Archive for the ‘ creativity ’ Category

Art or Vandalism?

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For me, one of the greatest luxuries of being on holidays is just sitting around and watching the real world pass by. It’s a rare pleasure, to have time on your hands, to have space in your head.

Here in London I sleepwalk. Too fixated on getting to my destination, my mind lost in work or errands or needless stresses. When I’m away, I’m aware. Everything’s different and everything’s interesting.

In Argentina (where I’ve just returned from honeymoon), there was no shortage of fascinating scenery, particularly in Buenos Aires where the streets are fast becoming a living tapestry of politics and art. The city is becoming one of the graffiti capitals of the world, flooded with every kind of expression from crappy name tagging to stunning large scale murals.

This is partly thanks to some funny planning laws in BA which mandate that buildings can only have entrances on two sides, leaving large uninterrupted walls just begging to be filled in. And it’s partly because of a strong anti-establishment vibe in a country which has had huge political unrest and economic instability.

But what’s interesting about the street art scene here, according to my insightful graffitimundo tour guide, is that unlike the US movement in the 80s and 90s, it’s never had that hard subversive edge and it isn’t driven by territorial gang warfare. The Argentinian scene was started by the rich middle class kids, who in Argentina’s wealthier times, travelled to places like Miami and New York and wanted to copy what they saw there.

As a result, many graffiti artists are professional graphic designers and fashion designers, people with a nine to five job that paint outside on their off-time. And street art is not just tolerated, but increasingly encouraged by the community and the government. In London, we see stencils and spray paint dominating, because graffiti artists here have to work at lightening speed before someone calls the police. In BA, artists can use paint and rollers and even scaffolding, creating intricate designs over a few afternoons. They can collaborate in groups, meshing different artistic styles together.

While traditional graffiti is often full of private in-group messages, only understood by a niche community that get the codes, in BA, many of the artists are trying to reach a wider mainstream audience. Whether through positive and beautiful images of hope, or through thought-provoking themes like that of Jaz, a prolific artist who creates striking images of battling beasts in football shorts, always two identical sides of the same coin, a commentary on the violent football hooliganism within the country.

In truth it’s a mixed bag – and this is where I think it draws a parallel with advertising. There’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some would debate whether there’s enough artistic merit overall to justify the vandalism, the public intrusion. And it’s so totally ephemeral. As artists continually churn out new work, they paint over the pieces that were there before. It’s a rare piece which is respected enough to be left untouched by other artists or taggers. Painstakingly created, casually painted over and forgotten.

But like everything else, the good stuff stands out, makes an impact and lasts the longest.

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Why do we make bad Ads?

Watching Ad breaks on TV can be a pretty depressing indictment of your chosen career when you work in advertising. It’s so often a painful showcase that prompts your friends and family to wonder why on earth you would choose to dedicate your professional life (she had such promise, sigh) to such meaningless rubbish.

From shouty tack based on the premise that telling people what you want them to think is the best way to persuade them, to bland wallpaper that is little better than sticking your logo onscreen for 30 seconds, to cringe-worthy self-important brand manifestos – Apple, you should be deeply ashamed. No wonder everyone from our focus group participants, to our clients, to our Mum, thinks that they could write a better Ad than most agencies are capable of.

What’s our excuse?

It’s not from want of financial investment. Despite the tightening of production budgets, most 30 second Ad campaigns still benefit from more cash than your average independent film makes do with.

It’s not from lack of expertise on what makes for effective advertising. We have more evidentiary back up than ever before to support Adand’s longheld intuition that creatively interesting and emotionally potent advertising will deliver superior business results.

It’s not from lack of talent. Creative agencies are crammed to the rafters with smart analysts, lateral thinkers, passionate craftspeople and despite our shortfall in diversity, we’ll still doing better on that front than our friends in law and banking.

It’s not our clients. Aha! I hear some pushback on this one. There’s no doubt that some clients are tough work and wouldn’t know a brilliant creative idea if it hit them in a head with a gold lion, but that’s too convenient a cop out. Yes clients get the work they deserve but that statement is true the other way around too – agencies get the clients they deserve.

I think the real issue is that we’re too easy on ourselves. We feel overworked and under-appreciated (by our bosses, by our clients, by our waiting public) and too often we just give up the fight early. It’s easier, and more profitable to our careers, to play politics and allow poor work to slide out the door if everyone else in the room seems happy. It’s the ultimate game of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Meanwhile everyone has the same eye out for the same award winning opportunity that they can all fight over for credit, stick on their CV and tell their mates they made it.

The reputation of our industry continues to plunge, the creative benchmark is set by the tripe on TV now and we wonder why Google is suddenly winning all the prizes at our festivals.

