It depends….

Here’s another worry I have with marketing in the digital age – or any other, come to think of it.  We (well some of us) seem obsessed with providing a unitary explanation for how marketing works.

I recently attended an excellent seminar with some great speakers, each of whom described their perspective on how ‘Purpose’ was the key to marketing success.  There were case studies, award-winning campaigns and some neuroscience which purported to show that there are two key metrics which indicate the difference between success and failure.

‘Purpose is the solution.  Now what’s the problem.

This sort of thinking is everywhere at the moment.  Not just about ‘purpose’ but a range of supposed universal solutions.  I keep seeing research reports offering to reveal the three elements that will make your advertising memorable.  Or the five rules for achieving impact.  The claim seems to be that if you do this one thing (or these several things) it will work, whether you’re a multinational Pharma brand, a bank or an impulse purchase in the newsagent.  Somehow I don’t think it’s that simple.

Aha…. not so fast.  The final speaker (was it BBH’s former Chief Planner, Nick Kendall?) characteristically zagged, among all the zigging.  “It all depends” he said, enigmatically.

My attention was sparked.  Through the 1980s agencies railed against the ‘one-size-fits-all’ methodology which claimed there was a single metric to determine success.  In those days it was Millward Brown’s awareness index.  A decade of debate, dispute, bickering and mistrust ensued and finally, we emerged with a better way.  The ‘balanced score card’ was adopted as the route to providing a fuller and more sensitive explanation of what’s going on.

Because, and I don’t think I’m being controversial here, it’s not always the same.  At one time I worked on campaigns simultaneously for a double glazing supplier, a brand of tea bags and a paediatric analgesic.  tell me the one ‘key to success’ that’s common to those three.  It’s clearly bollocks.

So thank you, Mr Kendall, for bursting the balloon, even if it did rather spoil the party.



Well what do you know?

When I was a child, I thought my Dad literally knew everything.  “I know everything” he said, on countless occasions.  Others have proposed that the naturalist, Alexander Von Humboldt, was the last man actually to know everything, and he died in 1859.  The ‘last man to know everything’ mantle has also been attributed to a number of others, from Aristotle to Francis Bacon.


Needless to say, in the modern world it’s impossible for any one of us to know everything, nor even a large part of the body of human knowledge.  We can’t even know everything about the many things that affect us directly on a daily basis.  And that’s a problem.

Even the things we do know, we don’t really know.  We believe them, but what’s the basis of that? Without going all epistemological, sometimes it’s through empirical evidence, but mostly it’s because we learned it from a source which we trust.

It’s increasingly a problem, because trusting others has become a risky business.  Well, actually it always was.  Take any piece of supposed knowledge you have and really interrogate it.  Take the laws of physics.  Some of the sub-atomic particles I learned about in school have been superseded by new, sexier ones which are even less easy to grasp and even more likely to be replaced. And those are the very foundations of matter.

When it comes to more mundane stuff, we’re on even dodgier ground.  I worked for many years in the energy business and everything I saw reinforced my belief that climate change is happening, it’s partly induced by man’s activities and that it will likely lead to the end of civilisation.  How long that doomsday scenario will take is uncertain, but probably within a few dozen generations.  However, some people genuinely doubt this.  In response, I commonly cite the fact that all the reputable scientists in the area agree with me.  But, if I’m honest, that’s only hearsay.  I’ve only actually spoken to a handful of scientists.  Anyway, scientific theories evolve and scientists change their prevailing wisdom over time.  That’s the nature of science.

And now, the rest of the world has cottoned on to this Cartesian doubt.  Encouraged by idiots people like Michael Gove (“People in this country has had enough of experts“) it seems anything goes, and authority is history.  Anyone can claim any old nonsense and there’s no requirement for evidence.  And consequently we’re right in the shit.  Because all this plays into the hands of the demagogues and the hate preachers.  Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and The Daily Mail.  And Brexit.


This has implications for brands and businesses too.  Corporate reputation is fundamentally based on trust.  Historically, that trust was built on the behaviour and ‘body language’ of a brand over time.  I think it still is, but the pillars of trust seem to be in flux.  Transparency is the vogue, but that means different things to different people.  One man’s transparency is another man’s clever manipulation.

Indeed the idea of trust itself can become a subject for a new brand promise.  I like the recent campaign for fruit drink Oasis, which takes this and plays games with it.


So there you have it.  Politics, philosophy, climate change and advertising.  Everything I love, all in one place.  We’re completely buggered, but there’s a neat insight for some ironic advertising.

