example, telling the story of a teenager building a media empire through interactions on a web browser in BBH’s Google Chrome campaign or showing a dramatic rescue through a GoPro camera attached to a fireman’s helmet.

    4. Cultural collaboration

    Conventionally, brands employ celebrities as a means to gain attention and credibility. These are often one-dimensional, transactional relationships.

    Tech brands, on the other hand, enter into genuine partnerships with individual and institutional players in culture with the aim of creating something fresh and interesting for the world to explore. Google and Arcade Fire, Samsung and David Bailey and Intel and Vice are all examples of this.

    In these relationships, both parties have a part to play; the cultural collaborator is the “cool kid” to the tech brand’s “geek” persona, bringing creativity and humanity to code and hardware.

    When the most innovative tech brands work with the foremost tastemakers, the result can be an irresistible combination of science and art, left brain and right brain, intelligence and magic.

    5. Built-in marketing

    With the previous themes, we have considered the unique way in which tech brands talk in their marketing communications.

    But tech brands are also highly skilled at building marketing directly into their products. When we use Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and SnapChat, we also promote them. For example, to access my friend’s pictures on WhatsApp, I have to download the app. This built-in network effect means that WhatsApp has grown to over 350m unique monthly users, with 400m photos being shared every day. All of this without any significant marketing investment.

    So, let’s not just admire the Tech World’s innovative culture, agile processes and beautiful products. Let’s embrace their very particular perspective on communication. It’s a perspective that could perhaps lead us out of some of the cul de sacs of contemporary marketing. Whatever business we’re working with, in whatever sector, shouldn’t we all consider talking like a tech brand?

  • Bring me fools and geniuses

    2nd August 13

    Posted by Mel Exon

    Posted in People, strategy

    Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

    Like many people I was amused by Rory Sutherland’s recent piece in The Spectator, in which he suggested it might be a smart strategy for Agencies to recruit graduates with lower class degrees.

    Sutherland argues that there is no evidence that ‘recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds’. Graduates with lower class degrees are in fact undervalued by the market and as a result they’re less expensive and more loyal.

    I thought I might contribute my own perspective to the debate and indeed my own trusty Recruitment Tool:

    Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 17.29.16
    In my many years of working with Strategists, I have established that very smart people can reduce highly complex conundra into quite simple challenges. In this respect they have something in common with the less-than-intelligent, who see the world simply despite its many sophistications.
    I have also observed that those with moderate-to-medium levels of intelligence can perceive complexity in every aspect of every problem.

    This has led me to conclude that the only useful Strategists are fools or geniuses….

  • Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

    1st May 13

    Posted by Mel Exon

    Posted in strategy

    Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
    This is an edited version of a piece I wrote a while back for the APG. Reprinted with permission. 
     
    Image: Sigmund Freud (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

    Image: Sigmund Freud (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

    It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets,strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.
     
    I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?… But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us.They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.
     
    It’s true, I have considered an alternative career as a bus conductor. And when the 25 year old Millward Brown consultant’s opinion carries more weight, I find myself yearning for a passing Routemaster. But advertising people are inherently positive. And so I reconsider…
     
    I am increasingly of the view that Clients don’t come to us for medicine; they come to us for therapy. And I suspect that our value resides, not as strategic doctors, but as strategic psychoanalysts.
     
    Often a successful modern Client engagement is not unlike a session of analysis. Clients begin with problems. They verbalise their thoughts, they make free associations, they express their fantasies and dreams. We listen, we interpret, we consider the unconscious conflicts that are causing their problems. We help them reach solutions through a process of self realisation.
     
    Freud, in addressing the unconscious, talked about the need to ‘unearth buried cities’. This doesn’t sound too alien to brand planning.
     
    I should at this point issue a health warning. I’m a Planner from Romford. Whilst I enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method, I can’t claim any particular knowledge of psychoanalysis . For me it’s just an illuminating analogy. Besides, if we were too literal about this, we’d never look a Client in the eye. And I suspect that’s a sure fire way to lose business…
     
    Let us nonetheless consider some of the basic principles that would derive from a psychoanalytic approach to Client engagement…
     
    Set out on a quest for meaning, not cure. The answers to most problems reside in the minds of the Client. We are enabling self knowledge,helping them to create their own narratives.
     
