Would we be happier with no goals?

I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions. Partly because January strikes me as a particularly depressing month to try and lose weight/stop drinking/give up dairy etc. And partly because I’ve never been able to shake the back to school feeling of September, making autumn like the real new year to me, turning January into a bit of a fraud.

I suspect there’s also another reason though. Which is that I don’t really like putting myself under the pressure of achieving  – or more likely failing to achieve – a big daunting goal.

Now I’ve always believed, probably like you, that goals are supposed to be good for us. They spur us into action, push us to push ourselves, give focus to what we do today so that we can reach our ambitions tomorrow. And I’ve been taught, just as vehemently, that people without goals are destined (if Hollywood is anything to go by) to become aimless wasters. Living a life full of regret because they failed reached their full potential.

Except I wonder whether this is actually true.

Leo Babauta has a healthy debate on his ZenHabits blog with 4 Hour entrepreneur Tim Ferris, on whether or not goals suck. And I think there is some intuitive truth in the idea that successful people are not succeeding because they are planning ten steps ahead. They’re doing their utmost today, and they’ll keep doing that tomorrow. Cumulatively it all adds up. But an orchestrated long-term strategy is just a guise. As the old adage says that “man makes plans and God laughs”.

More insidiously though, I wonder whether this guise of goals actually gets in the way of our happiness. I’ve talked before about the idea that happiness is often measured as a combination of two things – how happy we are with our lives when we reflect on it (our remembering self) and how happy we are in the moment (our experiencing self).  Goals can piss off both selves.

Our remembering self will judge how happy we feel based on whether we have achieved the many goals we have set for ourselves. And it takes zero heed of whether those goals, our most heartfelt ambitions, were in the slightest bit realistic (see Jim’s video above for a razor sharp observation on this). The higher we aim, the more inevitable it is that at some stage, we will fall short. And rest assured, whatever achievements we do rack up, there will always be a new burning ambition to fill it’s place. We’re built with an insatiable appetite for more.

And worse, while we’re chasing after these goals, we lose track of the moment. Which means our contentment with right now, is always playing second fiddle to our pursuit of whatever prize we think lies in the future. And will the prize be worth it when we wake up at sixty and wonder at how readily we wished our days away to get to that point? Because life isn’t supposed to be a journey with a destination. We’re just supposed to dance while the music is playing.

So my Christmas gift to myself this year is to start out 2013 with even fewer goals than last year. I’m going to throw away the mental picture of what the next year might have in store, and just see where my aimless wandering can take me. Which is quite refreshing really.

Happy Christmas everyone – and think no further ahead for today!


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


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”.

Choosing between money and meaning

When did it become the middle class dream to quit your well paid job and open up a little artisan coffee shop in the slightly dingy part of town? I can’t count the number of people who have confessed this secret fantasy to me recently, and I know one person who has bitten the bullet to make it happen. It’s easy to see the allure. Especially for Generation Y (of which I am just on the verge) who have grown up with the expectation that work should be a rewarding and empowering pursuit, not a ball and chain around your neck.

This is partly because the wealthy western world is moving higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s no longer enough for jobs to provide money, security and status. Now many of us are looking for careers which help us grow as people and reach our full potential. And that doesn’t just mean stimulating our brains, but our heart and soul aswell. In 1980 21% of British people felt the need to “fulfil myself as an individual by being more creative” whereas in 2012 this has risen to a staggering 61% (NVision). Creativity is no longer the sole domain of bohemians.  “Making stuff” has gone mainstream. “Making a difference” is building momentum.

London now feels to me to be a city divided (for aspiring professionals at least) into those who chase money and those who chase meaning. Success looks different depending on where you fall on this spectrum. And I see two parallel cities sitting side by side. There is the city of bankers and lawyers, whose astronomical wages allow them to exist on a higher plane to their once-while peers. And there is the city of the aspiring bloggers/fashionistas/tech start-ups/foodies/social entrepreneurs, rich in education and taste but priced out of ever owning their flat. They’re cycling to work partly for health and environmental reasons, partly because the tube is too expensive.

One of the reasons I decided to go into advertising was because it felt like I could have the best of both of these worlds. A career where you could make a bit of money while also fulfilling your intellectual and creative ambition. Of course what you realise once you’re in, is that you will inevitably still have to make that choice, at least once in your career. You’ll have to be honest with yourself: which is more important to you, money or meaning? Do you take the high paying job with the status boosting title and accept that the work will not be that exciting or ground-breaking. Or do you punt for the innovative hotshop where the drive is high, client budgets are low, output is near invisible and wages are modest. Most people will fall somewhere between the two. The ultimate dream is to have both creativity and commerce, but is that an impossible ask, or an outcome limited to the lucky few?