I think we deserve better for ourselves. It’s not enough to make one great Ad that we can hide behind. We need to make all Ads, across the board, that little bit better. Our self respect is on the line. Our livelihoods too. Because we’re not just competing amongst ourselves anymore.

Mudblood Planners

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Not so long ago I was talking to a well-respected planner, who spoke with pride about the day his colleague told him that he had successfully “shaken off that media guy reputation”. He, like me, had started his career in a media agency. At the time I was genuinely surprised to see that he carried this upbringing like it was some kind of stigma. I wondered why he felt so ashamed.

Another planner, who started out working client-side as a brand manager, told me she had toyed with the prospect of a communications planning role in a large media agency and was fiercely warned against it by everyone she met from recruiters to Heads of Planning. When it comes to industry reputation, it was made clear to her that media would be a backward career step.

This perception is at odds with my own experience – having worked on both sides of the fence I would still maintain that some of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever worked with, are in media agencies today. But the prejudice is ingrained and though subtle, is hard to miss when you’re on the receiving end. Similarly the same once client-side planner spoke about the biases she sometimes faces. She isn’t seen as a “pure-bred” planner.

When it comes to planning, there’s definitely a preferred pedigree. It works off the assumption that more years in “traditional” planning, in the right kind of agency, will make you a superior planner. I wonder whether this is true?

Most interestingly, this assumption disregards the advantages that come with being a mongrel, mudblood planner. There’s a strong skill-set that people from client-side, digital, media or direct bring, from understanding research to understanding broader marketing and business, or the role of return on investment in advertising. These skills are often surprisingly weak in traditional planning departments despite their importance to making effective work and crucially, to selling it in to senior stakeholders.

But this assumption also overlooks another critical advantage. The creative advantage that comes with being an outsider.

Throughout history many of the best known creative thinkers have been outsiders, whether as foreign immigrants in a new country or misfits at the edge of mainstream culture. And there’s a good reason for this.

Outsiders see things differently. They don’t take the accepted way of doing things as agiven. They look at problems from a different angle. They identify new problems or solutions which insiders can’t see.  And they come with a bundle of unique influences, ready to collide and connect and form creative ideas.

There’s a whole host of mudblood planners out there now. They have muddled career pathways and it’s exactly this diversity that make them so valuable to both creativity and business. And as our industry evolves to take on new tasks and revenue streams, to regain a foothold in the C-Suite, these people may be offering exactly what agencies have been missing.

Forcing it never works

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I feel sorry for Marissa Mayer because if she was a man, no one would expect her to be anything other than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

But she’s not a man, she’s a woman. One of the only women to hold such a powerful post. One of the few female leaders in silicon valley. And because of her rare achievement, she’s now a high profile role model – whether she likes it or not.

Which means everything she does will be scrutinized from the perspective of gender, in a way it literally never is for a man. And as unfair as that is, it explains why there is such disappointment when she appears to be setting back progress for working women. Hard won gains like time flexibility and remote working, which have allowed mothers to take care of children while also maintaining a career. The fact is however, while it’s clearly a hot issue for women as long as they are still the primary caregivers in the home, at it’s heart it’s an issue for everyone.

Penelope Trunk, who I always enjoy reading though frequently disagree with, wrote a piece on the issue which was incredibly depressing, with passages like this:

The reality of today’s workforce is that if you want to have a big job where you have prestige and money and power, you probably need a stay-at-home spouse. Or two full-time nannies. Which means most people don’t have the option to go on the fast track, because most people have not set their lives up this way. So let’s just admit that most of us are not on the fast-track. Stop bitching that people won’t let slow people on the fast track. Stop saying that it’s bad for family. It’s great for family. It means people will not continue operating under the delusion that you can be a hands-on parent and a top performer. People will make real choices and own those choices.

This is definitely a reflection of professional America’s unhealthy relationship with work, but it also spills into many fields across Europe. The idea that people are either fast track or slow track is ludicrous. There is a huge spectrum in between and often the most talented and creative people are exactly that because they have a wide range of interests and influences in their lives. They’re out in the world, aswell as the office.

So a reality check.

It’s the 21st century and in the affluent developed world at least, we are fortunate to have never lived in a more peaceful, comfortable and educated society. Technological innovation has given us unprecedented ability to work effectively and efficiently at any time or location. Why  on earth would anyone want to work like a slave in shackles, or only develop one aspect of their lives at the expense of all others?

Coming back to Marissa’s main issue however, she clearly is trying to figure out how to galvanize Yahoo and stimulate creativity and innovation, and this is a valid problem. What both she and Penelope are missing however, is any simple human insight into how companies instill this passion and dedication in their staff. Because their strategy definitely won’t work.