    Behave as a participant observer, not a detached expert. Analysis only works if we embark on it together, as willing equals.
     
    Embrace free association. Often we are too quick to impose order on our Clients’ challenges. Bear in mind that fantasies and dreams can illuminate unconscious conflicts.
     
    Remember, everything has meaning. Be attentive to behaviour,body language, choice of words and phrases.
     
    Look for meaningful patterns. Consider consistencies,symmetries,repetition. Probe for the meaning within the pattern.
     
    Our time is up..
     
    I used to believe there was only one correct answer to every problem. Now I believe there are many correct answers. The challenge is to establish the correct answer that best suits the Client’s character and personality. Anais Nin famously once said: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’. I’m sure this maxim applies as much to strategy as it does to creative.
  • Cows in Space: a question of sustainability at #sxswi

    19th March 13

    Posted by Mel Exon

    Posted in strategy, Sustainability

    The second of series of reports from Austin, by a few lucky BBH SXSW survivors.

    Author: Helen Lawrence, Strategist, BBH Labs & BBH London

    The most recurring topic of conversation in Austin during SXSW isn’t the future of technology, it isn’t the principles of responsive design and it certainly isn’t what makes something viral. It’s meat. What meat to have in your breakfast taco, what meat to choose for your lunchtime ribs and what meat should top your dinnertime hot dog (I can’t believe Tim didn’t mention this in his SXSW reflections!). This is a town dominated by BBQ joints and smoking shacks. I fear that after five days there I may have the incredibly sexy combination of scurvy and gout:

    Helen goes to a rodeo http://instagram.com/p/WyTwazGhJY/

    Helen goes to a rodeo http://instagram.com/p/WyTwazGhJY/

    However, we have a problem. One hundred thousand years ago humans still needed 2000 calories a day to function. Back then, to produce that 2000 calories we’d get through 1800 to find and produce something to nibble on. Fast forward to today’s brisket loving era and it takes 200,000 calories to produce those same 2000 calories. Our food production habits are screwed up. We waste everything: energy, resources and it even the food itself once we’ve got it to that juicy, edible point. It’s not at all sustainable. We’re messing it up, and we’re doing it quickly.

    So – who is the obvious person to turn to in order to solve this problem? An astronaut of course. Nothing beats an astronaut. Ahem.

    The 100 Year Starship project is using the question of interstellar space travel to get to an answer:

    “We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth.”

    If we’re going to have to consider exploration outside of our solar system we’re going to have think a little beyond a simply bigger rocket. One self sustaining pod hurtling through the sky; it has to keep a bunch of humans alive for a century, stop them killing each other and prevent them from getting hungry.

    The space race in the 60s was a tangible one: getting to the moon is a challenge that could be imagined and solved. The 100 Year Starship Project wants to set a challenge that trickles down solutions into our own fuzzy planet in the same way. The space race has given us some of the biggest everyday technologies we use now: scratch resistant lenses, GPS and water filters for example. By posing some of the biggest societal and sustainability questions out there and considering how we’d achieve them to last 100 years in space, we can hope for properly realistic solutions to the things we’re messing up at the moment.

    Image via 100 Year Starship Project

    Image via 100 Year Starship Project

    Meat is a big one, clothes are another. It’s a terribly energy intensive hobby. We make too many, we own too many, we wash too many and we don’t recycle nearly enough. 100 years at our current clothing rates would need a lot of wardrobes up on our space ship, not to mention cotton fields, plastics factories and silk worms. We can’t take clothes to space, despite them being such a core part of our creative identity as humans – one solution put forward by the 100 Year Starship project includes reusable sheets that we project clothes onto, allowing us to change them whenever we like.

    Back to the bovines. As much as I love the idea of cows in space, wearing little cow shaped astronaut helmets, it just can’t happen. ‘Fake meat’ companies are popping up all over the place, even Twitter co founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are investing. That’s one possible solution for our 100 Year Spaceship. What else is there?

