Don’t be an armchair general

October 21st, 2019
thanks @luckygenerals

thanks @luckygenerals

The cost of safe decisions is often misunderstood.  Ignore it at your peril.

“One of the most important — and misunderstood — ideas in economics is that of opportunity cost. Everything we do is an implicit decision not to do something else” says Economist Tim Harford.

As MediaCom’s worldwide cpg planning chief Andy Walsh has said to me: this is an idea that is too often neglected in comms investment decision making.  Whenever teams default to only using proven channels and platforms which feel predictable and safe potentially those safe decisions have a significant opportunity cost.

This explains the difficulty in progressing from an ideas brainstorm to delivering innovation in practice.

There’s also the fact that powerpoint strategy is very different from the planning for the real world.

All too often the start point for the next campaign is last year’s plan plus, that is after the presenter has given the meeting an update on market developments and the usual competitive update.  We are in an environment of constant change.  With so much to contend with people may naturally want some certainty in some aspects of what they do.  The resulting plan which feels easy to buy into is likely to be suboptimal.

In short, generals fight the last war, politicians fight the last election and planners write plans too often for last year.

Campaigns often have a highly artificial start and end, dictated by the business plan budget and kpi setting.  The desire to show key performance indicator achievement by the date of the annual review can lead to chasing a target set at a point in time which is a long time ago in terms of developments in the marketplace.  Traditional creative development lead times might mean that the circumstances analysed in the planning phase are radically different when the campaign breaks.

You can avoid this behaviour.

Ideas editor Joshua Rothman quotes “War and Peace” where Tolstoy writes that while an armchair general may imagine himself “analysing some campaign on a map” and then issues orders, a real general never finds himself at the “beginning of some event”.  “Instead he is perpetually situated in the middle of a series of events, each a link in an endless chain of causation.”  If you plan for change with an agile and iterative approach then you can avoid the real danger of making decisions in imperfect conditions that seriously damage the potential for growth.

More time spent on scenario planning helps here considering a series of outcomes for the plan.  One model where things get better, one where they get worse and one where they get weird.  Immersive “war games” where you act as the competition or a surprising new entrant into the market can lead a path to innovation and better outcomes.

One secret to creating a positive change in approach is transformative decision making.  This is where you don’t just evaluate the key decisions in terms of logic or past evidence, but in terms of who or what the business wants to be.

Rather than assuming a linear progression from the current status quo, transformative decision making allows a planning process that works backwards from an ambitious goal that imagines a new landscape and what the business must deliver to get there.

Agility, iteration of planning and transformational thinking are all key to avoiding the fate of the armchair general.




Personalisation or Personal connection?

October 7th, 2019

set_redford_newman_120622Two outlaws have been pursued by the law through the desert.  They’re finally cornered on a cliff top.  If they fight they’ll be killed.  Suddenly one of them thinks of a way out.  A huge leap down into a fast moving river.

Butch: I’ll jump first.

Sundance: Nope.

Butch: Then you jump first.

Sundance: No, I said!

Butch: What’s the matter with you?!

Sundance: I can’t swim!

Butch: [laughing] Why, you crazy — the fall’ll probably kill ya!

This iconic scene is from one of my favourite movies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  If you don’t know the movie (and if you don’t, go watch it now) it is funny, it’s about real deep friendship and loyalty, adventure, not playing by the rules, flexible strategy, and of course it’s about cowboys.  This will surprise no-one but the closest I’ve ever come to any involvement with the cowboy community is a pair of really lovely pink cowboy boots I once owned in the 90s.  There’s nothing relevant to me in the cowboy messaging, but the movie moves me enormously.

Today of course technology would allow that content to be personalised.  Personalised so that it was more relevant to my life with the intention of creating a bigger impact.  What would happen if the messages were personalised ?

Given that I don’t ride a horse, better if the scene showed people, well in fact women, driving cars.  The closest I get to breaking the law is probably the odd parking ticket.  And I’m a good swimmer.  So, the outlaws on the run, on horseback, from the sheriffs, jumping into rapids, becomes two women, dodging a traffic warden by, hmm, not sure, performing karaoke (I hate karaoke).

Dull, dull, dull.

Or take Avengers Assemble, another favourite.  Better set it in London’s adland to really get up close and personal. With the Incredible Hulk as a creative director whose transformation is triggered when his work gets rejected by the client.

