Sunday, May 17, 2015

The ECD Who Doesn't Sign Off Any Work


Very interesting interview this month with Nils Leonard, Chairman and CCO of Grey London.

The bit that really jumps out is that he claims he doesn't sign off any of the work.

Let's rewind. When Leonard first took over at Grey, a few people carped along the lines of 'how can he be an ECD when he's never done any great work as a creative', which is a rather foolish argument, akin to questioning Arsene Wenger's managerial ability on the grounds that he was a mediocre left-back.

Leonard's success is undeniable. Grey London has been utterly transformed under his watch. The agency where people "went to die", and whose creative floor was once known as "Jurassic Park", is now arguably one of the most dynamic in the world. In the last five years, the place has won a shitload of awards, and more than doubled in size.

So what did he do that was so different?

I'm pretty sure I know the answer, but he himself prefers not to tell us. Because it certainly can't be any of the three points he makes in his interview.

The first of these was his decision to go open-plan. As regular readers will know, I'm not a fan. But perhaps Leonard has a new take on it? "We tore down the offices", he says, "and for a reason: it literally is a physical barrier between an idea happening or not if you have to stop outside a door and knock to go and talk to somebody." 

Sounds hip, yeah. But if you actually examine it, I reckon this argument is super-weak. I mean... is that really such a huge barrier - a fucking door? Last time I checked, doors do open. And fairly easily, too. I don't recall them being much of a barrier when we had them at DDB London. They certainly never kept any suits out who wanted to come in. Or indeed anyone. They simply knocked, and entered! And once inside, you could actually have a proper chat... which in an open plan office, you can't.

But anyway, whatever the merits of open-plan, this move cannot be the cause of Grey's recent successes (21 pitches won out of 24), since every other agency in London has gone open-plan too. Hence, no competitive advantage there.

His second point is around looking for what he calls 'long ideas' rather than 'big ideas'. This means ideas that people want to spend time with, rather than simply ideas which can support multiple executions. And he's walked the walk here, for example producing a stage show 'The Angina Monologues' for the British Heart Foundation that was also broadcast on TV.


He's phrased it beautifully - "long ideas" - but a commitment to producing longer-form content cannot be the source of Grey's competitive advantage either, since every other agency in town is doing the same.

His last point is around "no sign-off". Leonard explains that a team consisting of a creative, a planner, and "I guess, a suit, or a producer" (he means a suit, but doesn't want to sound old-school) takes ultimate responsibility for the work - not him.

There are arguments both ways here. Yes, it's true that if people know the buck stops with them, they feel a greater sense of ownership, and may create better work. But on the other hand, you could argue it's a mistake to remove the CCO from the process - does it really make sense for the agency's best creative not to be involved in the work? 

He's certainly being a little disingenuous by reducing the CCO's role to a mere 'sign-off'. The good ECD's or CCO's or whatever the top person is called in an agency are doing a hell of a lot more than just signing off the work. They're adding to it, improving, finessing... sometimes transforming it.

In any case, once again this can't be the secret of Grey's recent out-performance, since many other agencies in London operate exactly the same system - including the last two where I worked, DDB and BBH - as do many other agencies around the world.

And it's certainly not true that this system is, as Nils Leonard claims, significantly faster. "If you trust people," he writes, "you don’t put barriers in the way and you speed up the process... you’ll be twice as fast as most agencies."

Really? Twice as fast? The ECD gets a day or two max to have their input - sometimes an hour. That's not 50% of the entire strategy/ideation/creative direction/presentation process. It's way, way less.

So what is the real reason for Grey's success, and why does Nils Leonard not tell us, instead making claims for the success of his agency which sound modern and groovy, but which aren't actually any different to what every other agency is doing?

In my view, the major change that has made the difference at Grey since the arrival of Nils Leonard... is the arrival of one Nils Leonard.

Obviously he doesn't say that in the interview, since it would sound horribly immodest (not to mention old-fashioned) to claim that one great creative leader can make the difference. But we all know that they can.