Whether you lead with the autocratic perfectionism of Steve Jobs or the geeky humanistic spirit of Sergey and Brin, people make a decision to buy into the purpose of a company and give their time and skills towards building it. As Penelope herself writes:

In Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google, Airbnb, none of most desirable companies make room for a personal life. They don’t have to. They have plenty of people hoping to give up their whole life to the company.

The point here is that this professional commitment is voluntary. It can’t be forced.

And if passion is lacking in your company, as it evidently seems to be in Yahoo, sending a mandate isn’t going to fix that. Especially one that in reality only affected a small fraction of employees, yet sent a huge message to the rest of the company. A message which frankly smacked of self interest on the part of their management team. It sounded like they cared more about the company, than the people within it. And that’s never going to win people’s hearts and minds.  Richard Branson says for him the priorities go: staff, customers, shareholders. If I were Marissa Mayer, I would put that on my wall.

How Creative Agencies Can Become More Creative

Beethoven Mind Map

Advertising agencies talk a lot about their culture. They’ve rightly identified that getting the culture right is half the battle when it comes to getting the work right. The tricky part is that it’s so damn elusive. And often our attempts to influence this sensitive eco-system have the same results as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

One of my favourite London organisations, the innovative School of Life, are running an interesting sounding seminar on “living with a creative mind” and they’ve identified five principles for getting the best out of creative people. It makes for an interesting checklist when assessing how well your agency is set up:

 1.   Affirmation

Apparently creative people need a lot of encouragement. Because they may appear confident but are also plagued with insecurities. I would say this rings true, but is also true of pretty much every human being – some people are just better at hiding their self-doubt. Affirmation (real, genuine, positive comments rather than false flattery of course), is the easiest and cheapest way to motivate your staff. And yet so many managers haven’t mastered it yet.

 2.   Permission to Fail

I imagine this varies quite a bit from agency to agency depending on their appetite for risk and glory. For an agency like Wieden & Kennedy, embracing failure is part of their DNA. Whereas the established safe pair of hands BBDO, may have more to lose from a wild departure from best practice. At a more micro-level, agencies need to watch out for blame culture. The best managers protect their teams. This gives people the security to fully focus on the win, instead of obsessively guarding against minor losses.

 3.   Freedom from Fear

Linked to number 2. Fear and anxiety cause the brain to narrow in on the immediate threat. That’s convergent thinking, rather than the expansive divergent thinking that’s required for creativity. In other words, when our backs are up against it, survival is the only thing we can focus on. That doesn’t leave much brain space for connecting random interesting thoughts. So if you want to increase creativity, look at the daily interactions of your teams. If they are tense, anxious or defensive, the resultant work will be shit. It’s also another reason why “talent doesn’t excuse temperament”. Regardless of technical ability, if there’s someone who’s a negative influence on others, they’re dragging your overall creative output down.

 4.   Room to Explore

This is a principle most agencies seem to be quite aware of – in theory, if not in practice. Creative people need both time and often physical space to explore random ideas and stimulus so that they can make new connections. It’s why we’re all allowed to watch Youtube and pop out to a coffee shop for a meeting every so often. But it’s also the first thing to fall by the wayside when people get busy. Given that creative thinking is part of what we’re paid for, this should be a mandatory requirement and way of working, not a luxury.

 5.   Sticking with their Tribe

Now this one has implications for agency layout. A number of people I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned the benefits of putting the creative department back together. And arguably the planning department too. There are clearly benefits from sitting in account teams, but I suspect they err on the side of efficiency rather than creativity. Putting like with like, raises everyone’s game within their discipline. Both through comparative competition and more innocuously through casual chats and sharing inspiration. The downside of course is finding other ways to encourage good working relationships across departments and avoid ghettos. But as the advertising process becomes more collaborative and iterative, hopefully this will follow naturally – from necessity if nothing else!

Everyone wants to be engaging

Left brain, Right brain

One of my most rational and left brained clients has been asking recently about how we can switch from a persuasion model of communication to an engagement model. “Engagement” seems to be the buzzword doing the rounds in the marketing industry at the moment. Everyone from the marketing director to the CEO has bought into the idea that communication needs to be more emotional and less didactic. Which should be great news. It’s not new news, mind you, from an agency perspective – we’ve always known that we were selling the sizzle not the sausage. It tended to be clients who were preoccupied with hammering home their USPs (for washing powders, for razors, for cheese or cereal) leading to an arms race of meaningless improvements to products, which normal people could not have been less interested in.