Except of course not.  Because content doesn’t always need to be personalised in order to resonate.

‘People don’t remember what you say or what you do….they remember how you make them feel.’

This is Maya Angelou, not Les Binet, so it’s a subjective opinion not the IPA effectiveness data bank.  However, the power of creative and of emotional resonance is obviously also endorsed there too.

There’s more than one way in which personalised content does work very well.

Clearly for a short term roi performance marketing message personalisation can help to eliminate wastage.

If someone is moving home, its probably a great time to send them a message about all those purchases that are triggered by that behaviour (home decorating, buying furniture, energy and broadband switching, even buying a pet for the first time).

Personalising the media plan and the messaging (without being creepy) just makes perfect sense.

Then there’s the kind of personalisation that is about communities of interest or your tribe.  The target market for a brand isn’t just a demographic.  She might be a yoga mum, or a gym enthusiast, or a home cook or movie lover.  Speaking to her in that persona could be perfect for the plan.

Targeting her where she lives and works can add cut through in terms of copy relevance too.  This brand’s for you can be emphasised by very local creative and media.

There is a role for personalised advertising not just for short term sales but also for brand building and relevancy.  Brands are rightly demanding more personalised creative as Gideon points out here.

However, we must never forget that the most personal of emotions are not always triggered by personal content.

Advertising or content can resonate personally because of how it makes you feel.  Where the relevancy is about being human.    Data reveals so much, but not this.  We must not lose personal connection for the sake of personalisation.



120 seconds… but I want it now

September 25th, 2019

marshmallowRemember the marshmallow test?

Several small children were put in a viewing room by scientists at Stanford University in the 1960s. Presented with a plate with a single marshmallow on it, they were told that if they waited and didn’t eat it in the next fifteen minutes then they could have two marshmallows as a reward.

The four year olds were then filmed as they struggled to resist the immediate gratification of the single treat in favour of obeying the scientist and waiting for the requisite time for the full double treat.

Stanford then followed the subjects into later life where it was established that the children who had waited had better life outcomes in general compared to those who had succumbed to temptation and couldn’t wait to satisfy their sweet tooth.

There are commentators in our industry who believe that the problems of marketing in the 21st century are evidence of teams run by people who cannot wait for longer term rewards of sustained business metrics. They’re addicted to immediate gratification in the shape, not of marshmallows, but of short term digital metrics.

Has our industry failed the marshmallow test?

Last century immediate metrics of success in media were hard to come by. Audience measurement was available increasingly speedily, but the outcomes of success in terms of business took time to assess.

Google put an end to waiting. One of the revolutions that paid search delivered was only paying for click through. An immediate outcome with minimum risk. As the internet revolution overall took hold a whole host of immediately measurable results became available to digital practitioners, and only with time came the understanding that these metrics themselves have some flaws. And short term delivery does not always mean long term growth.

Binet and Field’s latest dive into the IPA databank calls more businesses to invest longer term. Their initial conclusion was that every business should invest 60% of their comms budgets in long term branding. Now amended by sector the new analysis stretches the recommendations for some sectors to 70-90%.

Why do so many find this difficult to adhere to? Part of the reason is unquestionably the board/brand divide. IPA/FT research reveals that whilst top boards value brands in theory (after all they have a proven value on their balance sheets) they admit that they don’t understand brand building or media.

Another reason may well be the addiction to short term targets. Easy to set, easy to game, easy to achieve. Great for an instant endorphin rush of satisfaction. Not necessarily so great for brand building, or for the public’s outlook on advertising in general as ISBA and the AA have demonstrated. Are there fewer people around who have the patience to wait for that second marshmallow?

There’s a lot of debate about how to recruit into our industry. Job descriptions are being reviewed for gender bias. Interviews are proven not to be a guarantee of successful recruitment.

While this debate is ongoing maybe we should add another dimension.
Maybe this should be the new recruitment test. One treat now or two in fifteen minutes. For brands to continue to thrive we must break that addiction to achieving short term targets or we are in danger of running brands into the ground and losing the heritage built across generations.


How to stop fighting fires and start building great work

September 6th, 2019

siloTogether we can do so much.

Agencies and marketers need to be more careful than ever to get rid of silos in campaign development.

