When political parties forget they’re a brand

There will be many observations made about this election in June 2017, but here’s mine.

There’s a very simple set of principles in advertising.

Over the years, if you watch closely, you can see them played out in various campaigns to great effect. You can also see when those principles are ignored and disasters ensue.

Principles like how a brand leader behaves and how a challenger brand behaves.

There is one area where the two major brands constantly swop roles and can behave differently depending on their position at any given time. Indeed how they behave can define their role.

One could argue that, going in to the election, the Conservatives were the brand leader in this case with the polls predicting a landslide and labour was the challenger.

If you are a brand leader you don’t concern yourself with your challenger brands.

You don’t find Coke talking about Pepsi. You don’t see Apple talking about Samsung. If you are a brand leader you set out your stall with confidence in the knowledge your offering is superior.

Samsung talks about Apple though. That’s the challenger’s role. What’s so great about Apple phones anyway? we have this that and the other and they don’t.

The challenger needs to disrupt, bite at the heels of the brand leader. We’re number 2, so we try harder.

So here’s my theory.

Over the course of the election Labour adopted the brand leader positioning and Conservatives were adopting a challenger role.

Nobody had told them they didn’t need to challenge labour.

The Conservative’s approach was a ‘strong and stable’ leadership. No solid policies, no clear manifesto. Their strategy was ‘we’re not that bunch of deadbeats’.

‘Not being something else’ is never great when its said from a superior position. It just sounds smug.

The Left went for a clear and honest manifesto. They didn’t try and slag off Theresa May, they left that to the electorate.

This somehow put the Labour party in to a positioning of brand leader. They were looking straight ahead, this is what we are going to do. Make your choice.

While the Tories insisted they were the only choice, without giving us much of a reason.

And lo and behold the Labour vote surged.

Sometimes the only thing holding a brand back is the way it talks and behaves. Alpha people behave like alpha people, they don’t need permission.

The Tories campaign came from what research must have told them. People want a strong and stable leadership, so they kept saying ‘we’re strong and stable’. It was the political equivalent of a 1950’s ad campaign with an annoying slogan that just gets repeated over and over.

‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”

People often confuse what they say with how they want to be perceived.

Labour behaved strong and stable and won the argument.

They came across as honest, earnest and thought through, a few minor Dianne Abbot interviews notwithstanding.

Maybe it wasn’t quite enough, but in terms of brands Labour went from no hopers to contenders in a very short space of time.

Now somehow we’re in a world where May won but lost and Corbyn lost but won.

But I know who’ll be keeping their job.

 

 

Throwing money at a problem

Everyone has a story they tell when they dine out or meet new people. Mine is about the time I found myself in the lift with all of the members of U2 and was greeted by Elton John.

But that’s for another time.

My brother-in-law Dermot has a story that he used to tell a lot, but these days he will only bring out if you insist. So I tell it here instead, with his kind permission, mainly because it illustrates a reasonable point about creativity but it’s also a pretty good tale in itself.

It happened back when Mullets ruled the hairdressers and band names sounded like the ramblings of an eight month old baby (Kajagoogoo? no? oh please yourselves) and the internet was just a twinkle in Tim Berners-lee’s eye.

Our story starts on a fine spring day in a ski resort somewhere in the Alps when Dermot and two friends, Henric and Mike went off for an afternoon’s skiing. Such a fine day in fact that he decided, as people often do, that a jacket was surplus to requirements.

It was one of those afternoons where the sun reflects off the slopes and turns the whole mountain in to a giant reflector, the sky was a pastel blue and the snow was powdery and perfect. Bliss.

The other two cursed him as they sweated in their jackets and the three friends, all pretty good skiers, decided to take a detour and go ‘off piste’.

It must have been an hour or so later when they realised they had taken a wrong turn, missed a marker or sign and now were completely lost.

It was getting darker, but they carried on down the mountain anyway, thinking they were sure to find a route somewhere.

They chopped through the trees, weaving their way down when they abruptly came to a cliff and all three narrowly avoided going over the edge. That was close, they thought, but things were about to get a lot worse.

