Monday, November 28, 2011

'Sciency' Communications & Partnerships...

How a lot of ads are made...

The title of this post might confuse anyone who's not read Douglas Holt's latest book, 'Cultural Strategy'. If you haven't (and you're reading this whilst in possession of a job on communications), you owe it to yourself to have a look. It's really very good.

Anyway, in the book, Holt uses the term 'Sciency' to refer to the vast majority of measures that marketers use to measure communications. Pretty much any brand tracking or ad evaluation, in Holt's eyes, falls under this lens.

It's something that I'm sure a large number of planners and researchers would violently agree with (and especially Rupert Howell - read a fragment of his 2000 MRS speech). Using rubbish measures to assess the efficacy of work has led to a short termist (or at best, medium-term) culture, one where the number of long lasting brand strategies can be counted on the finger of one hand.

Don't get me wrong, I don't simply think it's as saying 'research is the devil' or 'research needs to be more representative of real life - then it'll work'. Life is far too chaotic for that. Sometimes concept testing does give you the right answer, or a series of clues to test further.

My problem comes when business judgements are made solely as a result of soft metrics. When bonuses are attached to scores on a brand tracker, everybody loses. Marketing becomes needlessly short termist.

It becomes more troubling when the markets aren't immune from this kind of behaviour. Thomas Cook, if reports are to be believed, lost 75% of its market value on the basis of a report about cash flow. One thing led to another, confidence was low amongst business forecasters, and the business suffered. This is the same principle as an ad being judged harshly in research, researcher confirming it, clients passing it on and the organisation rejecting it. A good idea (or business) could take years to re-emerge.

Yet, look what's said by Thomas Cook, amongst those that control the business. Patently, the business wasn't failing, but needed more money in the short term for working capital. However, because this corporate story was read as a potential threat to consumers (it wasn't), the market panned it. If the ad in my example could be proven to benefit the business (focusing on what's happened to the business historically, rather than the mostly short-termist, false idol of brand), then it should be the measure given most weight.

If 'information' or 'Sciency' findings lead to a short term reaction without considering the broader picture (or indeed, what's actually important - that the business's sales come from markets across Europe, or that the ad will be seen in context beyond a darkened focus group room, and - hopefully, as part of a wider strategy), then 'Sciency' conclusions are indeed to blame for a lot of bad comms. They lead to short-termist thinking, and short termist thinking risks undermining the business, in much the same way as Thomas Cook and The City appear to have operated.

And, in truth, it's never been easier (or indeed, more seductive) for the metrics obsessed marketer to fall into this trap. What IS my Klout score? Likes on Facebook? Number of RTs for my tweet?

Or, indeed, the notion of 'awareness or brand loyalty as a 'key metric'. It's deceptively simple to gain awareness; parading your agency down the street starkers with your brand name emblazoned across their chest would do the trick. And the notion of loyalty, as Ehrenberg has demonstrated, is largely false.

No, what needs to happen is a return to business basics. Over a significant period of time, what has happened to sales? Why? How can we isolate this activity? What happened in the test market versus the control market? What does the overall competitive landscape look like in terms of sales? Are we representative? Yes? No? Why, or why not? Who buys what brand/s, and do they make up the majority of the share?

If we can answer some of those with authority, we might just be getting somewhere. If we can't, no amount of social media monitoring will make a ha'penny jizz to your business performance. It might put a sticking plaster over some of the 'Sciency' metrics, but not a lot more.

Thinking about this further, there is a very real need for partnerships as a means of growing business and brand appeal. Marketers; your brand is not the white, shiny snowflake you'd like it to be. To punters, it's just another toothpaste they sometimes buy.

But, if your communications wants to move the needle from A to B, to tap into a behaviour that is relevant and interesting for your brand (that you've tested to see - and not just ad testing; ethnographic findings/google search analysis/SKU purchasing over a significant period of time) and business - why not consider some form of partnership?

It would seem to me that nothing is created solely on its own, if indeed it ever was. People buy into brands for a myriad of reasons, but there's usually a contextual reason why. It may be you buy a Philips electric shaver because your father did, and you're assured of the brand's quality.

If I wanted to move the needle for you to consider my Braun shaver, I'd have to tap into something potent, with obvious cultural resonance, that meant something to you. No amount of boards in a darkened room (or indeed, fully finished ads on the telly) would do that.

But my friends might. And, if I knew that my friends were buying or doing something which related to shaving in some faint way (such as using a Braun as a result of a cultural tie up with Movember or something similar), then I might switch.