The Future’s Orange

Interesting presentation this morning by Matt Locke of ‘Storythings’ at Brandwatch’s NYK Conference.  Among other things, Matt tells how media has transformed from ‘The Schedule’ to ‘The Stream’ rejecting the shift from mainstream to social media, among other trends.

The Schedule was characterised by four qualities: it” synchronised, homogeneous, regulated and scheduled.

The Stream on the other hand embodies different qualities: it’s personalised, mobile, de-contextualised and endless.

It’s the de-contextualised nature of social media in particular that makes fake news such a threat and so insidious.

My favourite observation was that FDR was the first president who “got” TV.  He understood the nature of The Schedule.  You know where this is going now.  Similarly, Donald Trump is the first President who “gets” The Stream.

The futures not bright.  The future is orange.  Be very afraid.


From our ‘Fun and Games in Central America’ Department

Delighted to see an example of real leadership in action.  Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela announced overnight, on twitter, that there would be a National Holiday, following the country’s unexpected qualification for the 2018 World Cup.

I suspect he may have been drunk.  Which makes it even better.

VarelaCan you imagine one of the stuffed shirts that pass for leaders in Britain doing that?

Be careful what you wish for

I am irrationally irritated by the expression: ‘what gets measured gets managed.’  Not because it’s untrue, rather because it opens a can of worms which demands a less banal label.  A more apt form of words might be something like ‘what gets measured will become a bizarre new religion trumping everything else, however important’.  Or maybe ‘what gets set as a goal will send you off down the garden path’.

When businesses set objectives, it acts as a signal for what matters most.  So, in my business, if our goal is to win creative awards, we’ll prioritise the best creative opportunities.  It has implications for which projects we spend most time on, how boldly we present ideas, how we judge those ideas and so on.  That’s right, because it gives us the best chance of achieving what we set out to do.  So far so good.

This being the case, we need to be sure that the goals we set are expressed in a way that does actually bring about the outcome we want.  We talk about objectives being SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound).  This is important because most aren’t; they’re woolly, vague and a bit meaningless.

I had a colleague in a Government Department who expressed the perfect SMART objectives as : “On Fridays, I always aim to leave the office by 5PM.” Nice.

The bit that’s often underplayed is the ‘relevant’ part.  Because that’s where it can all go horribly wrong.  Let me give a couple of examples.

The NHS wanted to offer better health care and one of the biggest problems they faced was that waiting lists were growing alarmingly for routine operations.  So they set explicit goals for Hospitals to reduce waiting lists.  There was no extra resource – no more beds, no more nurses, Doctors or wards.  So it was a mystery as to how the lists could be reduced when an increasing number of people (ageing population, you see) were in need of more and more operations from the same facilities.  The only way to achieve the goal was to be ‘creative’.  So the hospital administrators prevented sick people from joining the waiting lists.  Genius.  So the well-meaning objective manages to provide a worse health service.  Some people call that ‘The law of unintended consequences’.  I call it not thinking through the objective.  The stated goal wasn’t the real goal.  It failed the ‘relevance’ test.

It happened again recently.  Schools in England are judged on league tables based on exam results.  This is how parents are instructed to choose their children’ school, so it is a major influence on the school’s income.  Schools have to compete for the brightest students who will achieve the highest exam scores.  But they are not allowed to be selective in their intake.  So how can they improve their standing in the league tables?  Here’s how:


It turns out Sixth forms all over the country – not just St Olaf’s, the school featured in the news story – were habitually weeding out weaker pupils half way through their course to maximise the school’s exam results.  Great plan.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, for many years, nothing.  except for the poor students, ditched half way through their studies, with no school and no chance of joining a new course.  Their only option was to go back and start again, losing a year of studies.  These weren’t the ‘no-hopers’ you might be imagining.  These were most of the students who didn’t achieve a Grade B in their end of year exams.

The politicians who created the framework of incentives and league tables might perhaps ask the question: Is this a system which promotes the best outcomes for students?  I recently came across a fifteen year old student who was made to do an extra five GCSE exams, on top of the normal ten, because his results (being predicted as better than average) would boost the school’s average results.  Great for the school.  Terrible for the student.  Unintended consequences indeed.  He significantly under-achieved as a result.

These are public sector examples, so the results are clear to see and news-worthy enough to make headlines.  In the private sector this sort of thing is happening all the time; we just don’t see it.  Like businesses that set quarterly revenue targets which everyone strives to achieve – at the expense of delivering a profit.  Or on a bigger scale, any kind of short-term deliverables delivered at the expense of longer term sustainability.