By now it was now almost totally dark and now it was getting freezing. They were properly in the shit.

And Dermot only had a sweater on.

They couldn’t risk walking in the dark and going over another ledge, so they reasoned they would have to make a camp there and spend the night on the mountain.

This was before mobile phones, and they hadn’t thought to tell anyone of their plans. Nobody would miss three guys in their twenties who didn’t come home all night.

They tried to make a fire. They had a cigarette lighter, no cigarettes of course, but nothing would burn.

They destroyed their skiis trying to use them as axes on the pine tree branches but no luck.

They would have to survive with no fire and no food.

If only they had some paper!

They dug a hole out of the snow with what was left of their skiis and cuddled up.

Stupidly they tried to sleep, which you shouldn’t do if you are in sub zero temperatures as you can quickly sink in to a coma.

Nevertheless Henric and Mike sandwiched Dermot between them to share body heat.

Dermot usually says at this point ‘I told them that if one of them needed to pee to just do it on me’ because the cold was so intense.

It was a long night, during which they all genuinely thought that they were done for.

As the first light appeared around 4am they were relieved to discover that they were still alive, if a little urine sodden. Slowly they made their way back up the mountain, (in 1980’s ski boots) trying to find a route down.

By 3pm that afternoon they eventually made it back to some kind of civilisation. A town that wasn’t where they were staying but had a taxi that would take them back to their village.

Exhausted, hungry and grateful for their lives they arrived back at their hotel.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with finding a simple obvious answer.

The story would have ended there, a lucky escape and cautionary tale about the perils of mountain conditions. But as they entered the chalet, Henric, nonchalantly produced some money to pay the cab.

He has been sitting on a thick wedge of cash.

Paper.

Paper that they could have burned to start a fire.

But it never crossed his mind. Money wasn’t paper to him. It was money.

Sometimes the best ideas aren’t that hard to find, you just need to know where to look. You just need to think a bit differently about the familiar. What good creatives are able to do, rather like good comedians, is take the ordinary and twist it in to new shapes and present it back to you in new ways.

So it’s not always about new media, or new techniques.

Sometimes it’s just about looking afresh at something you’ve seen a million times before.

And setting light to it.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Pharmaland a one way ticket?

I recently had a phone conversation with a Creative guy who was uncertain about a move to a CD role in Pharmaland.

He had some legitimate concerns.

Would he be forever labelled as a ‘pharma-creative’ with all the mediocrity that that would imply. Could he ever get back in to consumerland after having the ‘Pharma stink’ on his clothes?

He didn’t put it like that but it’s what he meant.

I remember from my days in consumer the disdain that all self-respecting-ATL creatives had at the time for the lower divisions.

By the lower divisions I mean the BTL lot, the Direct lot, the Digital lot, the global lot.

You know…what all creatives are nowadays.

It wasn’t overt, but when a creative left to join a healthcare agency there was always the same reaction, a mixture of pity and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-like thankfulness it wasn’t you (yet). Like the scene in THE GREAT ESCAPE where the little Scottish guy runs at the fencing shouting “I cannee take it any more!!!” before getting gunned down by the guards.

We looked up, nodded them a farewell and returned solemnly to our desks writing ideas that would never make it beyond a special account handling department file labelled ‘Meeting fodder‘.

This was the life!

As I spoke with my new consumer-creative acquaintance I even surprised myself with my now solidified passion for Pharma, now that there is clear water between my old career and this one, it seems I have gone native.

And what’s worse, I don’t even care.

Because what’s so great about consumer these days? have you seen the work that is on our outdoor posters recently? have you watched a TV break? when was the last time you asked anyone if they saw ‘that ad’ last night.

Believe it or not, that used to happen a lot.

Sadly, the most memorable ad of late is probably the diabolical Pepsi debacle.

Maybe the ‘content pieces’ that seem to emerge from somewhere or other and find their way on to your Facebook page are all that’s left of a once heavily populated ocean of opportunities, deftly avoiding months of focus groups and re-briefs. Occasionally there is the odd socially motivated film that gets shared, about how we should all just get along and have a beer (insert brand). That kind of thing. Fair enough.