Perhaps we should take lessons from Hollywood. They don’t choose money or meaning, they alternate. The smartest actors do the big -budget box-office smash to earn enough money and credibility to invest into their indie project, which in turn gains the Oscars and kudos to drum up the next bankable role. That’s how George, Brad and Johnny roll. Less idealism, more pragmatism. Oprah Winfrey, the original celebrity sage sums it up best:

“You CAN have it all. You just can’t have it all at once”

What Makes Us Creative

Tommy McHugh spent most of his life beating the living shit out of people, injecting heroin and spending time in jail. At age 51 he had a stroke causing two small haemorrhages on both sides of his brain, which doctors managed to repair using a metal clip and coil.

When Tommy returned home from hospital he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t eat. He didn’t recognize his ex-wife who was looking after him. He spoke in an odd rhyming stream of words. His ex-wife recognized that this was his way of trying to communicate, so she gave him a pad and paper to express himself in writing. Tommy started writing poetry and then sketching, painting and sculpting. As he regained his memory and physical functions, a dramatically different personality revealed itself. Gone was the dark aggressive character he had been for half a century. Instead there was a calm, sensitive and thoughtful man. He had also retained this intense compulsion to create art.

No one knows exactly what happened from a medical perspective. All the neuropsychologist could suggest was that the brain damage had disinhibited the neural pathways which were blocking Tommy’s sensitive side and creative tendencies from coming to the fore.

Tommy has said poignantly:

“It’s opened me up to the person I feel I should have been 40 years ago”

As someone who works in the creative industries, I’ve always had a strong belief that creativity is something which can be nurtured, developed and stretched. Cases like Tommy’s inevitably raise the question, how much of creativity is biologically determined?

We know that particular people are born with a greater tendency towards creativity. Openness is an innate personality trait often highly correlated with creativity in both the arts and sciences. There’s also a mixed association with low conscientiousness. Creativity is also linked with higher levels of general intelligence, which has a large genetic component.

But we also know that context (am I in a creative mindset) and physical environment can play a big role in stimulating creativity. And we know that mood can substantially influence creativity. When we are happy, more cognitive processes become available, our attention broadens and our cognitive flexibility increases, so we can associate more elements together which is conducive to creative thinking. Workplace studies have shown that the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking they evidence that day, and the creative bump carries over into the next day—even if the mood doesn’t last until then.

McHugh has clearly reflected a lot on what has happened to him and why:

“I fight alone to understand the person I am now, the artist that you see, the human being that you see.  It’s a learning lesson for me every day of my life. And it’s valuable.

It’s just difficult for me to get understanding from any other people, to motivate a neural psychologist somewhere, to motivate a man who wants to interpret the clip and the coil in the brain here, to understand that it’s not just me who’s got this. We’ve all got it. In 20 or 30 years time they’ll come out with a mental thinking cap. They’ll plug it on your brain, you’ll be able to be an artist. Or a kook. Or a ballet dancer. Or a rock and roll singer”

Maybe the stroke fundamentally altered Tommy’s brain, or maybe as the psychologist suggested, this creative side was dormant but ready to be released when the brain pathways were damaged.  But perhaps it didn’t have to be physical damage that triggered this release.

Maybe if Tommy had been reached at a younger age. If he had been taught how to control his aggression and given strategies to manage his impulses. If he had grown up in an encouraging home environment or a more open school. If he had lived a happier and more stable life. Tommy’s right when he says “we’ve all got it”. But I don’t believe the answer is a metal thinking cap. Instead of trying to alter people, we need to alter the conditions. And there are  lots of ways we can start to do that. It’s not easy but it is possible. Especially if you believe that everyone has talent which can flourish in the right environment.

Insight Failure

I cannot stand these awful anti-drugs campaigns. Not because I disagree with what they’re trying to do, but because they are so poorly thought out. They’re attempting to solve complex social problems without any understanding of how people actually work. I don’t know what the UK stats on drug use amount to, but I know from the youth insight project I used to run in Ireland, that the vast majority of under 30s had used at least one illegal drug, at least once in their life. Their experience of drugs is not black and white, but many shades of grey (I’m not talking about the book!). They know people who have been completely destroyed by drugs. They know people who used to be a bit messy but have calmed down. They know people who dabble moderately within a pretty normal lifestyle. And they know people who experimented a few times but decided it wasn’t really for them.

Campaigns like the Facebook timeline one are not credible because they directly contradict people’s real life experiences of what happens when you use drugs. Similarly the “natural high” campaign is setting itself up for failure, just like those abstinence campaigns, because they assume that you are either good or bad. You’re either aligned with those who do, or those who don’t. Asking people to choose a side is both unappealing and unrealistic given how varied an individual’s behaviour and opinions can be in any given situation. And particularly on these social issues, if you force the choice you can expect to continually fight a losing battle.