What gets measured does, indeed get managed, whether it’s relevant or not.  So we better make sure it’s the right thing.

Fake news and evidence-based policy

Two much-used buzz words of our age.

If you ever wondered whether the ‘fake news’ phenomenon was just hype, today’s newspapers should reassure you that you have every reason to be concerned.

It’s in every news outlet (which, needless to say, doesn’t guarantee it’s true) – the UK Government has been exposed, using dodgy figures to bolster its position on immigration.  The Home Office previously estimated there were 100,000 foreign students a year staying on in Britain illegally – but new data from the Office of National Statistics says there were only 4,600 last year.

“We spent five years trying to persuade the Home Office that the figures they were using as evidence were bogus,” said the Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, who was part of the coalition under David Cameron. “But they persisted nonetheless on the basis of these phoney numbers.”

We know how this happened.  The government was under pressure from UKIP and felt they needed to be tougher on immigration.  So pluck a figure from the air and ‘hey presto’ we’re as tough as they are.  You have to laugh.  The evidence is the servant of the policy, not the other way around.  It’s like the police searching single-mindedly for the evidence to convict the guy they’ve already decided is guilty.  Evidence-based policy.

So now we know they just make shit up on this subject, how confident are we about the evidence base for other policies?

‘£350 million extra for the NHS’ anyone?

Be very afraid.

The purpose of ‘purpose’

There’s an endless debate going on about ‘Brands with Purpose’ and I can’t help adding to it, even though a lot of the coverage is profoundly annoying.  A rare voice of sense on the subject is Nigel Hollis’s blog for research company Millward Brown.  In a recent post he addresses the seemingly gratuitous nature of many recent award-winning case studies.  This year’s Cannes Festival was awash with celebrated campaigns which are very beautiful and which address crucial social problems but appear to have nothing to do with marketing, or indeed business.  These include the Grand Prix winner ‘Fearless Girl‘, a statue created by McCann for State Street Global Advisors (who?) designed to help inspire more women to leadership positions.


The problem (or one of many problems) with this is that nobody knows who the brand is responsible for this work so it can’t yield the brand any benefit.  That’s fine if it’s an act of philanthropy, but it’s not – or if it is then why is it entered into awards for excellence in marketing communications?

Hollis says purpose-led campaigns can deliver a good ROI provided they follow three basic principles:

  1. Identify how the campaign will help the brand make more money.
  2. Address a tension or issue meaningful to the target audience.
  3. Ensure the purpose fits what the brand can/does stand for and offers opportunity to differentiate.

This seems enormously sensible to me.  What’s more, it gives me an irresistible desire to recount the story of an early, largely unsung precursor to these campaigns.

In the early 90s, Texaco was struggling to compete with the more established brands, particularly BP and Shell, who were part of the British way of life, whereas Texaco had the image of ‘A visiting American’.  The new Chairman dismissed the proposed retail campaign and demanded the agency create something that put Texaco on the map.  Desperate to impress, the two sister agencies DMB&B and IMP created a wonderful campaign ‘Children Should be Seen and Not Hurt’.

The company gave away, free reflective and fluorescent stickers from their forecourts.

Hollis’s principles could hardly be more apposite:

It made money because it attracted people to the retail site and a proportion inevitably took the opportunity to make a purchase.  For some it even sparked the habit of using that forecourt regularly.  It also addressed Texaco’s corporate reputation issue in that it presented them as ‘part of the fabric of society’ as the Chairman had prescribed.

It addressed a meaningful issue – road casualties among children was (and is) a hot topic and enormously emotive.  Research by the road safety laboratories showed that improving conspicuity (visibility) was the best way to reduce the number of accidents, which was in turn the best way to reduce casualties.

It was relevant to the brand because – as research indicated – people saw fuel retailers as ‘part of the problem’ along with car manufacturers and road administrators.

Research also showed how, even all those years ago, there was a very grown up response to this kind of initiative.  It was clearly ‘marketing’ because it invited you to go to a forecourt.  But it was also clearly ‘doing good’ because it was giving away free materials which might save a life.  The net effect on the brand was positive because on balance, even to the cynics, it was a n initiative that you wanted to succeed.  That’s the bit that seems to be missing in much of the more gratuitous, modern award-winning ‘purpose’ work.

We didn’t call it ‘purpose’ in those days, we called it marketing.  So next time you tell your friends what a good idea Volvo’s ‘Life Paint’ is, remember, Texaco did it first.