There are some great humanitarian campaigns about empowering girls, or teaching the world to read.

I’m sure there are some other great campaigns but I can’t really remember them.

So, I wonder why a consumer advertising career is still attractive to a young creative person. It’s now much more about tactical thinking, direct targeting and content platforms than it is about launching new brands to the world. That’s much like Pharma, but we still get to launch brands all the time.

And consumer-land isn’t even much of a haven for heavy drinkers anymore.

These days many of the restrictions and legal limitations that a consumer brand faces are similar to those in healthcare, at least creatively speaking. No use of clever language please, no regional in-jokes etc because the world wants global ideas.

(Customers don’t want or need global ideas, but corporations do.)

Ok, so Pharma has a bunch more self-imposed restrictions than just that but the creative opportunities, when they arise, are just as potent.

It’s all about what you do, as a creative, with those opportunities. And recognising them as such in the first place.

Okay, you counter –  it’s the clients and target markets that are worse in Pharmaland. They’re very literal and unsophisticated (never understood why) and obviously consumer clients are more media-savvy and braver.

Can they be any worse than whoever insisted upon or bought and signed off these attempts? It seems now its quicker to bypass creative teams and go straight from brief to production.

So much for the un-shackled glamour and creative opportunities of a career in consumer. At least in Pharmaland there are no pack shots, (just big logos) to substitute for an idea.

Anyway, back to my creative guy: I just heard he accepted the job. Good for him.

He’ll find that Pharmaland isn’t a land devoid of budgets, cool people or creativity.

There are some cool people and creativity.

Ok, definitely creativity.

Occasionally.

And if it is a one way ticket, then that suits me fine.

 

 

When you avoid offending anyone, you offend everyone.

One of the things that separates creatives from mere mortals, (I jest) is the ability to finally accept that your idea didn’t fly with good grace and resilience.

Nobody understood it.

Nobody liked it.

You could never afford to do it.

It had been done before.

”Don’t worry I’ll think of something else.”

All those things are hard to accept but they pale in comparison to having got your idea through and produced and then hating it.

The worst disappointment is having spent a year on a project, done three rounds of pitching, two rounds of research, fought tooth and nail for the right budget and director, photographer or animator – tried to accommodate everyone’s opinions and then when you see it you just go, ‘oh crap’.

Your heart sinks, maybe not because its awful, maybe just because it’s okay. But mostly because it really wasn’t what you started out believing it could be.

You thought it would be funnier, you thought it would be cooler. You thought, you thought, you thought.

You just hope no one notices it and it passes without incident or damage to your career.

That’s why I just feel rather sorry for the makers of the now infamous Pepsi ad. Most of us in advertising have made a turkey, myself more than most but this one was the ‘Heavens gate’ of cock-ups.

This Saturday Night Live skit, summed it up perfectly. The initial enthusiasm of the creative ( here they lump the director and creatives in to one easy to digest character) being thumped down to earth when the reality of the purile concept and all the compromises he’s allowed to happen hits him.

Because making a good commercial is hard.  That’s why agencies fight to get the best talent. It’s why good creatives can be seemingly unreasonable. Contrary to popular sentiment that ‘everyone is a creative’  making a spot that captures the imagination of the public is about more than just heaping a bunch of lame socially current imagery in to a nicely shot film and hoping for the best.

I’m not really sure in this day and age of multiple research rounds etc how no one commented that this was a pile of shit?

Maybe in the concept stage it was easier to fudge and promise this arguably noble ambition of ‘bringing together of cultures and world peace’ in a storyboard.

A bit like when you have a really funny story in your head and when you start to tell it out loud to your friends they stare at you non plussed and all you have to offer is a meek ‘well…er…you had to be there’.

Being unreasonable stops this kind of disaster.

Maybe it even started out as a black lives matter script.

Maybe it featured a black woman, perhaps the real Leisha Evans from the Jonathan Bachman photo taken at the Baton Rouge protest, maybe they envisioned it as gritty and urban but also simple and genuine.