Heck, if I was the Braun Marketing Director, I might just try this out. And I might see if it moved the needle. Not in a month. Not in 3 months. But over years. Medium term measures could be moved away from if I had access to a robust database of the kind of people I wanted to target from another, receptive and culturally relevant brand I'd tied up with - this would go some way to avoiding a 'the ad's shit' response from my colleagues. I'd have proper data at my disposal, and some way of tapping into the hard responses - checking brand buying behaviour from those who liked Braun AND were doing Movember.

Then, and only then, would I consider my Marketing a success. Not when celebrity X retweeted my campaign, or the number of hits on Youtube. I've watched all sorts of things on Youtube; if it led to purchase in any way, I'd be in the possession of about 5 cats that could play the keyboard.

I guess what I'm really driving at is getting businesses to base their decisions on what's happening to sales of a product/service over time, or by consulting a robust database (either their own or a brand's that they've partnered with) and then getting into more spur of the moment research.

That'd stop the small-minded, short-termist pissing money away, and, I'm sorry to say, it's only likely to happen with a long-term relationship with an agency that was allowed access to historical data from which to make decisions, and these are all too rare. A business that understood historical business data, and was quick enough on its feet to help navigate where the brand could play culturally...that's the dream, I think, whether you're a client or an agency. Wouldn't that be nice? We might actually be *gulp* business partners.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not all data's created equal...

The famous class inequality sketch from Cleese and the Two Ronnies.

Hello there.

I've been away for a little bit, visiting the US, so sorry for no posts during the past few months.

Being in the States got me thinking; whilst I was there, I was struck by just how much of the US journalism adopted 'Metro style' reportage - articles that were basically glorified press releases with some poor branded polls to support some nonsense thought; barbecue sauce gives you cancer or something similar.

And it got me thinking about the importance or unimportance of data. Though I think he's often an insufferable arse, Ben Goldacre published a good article in the Guardian (and a decent rebuttal to criticism about the first piece) about how far people should trust medical data, something which is fairly close to my heart - I don't like the idea of spurious surveys being used to 'prove' some faddy nonsense that does people more harm than good.

His point was that some 62% of data published in national newspapers in the past two weeks would have failed the World Cancer Research's Scale for provable claims; the data would have been 'insufficient'.

I worry a bit that in an age where statistics can be generated/read about as easily as tying your shoelaces, that it has become ever harder to try and sort the wheat from the chaff. Frankly, if I was a client, I simply wouldn't believe half of the 'data points' that my comms agency (be it Advertising, PR or any of the above) came up with.

So why try to regurgitate stuff they already know; or, indeed, fill presentations with evident stuff? Far better to use data in a creative way (and no, I'm not talking about every planner's wet dream, the infographic) to enlighten, and to use to help support lateral thinking. Not telling Sony about the TV market. I'm all for demonstrating that planning/agencies understand the landscape, but oh so many data/'scene setting' new business presentations do little more than add a rudimentary few slides, almost as a embarrassed beginning.

I'd far rather we got on with the business of surprising and delighting our clients, rather than '8 of 10 cats believed'. Show human reactions to things. Proper ones, not some manufactured focus groups. How do people REALLY behave in the juice aisle? (Yes, I'm aware this may involve people being booted out of Sainsburys, but it's undoubtedly worth it).

It is a concern that in a world of MROCs/personalised panels et al that we're far too quick to outsource data gathering to those who are only a piece of the puzzle. After all,' facts only make sense in the light of an idea', as Stephen King put it. Far better to acknowledge what we don't know to a client, to be honest and grown up - and seek to surprise them with genuinely insightful information that isn't easily garnered by their own research department.

This would, I hope, partly stop the endless use of 'post-rationalisation planners' (though it'd never stop it; sometimes a good idea DOES come at the 11th hour). I don't want planning to be relegated to a 'backer up' of creative ideas that aren't founded in thinking about the business. In a dream world, planning would be a conduit, able to surprise creatives and clients, using research in a creative way.

I think it's no coincidence that TNS have appointed a creative director. As a nation filled with dubious 'quick surveys' in our national papers, the likes of TNS, more than anyone, have a need to stand out. I just hope it goes beyond infographics and focuses on why people do what they do. God knows, we've never needed to know that more.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grit makes the Pearl...

It looks like a variation on a G. Could be wrong, though.

Hello. Happy Easter, first of all. I'm enjoying the chance to potter at home, to play a little golf and reflect on the past four months or so since Easter.

