Not the big bang theory

Oh no, it’s the Grim Reaper.  Standing right over me.  I can almost feel his breath.  And ghouls.  Several of them.  Skeletons with beady eyes.  But wait, here comes Batman.  Robin’s with him.  I can see the Joker out of the corner of my eye over there.  I see King Arthur – that makes no sense.  Here’s captain Jack Sparrow.  Soldiers in combat fatigues and sub machine guns.  Darth Vader has just marched past.  Here come a dozen bunny girls with big hair and their boobs out.  I’ve seen a few Harry Potters, some ladies from the court of Versailles, lots of warrior types from Game of Thrones and some characters I vaguely recognise from manga or Japanese anime.  It’s not, as you may imagine, a governors’ meeting from North Surrey’s newest Free school Academy.  Nor even one of those dreams, fuelled by late night binging on molten dolcelatte.

It is, of course, Comic con at London’s Excel.


My first time.  My in-depth research and preparation comprised, in sum total, watching the episode of Big Bang Theory where they all go to Comic Con dressed as characters from Star Wars.  They get so neurotic, they make Woody Allen seem laid back and ‘whatever’.

I think my favourite cosplay is Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.  He seems to have captured the body language and the stare as well as the outfit.  Some of the monsters are good too.  Either there’s some trickery involved or there’s a seven foot man inside that costume.  And an honourable mention goes to the Greek or Trojan warriors – who may turn out to be specific characters from TV or film, but I’m not familiar with them.

On one level, this event is the most fantastic expression of the weird and wonderful.  Where do all these people go in the day time?  (Yes, I know, they don’t do cosplay every day, but I like to imagine they do).  These costumes are amazing and they really do fire the imagination and transport you to new worlds, albeit ones you pick from a menu.

But on another level, it’s a rather British, almost introspective affair.  It’s noisy and somewhat buzzy in its own way, but there doesn’t seem to be lots of interaction between people.  It feels like the world’s most overdressed indoor market, staged on a massive scale at a concert venue.  I feel rather as though we’re all spectators and we’re waiting for the actors to arrive, not realising, we are the main event.

This must be the reality of the ‘kiddult’ trend I was reading about a few years ago. We’re all becoming liberated from the chains of adult stress to release our inner child.  The lure of the dressing up box (or, more realistically, Amazon Prime) is going to save us from the world of bad news, international conflict, war, misery and Donald Trump.

It hasn’t worked very well to resolve the stress, but the costumes are amazing.


The cult of the giant post-it note

I do love a good workshop.  Don’t you?  A well-run session is a thing of beauty.  Rigorously briefed and researched, thoroughly planned by slick professionals, run like clockwork (or should that be ‘like a quartz’ which is cheaper and more accurate?)  I can almost smell the warm pain au chocolat and the posh coffee as I write.

They seem to be happening more often these days and I’m getting a little anxious about that (who me?  Anxious? Surely not).  Because, much as I enjoy the early morning patter, regular chat-breaks and fine lunch options, I suspect the workshop culture betrays an absence of proper thinking elsewhere.

There’s a growing sense that bashing out a strategic plan for a brand is something you do in a one-day off-site session, rather than a more thoughtful process of hypothesis, research, refinement and crafting.

This is itself symptomatic of a broader drift towards speedy solutions at the expense of quality.  There is an explanation I sometimes hear – we’re moving towards a culture where we bash ideas out quickly then apply ‘test and learn’ principles.   So we get it out there and refine it based on real world learning.  This would be valid, but it’s not what I’m seeing.  There’s no test and learn here.  there’s just bashing stuff out.

It’s also true that some businesses have always had a culture of getting people together to ‘workshop’ an idea.  I’m a big fan of this.  It promotes shared ownership and gives the wider team regular opportunities to input in a good, open forum.  if they’re well-run, they also foster a culture of open-ness and collaboration.

But the workshops I’m seeing more and more seem to be different – a kind of one-off event billed as almost an alternative to regular or continuous thinking. And done with remarkably little up-front preparation.

On the other hand, aren’t those giant post-its brilliant?

Pitching? Bitching.

There’s no intention here to embarrass anybody, so we’ll keep it incognito.  One of the reputable pharmaceutical marketing magazines recently ran an article on the current state of play in how marketing clients ask their advertising agencies to pitch for new business accounts.  One page was penned by an ad agency manager and the other by a senior marketer from a big, respectable pharma company.

