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.

APSOTW – strategy, collected feedback and what to do with this

A few weeks ago I participated in the APSOTW by Andrew (Northern) about cultural strategy, as outlined by Douglas Holt (who I’m a big fan of …). I had been following the APSOTW for quite a while at this point but I’ve never participated. There are many reasons for that, with the most important one being that as a non-native speaker I often found I didn’t have what it takes to ‘compete’. This time however, I thought I had to do it. I’ve been studying Holt’s academic work for a while and I always found it is brilliant in its rejection of pure technological or functional innovation and its focus on social and cultural currents. So when it came to the razors and blades category and the KoS task, I had to do this. Not so much for the competition to be honest, but for the extensive feedback by many planners and strategists whom I respect a lot.

I think the judges who took their valuable time to do this for us aspiring planners deserve a big thank you. They probably won’t hear you clapping right now but still, it is great to have some ‘virtual’ mentors like that in the industry.

The reason why I’m posting this is that I found it amazing how much different perspective and feedback can help you get to a better understanding of what you’re doing and what you’re supposed to do. It is also interesting to see certain points being mentioned repeatedly. Whereas, when you first read a point of criticism you tend to say ‘Well, yeah, they don’t get it, their problem’, you kind of change your mind when you see the same point being raised again and again. Oh, and another reason is that I wanted to have all the feedback about it in one place.

Needless to say that with every day that passes I find other holes and leeps of logic in there, as well as things I could’ve done better or completely different. Anyways: here it is.

Andrew (Northern Planner):

I love that you’ve gone right into shave culture, not just brand culture. Your pace and style begin really well. Great tension I thought – the submissive man who does what he’s told, leaving most men just getting angry and a great opportunity to embrace a much wider identity and all the possibilities that brings. Really good.

But your strategy suffers from lace of the pace and brevity in your first bit! I was really with you, but then I get less sure about ‘good men’ as a name for a target, it’s not great when you’re talking about men who embrace the best of where they’ve been and where they could go. ‘Good doesn’t encapsulate that for me!

But i LOVE the idea of the evolution of new generation, “One day we will all be like this’ if feels like a grand vision, a shared goal.

I wish you had captured the essence of what that might be, but if feels like your solution is more about embracing the old than the new. I wanted to see more possibility.

Your manifesto was beautifully written but I don’t think you’ve captured what your thinking could have been, it begins to feel like inspiring progress’ which is a great, relevant idea for a male audience, except for the fact Johnnie Walker have already done it!!


Rob Campbell:

general feedback:

In most cases, I felt they were still focusing too much on trying to be different from the category rather than coming up with something that infiltrated, changed or created culture – which highlights a need for the industry as a whole to step away from focusing all their energies on celebrating what’s new and cool and get back to highlighting the values of some of the fundamentals.

Again, that sounds harsh – especially as I know a lot of people who are doing planning at a senior level who wouldn’t have come up with something as good as some of these guys – however I guess I was just disappointed overall because nothing really grabbed me by the balls and screamed “THIS IS IT”.

Gareth once said [or it might of been – god forbid – Andy] that the key is to find “unexpected relevance” and sadly I didn’t find any.

A cultural tension point is like a crossroads, where there is a mass of energy all congregated, waiting for one of the other doors to be opened and let liberation or – at the least – validation to be released. I didn’t feel the tension point the submissions highlighted really got under the skin of the audience, they were either more a CATEGORY tension point or amplifying what the media has been promoting in terms of gender attitudes and issues.

specific feedback:

I absolutely love “The Gillette-shaved man isn’t exactly a realistic, interesting or multilayered guy. And once he does ‘interesting’ things, he gets axed.” Fantastic summation that made me smile and nod at the same time. Took long enough to get to that point, but like a great joke, the punchline delivered.

Please don’t use terms like ‘he-cession’, especially when the word you are raping doesn’t really reflect the point you’re trying to make.

My problem with this submission is it feels like the Chivas Regal campaign – Be Chivalrous.

I know it’s not, I know what Thomas is saying is different, but I can’t help but feel this is more like the evolution of Gillette man than something that captures the spirit of the times.

I agree that the rebellious angle wouldn’t work long term [ala Right Wing voting tools] but the direction being presented doesn’t make my gut feel it’s something that reflects a genuine cultural tension point – something that would touch people in the same way that listening to Al Pacino’s ‘Any Given Sunday’ speech or watching Wieden’s ‘Chrysler Superbowl’ spot made them feel – even if they were about as far away from the ‘core target audience’ as you could get.

