Google Firestarters 15: How To Think Differently About Advertising - The Event


Monday saw the interested and interesting of UK planning come together for our 15th Google Firestarters event. Our sole speaker on the evening was planning legend Paul Feldwick, who talked about his controversial new book The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. Paul spent 30 years as an Account Planner at BMP and DDB Worldwide so knows a thing or two about planning and advertising and it was this quote from the book that set the context for the debate:

'Our ability to decide clearly where we want to go in the future, I now believe, depends first of all on our understanding of where we and our predecessors have already been.'

A number of Firestarters events have been quite forward-facing in outlook, so it's no bad thing that on this occasion we were thinking about the relevance of what we (should) have already learned about how advertising works. Yet it can seem on occasion that this historical context is too often ignored.

Paul began by talking about the three main kinds of story that the ad industry tells itself about its own past:

  • The enlightenment narrative: 'The past was primitive, but now we are enlightened'
  • The golden age narrative: 'The best years of the advertising industry were in the past'
  • The year zero narrative: 'The world has changed and the old rules no longer apply'

The enlightenment narrative has been popular because it makes things appear simpler than they are, but today's 'enlightenment' language is set to become tomorrow's obsolete 'mumbo-jumbo', and to a large extent this has now been replaced by the year zero talk which acknowledges more the impact of external forces for change. The golden age narrative, says Paul, is fundamentally unhelpful and disempowering, functioning so that ad people can demonstrate to themselves that they have excellent taste and know what they'd like to be producing for their clients whilst acknowledging that they're not, and putting the blame for that elsewhere. The external forces that are behind the year zero narrative are typically seen to be the changing nature of the consumer, and technological change. Paul's point about this prevalent view is that there are many aspects of consumer behaviour that actually haven't changed, and that we will only be able to respond adequately to the continuing rapid pace of change if we understand the basic principles of how people are influenced by publicity.


Paul went on to describe how the concepts that we take to be self-evident now, and the language that we commonly use (including words like impact, recall, proposition, attention, reason why, messaging) which support and reinforce these narratives are rooted in a historical context that may come with associated baggage from a particular world view. He categorised six main ways of understanding advertising theory - advertising as:

Salesman - theories that coalesce around themes of rational persuasion

Seduction - in many ways a parallel to advertising as salesman, but less about the rational and more about the power of emotional connection, the subconscious mind, imagery

Salience - generating fame for a product or brand

Social connections - advertising as a means of creating or maintaining relationships

Spin - advertising theories more akin to the world of PR

Showmanship - or showbiz

The ebb and flow of these theories has characterised advertising practice, and its historical context, but there is no right way, no singular view on the world that should win out. Instead:

“It’s only when we realise that none of these theories, models or metaphors represents absolute truth, but is one of many ‘ways of seeing’, that we can make use of any of them as a source of inspiration rather than be confined by it.”

And it is in that ability to understand advertising theory through metaphor, and hold and apply multiple metaphors in our minds at once, that we might be free to create the best work for our clients. Paul's talk was at one and the same time astute, controversial, informed and insightful. The subjects touched on by the questions and debate that followed ranged from the power balance between functions in agencies (who may be more aligned to certain theories about how advertising works) to the briefing process and the separation between planning and creative. Which all made for a great event.

So my thanks to Google for hosting, to Paul for such great provocation, and all those that came. There's a Storify of the conversation around the event which is worth taking a look at, and as always we had the brilliant Sciberia who did a great visualisation of the talk which you can see in all its glory here. The next Google Firestarters will be in June so if you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for news of that.


Image courtesy

Google Firestarters Austin - Engineering Strategy - The Event


Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).

Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place - planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:


User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately - you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.

Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:

"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design - closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time - planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."

UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time. 


So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.

Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.


And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.

Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.


The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here

My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.

Thanks to DDB Worldwide and ImageThink for images used in this post.

Mullet Strategy

The following is a notated version of a talk I gave last night at the APG Noisy Thinking event on 21st Century Strategy.

When the APG asked me talk about '21st Century Strategy' I’d not long before read Emily Bell’s brilliant Hugh Cudlipp lecture about the future of journalism. Emily talks in that lecture about the growing ‘tabloidisation’ (and not in an entirely negative way) of news output and specifically about (like the new breed of ‘digitally-native’ news organisation) news rooms that now feature optimisation desks, insight, analytics and data specialists, and even aggregation desks. A kind of journalism that is fully integrated with the social web:

‘Tabloid  or popular journalism is being done by the same outlets that produce the most serious chin-stroking think-pieces. In 2005 the Huffington Post pioneered this ‘mullet strategy’ for journalism, which looked neat and respectable at the front, wild and hairy at the back.’

I think there are many parallels that can be drawn between the challenges faced in the practice of journalism, and those in the craft of strategy. But I think you can’t really talk about the future of strategy or planning without talking about the future of agencies. And the context in which agencies are now operating is of-course shifting dramatically. It’s a context that threatens the very lifeblood of our clients. Work done by Professor Richard Foster at Yale University showed that the average lifespan of a company in the S & P 500 had declined from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today.

