Approaches to ideas and a proposed metaphor

Problems are Opportunities

When you look at the big discourses in this industry – social media, design thinking, innovation, culture, storytelling, ‘digital’ – it is easy to see that there is a difference between how companies act and how proponents of certain perspectives want them to act. Not the ‘advertising is in crisis’ talk itself is new. Quite the contrary, the advertising and marketing industry needs the supposed failure of old approaches for new ones to be able to sell. It’s a lot like another cultural industry: fashion.

But then again, we have have made some advances in our understanding of people, culture and organizations. We now better than before that it’s very hard to predict which ideas and behaviors will spread in culture. It is still very hard to predict behavior, even with behavioral economics, big data and neuroscience, to name a few. Yes, we learned a great deal more about how things spread – hat tip to Mr. Earls and Bentley, but we don’t necessarily always understand why people do it, except for copying randomly. We are still far away from marketers’ wet dream – constructing memes on purpose that are a guaranteed hit.

As planners, this means we’re dealing with the certainty of uncertainty and we’re stuck with planning the un-plannable. But again, strictly speaking, this has always been the case. Communication was never the linear, mass-media bombardment, it is now portrayed as (Lazarsfeld et al.). What people did with media was always as important as what media did to people. We only know more about it now, we can see it unfolding live and we can analyse big data streams in real time. We really shouldn’t be surprised by people’s way of using media anymore. We shouldn’t be surprised by the unpredictability of success on a cultural level. But we still are, and marketing hasn’t adopted accordingly.

Push Button Hard 12-11-08

It’s not that there aren’t proposed solutions.

The very smart Neil Perkin for example has compiled a coherent body of thinking agile planning. He has shed some light on concepts such as agile budgeting, agile research and other ways of making companies more adaptive to change. You should read his very interesting deck here.
Made by Many are a very vocal agency in the agile camp and they have demonstrated their thinking and doing in a great presentation at Google FireStarters as well. Wieden + Kennedy have always said that they don’t have a formal planning process and that a lot of what they do is trial and error. Rob Campbell said they work with a chaos theory approach to culture, which – as a metaphor – is the closest you could get to reality anyways (culture is chaos). McKinsey, the strategy consultants, have written about this stuff in their quarterly extensively in 2002.

Likewise, Mark Earls has pushed thinking around collective behavior in marketing. A proposed solution there is to start a lot of fires to give many ideas the chance to picked up by culture. You’ve all read Herd, so no reasons to repeat anything here, but following this thought has huge implications for budgeting and (media) planning.

Building upon the same theme, Gareth Kay has put forward his thinking about small ideas. Small ideas, being released and adapted continuously together build your big idea (the brand).

But still, at least that’s what I get to hear talking with fellow planners and creatives, and what I get to experience inin my humble first steps in this industry, clients often don’t like lots of ideas. They’re perfectly happy with a few to select from, and one to go with. So what are the barriers that keep a more agile planning approach and a more thoughtful approach to getting ideas out there from being implemented on a larger scale? I’d suggest it’s two things.

The first one is marketing blaming controlling and finance for setting strict budgets. So there’s no room for deviation.

The second one might be the thought that a misguided experiment in communication can endanger a brand. This however, doesn’t get a lot of support by Ehrenberg’s research. Most of what advertising does is to keep people thinking about the brand (salience), and only a second level effect is building associations. Or, put differently, if a full-blown social media shitstorm isn’t guaranteed to damage your brand (and I have yet to see thoroughly researched examples of them doing this in FMCG), how can a ‘not successful’ brand experience / idea / experiment do that?

In the end, the barrier is the threat of less ROI or a marketing manager afraid of missing his quarterly goals. And who can blame them? Fear is a powerful inhibitor. Getting fired isn’t fun. So you go the safe way, and you’d rather have your TV commercial aired two or three times more than putting away some money for experiments. (You also select a big, decorated network agency, so just in case you can always say you chose ‘the best’. I mean, hey, they won Effies and Lions … just like everybody else in this business).