I have no interest in crawling up the bloke's arse, since I'm 10,000 miles away and not planning to go back. But by all accounts he's just very, very good at his job. Highly charming, highly creative, great with clients, great with ideas, great at hiring... and of course, great at PR.

And surely it's this latter quality that explains why in his interview he weaves a compelling story - a parable of modernity and inclusivity - rather than revealing the rather boring and old-fashioned truth.
 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Problem With Lying



I'm attending some important research groups on Monday night... and feeling a little worried about them.

Why? Because people often lie.

In the polls, about 33% of people said they would vote Conservative. In last week's UK general election, about 37% did so. In other words, 4% of people simply lied.

Of course, some people think we lie.

The latest annual study conducted by research firm Roy Morgan into the perceived honesty of different professions has placed advertising in 29th place out of 30. Only car salesmen ranked lower.

I've written before about the irony that advertisers are perceived as dishonest, when the truth is that we don't lie to people, it's the people who lie to us.

The great strategist Russell Davies, on leaving advertising, famously described what he wouldn't miss: "Endless focus groups with company car drivers - constantly lying about why they drove the car they did."

He's so right. No one is going to admit in a research group that they drive a certain car because they want people to think they are rich, or successful, or sexy. But surely those motivations are in there.

And I'll never forget an interview that artists Jake and Dinos Chapman gave to GQ magazine. When shown examples of the brothers' work (similar to the picture above right) a selection of GQ readers unanimously claimed that they didn't like their art, because it was "ugly."

The Chapman brothers' response? "They're lying." The brothers reckoned that the real reason the GQ readers didn't like the art was because "they were turned on", and knew it would be socially unacceptable to say so.

Until neuromarketing research works properly, and we can actually see inside people's brains and discover what they are really thinking, rather than what they say they are thinking, we should continue to be suspicious of what people say. Very suspicious.

Monday, May 04, 2015

I Think We Should Abolish The Word 'Creativity'


Wendy Clark, a senior Coca-Cola marketer in the US, is well-known in Agency circles as a force for good - a Client who has supported great work, time and time again.

And I love that - as chair of the Effectiveness jury at Cannes this year - she writes an article that instead of arguing for the primacy of effectiveness, makes a plea for the importance of creativity.

"If you leave creativity behind, you are leaving some measure of effectiveness behind too," she writes.

Very cool.

However, I do have one quibble with her argument.

She develops her theme by making a big play around the word "and", arguing for work that is both creative "and" effective.

And I guess I feel that 'creativity and effectiveness' are not similar concepts that can be linked together with an 'and', like 'fish and chips'.

Because they don't exist on the same plane really, do they? Surely effectiveness is an outcome, and creativity is a means of achieving it?

"Effectiveness is our goal, creativity is our tool." That's how Nigel Bogle always used to phrase it.

In other words, effectiveness is a hole in the wall, and creativity is a sledgehammer.

Let's face it, you could still have a successful advertising campaign by filling media space with a completely literal and uncreative message.

Here are two executions in which the communication is identical.

First, expressed without creativity:


Now, with creativity:



The first execution could still be effective. A lot of people like Wayne Rooney, and a timely and well-bought media placement that reinforces the association between Nike, Rooney and England could help drive affinity for the brand.

But the second execution will be more effective (because more impactful, more memorable, and more cool. Yes, in sportswear, cool matters).

The fact is, we Agency people are not using creativity because it's more fun for us. (Although it is). We are using creativity because it increases the effectiveness of advertising. Creativity is an amplifier, that's all.

The problem we have is that too many Clients think we like creativity for its own sake, and hence they lack trust in our recommendations.

So what if we stopped using the word 'creativity' completely?

The Creative Department would henceforth be known as the Effectiveness Amplification Department, and the Creative Director as the Effectiveness Amplification Director. Creative awards would be called Effectiveness Amplification Awards. 

What do you think?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Our Debate About 'Risky' Versus 'Safe' Advertising Is Embarrassingly Amateur



The attitude that we have towards risk in our industry is embarrassingly amateur.