Anyway, I thought you might like to know that since Christmas, I've begun to try to learn the guitar. Now, this is a bit of a new thing for me; I've never, ever learned to play any musical instrument. It's kind of odd, especially when you consider that I love music - I've spent thousands of pounds on it since my teenage years.

And, well, let's just say that it's not as easy as it might seem, this guitaring. I've spent hours and hours practicing my chord changing, learning basic pentonic scales and beginning to learn bits and bobs of songs I like. Perhaps most notably - I can now play the beginning to 'The Funeral' slightly slower than Band of Horses can. Heh.

It's been fun, so far, partly helped by the fact I have no expectations (save to be able to play songs/be able to noodle). I don't have any desire to pack it all in and become a musician, but I do find myself getting cross when I can make a chord change quickly enough.

That in itself's been interesting; my guitar teacher's got me using a metronome to get quicker, and that led to an admission from my flatmate (a former teacher of guitar himself) that he'd never used one. No, he'd just used his ear, and never been taught the 'proper' way, and wished he had, as he admitted his tempo wasn't up to snuff, and that would've helped. He, like me, played to amuse himself.

Now, I want to learn the 'proper way', even if I at a later date I short-hand it. I know what my musical desires are (though my teacher tells me that as soon as I play with other musicians, I'll want to kick it up a notch), and am happy enough. I'm sure there'll come a time when I know more to challenge some of the things I've been taught, though.

What interests me about all of this is that I think proper practice does require proper grit; to learn things the 'right' way and ask pertinent questions as you go along. I've always wanted to learn the way it's been done, historically - to challenge what's been accepted as the norm, and find out when it's useful/when it can be disregarded.

Running AdGrads, I have met a lot of graduates. Many incredibly talented, many incredibly conscientious...with the odd one that's so talented that they'll re-write the way the business is thought of.

What I find most interesting (bearing in mind AG's been in existence for about 4 years now) is to track the progress of those who have been successful the first time round versus those who've had to work at it and those who've given up and done something different.

Without question, there are some brilliant, brilliant people in communications. Like my flatmate's guitar playing, they've demonstrated a natural ability. But, occasionally, they get to about two years in, and stall. They've made it. To the average person (and client, in a lot of cases) they know what they're talking about. Yet they're disillusioned; they've put so much into the goal of getting in that there's no real incentive to push on. They're able to play their songs, tap out their beats and, ultimately, be a cog in a business. I think this happens most often to the planners I've seen - there's no real job title change, short of getting in and on.

It's the triers that do best in both businesses; those who can internally motivate themselves, be gritty and ask the right sort of questions. These callous-finger-tipped sorts don't just 'settle' for things. So you can't move from F to C quickly enough? Keep working. Find another way of doing it. Hum along to the song you're trying to master to learn a better way to play it than the oft-wrong tab pages suggest to do so. When it comes to comms, don't just accept that because you're two years in and working in London that planner x's word is law, or that what a client says is the way it always will be.

Get out there, meet different sorts of people, and apply some real life to situations (as Rob's excellent post points out). Don't just listen to Twitter or Campaign Magazine. Those promote a very 'media' way of thinking about the problem at hand.

It's perhaps no wonder that the public no longer thinks that the ads are better than the programmes - so many communications initiatives are created as much to please the 'in' crowd as anything else. I don't give a fuck what famous planner Y thinks of my campaign. If it met/exceeded its objectives (which, in truth, only you and the client will know), then it's worked. It's like this tweet; I have no doubt whatsoever that the people they wanted to talk to weren't 20-30 something comms professionals in London. No doubt at all. So many people judge 'the work' not as punters, and that's a big problem.

I think lazy judgements on the work is another symptom of a lack of grit; a lack of willingness to think about just how real people (remember them?) will behave when work like that is placed in front of them.

To take this back to the guitar again - my guitar teacher, Ryan Carr, is trying to make a go of a career as a full-time guitarist (rather than as a 50/50 teacher/guitar player split). He has a refreshing attitude to the notion of grit. On my second lesson (after buying some more kit - a capo/metronome from a nearby shop), I asked him why most people in Denmark St music shops were such dickheads. Most of them sneered like bastards when I asked some pretty simple questions about just what brand of capo I should buy. He said to me that most of them were washed up, the sort of guys who had/have some natural talent, but were unwilling to ever chance their arm and try for full time careers as musicians. He knows that he's in a risky position, and that he's got some difficult creative decisions to make - to the T-Mobile example earlier, just how populist does he make his music? Regardless of which way he goes, I respect him for giving it a go, and being true to what he actually thinks, and not a sneery musical sycophant.