In the piece, the marketer (no name, no pack drill) wrote:

“Brand teams expect agencies to quickly understand their brands, their market and their challenges – and often this is just from a brief.  This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations”

I do recognise this, from working on the agency side.  The reality is worth describing in a bit more depth.  When he says “this is just from brief” the reality is that the agency typically receives a three page word document by email, which includes none of the important information.  No competitive context.  No examples of the prevailing work in the category.  No market share or sales data.  No understanding of the target market.  No smart objectives.  No strategy as any strategist would describe it.  No brand positioning.  No budget.  In fact the brief is typically an exercise in box ticking.  It may sometimes be accompanied by a background document describing a recent research project – minus the context and purpose. And the quality of research in pharma marketing is a whole other rant, I’m not even going to get started on here.

If there was a GCSE qualification in writing agency briefs, most clients – on the evidence of the last few dozen – would fail.

“Just from a brief”.  No face to face meeting.  Think about that.  I’ve been a client.  I want to get to know my agency partners; we’re going to work closely together, I need to share a bond and I need to trust them as people as well as vendors.  The idea of selecting agencies to pitch without ever having met them seems to me completely bananas.  There may be a telephone Q&A, but this isn’t much help because diaries dictate that it can’t happen until half way through the pitch period, when it’s too late to go back and start again.  The first time any of the human beings involved will get to meet is in the theatrical, highly charged and politicised arena of “the big pitch presentation” (which is itself a questionable way to impart their ideas, but that’s another issue).

Typically the agency is required to come back in three weeks with a fully planned out and costed strategic presentation, creative recommendations, channel thinking, personnel assigned and so on.

The pitch may involve taking the team (it’s always important to field the people who will actually work on the business) to a foreign venue for the presentation, at considerable expense, which is never reimbursed, win or lose.

The actual budget for the project is not disclosed – so it’s impossible to know how much it’s sensible for the agency to invest in the pitch, because they can’t know the likely revenue.

And another thing (voice become a little shrill now).  After the agencies’ three weeks is up, there’s six weeks allocated for market research to “evaluate” (don’t get me started – that has its own rant all stored up for another time) the ideas.

“Doesn’t seem fair” hardly cuts it – but that isn’t really the point”  It’s simply unprofessional.  It’s not about fairness, it’s about competence and quality.  What really matters is that this kind of pitch process is highly unlikely to generate good ideas, good strategy or good long-term relationships.

But sadly, this process has become the norm.  And because the agency market is hugely over crowded and competitive, they will keep quiet and do their best, with little or no complaint.

If the client said “I’m not going to train my people to any level of competence. This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations” Would that be acceptable?

How about this: “I’m not going to have a coherent strategy and I won’t set any realistic objectives. This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations”

Ok well how about this one: “I’m not going to put any one person in charge of making decisions.  This doesn’t sound very fair but that’s the reality.  We simply have less time and higher expectations”.

Hmm, actually all those things might ………stop right there, don’t get distracted.

I’m bound to add that these opinions are not those of my current or former employers.  All our clients are simply lovely.

Don’t ask me

The market research industry is in a lamentable state.  I’m a bit of a saddo when it comes to this because I trained as a market researcher in the days when people did actually train as market researchers, rather than simply lobbing a question on to Survey Monkey, in the belief that the answer would plop out on the other side.  No thought required.

You want examples?  OK here are some examples:

A food delivery company emails me with a regular monthly survey.  They ask me if I know of a range of similar brands, and then they ask me if I’ve heard anything about them recently.  The answer is always yes to both questions, mainly because I have answered a survey question about them a month ago.  It   breaches the ‘research 101’ principle of using respondent panels (that’s how most research is done nowadays).  You can’t ask awareness questions because panel members were regularly being made aware of brands and news about them – by the very surveys that the panel conducted.  Doh.

And it gets worse.  See if you can spot the error in the following question (there’s a clue in the top right corner):



I’ll wager Aviva is congratulating itself on the exceedingly high recognition of its rugby sponsorship.

This next problem seems to crop up a lot.  Rather than asking people to respond to questions planned and written according to a smart experimental design, the researchers just ask us what they should do.

Channel planning involves studying the lifestyles and media habits of our target audience so we can find the most suitable media to reach them in the most effective ways.  Or does it?  Doddle seems to believe you can just ask people where to put your messages:



And they’re not the only ones:


Unfortunately, it seems that’s what research has become.  There’s no thought involved.  When faced with a problem, you just ask people what to do.

I despair.