Thorough background, nicely paced – but sadly, once it got to the strategy, I felt it lost direction, energy and interest. Sorry Thomas.


David Mortimer:

Some interesting thoughts in there.

Did a nice job of building a picture of the sort of man who would reject Gillette, but I wasn’t as sure how King of Shaves were going to capture these people’s imagination. Perhaps he should have gone back to Connery and co and shown what they would have said about KOS.

The just enough is more part also seemed to come out of nowhere a bit for me. I wasn’t quite sure how this fitted with the rest of the story.


Jason Oke:

Your submission felt understated and simple, which I liked. But probably too understated: I think you could have done a better job really calling out the key ideas to help the audience along, and having a stronger point of view. Sometimes you presented a lot of information and I wasn’t sure what the key take away was supposed to be. And sometimes there were really brilliant thoughts buried in the middle of a paragraph.

You did a really good, thorough job with the category myths and orthodoxy. Nice use of various sources, quotes, pictures and videos to make it really multi-dimensional. And some great insights – like when the Gillette guys gets interesting and deviates from ‘perfect,’ he gets axed; or the link between category norms and male submission. But again these were a bit buried – could have called them out and explored them a bit more.

The cultural shift you identify around gender equality and how men are reacting is good. The ideology and source material was OK but felt a bit superficial – ‘the good things men did in the past are still valid’ is true but you could go deeper. You have some really meaty stuff buried in there which would have been great to explore more, like Susan Faludi’s point about masculinity being derived from utility in society, and not being something ornamental to display. And Tom Ford talking about contributing to the world. You could do a lot with that. What position could the brand take around that thought? A brand standing for guys who contribute to society, or who get their hands dirty, would be an interesting cultural strategy.

Similarly, the idea of “just enough is more” is a really interesting thought, would have liked to hear a bit more about where that could go.

I think you had some OK ideas for tactics. Celebrating “interesting” men is a good starting point, but a bit obvious and I think you could have gone further with it. I like the idea of a shaving brand celebrating guys with facial hair overtly, that would definitely be a departure for the category.

Calling out the industry for over-doing the technology has a lot of cultural potential, stuff like “there is no good reason for Gillette Fusion” and getting dermatologists questioning the utility of 5 blades would be great. I wasn’t sure if these were just observations though, or something you were actually suggesting – but I think it would be a great tactic to go out and pick that fight.

Overall some really good stuff, but I think you needed a bit more clarity on your thoughts, and the courage of your convictions to really take a stand and have a cultural point of view that would create impact.


John Dodds:

Good analysis of the status quo and a history of Gillette’s advertising and “is this really the best a man can get?” is a very good question to ask. But I think you need more proof of your subsequent assertions about submission and insecurity and how that relates to shaving.

What is the cultural disruption you’re highlighting? It seems to be a redefinition of nebulous things like manliness and masculinity combined with a rejection of the technological claims. I may be wrong but you’ve not made it clear enough for me. Why do men want to be good men? Why do they want a new definition and what makes KOS the smart choice for them?

For me, you’ve created an alluring alternative but not explained why it’s alluring and to whom?

The tactics that follow are generally consistent though I wonder if the idea of a modern “gentleman” and barber shops suggest higher costs in contradiction with your complaints about Gilltete’s prices? And I still don’t get why so many of the entries featured beards – surely the anti-christ of shaving?

Finally, the manifesto lays out the position well – I just need you to anchor it explicitly to a cultural disruption



There are some nice observations about Modern Man and Modern Masculinity here and a nicely linked solution celebrating the modern gentleman (with part of being a gentleman linked to having a decent shave).

There are gems too in the manifesto, but they’re buried a bit. Perhaps a shorter, punchier manifesto might have got the point across more effectively?

Andrea Nastase:

It feels on the same line as the previous one but more stripped down. There’s not as much detail but the writing is good and gets to the point quickly.
I think this is my overall favourite
“good things men did in the past are still valid and relevant today and will be tomorrow” – good
“just enough is more” – good
“there are no shortcuts to being a good man” –good
Letting men have a beard – embrace the culture because it’ll have to go at some point;

Now what did I do with this? First of all, I asked for some more feedback and clarification to make sure I really got the point of the feedback. Then I took all the good and bad things (the bold stuff) out and lined it up in a document (sorted by analysis, tension point, strategy) versus my deck and made myself go through it a couple of times.