It would still have been on dodgy ground because appropriation of serious issues by a soft drink (and not even the one that is best placed to make this kind of ad) is a minefield, obviously.

Then, after the first presentation, all sorts of people from clients to consumers to consultants started commenting:

Does it have to be an angry march?

We think it’s too much black lives matter? 

Can’t we have smiley faces? make it about ‘the conversation’?

What about some cool dancers to appeal to the kids?

And we want to be inclusive, one of the heroins should be a muslim girl.

I think a Cello could add some class, it’s all rather street isn’t it?

Just so many deaths by a thousand cuts that it ended up being a long way from that first idea.

And no amount of money or celebrities could save it.

But the final film was just so fake, so contrived and emasculated to avoid offending anyone, it offended everyone.

In my experience being polarising can be a good thing, if you aren’t upsetting the applecart a little then you’re doing something wrong.

Just don’t destroy the whole orchard.

I’m being generous of course, it could have just been this God-awful crap from start to finish.

The only consolation is that there’s always another brief and a chance to redeem yourself.

You hope.

 

The old egg and lightbulb rule.

In research it’s always nice to hear that respondents ‘liked’ your idea.

But so what?

The problem is people like a lot of things, pictures of puppies, pretty colours, the way the model looks strong, the happy setting of a family on holiday because it reminds them of that time in Corfu.

It doesn’t really mean they’ll remember it though, at least not just for that reason alone.

I always love that question when you hear it in a research one to one. “Which one of these concepts would you remember most?”

As if they know!

Not to say it isn’t a valid expectation, fixing a permanent spot in the HCP’s mind is kind of what we should be aiming for, obviously.

Derren Brown, the famous er…magician doesn’t really cut it…illusionist possibly? Anyway, ‘Wizard’ is probably closest, knows a thing or two about how the mind works.

If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing one of his shows it is literally a marvel.

If you didn’t know better and if he didn’t admit he isn’t one, you’d swear he was a genuine psychic.

It appears he can read minds and predict the future.

And his ability to memorise things is incredible.

But it’s based on simple techniques that he writes about in his book A trick of the mind.

One of them is this:

If you want to remember a list of random items, it helps if you visualise them meshed together to create a strong visual image in your head.

To demonstrate the difference try these two techniques. First, give yourself one minute to learn this list of ten things in this exact order:

A kettle

A red shoe

A giraffe

A cloud

A banana

A clam

A urinal

A guitar

A country lane

A grey carpet

Got it?

Okay, go away and try writing them down in that order and see how far you get.

Now try the same list but this time link the two images together in a visual picture.

A kettle

A kettle shaped like a red shoe

A pair of red shoes on a giraffe

A giraffe shaped cloud

A cloud emanating from a banana

A banana inside a clam

A clam peeing in a urinal

A urinal shaped guitar

A guitar in the middle of a country lane

A country lane made of grey carpet

Now try the same exercise and write them down again. A bit easier to remember isn’t it?

That’s because memory is linked closely to the visual side of the brain. If we can visualise it, we remember it better.

That’s why so many of the great ad campaigns have strong visual elements.

It’s also why concepts with people on the beach or at the park and a line about their data are likeable but forgettable.

It’s why you forget most of the advertising messages you are bombarded with every day.

It’s why even strong headlines are often visual too and paint a picture.

So what can we learn from this little trick of the mind?

Well it might help agencies and clients take a different view of that part of the research debrief that says the respondents ‘like’ an idea.

As I said, people like a lot of things.

But the things they remember are the ones that are a square peg in a round hole. The ideas that subvert, twist, shock or surprise.

It’s why a picture of a lightbulb or an egg may be likeable but isn’t memorable, but a lightbulb, cracked like an egg somehow is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Survey this.

Frankly, I have had enough of survey requests.

Not the door to door type, just the incessant ‘how was buying that door knob for you’ type of survey.

I don’t want to be part of the big data I want to be small data, in my own house, leave me alone thank you very much.