    I like the 100 Year Starship project. It frames a problem into a great story. Mae Jemison, a brilliant astronaut, told the SXSW audience that we should tell better stories, ones that inspire and ones that can bring about social change. The project neatly frames sustainability into something we can picture. There are no cheats when you’re somewhere outside of Alpha Centauri. So many of our so called sustainable solutions aren’t that at all. We feel we’re doing well when actually the problem is just popping up somewhere else. You can’t do that on a spaceship.

    This makes me ruminate a bit on brand strategy – we talk a lot here about strategy being the art of sacrifice. What would you sacrifice in your brand armoury if forced to focus on the essentials? And would your brand get a spot on the starship in the first place? Is it ducking and diving, pushing superfluous issues elsewhere? Perhaps not being quite as sustainable or transparent as it could be? Whack it in a bubble and put it in space: it’s a good way to test it.

    I’m excited about the 100 Year Spaceship. The hippies and the astronauts are getting it on. And damn, it’s even sexier than gout.

  • Craft, the Journalist and the Agency Strategist

    23rd November 12

    Posted by Mel Exon

    Posted in storytelling, strategy

    The Guardian’s Editor, Alan Rusbridger, came into BBH earlier this year and spoke to a group of us about what it takes to deliver open journalism. In particular he described how one of his most awarded journalists, Nick Davies, operates day-to-day. He shared three or four articles Davies had written recently, breaking down the anatomy of each story in meticulous detail. And it properly sank in that “open journalism” doesn’t just mean simply laying the news bare, unfiltered, checked or analysed, nor does it mean opening up a new fire hose of information in the hope someone will make sense of it.

    Perhaps the clue is in the phrase “Open Journalism”. As they say at The Guardian, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. The Guardian staff are information omnivores, analysts, fact checkers and storytellers. And, as Rusbridger put it to us, there are 3 characteristics that define ‘craft’ in journalism. Very few journalists master all three (Nick Davies is perhaps a rare example), but here they are:

    1. A relish or hunger to find out new intelligence
    2. The intellectual ability to see patterns in that data; see the big picture and understand the facts
    3. An ability to write beautifully

    It sounded strikingly similar to what makes a truly great Strategist in an agency. Three things a Strategist usefully might aim for, either way.

    Good weekends, all.

  • I Will Not Follow

    31st October 12

    Posted by Jeremy Ettinghausen

    Posted in Brands, strategy

    Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London


    In 1983 Celtic troubadours The Waterboys released a song called “I Will Not Follow”. I’m pretty sure it was a response to U2′s anthemic “I Will Follow”. Answer songs have a rather mixed history (though I’m grateful to the category for providing us with Roxanne Shante and Althea & Donna…), and I suspect “I Will Not Follow” was not The Waterboys’ finest moment  Nonetheless, I admired their courage in taking on the emerging Titans of Rock. And I loved the sentiment. The determination not to go with the flow, not to follow the masses, not to get lost in the crowd. A passionate rejection of passivity. A celebration of the power of negative thinking.

    When I was in my last year at College, thoughts turned to possible careers. It was the late ’80s and , in the wake of the Big Bang, there was a magnetic pull towards the Big Job in The City. It was natural, obvious, exciting. The dark satanic thrills .. I recall my decision not to apply for a City role felt more significant to me than any subsequent active career choice.

    I used to interview young graduates looking for a job. I found that their CVs were curiously similar. When asked what they’d achieved in life, they’d say they’d travelled to Asia, captained the hockey team, and they liked skiing and reading. But when one asked what the candidate had chosen not to do, more singular answers were forthcoming.

    Some of our most important decisions are the paths we choose not to take,the roads we refuse to travel. Our lives can often be best understood by mapping the things we didn’t do, the words we didn’t say. Perhaps we should more often consider a brand’s unspoken truth, quiet regret. Because in its silence and inaction may reside its strength and identity.