And I'm pointing the finger at both Agencies and Clients here, who tend to fall into opposite but equally naive traps.

The Agency view, most commonly (but not exclusively) heard from Creatives, is that "safe advertising is actually more risky than risky advertising." The theory here is that if advertising is 'vanilla' it "won't cut through" and is therefore likely to be useless. They rail against Clients' "conservatism", and wish their Clients would have 'more vision' or, moving further down the body, 'more balls.'

Many Clients, on the other hand, make huge efforts to minimise risk. The principal method is via research. If a campaign has 'passed' research, they feel it has a higher chance of being successful, i.e. should give them a higher than average return on investment. If a campaign is similar to things that have worked before, they again feel it has a higher chance of working. If an agency has done similar work before, a photographer or director has done similar work before, they will be more comfortable, because they will be 'reducing the risk' and therefore maximising their chance of a high return.

Both attitudes are so, so wrong.

For a more informed view, we need to learn something from the risk professionals - financial investors.

First of all, they are smart enough to realise that every investment carries risk. Indeed, they classify it. Low-risk investments include short-dated US Treasury Bonds - the chance of the United States going bankrupt within the next 30 or 60 days is tiny. A medium risk investment might be shares in a company like General Electric or Boeing. A high-risk investment could be loans to countries considered at risk of default, such as Greece and Argentina.

The difference with advertising is that financial investors understand that risk and reward are highly correlated. The low-risk 30-day US Treasury Bond delivers only a small return - just 0.03% annually, as of last Friday. Boeing's dividend yield is currently 2.45%, GE's is 3.7%. Whereas a higher-risk Greek government 10-year bond is currently yielding 12.7%, and Argentina 7.2%.

The more risk you are willing to take, the higher your potential reward. It's that simple.

And it's the same for every area of life. Asking a hottie out? High risk, high reward. Working for the civil service? Low risk, low reward.

If only we in advertising could understand this simple correlation. The Creatives arguing for high-risk as a 'form of safety' are idiots. High-risk work is high-risk. It's also potentially higher reward, of course. And the Clients demanding that their work be de-risked should not expect that it will also generate high returns. It won't.

Cadbury's drumming gorilla was high-risk (because very weird and unusual - it could have bombed) but when it worked, the rewards were high. A beer ad that just shows hops being farmed and droplets of water glistening on the bottle is low risk (it's not going to offend anybody) but will be low reward.

TLDR: an ad campaign that has a chance of earning a high return will also involve high risk. A low risk campaign can never earn a high return.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Let's Get Classical


Having the right music makes a huge difference to the success of a TV ad. Trouble is, it can come at a huge cost.

I reckon we're ignoring an infinite supply of amazing yet affordable music - classical.

Hit songs of the last 50 years certainly bring a lot to the party. First off, they're often great pieces of music - that's why they became hits.

And secondly, because people know what a well-known song is 'about', it can amplify the meaning of an ad. Examples: John Lewis 'Always A Woman', Chrysler 'Made In Detroit' (feat. Eminem).

Then there's the sheer fame factor too - recognition and memorability are important (and heavily tracked) aspects of an ad's success.

But these pluses come at a cost. Have you noticed how the price of concert tickets has shot through the roof? That's because artists aren't making what they used to from record sales. And I reckon the cost of music for ads has been another casualty.

A big track by a big artist can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. It's not uncommon to be quoted six figures for some obscure 60's soul track nowadays. 

But there is an alternative.

I've just made a TV ad using classical music as the soundtrack, and it's made me realise what a relatively untapped resource we have here.

Classical music is a hell of a lot cheaper - it's out of copyright, so there's no cost for the publishing rights, also the recordings themselves are extremely cheap to acquire.

And because you have hundreds of years' worth of music to draw from, there will always be a piece - probably a famous piece - that will reflect the mood you want for your ad.

But won't it make my ad seem old-fashioned? I hear you ask. Well, that depends. Some classical music does seem very twee to our ears now. But some sounds more modern than most of today's pop music.

If somehow those arguments have failed to convince you of the merits of classical music, here's the clincher: Jonathan Glazer loves it.

