It’s not rocket science….it’s….


I attended a  WARC seminar on neuroscience recently.  The speaker was Thom Noble, of Neurostrata.

I have always wanted to be an advocate for neuroscience.  A bit like Behavioural economics, it promises to give our intuitions a sounder intellectual base.  But I keep being disappointed with what’s offered because it feels like another research company sales pitch.

This talk by Thom Noble was the nearest I’ve yet experienced to a really good account of how neuroscience can help us do our jobs better.

There are three types of research applications for neuroscience and they’re quite different:

1)      Neurometrics: these are things like ECG and MRI scans; the hard core medical technologies.  They’re slow and not really scalable, so even if we want them, they’re not a lot of help.  And they show accurately what happens in the brain without necessarily helping you interpret what it means.

2)      Biometrics: Methods like eye-tracking and facial coding betray what is going on in our subconscious when we’re exposed to stimulus, and they are accessible for in-home and even on-line studies.  Promising, but again, once you get beyond smiling or grimacing, I’ve heard unconvincing interpretations of what eye movements or facial expressions indicate.

3)      Psychometrics: implicit testing methods; the application  I’ve seen involves the measurement of reaction times in forging associations.  The speed of association between two ideas (like an ad and the desired response) reflects the closeness or congruence of those ideas.  These methods are also quick, adaptable and scalable.

In my albeit limited experience the latter of these is the most convincing.

The big opportunity Thom identifies is in going beyond the development of advertising to the design and sensory experiences around brands.  But even he is wary.

His advice is to get involved (it’s exciting) but to tread carefully (practitioners vary in competence) and avoid being blinded by the science.  And pick horses for courses as there are pros and cons to all of these methods.  Different methods are relevant for different purposes, so there’s no panacea.


Worlds Collide (ouch)

A review of the APG ‘Worlds Collide’ Conference

1. “Loose Cannon” Giles Fraser famously resigned in protest, as Cannon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, during the Occupy London protests.  He is now a parish priest in Elephant and.  His outspoken comments have made him a controversial figure in the church.

He took up the theme – how do you do the right thing when it’s against all the odds?  Giles recounted the fear he experienced while being shot at by snipers in Gaza.  Consider the morality of the battleground.  How do you do the right thing when confronted with terrifying, life-threatening situations amidst massive uncertainty?  You don’t have time to calculate the likely outcomes, but you don’t have time to consult the rule book either.  You have to fall back on instinct, meaning and identity.  One way to resolve this is to rehearse being the person you aspire to be – a bit like the Alcoholics Anonymous maxim of “fake it till you make it”.  And it can be internalised through the endless, repetitive military training that drills the right behaviour to become instinctive.

It echoes the experience of a soldier on the battlefield who was guided away from committing an atrocity by the simple but powerful words “Marines don’t do that”.

2.  Karyn McCluskey initiated a radical new approach to policing in Scotland which saw a 50% reduction in the incidence of violent crime.

Amongst the sheer bravery and force of personality, Karyn also described some powerful insights which turned policing theory on its head.  She and her team came to understand that violence is not an active choice to be wicked, for most gang members.  Rather, it’s a condition they become accustomed to through familiarity and circumstance.  (There are exceptions, she says, some people just need to be locked up for the rest of us to be safe, but that’s not the majority.)

So instead of treating violence as a criminal justice issue – finding and punishing wrong-doers after crimes have been committed – she treated it like a disease.  To prevent epidemics the World Health Organisation instructs professionals to 1) interrupt transmission 2) change behaviour and 3) change norms.  Karyn took this approach out into the streets of Glasgow with remarkable success.

3.  Sir John Hegarty talked about pitching for business.  And he had a succinct set of principles to guide us:

Work in advertising but don’t live in advertising: clients want us to bring them work that has social and cultural resonance.  We can’t do that if all we know is our own industry.

Be a brand: we can’t be all things to all people – like when BBH decided not to pitch creative work, it was controversial, but it stated a position.

Foster truth, trust and love: people buy things from people they trust.

Solve the Client’s problem, not your own: use their language to show you’ve listened and understood.

You’re selling the future; make it exciting: like the way Johnny Walker changed the rules of whisky because they understood the nature of success (it’s not a place, it’s a journey).

Understand the brand’s history: “history isn’t about the past, it’s about the future” and anyway, spotting where it all started going wrong is part of the process of turning things around.

Serve the best coffee in the world: this is code for paying close attention to all the seemingly insignificant elements of choreography and theatre that makes a pitch unforgettable.

4.  Michael Portillo, Conservative cabinet Minister turned TV presenter, described how he rebuilt his career after what became known as the “Portillo Moment” when he lost his parliamentary seat in 1997. He analysed what went wrong, he fell back on enduring and trusted friendships, and on a set of core values.  And another key asset: resilience.

He observed how the role played by the media is often described too simplistically.  It isn’t just a case of building up heroes to knock them down.  It goes beyond that.  There’s the “comeback kid” and other narratives too.

We all wanted to hear Michael’s war stories from the Thatcher cabinet and we weren’t disappointed.  Amongst all the divisiveness recently surrounding the death of The Iron Lady, Michael is unapologetic about the Thatcher years.  He reminded us how politics in the 1970s was about ideology.  In 1979 Margaret Thatcher challenged the status quo.  She introduced a host of radical changes which we now accept as normal.  The Tories at that time had a clarity of purpose and of message.  The core team of Mrs T, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph were tight knit and like-minded.  Michael dismisses the common stereotype, perpetuated by Spitting Image, of a dominant leader surrounded by Yes men.

5.  Conclusions:  This was a conference of charismatic individuals rather than common themes. Michael and John both describe themselves as contrarians.  Indeed BBH’s black sheep logo could be the national flag of contrarians everywhere.  In the final Q&A session there were some heated – though friendly – debates in which the widely differing perspectives of the adman, the philosopher and the politician really became clear (truly worlds colliding). 

Giles and Michael know each other well, having appeared together regularly on Radio 4’s ‘The Moral Maze’.  This encouraged the Q&A debate to sidestep the usual platitudes you see on conference panels.  Here was a group of professional contrarians being contrary.  And it was fascinating.  It reminded us of Karyn’s comments from earlier in the day stressing the importance of airing uncomfortable truths among friends.  And of something John Hegarty said – that we need more iconoclasm and less fear of failure in our industry.

Very true.  Overall the conference was a notable triumph for the APG.