Things go wrong when there are silos.

Here’s two reasons why:

First of all silos mean that the right people aren’t always in the decision making room at the right time.

In her assessment of the recent Centrica review, group CMO Margaret Jobling astutely said that the days of “channels and everybody operating in splendid isolation is well gone”.  She pointed out that “It is no longer clear where, for example, media and content creation start and stop”

Often what happens as a matter of course is that media and creative might be briefed together, but then creative tissue sessions may go ahead without media people present (and should not).  Media strategy and execution meetings may exclude the creatives (and should not).  We shouldn’t be separating the medium and the message in this way because the medium is the message and so this common practice is not only anachronistic it is damaging.

At planning and development stages of creation of work there is no such thing any more as a creative meeting that the media experts shouldn’t go to.  There is no such thing any more as a media meeting that doesn’t need creative input.

The damaging result of this siloed behaviour is that too much time is spent fighting fires.

The job of many senior managers too often revolves around making sure that a situation that has begun to go off course is retrieved and sorted out.  Those fires that start because the media people and creative people are not close enough during the ad campaign’s development process are so easily avoidable.

The more the senior people of any organisation spend time fighting fires (and some time is surely inevitable) the less good work is done.  It slows you down and that’s not a good idea in an industry that’s changing and transforming as fast as this one.

The second problem is that when you work in silos, you end up encouraging anachronistic thinking that harms the work; our industry is awash with heritage practices, and one of the most debilitating is the way in which agencies have been built on the basis of competing with each other, even when they are NOT in competition.

Division rarely makes any work better.   Tribal divisions are detrimental, with one tribe regarding other disciplines as “other”.  Sometimes this leads to fear and disrespect.  For the future of great work we must fight against these demarcations and make everyone a part of the team and every type of thinking belong.

This means not sticking in your role.  If the media practitioner is confined to engineering the pipes through which the creative flows then that’s not good enough (and vice versa).  Stick your nose, and your opinion in every aspect of the work.   Diversity and belonging isn’t just an issue of appearance, race, religion or heritage.  It is also an issue for different types of thinking and professional background.

Collaboration is much talked about – easier to talk about than to deliver.   Working together takes effort, but that effort is more than worthwhile, and indeed is essential in light of the complexity of today’s communications environment.

In my experience great work, the work that grows brands, comes from teams that work together without silos.


A crucial call to action for every planner today

August 2nd, 2019

marilyn-monroe-399194_1920The medium is the message.

This is the most famous quotation from 1960s philosopher Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan coined the term to explain how content is interpreted differently in different media.  He argued that the context makes a difference.  Many observers are currently rediscovering this.

At its simplest we know that the same advert for a diamond earring would get a different reaction if seen in Vogue Magazine or in refinery29.  In one it would be considered really expensive.  In another a nice bit of bling.

As well as the obvious prestige or accessibility provided by the immediate environment McLuhan cited the sensory differences of different media.  A “hot” medium does the work for you – for example the Avengers movie, you can just sit in front of it and soak it up; a “cold” medium requires that you do the work – for example The Economist, you need to concentrate.  These definitions may be now outdated and too binary, but what is true is that the medium in which the message is received is crucial to a good comms strategy.

In addition “cheap” mass reach, with no consideration to the environment, frequency or channel, can be costly.  The Advertising Association have provided evidence that ad bombardment is eroding audience trust.  As Robert Rakowitz put it in his call to action for media sustainability, “reach at no cost is reach at all cost, what we need is reach with responsibility”.

The medium is the message is even more true now.  The media are not just a vehicle or delivery system for ad messages.  Media are also where people complain about customer service.  It is a widely held belief amongst the informed public that the best and quickest way to get a response to a customer complaint is to tweet about it.

Its where people share their pride in a new purchase, or look for inspiration for what to buy next.

A one size fits all approach to this on the basis of last click attribution is both naïve and potentially harmful to the brand.  As MediaCom’s  Richard Davies explains this is nonsense:  “Man wakes up with a terrible hangover, blames the last drink he had, the glass of water by his bed.”

The medium is where people shop, where they request samples and also where they dream, plan and collaborate.  All of this must surely be of consideration when the copy for the advertising is planned.

There is no time in the history of media planning when it has been more significant to understand and consider the role of the medium in terms of its impact on the intended message from advertisers.