The tricky part in these discussions is the gap in some people’s understanding of the differences between a persuasion and engagement model.  Many clients seem to want the results of engaging communication, but not the type of work, or the way of working, which would lead to it. There also seems to be confusion between advertising which reaches people emotionally (which can be down to executional elements like music or visuals, as much as the story being told) and advertising which tries to own an emotional benefit in some way (“we stand for confidence!”). And there seems to be a lot of confusion around communication vs. channels, with engagement for many people equaling “digital” or “social”.

Moving from a persuasion model to an engagement model is really just about understanding how humans ACTUALLY respond to communication in the real world. It also means leaving behind a number of assumptions, many of which are deeply held on the client side (and sometimes the agency side too!) The iconic Health & Feldwick paper explains it well:

The Persuasion model assumes:

  1. …that advertising works more effectively through top-down goal driven processing
  2. …that the main role of emotion in advertising is to gain attention for the message
  3. …that advertising which based on emotional cues is weaker and less effective
  4. …that advertising which does not get high attention is weaker and less effective, and only works when repeated frequently
  5. ..that prior exposure to advertising eventually leads to a fall in attention, and therefore a fall in effectiveness (ie. diminishing returns)

In contrast, the Engagement model suggests:

  1. …that visuals, sounds, symbols, music, gestures, context, experience are all a central part of the communication and can be as persuasive as the message itself
  2. …that people can be powerfully influenced by  communication that is processed with low attention, and of which they have no conscious recall
  3. …that decision-making is always rooted in emotions and is often influenced below the level of consciousness
  4. …that human communication is as much based on associations/ connotations within the Ad, than the apparent content of the communication
  5. …that implicit communication is as important and influential as the explicit content.

In a nutshell, developing more engaging communication means switching into right brain thinking (holistic, emotional, visual, symbolic).

So clients who would like to make more “engaging” creative have two paths:

1)   Hone their creative and right brain thinking skills so they are better equipped to judge advertising which works in this implicit and emotional way

OR

2)   Empower their agency to make those judgments on their behalf, and take a softer guidance role during the creative process

I know which path I think is the best bet – thoughts from anyone else?

How far should planners go?

I had an interesting conversation recently with another planner where the question was raised: what exactly is in scope for planners, and what should be left to the creatives?

Or to put it another way – is the main job of the planner to simply define the task as clearly as possible, or should they also be involved in developing the solution? There seems to be two schools of thought.

Some creatives believe strategy ends with the single-minded proposition. This could be a product truth, a consumer benefit based on an insight, or a brand promise. Planners can add pointers on tone of voice, do’s and don’ts, but otherwise the communication idea is largely left up to the creative teams to develop. Either the proposition is creatively fruitful and everyone’s happy, or it’s not, in which case it’s back to the drawing board to revisit the brief.

There are other creatives who want more than the proposition. They want detail, multiple insights, alternative hooks which could spark an idea. They want texture, thoughtstarters and potential ways in to the solution. The role of planning for these creatives is as much about inspiration, as simplicity. It often means creative thinking starts before the brief is finished. It also assumes that strategy doesn’t end at the brief, and that both planners and creatives will continue to evolve the thinking together based on what’s actually producing interesting creative work.

Obviously personality comes into this, as does the overarching culture of the agency. It’s also wrapped up in whether creatives think planners add any value. The more a creative team rates a planner, the more they are invited to be a part of the creative process. Their opinions are actively sought out, their ideas are given credence. If the creative team doesn’t rate them, or perhaps doesn’t rate planning in general, then they don’t really want planners pissing in the well of inspiration before they get to drink.

I wonder however, will Darwinian selection put an end to this debate, as the demands of modern campaigns push us to work differently.

In many categories, we’ve moved beyond a point where brands are significantly different enough on a product or consumer benefit level, to win with these types of messages. Most brands are “good enough” and the incremental improvements are irrelevant to ordinary people (does anyone need 6 blades in their razor?). We also know that actually, brand differentiation is less important in determining purchase behavior than brand distinction.

In other words the “what you say” part, traditionally owned by the planner as the single-minded proposition, is often less important than the “how you say it part”. Planners have a lot to offer when it comes to insight into tone, language and nuance because they are closer to the people the communication is aimed at, so there’s no reason they can’t re-focus their efforts here.

But more importantly, as the most interesting creative work starts to move further away from straight “advertising” ideas towards richer “multi-faceted and multi-platform” ideas, planners have even more to bring to the party. They may not have expertise when it comes to print artwork or camera techniques, but they are very good at understanding things like cultural context, behavioural trends, user pathways and media behavior. These types of insights are increasingly at the heart of innovative creative ideas, and at the heart of how, when and where they are executed.

So perhaps in the near future when the question comes up again, “how far should planners go?”, the answer will be “all the way to the end”.

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