Join the campaign against the squishies

June 10th, 2019

ipa“A widespread promiscuous devotion to the untrue”

This is how best-selling writer Kurt Anderson describes post truth Trump’s America.  In his recent best-selling book Fantasyland he argues that regarding facts as optional is deep rooted and centuries old in his homeland.

His argument runs like this: The founding fathers fled an England that was too religiously tolerant for their beliefs and sought a new land where nobody would mock them for their delusions and dreams.  Creating new truths began in the 17th century and has never stopped.  Its no co-incidence, according to Anderson, that America produced Disneyland or that creationism is still popular.  Americans are great at fantasy.  Facts, he claims, are too often perceived as merely another version of the truth.  “America was the dreamworld creation of fantasist, some religious and some out to get rich quick, all with freakish appetite for the amazing.”  He is fearful of the consequences of this for the world.  A world where opinion is as valid as hard evidence.  Here’s one of Anderson’s more recent examples of this: ‘“Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence? the anchor of ABC World News Tonight asked President Trump.  “No,” he replied, “not at all!  Not at all – because many people feel the same way that I do.”’

Are we, in the ad industry, ever in danger of confusing hard evidence and beliefs?

At 2018’s IPA Effectiveness Week conference Libby Child presented research into marketing effectiveness culture across the industry where over half the respondents rated the abilities of their organisations at 6 or less (out of 10).  Furthermore prevailing ‘Marketing Effectiveness Culture’ is short term in its focus. It is not yet the norm for it to be aligned across the whole company or for formal kpis to be shared across the board.  So sometimes budgets are spent against the more easily judged short term rather than in the long term in terms of brand health and for a sustainable business model.

There was a trend a few years ago about “the wisdom of the crowd”.  Surely if most people around you believed something then that would be better than the opinion of an elite group of experts?  This can be seen as part of a “Fantasyland” continuum; where someone hears what they would prefer to believe, and then is served social media feeds which reassuringly echo rather than challenge their views.

Every aspect of a comms plan must have a rationale, backed by evidence.  That evidence must be substantive and independent.  To make any decision because that’s where other brands are spending or on the basis of media owner information that is not third party verified may be entering the Fantasyland delusion.

There is always room for instinct, for gut feel and for making a decision because of belief in the potential of a media idea that is unproven yet.  But this should be done in the conscious knowledge that it is a valid test and experiment with proper accountable measurements.

Fantasyland can be dangerous.  Anderson calls out some opinion formers as “Squishies, people intellectually or temperamentally disinclined to tell people they’re full of shit when they are, who have lost their stomach for the fight against the multiplying and empowered Believers.”

The IPA Effectiveness movement stands out against the Squishies.  Now a global initiative it is dedicated to broadening the bank of knowledge from more brands and more disciplines.  As Convenor of the 2020 awards I’m hoping that more agencies than ever this year can find the time to enter to ensure the triumph of evidence based marketing.







Brighton Rock: This year’s Media360 gave delegates plenty of ideas and arguments. 

May 28th, 2019

fink2Lord Finklestein OBE, columnist at The Times, opened his diagnosis of Brexit at the Media360 conference which I co-chaired this May, with an old Jewish joke.  A village matchmaker goes to a peasant family and says that she’s found a match for their son.  “What about the daughter of the Tsar?” she says.  “But there’s no way that the Tsar will agree that his daughter could marry a lowly peasant” the parents reply.  “But do you agree to the match?” asked the matchmaker.  “Of course” said the parents.  ‘Well then,” the matchmaker replied, “I’m half way there”.

Lord Finklestein was of the opinion that the deal for Brexit was no closer than the matchmaker’s marriage deal.  He described Britain as two nations, Leavia and Remainia.  One of the key problems was that politicians don’t understand how little people in general understand or even care about politics.

This problem of a lack of empathy with the public seemed to be echoed in a subsequent debate about building trust in advertising.  The panel was divided.  On one hand a campaign, educating the public about how their data was being used and why, was put forward as a solution.  On the other hand there was a strong feeling that education was meaningless if, as with politics, the public neither understand or care.  They just want the ad bombardment to stop.  Karen Fraser, MBE, head of strategy at Credos, showed footage from research on current reactions to advertising, after pointing out that trust was at an all time low.  Great ads were still talked about, and regarded as icebreakers for society.  But there was much more ambivalence about online advertising where one respondent said: “it’s hard to differentiate between ads and content online”.