The problem with surveys is (and by the way- how is your experience of the last sentence? can you take the time to fill in a form?)

When I just want to book some theatre tickets I don’t want to tell you how brilliant I found the experience of giving you my credit card details. I just want the tickets.

If I didn’t find this a reasonably good experience I would:

A: Not use your poxy site again

B: Complain

Actually, I probably wouldn’t even complain. I mean how bad would your website have to be?

You will find out if your website is crap because people will stop using it.

How’s that for a real life big data survey?

I recently have had some dealings with SKY. Yes they sorted the issue out, no I don’t want to rate your employee.

I’ve done it twice and the texts won’t go away.

It’s actively making me hate the SKY brand.

But that data isn’t captured because I keep giving them 10 out of 10 because it’s easier that way and it gets them off my back.

I recently joined the National Trust. Now I have a text sitting on my phone because they would ‘love to get my feedback on my experience’.

The guy on the phone was nice enough and I gave him my debit card details.

There, does that help?

What if agencies surveyed their clients as regularly as other companies think it’s OK to do? How was your last conference call? was it A: Too long B: Too short C: Waste of time D: Incoherent.

You recently had a presentation from our agency. Did you find the slides A: Tedious B: Colourful C: Interesting D: Helpful E: Stupid.

How do you view our recent award triumph at the PONCY AWARDS in Zurich? A: Don’t care B: Somewhat don’t care C: Massively cool D: I got drunk and embarrassed myself and have no recall of anything.

Would this help improve our services?

The only real data that matters is if you still have the account and if the work worked.

I do wonder whether this new obsession to gather trivial data at all costs is really a true reflection of real life or that helpful.

Me? I am all surveyed out.

How was this blog for you?

 

 

Award show jury members are thickos.

So it’s been Pharma-awards season recently and we have a few on the horizon.

Did your agency enter work this year but not garner the adulation you expected?

We’ve all been there.

If so, there’s a reason for it and it isn’t necessarily because your work wasn’t good enough.

It’s because jurors are well….a bit thick.

I should know, I have often been one and I am thicker than Simon Cowell’s platform heels.

You may reasonably deduce that your work wasn’t good enough, but really…because of the general fuckwittery of us jurors it was probably more accurately – your entry wasn’t good enough.

Yes, in the midst of that excited preparation of entries for creative awards it’s easy to forget who your target market is.

Frustratingly, juries are made up in the most part, not from sciencey people, clients or account people who know the brief, the brand and the disease area but the kind of cool kids who would copy your homework at school and still somehow get less marks than you.

Otherwise known as other creatives.

I know. It seems unfair.

And what compounds the problem is that it’s usually us banana-brained flowery-shirted neanderthals who prepare the entries. It would be a vicious circle if the people involved on both sides were smart enough to be vicious.

You see, your entry may have made a few basic, not unreasonable assumptions.

These are that:

  1. Jurors would bother to find out what disease the brand was indicated for, if it wasn’t obvious.
  2. Jurors would bother to read the 5pt font that explained what the idea was because the concept page was printed on A4 but designed in A3.
  3. Jurors would instinctively know what the work was trying to achieve.
  4. A video of the app in use with no commentary and crudely shot on an iPhone would hold their attention beyond the first five seconds.
  5. A case history video rushed together on the morning of the deadline with no voice over and subtitles so quick that they could induce epilepsy was sufficient to fully capture the glory of the whole project.
  6. That in a case history video Jurors will be captivated by the five minute testimony of the client’s conference delegates, telling them how much ‘they loved the stand’ because your agency didn’t re-edit it for awards and just used the one you used for creds meetings.

If you made any of these assumptions without making allowances for we sludge-brained amoeba that sit on juries you might be hiding your light under the tinsiest of bushels.

From what I’ve seen, the work that does well in any awards show (certainly for any craft category) isn’t just a good idea…it’s well presented with the concept up front and personal, with some legible copy explaining the brief and why the solution is what it is.

Make it easy for a horses-arse like me, and just like your lovely work that needs to be recognised as such, keep it simple.

Then cross your fingers.