First of all, a general point seems to be that I could have written more focused, to the point and make some key observations stand out more prominently. As Jason wrote, I could have been more braver and more confident with certain ideas. That’s a core issue I think, because while I’m usually very confident with analysis and the picture of the world I draw, I lack this confidence when it comes to strategy and boiling stuff down to one conclusion (the old selection problem).

Then, there seems to be some agreement that the observation and analysis at the beginning is – in general – ok, and that I’ve hit something there. However, when it comes to what it is that I hit, there seems to be some slight disagreement already, with everyone taking out different bits and pieces as relevant, or irrelevant. This alone is very, very interesting and it’s something you can probably control better when you give a proper presentation, but even then never for 100%.

When it comes to strategy, the trouble begins. While some see an ok flow through the different points of the strategy (Gemma, Andrea – the ladies?), the general conclusion is that I haven’t linked the strategy properly and that the strategy / ideology / manifesto – the solution – isn’t clear and convincing, when compared to the background that I identified. As Rob said, I haven’t hit a real tension point with it, or at least I haven’t expressed it in this way. They still found some ‘nuggets’ in there but people seemed to wonder how it would all fit together and what the one strong idea in it is – because the ‘good’ men (or the ‘post’-modern gentlemen) apparently isn’t it.

To some it up, the category orthodoxy seems to be very good, the cultural shift in general is ok, the strong tension is missing and when it goes to strategy I lose it the pace, clarity and brevity of the first part.

Of course, I also took out what they found to be good or even very relevant parts and looked at them again. I asked myself, what was it that I suggested and found out that I really settled for the first (and pretty obvious) solution, but while mixing it with a couple of other thoughts that I thought were relevant, but that I couldn’t express in a proper way. This is true both for the shift and for the solution.

In effect, I identified two shifts. One is about the rejection of modernities’ promises. It’s speed, pressure, globalization and technology that lead to a lot of everyday madness and that keep a lot of men from doing stuff they might actually like to do. All the stuff that led among other things to the outdoor boom, the search for authenticity, micro-brewery advertising and ‘real’ stuff and purpose in life. This is where the thought of ‘submission’ comes from, because the category celebrates a picture of men that a lot of men actually despise. As Andrea and other APSOTW strategies pointed out and I failed to: most men don’t actually want to shave, they hate it. They just have to do it because it is often a requirement of the business world and they somehow think women want them to be clean- or full-body-shaved (which I doubt, having a beard myself 😉 ).

The other shift is about the rejection of the strict image of a male, masculine, manly identity itself and the media portrayal of men a stupid and useless guys. Identity isn’t the one monolithic thing anymore that you have to stick too all the time. Men today experiment with all kinds of things, from – well – beards to sex toys to cooking to fashion to other things. This is where the thought of the journey, the experimentation, experience, interestingness and the ‘good men’ probably came from. This isn’t about a role to play and fit in, but a life to live and fill with purpose. And it subsequently led to the idea of the dawn of a new generation that was somehow buried in there and that I almost forgot if it wasn’t for Andrew remembering it (the magazines on slide 28 etc.).

All of this culminated in a thought of ‘just enough’. This isn’t about an overly expressed masculinity, but about celebrating men with an authentic purpose in their life who want a fucking break from all of this ‘role playing madness’, from the ‘progress’ that hasn’t helped anybody (real wages etc.). Men who want to be ‘good’ (and have no idea what that means anymore), find a partner, live and appreciate a decent and real life. Enough – I thought – was true for so many things in their life – not more technology, not more media bashing, not more blades, not more … And ‘Just Enough’ I thought was a good way of framing the desirable stuff (experience, progression, change, traditional things that are regarded good and part of male identity, interestingness, technology, blades) in a good way. To solve this tension between dreams of ‘Damn, I’d love to do and be like this!’ – which can be expressed in a million (and e.g. not always heterosexual) ways – and the ‘But society wants me to be like that’, which puts many men under pressure. Does that make sense? I don’t know. In the submission I haven’t framed and expressed it in a way that would people go ‘Fuck me, that’s it!’ – I still haven’t, I guess.

So where does it all go from now?

Andrew didn’t announce a winner and as I said, I was in this more for the feedback than the potential prize. The next task – the tiebreaker round – is to distill a creative brief out of the work, with the feedback in mind. A brief that has creatives running to fill their moleskins with awe-inspiring stuff. As I have to devote most of the time this week for university and ‘real work’ I’m not sure if I’ll be actually able to do this the proper way, but I’ve already learned loads and I can only recommend everybody to take part in the next round, should there be one.