In light of this ISBA’s initiative about ad bombardment is to be welcomed.  Direct Line Group’s marketing director Mark Evans explained that cutting down on excess frequency won’t just reduce waste which is a compelling argument for marketers with their CFOs.  It will also help with consumer trust.  A longer term view is necessary instead of jumping to satisfy short term metrics targets.

As an industry we are faced with shifting sands.  More change is to come.  Damian Collins MP, Chair of the DCMS Select Committee, was clear that the days of self regulation may be numbered as today’s media landscape poses very different problems from any in the past.  After dinner speaker Amol Rajan, media editor at the BBC, said that we are at a hinge moment in history, and described Zuckerberg as the Gutenberg of our days, though the changes now are fantastically accelerated compared to the impact of the printing press.  “We are, perhaps”, he said, paraphrasing the great Grace Jones, “slaves to the algorithm”.  Certainly, as Campaign’s global head of media Gideon Spanier writes, doing business these days demands new ideas, new ways of working and new behaviours.

It’s crucial to have empathy with the public, our ultimate customers.  Difficult as it is to really put yourself in another’s shoes, if you don’t at least try to do so then there’s very little hope of building brands for the long term in the digital economy.


Alexa, I don’t think we’re on the same page.

May 13th, 2019

alexaAlexa and I are not really getting on as well as I had hoped, or thought we would.  First of all the rest of the family don’t like her listening in.  Then quite often we don’t understand each other.  When I asked about the forecast for rain the other day she played me the song Stormy Weather.  She keeps offering me skills that I don’t want or need (or at least I don’t know that I need).  And it vaguely upsets me that I don’t have to say please or thank you to her.  Whilst I realise that this is ridiculous I do worry about children across the nation losing the habit of politeness because they don’t have to be polite to a smart speaker.

However I will persist, and I know that Alexa and I will start to see eye to eye.  Partly, this is because I am busy, and some more assistance in life generally would be helpful (Alexa, fill in my passport application form/tax return/expenses at work/order flowers for my Auntie Joyce would be amazing functionality for example) and also because the stats show that so many other people already love their smart speakers.  And of course, other voice assistants are available, and are being used.   Mainly for weather and news updates, and music admittedly.

Over a quarter of UK households have smart speakers, and this is growing.  There’s plenty of barriers in place in terms of usage.  There’s no one protocol for use.  The different models don’t share the same language for example.  Once you do create brand content the discovery journey for customers isn’t yet established.  Across life in general but brands in particular use cases are in development.

What’s the hurry then?  With so much business as usual to fix, why worry about the next frontier?  Who can afford the time to develop work for a new channel, particularly when it is so clearly one where content from any other route to market just is not transferable.  The answer to this question is in front of us with every news story that demonstrates how new entrants to a market have eaten the lunch of brands that are established.  Every time the tech goliaths decide to diversify their revenue streams by more market disruption.

Guy Kawasaki says everyone in business is either a pie eater or a pie baker.  The pie eaters fight for a bigger slice of an existing pie.  If they win, you lose, and if you win they lose.  Pie bakers try and bake bigger pies.  They work on the approach the if the pie gets bigger, then they win and so do you.  When the pie gets bigger, then customers increase in number and diversity.  The status quo progresses and changes.  People, even competitors, can work together because everyone benefits.  Whether you agree with this theory or not, you’re much better off working for and with baker than eaters.

Voice would really benefit from a pie baking approach.  From sector alignment and standardized protocols and measurement.

Alexa, can you bake us a bigger pie?



“All my best decisions are made with heart, guts and taste”

April 30th, 2019

kb“All my best decisions are made with heart, guts and taste”

Instinct or algorithm?

It’s a question that Karen Blackett OBE asked her three interviewees at her Chancellor’s Dinner at Portsmouth University last month.

Kanya King OBE, supercool founder of the MOBOS said instinct. Sir Lenny Henry CBE fresh from raising money for Comic Relief said instinct too, but Tom Ilube OBE, tech entrepreneur, as you might predict (using your instincts) chose the algorithm.

Every time I jump in the car the same question comes up. Should I turn on Waze? Should I use my instincts? Surely Waze’s algorithm knows more than me, and, so it proves until, there’s an unexpected road closure and you wind up with me and everyone else trapped in the “ Wazelocked” traffic.