    ‘If you gave me a pound for all the moments I’ve missed,
    And I took dancing lessons for all the girls I should’ve kissed.
    I’d be a millionaire, I’d be Fred Astaire’
    ABC – “Valentine’s Day”

    My first job after College was as a Qualitative Researcher. ‘Brand elasticity’ projects were very much in vogue. Could this everyday family margarine perhaps be a cheese, or a biscuit, or a ready meal or a jam? With a sip of Chardonnay and a nod of assent, my respondents would consistently give the green light to a whole host of reckless innovations and insane brand extensions. And over the years the song has remained the same, even if the lyrics have changed. Could my brand be an experience, a portal, a membership club? Could it be a hotel, a hub, a content provider? Could it release a clothing line with rugged check shirts, boxer shorts and rain resistant outerwear? Isn’t my brand more a lifestyle choice than a yellow fat?

    Curiously perhaps, research respondents find it easy to endorse our grandest aspirations. But then it’s not their money and maybe they’re just being polite. Sometimes it seems we need to be better at defining the limits of our ambition, at identifying the red line, the point beyond which we will not go. Sometimes we need to demonstrate more restraint, more discipline, more negativity.

    Many Clients are instinctively suspicious of the negative perspective. Surely it betrays a lack of confidence, enthusiasm, ambition? In order to sustain consistency they develop processes and platforms, models and matrices, funnels and formats. But best demonstrated practice is often worst demonstrated imagination. Over the years negative thinking has inspired truly exceptional communication by the likes of Dunlop, Audi, Marmite, Volvo, Stella and Guinness. What would a world be like without this brand? Who are its enemies? What is its weakness? Whenever one is confronted by the bland, boring or undifferentiated, it’s always helpful to reach for a liberating ‘not’.

    Of course in the age of the social web possibilities seem infinite. We want campaigns to be all embracing, 360º, holistic. We want to tick off platforms like some bizarre game of I Spy. We want all the colours in all the sizes. Yet I wonder if the democratisation of knowledge and opinion creates a kind of accelerated conformity: the Consensus of Crowds. Surely brand behaviour on the web would benefit from a little more negative thinking? Perhaps more discipline and self denial? Maybe we need to see more of the brand that likes to say ‘no’, the brand that will not follow…

    Every morning I face the horrors of commuting as I change Tube at Kings Cross. Crowded, crushed, compressed. Downbeat, dour, depressed. In order to get onto my teeming southbound train into the centre of town, I walk along the less cluttered northbound platform. Periodically empty northbound trains stop and then recommence their journey out to the quiet leafy suburbs. I’ve always promised myself that one day I’ll jump on one of those empty northbound trains, make my way to the end of the line, find a caff and settle down to The Guardian, bacon, eggs, tea and toast. One day…

  • Swimming in the shallow end

    25th September 12

    Posted by Mel Exon

    Posted in Brands, strategy

    Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

    Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

    My father worked for a time at a gasket factory in Romford. One Christmas he presented me with a corporate diary he had been given by an industrial felt supplier. Inside they’d printed their slogan: ‘You need the felt. We felt the need.’ I loved that line. I thought it was so funny, clever and beautiful at the same time.

    I was at school studying for my A Levels: Latin, Greek, Ancient History. It was a robustly academic diet. I found that, having immersed myself in Homer, Horace and Herodotus, I was increasingly distracted by Essex fashion and soul music, pub banter and puns. I was drawn to the facile, frivolous and foolish. I guess it was a kind of mental displacement.

    In the early ’80s, pop was revered anew in the UK. In the wake of the ponderous rock and precocious punk of the ’70s, we embraced ABC, Haircut 100 and Dollar with gusto. We believed in the beauty of the three minute pop song: shiny lyrics, shallow sentiments, shimmering production. We believed that there was an integrity in pop that raised it above the pretentious posturing of the indie crowd; that there was a kind of perfection in its brevity and wit. We believed that love itself was fragile, funny and transient.

    Around about that time I determined that I’d one day like to work in advertising.