Monday, April 06, 2015

How Long Does It Really Take To Crack A Brief?


We need to talk about time.

Self-evidently, we are being given less and less time to crack briefs nowadays.

And I doubt that's going to change.

So we're going to need to work quicker, smarter... all of that.

But also, I think we need to do a better job of explaining to everyone else the role that time plays in the creative process.

Because so far, we haven't explained it very well at all.

Most Planners, Suits and Clients still think that engaging a Creative is much like engaging a builder. They describe the job, and then ask how long we think it will take.

For the builder, that's easy. If he can place 1000 bricks a day, then he knows that a 5000-brick wall will take 5 days.

But the creative process doesn't work that way.

A creative team might have the job licked in a day. (Something the builder could never achieve).

On the other hand, they might work on it for a week, and not crack it. (Let's define 'crack it' as 'come up with a solution that the CD approves'). In other words they might do a whole week and get all their work rejected, ending up with absolutely nothing. Which would be the equivalent of the builder working for a week and failing to have a single brick in place at the end of it.

Surely this illustrates that to even ask us the question 'how long do you think will this take' is to misunderstand the nature of what we do.

But they're not going to stop asking. So a better answer to give them might be something that's phrased more in terms of 'confidence interval'.

I estimate that a typical team, given a typical brief, has a 20% chance of cracking it in a day. (Obviously a more senior or better-than-average team would have a higher chance, and a more difficult brief means a lower chance).

After three days, I reckon the chance of cracking the brief goes up to about 50%, and after five days (i.e. one week), I'd say the team has a two-in-three chance of cracking it.

I estimate that when given two weeks on a brief, the typical team has a 90% chance of cracking it. But from then on, the crack rate rises very slowly. If they haven't cracked it after two weeks, they probably never will.

So what do you think? Does this tally with your experience?Am I being too generous? Too stingy? Oh, and do you have any tips for working quicker and/or smarter...


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Beyond Open Plan - American Agency Introduces 'Open Play'



US advertising agency Flair Loop, based in Madison, Wisconsin, has announced a radical re-vamp of how its creatives work together… and sit together.

As of April 1st, the shop has removed all desks and chairs from the creative department, and replaced them with thousands of brightly-coloured plastic balls to create a seating plan it calls ‘open play’.

“My kids love playing in those ball pits,” commented CEO Terry Friendly, explaining the rationale for the move. “So I’m sure our Creatives will too.”

Friendly denied that the purpose of the change is to cut costs. “Just as with the switch to open plan fifteen years ago, we’ll actually have the same number of Creatives in the same space, so quite evidently we’re not going ‘open play’ to save money."

"You have to bear in mind that although our product is creativity, for reasons that are too complicated to go into right now, only 20% of our staff are Creatives. This move shows that I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make us a more creative company, short of actually hiring more Creatives."

“I feel it will be a big improvement,” said Account Manager Sally Dazzle. “At the moment, when I go talk to a Creative, I’m having a conversation with someone who knows how to create advertising whereas I don’t, so it’s not a level playing field. With the Creatives floundering in a sea of plastic balls, I will feel more at ease when I’m talking to them.”

However, Planning Director Steven Glasses, while applauding the innovation, cautioned that it should not be seen as a revolution in how the agency functions. “Let’s not forget that the average brief has to spend six weeks in Planning, to ensure we have incorporated every possible angle into the single-minded proposition, and every single suggestion from all the various clients involved. Only then does the brief spend a couple of days in the creative department for them to crack an idea. So the fact that the Creatives are now working in a giant ball pit is not going to make a huge difference to the quality of work that emerges.”

Art Director Matt Hair agreed that ‘open play’ would have little effect on his working habits. “When I’m in the office, I’m just looking at Facebook or watching YouTube anyway,” said Hair. “Everyone knows that creative thinking requires peace and quiet, so when we get a brief, my partner and I already have to go outside to a cafe, or find a park bench we can work on. I guess we’ll just carry on doing that.”

Link to full story here.