The reality is, that the non-drug-users/abstainers group will always disproportionately have more of the straightlaced, play by the rules, cautious people, and the drug users/non-abstainers group will always have more of the riskier, dangerous, don’t give a fuck people. The celebrity ambassadors in the “natural high” campaign only enforce this point. Cool will always be against you – don’t ask teenagers to choose sides. And if you really want to really tackle the problem don’t frame it as a black and white issue at all. Give people realistic and practical alternatives in between, and then they are likely to follow a path which isn’t perfect but good enough.

Ultimately the failure of these campaigns comes down to insight. All of these campaigns clearly come from the perspective of non users and show zero insight into the people they are trying to talk to. They don’t feel like they are coming from insiders. They feel like a top down message from moralising outsiders. So they will only appeal to people who already think the same way. And I think this illustrates something really important about insight.

Insight isn’t about a single truth that you can write down on a piece of paper and give to people and think “now they have insight too”. Insight is about understanding the people you’re talking to, to such an extent that you develop an instinct about tone of voice, about nuance, about the little details that will resonate.  There’s a reason we planners sit in on all those focus groups, explore  online forums or sometimes if we’re very lucky immerse ourselves in their real lives.  It’s not to find “insights”, it’s to develop “insight” which can then be applied to help shape the work.

That’s also why the single page brief or worse still, the single line proposition, is often so limited. It doesn’t capture the small seemingly insignificant stuff which can mark the difference between authentic and contrived. This type of insight is only ever understood and passed on to others through face to face conversation, probably multiple conversations. So the briefing session is a good start but not nearly enough. What planners really need in order to apply their insight is much closer collaboration with creative teams, throughout the strategic and creative process, right through to the end.

Introverts in Advertising

I am an introvert. I had a lifelong suspicion that this was the case, but it was formally confirmed about ten years ago when we were made to do a self-diagnosis personality test in one of my psychology courses. Admitting it out loud always makes me feel a little like I’m standing up at an AA meeting and baring my soul. Often people are really surprised to hear me describe myself as an introvert – they tend to be people who don’t know me very well. Or they tend to be people who assume introverts are socially incompetent or painfully shy people who could never speak in front of a crowded room – something I’ve done on a regular basis throughout my career. Introversion feels like something you should be a little bit ashamed of, as if it’s an anti-social trait which is frowned upon. It definitely doesn’t feel like something you would voluntarily offer as a self description in a job interview, or something you would highlight in a performance review.

Understanding that I am an introvert has helped me understand myself a lot better. My friend Aileen (an educational psychologist) gave me a neat little metaphor which she uses to explain the personality dimension to children. There are two types of robots. When they’re both in the playground they act exactly the same, zooming around, interacting with the other robots. One of the robots is solar powered. He gets energized from being outside under the sun and interacting with the world. The other robot runs on battery. After a while he needs to go inside to the quiet docking station and recharge. But once he’s powered up again, he’s fully ready to go back out into the world just as before.

Advertising agencies are a funny place for introverts. We’re a service industry and our product is people (even if we’d prefer our product to be creative ideas). Our increasingly open plan offices are built for collaboration and we work in teams which are often large and fluid. Our success hinges on perception, persuasion and relationships, both internally and with clients. Agencies can be political minefields, they can be aggressive and they can be loudly competitive – a situation Steve Henry regrets in a recent post:

“Creativity isn’t about toughness – it’s about skill and originality. You wouldn’t say “well Jane Austen fundamentally fails as a novelist, because she wouldn’t get very far on an assault course.” Or “Andy Warhol was a terrible artist, he’d be useless in the front row of a scrum.”

Modern agencies are not exactly a natural home for the more quiet, reserved or sensitive types, those who need to take a minute to think before they speak. Yet most creative agencies are probably full of introverts. Creative people are disproportionately likely to be introverts. Planners, with all their reading and geeky analysis, are also more likely to be introverts. And as we seek to integrate technologists, coders and engineers into our midst, it’s very likely that these people will also be introverts. Yet very little about today’s creative agency is designed to get the best out of introverted people. Which is probably a missed opportunity, and one that Susan Cain speaks passionately about in her brilliant TED Talk.

This is a video everyone should watch, introverts and extroverts alike, so that we can understand one another a little better. And so that we can create workplaces which work well for everyone. Our agencies would not survive without those extroverted shining stars, who can juggle a dozen different agendas while keeping everyone happy and momentum high. But likewise we need the thinkers, the dreamers, the ones who need a little more time and space to process things. And once we’ve had that time and space, we’re happy to rejoin you extroverts in the sunny playground.

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