    ‘And all my friends just might ask me.
    They say,”Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love.”
    I say,”Maybe. There must be a solution
    To the one thing, the one thing, we can’t find”’

    The Look of Love, ABC

    In my 20s I noticed my social circle was narrowing and deepening. I was spending more and more time with a tight knit bunch of close friends. Although I greatly enjoyed their company, I became concerned that my conversation was increasingly predictable, that I was reinforcing my own prejudices and opinions. And so I set myself the task of developing a broad but shallow social set. I endeavoured to ensure that I saw a lot of friends infrequently. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this particular game plan. It was frankly rather exhausting).

    Nigel Bogle once complained that Planning had a nack of digging down to Australia to discover the meaning of a paper clip. In my brief, and I have to say less than successful, tenure as Head of Planning at BBH, I endeavoured to address this. I transposed my ‘broad and shallow’ strategy to Planning: I encouraged the department to experience more things less profoundly; to work on more projects less intensively. Broad and Shallow Planning was to be my legacy to the strategic community. Strangely it was never widely adopted…

    I guess I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the elevated status we afford brands nowadays. We talk of trust and love and ideals. Loyalty, passion, faith. Visions, missions, purposes. It sometimes strikes me as faintly bombastic. Brands as Wagnerian heroes. The Emerson, Lake and Palmers of consumption. The high concept action movies of marketing. Roll the credits. Lighters in the air. Cue the helicopters. Cue the smoke machines. Cue Coldplay. Cue Ghandi…

    Surely not all soft drinks can save the babies, not all toothpastes can launch a thousand ships. Surely many brands have more modest roles to play in people’s lives. The fleeting glance, the quiet companion, the casual acquaintance. Shouldn’t we of all people be celebrating the inconsequential, the insignificant, the incidental? For these foolish things are truly the stuff of life.

    ‘A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
    An airline ticket to romantic places.
    A tinkling piano in the next apartment,
    Those stumbling words that told me what your heart meant.
    These foolish things remind me of you’

    These Foolish Things, Eric Maschwitz & Jack Strachey

    The fall of Icarus, Baglione

    Finally, a word of caution. We have all learned to ladder up to higher order concepts and social goods. Ordinary, everyday brands get to leave behind base functionality, to sup with sages and kings. And often it serves a brand well to give it a higher purpose and social resonance. But beware the Icarus Effect. You may be playing with the Pomp Rock of Planning. In a Creds meeting once, I told a High Street optical retailer that his brand gave consumers the gift of sight. He excused himself and said he was due back on Planet Earth.

    So don’t get me wrong. I love a big, ambitious, high ground, universal idea as much as the next man. I love brands with vision, confidence and courage. I’ve even nodded along to Coldplay occasionally.

    But, just for once, let’s raise a glass to the little guys, to the not-so-crazy ones. Here’s to the inconsequential, the incidental and frivolous. Here’s to the modest, the momentary and fleeting. Here’s to swimming in the shallow end.

  • Dance Lessons

    15th June 12

    Posted by Mel Exon

    Posted in culture, strategy

    Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

    Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by Liam Scarlett

    I attended a talk by the top Royal Ballet choreographer and dancer, Liam Scarlett. He is only 26, but he has already choreographed two exceptional ballets for the main stage at Covent Garden. And he still finds time to dance in the company.

    Scarlett was discussing how he approached creating his 2011 work, Asphodel Meadows, around a particular piece of music, Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. One could be intimidated, he said, by the scale and complexity of the Concerto. Where to start? How to break into the task? Whereas with narrative ballet there is a natural sequencing to follow, with an abstract work there is no obvious entry point. He explained that his own process was first to identify the ‘epicentre’ of the music, its emotional core. He knew that if he could just design the pas de deux around a particular romantic passage in the second movement, everything else would follow. Having got to the emotional heart of the music, he could work outwards to the rest of the piece.

    I am often in meetings nowadays when a Client demands an idea that is media neutral, that extends across every channel, region, product and form of engagement. All the colours, in all the sizes.  Such a panoramic demand can be rather intimidating. And I have found that telling the Creative Department we need to cover the walls with ideas is not entirely helpful.

    I suspect that, following Scarlett’s lead, the key to cracking this kind of challenge is not to consider it in its totality or in the abstract. Ideas tend to be born in the specific. The key is to find the epicentre of the task, to find its emotional heart. Read full post

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