Karen asked her guests about cheerleaders in their lives. Lenny Henry talked about the big break he got from Chris Tarrant. When Lenny was failing on breakfast show Tiswas, Tarrant took him for lunch and told him he was failing to make the transition to presenter from stand-up and would soon be off the show. He suggested that Lenny pivot and try a different approach, and Lenny listened, followed his advice and soon this turned him into a star. Karen asked him why he thought that Chris Tarrant had bothered to stage this intervention. Lenny said: “He saw the potential in me”. Tarrant gave him a leg up. Tarrant saw something in Lenny Henry even when he was screwing up and trusted his instincts too. Don’t trust that any algorithm could have delivered on that potential fame, and a career that aside from the laughter has helped raise over £1bn for Comic Relief.

A black-box thrown into a tech stack can certainly do a lot of automated heavy-lifting, but there is still a need for human intervention to guide what the algorithms are trying to achieve as well as augmenting their outputs with human ingenuity and inspiration. Delegating this responsibility to an opaque black-box to make all the decisions is short sighted – as the algorithm is only a part of the process. It cannot define what data to assess, how that data should be featured and the interpreting of the results in-line with commercial goals.

Media delivery has been transformed in this decade because of algorithms and the business models will continue to change. As AI grows in real functionality many traditional aspects of media planning and trading will fade. But the industry must stay rooted in the real world, where instincts and creativity will always play a crucial role. The digital ad bombardment of consumers is just one outcome from too much faith in algorithms, and marketing chiefs are right to question this. Real world planning for comms using instinct as well as data to drive competitive advantage has never been more important. As Jeff Bezos says in the opening quotation: use the data but trust your heart.



April 16th, 2019

cake-605-450x392Just kind

In a business that is under disruption, sometimes the best decision you can make is to be kind.

At the IPA conference for International Women’s Day one of the key note speakers Pinky Lilani CBE, Founder, Women of the Future, talked about the importance of kindness in modern leadership.  She said that her business had been built on the kindness of others. She’s created the Kindness and Leadership 50 leading lights, and points out that kindness is seldom celebrated.

The phenomenal early success of one icon of British TV represented a prominent example of the power of kindness in popular culture.  Sandy and Noel are mischievously anarchic.  But they are not as kind as Mel and Sue.

Remember this season?  Watching diffident Rahul win Bake Off was a great pleasure,  finally an introvert in the spotlight for success.  It was one of the highlights of archetypal British TV.  Ratings were strong (if not quite BBC level), the bottoms are no longer soggy, but everyone had a lot of fun with Veganism.

One missing ingredient though is the kindness of Mel and Sue, both to each other – after all there’s a genuine relationship there not a manufactured one – and to the candidates.

Sue revealed that she and Mel walked off the set during Bake Off‘s first season because the producers were trying to coax human-interest drama—and the inevitable tears—out of contestants. “We felt uncomfortable with it, and we said ‘We don’t think you’ve got the right presenters,'” Sue told the Telegraph. “I’m proud that we did that, because what we were saying was ‘Let’s try and do this a different way’—and no one ever cried again. Maybe they cry because their soufflé collapsed, but nobody’s crying because someone’s going ‘Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?'” Bringing up dead relatives at stressful times is a time-honored technique for introducing tension into a television show, but it’s no way to treat your family.

Further than that when contestants did cry—out of frustration or disappointment, generally—Mel and Sue would stand near them and use un-airable language so the embarrassing footage couldn’t make it into the final edit. ” Sue was reported as saying: “If we see them crying or something,  Mel and I will go over there and put our coats over them, or swear a lot because we know then that the film won’t be able to be used.”

Kindness is perhaps the polar opposite of traditional patriarchal business values of ruthlessness and power politics.  Just as we wrote in The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, the toxic masculinity that pervades many organisations excludes all kinds of talented people from developing their full potential at work.  Pinky said:  “With kindness comes a feeling that is not easily forgotten. Think about customer service that has delighted you; think about a boss who inspired you to be where you are today; think about a brand or business you are loyal to because they seem to genuinely care. Kindness enhances the best qualities in people; it disarms a disagreement and it brings about collaborations which you may never have dreamed possible.”

Think about your own career path.  It’s absolutely true that you will never forget the kindness of others.  As Pinky added on IWD you also never forget an unkindness.

Being unkind is often unthinking and casual.  But never to the recipient.

Kindness depends on there being nothing immediately in it for you.   #Payitforward.