It's the worrysome nature of creative careers that it's often easier to sit in the sidelines, being in with the in-crowd, going along with the popular consensus because you're too frightened to make something happen or venture how you really feel.

And, frankly, I think that's a bit sad. I think, for the likes of comms folk, that we shouldn't be frightened of arguing fully for the work, about just why it will/won't work, and be less frightened of just blithely nodding along with what famous planner/creative x says. If we don't do that, we run the risk of sitting, working in the ad equivalent of the music shop from High Fidelity, where people wank on for hours about gamification - something, which whilst wonderful as a theory, just might not sell more bars of soap.

I like working with people who have strong beliefs. People who don't work in a culture of fear, who say what they think and argue about the direction of accounts. People who I can raise my voice towards and go to the pub with afterwards. People who have their comms callouses, who love what they do and have tried to get better. Not people who've glided in, grown disillusioned and are too scared/lazy to do something about it. That's where the best work comes from, whether it's a song, an event or an ad.

Anyway. Back to trying to learn the Crane Wife 3.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Consultancy with Conscience...?

I wonder if it's Santa. Photo via jurvetson. Usual rules apply.

After what seems to be a (sadly) typical four month pause in blog posts, I've decided to get off my arse and write another. Prompted by Neil's excellent Firestarters evening at Google, I began to think a little bit about agencies, and just what will endure or be left behind in the next ten to twenty years and beyond.

I've talked a little bit about my slight skepticism about the notion of 'agile'. I think it works well from the get go, when it's a founding principle, but when you're dealing with disconnected/disassociated big businesses whose PR and Advertising departments don't even talk to one another, it starts to ring a little hollow.

To be honest, I think that it's a good principle, but won't work all of the time. For an agency like Made by Many, who make their name on iterative development and working in close proximity with clients and as a smaller business, it makes sense.

Now, what I'm really interested in is attitudes and behaviours which foster good work. Organising principles are all well and good, but they can easily gather dust if the mindset's not right inside and outside of the business.

The one thing I want to think about today is conscience. Since the beginning of the agency world, every half-decent shop has realised what's needed it is a strong professional conscience - it doesn't matter what type of employee you are. All considered folks realise that yes, the work's difficult at times, joyous at others - but there's really only one method of ensuring you don't go mad, whether you work all the hours given, or have an enviable ability to get everything done, please the client and have a life outside of the day job.

It's a sense of good conscience. The best places know that they've set parameters with their client ahead of time (often odiously referred to as 'managing expectations' on occasion, which sounds like an excuse for a fuck-up) and if something's thrown this into doubt, have had the wherewithal to raise it with their clients quickly.

In all honesty, they've behaved like a proper consultancy, not just a simple provider of service. In my experience, providers of a service and nothing more get taken advantage of. I must confess, to thinking back to my long running part time job between University; there were similar situations where people had no empathy when you were busy and short staffed, asking for everything now or sooner, if possible.

Those people are just as likely to come with an MBA and live within a Marketing department as they are to sit in a burger queue or be after a pint at your local. So, if we acknowledge that those people exist, why not deal with them honestly, demonstrating a considered professional opinion and setting what can/can't be done ahead of time?

The further splintering of creative disciplines promulgates this 'can't you just?', service only approach - it's too easy to treat each part of the puzzle as that and nothing more. People chase after easy to prove 'vanity metrics' (a wonderful phrase, nicked from Neil's event) which are short-term and satisfy that their 'bit' of the puzzle is working.

If a client has chosen to split their budget across a spectrum of agencies, and there's no clear lead (as would appear to be happening more frequently these days), then it's got to fall to the group to set decent, longer term measures and not just fight for control over their bit or a little more.

To promote your way of working as the best in this scenario just doesn't ring true. It comes across as more agency willy-waving. Be shown to be the agency with the conscience, those who are empathetic to what goes on in the agency circle/with the client, along with explaining why something can or can't be done, and I'm sure rewards will follow.

You'll be respected for your counsel, something which appears to have gone missing in the search for dwell time and youtube hits. When it doesn't work (which happens), you'll be in a better position not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and just change the creative/approach. It's got to about learning, not lurching from execution to execution without a guiding principle or pre-set parameters.

Agencies shown to have good consciences will be able to (shock!) answer the client back if they don't agree, behaving more like they used to. After all, you SHOULD be employed for your point of view, not just because you can argue the production company to do it a couple of grand cheaper, or ensure celebrity x turns up to party y.

Mystique will only get so far. And, to be honest, the only way to start fires is to behave like a considered, thoughtful, conscience-riddled grown up, not like some reactionary child.
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