Data from IBM has shown that the majority of marketers believe that their roles will change in the short and mid-term, and a sizeable minority believe that they need to actually reinvent their roles (yet comparatively few know how). Small wonder when technology provision in just the marketing sector alone (let alone all the other vertical functions in a business) is exploding, marketers are increasing talking about the ‘marketing technology stack’, and the most exciting things for them in both the short and longer-term are creating joined-up customer experiences and this thing called content marketing.

Could we have imagined a few years ago that a consumer electronics manufacturer (GoPro) would have already garnered over three quarters of a billion views on YouTube, a soft drinks manufacturer would have 700 people (larger than many media owners) in a building in Austria devoted to nothing but content, or that Amazon could get so adept at customisation that it is serving up different content to every one of its 250 million odd monthly active users, or that a company (Facebook) could completely transform its revenue base from a standing start in little more than two years, or that a search engine gets so good at using data that it can understand the nuanced context of how we talk about something to give us a better answer to our question.

But as I said before, the future of strategy is closely intertwined with the future of agencies. Drawing on the work I did for The Progression of Agency Value project, repurposing Gilmore and Pine’s Economic Value model gives us a good model for understanding that the future of agencies, and therefore strategy, will be about progressing from providing services toward delivering value through experiences and ultimately about helping to affect transformations or changes in the client organisation itself. We seem to ask the ‘What is Strategy?’ question a lot, and I wonder if it’s because whilst the fundamentals of what strategy is remain the same, the context for how it is deployed is always shifting. Lawrence Freedman’s definition talks about strategy as a fluid, flexible, continuous thing that responds to unforeseen situations. Noah’s thought about strategy really being about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions is good because it takes account of the fact that humans are critical to designing those rules, and that algorithms are constantly being updated to take account of evolving environments. So clever ways of putting people together with technology will always win.

Columbia Business professor Rita Gunther McGrath (in ‘The End of Competitive Advantage’) talks about how organisational strategy is shifting from maintaining sustainable competitive advantage to building a series of transient advantages, which in turn has implications for the fluidity with which you allocate talent, organising resources around opportunity rather than existing structures, continuous innovation, continuous experimentation and a ‘fast and roughly right’ approach. This, and the increasing convergence of strategy, innovation and transformation creates opportunity for agencies and for strategy. And if strategy is increasingly starting to look like innovation which is starting to look like transformation, then the interesting places are in the overlap between planning, service and experience design, and organisational change.

The exemplar of GAFA and their ‘vertical stack’ approach shows the possibilities of creating user-centric systems that use data to join up customer experience, taking value from interaction at one touchpoint and using it to enhance the experience at another touchpoint. So opportunity exists at the centre (optimisation, automation or augmentation through creativity, of BAU or core services and functions), and at the edges where innovation happens (emerging understanding, set-up and design of the new). But all of this, as the Cap Gemini/MIT Sloan study shows, requires us not to pursue shiny new technology for the sake of it but to always remember the value of the skills, behaviours, culture and leadership that surrounds it.

My final thought was about Sturgeon’s revelation that 90% of everything is crap. There’s a lot of crap advertising around. There’s a lot of crap content marketing. When it’s so easy and cheap to create stuff and put it out there, more than ever the role of the planner/strategist is to stop stuff being crap.  

So 'Mullet Strategy' is about being neat and respectable at the front (creating exceptional joined-up experiences and good campaigns based on great insight, strong creative ideas - and not being crap). And it’s about being wild and hairy at the back (working with clients to create continuous, responsive interactions and experimentation that might generate new learning, improve capability, and ultimately change the organisation itself - and of-course, not being crap). In this way, and in reference to Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful piece in The Guardian about how 'Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time', perhaps we just need to join with our clients in winging it a bit more.

Google Firestarters 15: How To Think Differently About Advertising


Our next London Google Firestarters event will be happening on March 23rd at 6pm in Google HQ London and I'm delighted to say that we have the legendary Paul Feldwick (above) speaking about his brand new book 'The Anatomy of Humbug: How To Think Differently About Advertising'.

Paul's book is quite possibly the most important book on advertising to have been written in recent years - a great analysis of how advertising really works, picking apart entrenched and often contradictory beliefs. Russell Davies said that every planner should get a copy ‘and read along as every advertising theory dissolves into dust’. Rory Sutherland described it as 'unique and extraordinary'. Jim Carroll said it was 'fascinating, provocative and inspiring'. 

Paul is of-course is something of a planning legend having spent thirty years in advertising at Boase Massimi Pollitt/DDB as an account planner, and fifteen of these years in a global strategic training and development role for DDB Worldwide. He's now an author and an independent consultant and has more recently studied organisational change. So this will be excellent. 

The event is invite only but as always, I have some guest passes to give away to readers of this blog. If you'd like one, please let me know in the comments or drop me a note. 

This Week's Favourite Fraggl Links


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