Harbor Crane

When I thought about all of this, it came to my mind that the marketing department really isn’t the only one with goals that are hard to reach. There’s procurement, pressured to get better stuff for a cheaper price. There’s finance, battling the Euro debt crisis and the odd exotic currency. There’s controlling and accounting, trying to fulfill legal demands while making stakeholders happy. There’s R&D trying to have a pipeline of short- and long-term projects. They all have to deal with uncertainty and they all have to demonstrate some reliability, a working baseline, while trying to reach their increasingly unrealistic goals. Marketing has this romantic believes though, as Ehrenberg called it, of sustained growth, brand differentiation, persuasive advertising and knowledge management.

So maybe marketing and brand management should take a look at these industries and steal the concept of hedging. It’s not like risk management or portfolios are new to marketing management. The BCG matrix of poor dogs, cash cows, question marks and stars is taught at every business school and definitely in use to manage brands. Fund managers at their bank have most probably talked with them about a portfolio strategy.

Hedging is a very simple concept, which means, in the strictest sense:

an investment position intended to offset potential losses that may be incurred by a companion investment

. It’s there to ‘insure oneself against loss’.

In finance it means that you construct a portfolio of investments that are related in a way that if one asset loses its value, another one gains value. In procurement you have options that assure you the delivery of a certain amount of e.g. coffee at a certain day for a certain price. So if the price rises, you have successfully hedged against that risk.

And what is done in communication and marketing most of the time? Overall, companies do have a portfolio of brands that they manage. But within a single brand, it’s often ‘micro-hedging’: ‘limiting’ risks within ideas, campaigns and concepts. Making a logo bigger, making a story or joke less complex, cutting away a few seconds there and showing the product a few seconds longer are essentially risk-reducing strategies at work at the one thing you afford to put out there. From what we think about how communication and culture works however, this isn’t really a very thought-through hedging strategy. The proper strategy would be to have different horses in the race, one picking up if another one lames.

Of course, it’s not like marketing departments only have ATL campaigns to manage, they have to manage everything from promotion to the odd sponsoring. And sure, these ideas have to be coherent. Ideas that have to be owned, developed, pitched and financed. Of course, the Brand Innovation Manifesto talks about a collection of coherent ideas, but it doesn’t talk so much about the function of these to actually spread risk.

The closest to this idea in other industries is probably the brilliant Grant McCracken who talks about brands as a complex adaptive system in Flock and Flow, and the need to have ideas ready for different points in the chaos – rigidity continuum. He explicitly covers this problem, when different people in the brand management team want to cover different parts of a cultural context with a campaign, say a mainstream vs. a more alternative/raw approach.

Some parties on the team want to draw on the A state [chaos state, niche, …], while others want to draw on C [established mainstream]. Too often, one objective interferes with the other. The flock and flow approach to branding says, in effect, “You’re both right. Have a play ready for each of the states on the [chaos-rigididy] continuum. Treat each of them as separate strategies. Take a coverage approach.”

So while brand management thinks it mitigates risk with ‘micro’ risk-management, it actually increases it, by publishing only one thing that most probably gets lost. Maybe brand management should consider portfolio planning for ideas, experiences and innovations and support the odd wild card. Maybe they should talk with the finance guys about hedging their bets.

Paul Felix Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, Hazel Gaudet (1944): The people’s choice: how the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign.

Mark Earls (2003): Advertising to the herd: how understanding our true nature challenges the ways we think about advertising and market research.

Mark Earls, Alex Bentley (2008): Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread. Admap.

Andrew Ehrenberg (2002): Brand advertising as creative publicity. Journal of Advertising Research.

Andrew Ehrenberg (2002): Marketing: Are You Really a Realist? strategy+business.

John Grant (2006): Brand Innovation Manifesto: How to Build Brands, Redefine Markets and Defy Conventions.

Grant McCracken (2006): Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace.

3 thoughts on “Approaches to ideas and a proposed metaphor”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *