What it says on the tin
Most of us will agree that differentiation is crucial for the success of a campaign; to stand out and be noticed; for people to at least begin to consider caring about our products. Agencies and marketers are full of creative and intelligent people, so why, then, is most of what our industry churns out clichés at best; work we intuitively know can only have a minimum of effect?
(From the reception of Wieden + Kennedy, Portland)
I think there are two main issues, suggesting that the responsibility must be shared, but that fundamentally, it all comes down to the fact that we’re all human…
Holt and Cameron, in their brilliant book Cultural Strategy, term it the brand bureaucracy. Modern corporations have implemented, in their quest to exert total control, processes for every aspect of their business, including branding and marketing. Problem is: these rational processes greatly inhibit the infinite complexity that is human communication within a specific cultural context. By the time a brand strategy have been to the top for approval and filtered back down to the implementers, it has been reduced to a set of generic emotional and rational benefits which from then on is the blueprint for all future, and inevitably bland, communication. Accountability is ultimately only a reality at the top of the corporate food-chain, as processes are in place to protect everyone below whose ambition it is to someday sit in that corner office. So there are no incentives to question the system; no incentive to challenge conventions; no incentive to produce great work.
Communication can be streamlined once we have worked out how to create artificial intelligence; until then, we are in the hands of fallible human minds; their intuition and educated guesses.
BBH labs talk about wind tunnel marketing, according to which customer insights is the current Holy Grail of advertising. And I, for one, didn’t see any problems with that. Until I realised that when everybody asks the same people the same questions in the same way, everybody ends up with the same answers and the same insights. Everybody being mainly competitors, but also brands in totally different categories (e.g. confidence is promised by banks, shampoos and cars). The strategic conventions of the category (and advertising in general) thus reinforced, and the consequent creative work pushed further into cliché territory as agencies are unwilling to challenge the research-dominating conventions of their own industry. The solution? BBH suggest that other sources of insights should be mined to a larger degree, such as category, culture and brand. Or any combination of the above.
What it all comes down to is fear. Fear of failure. Both on an individual and organisational level. I can certainly relate to that. The thing is, advertising is all about changing behaviour. If we want to change something, we have to do something different. As we can’t predict the future, doing something different will necessarily involve an element of risk. Risk will sometimes lead to failure so if we want to change behaviour we must learn to appreciate fear.
I really like this Nike ad. It’s both fascinating and comforting that the most successful brands, like Nike, Levi’s and Starbucks, all failed miserably at some point. Success only came through trial and error; only through understanding failure were they able to refine the communication and ultimately become iconic brands. Like Michael Jordan, Google and Virgin are only successful because of their failures. They acknowledge that creating new products is a numbers game, so instead of reducing risk at every level and launching a few mediocre products, they embrace risk and failure, and end up with some failures and some spectacular successes.
The skills and intuition of those involved can reduce risk, but pseudo-scientific processes will never create anything great. If it could your competitor would have done it already. So when you feel a tingle in the back of your head, that is fear messing with you. Embrace the tingle, don’t’ fight it; it is the only indicator you have of possible greatness.