A capitalist industry can only be saved by a communist ideal – unions

A capitalist industry can only be saved by a communist ideal – unions

Everyone whines about the bane of free pitches. Everyone knows that it is bad for business. It strips away dignity that should be afforded to agency’s labour. Why should any labour be free? Besides, it increases uncertainty about businesses with increasing frequency of pitches. Clients behavior is changing – it is getting conditioned to treat agency as ‘vendors’ rather than strategic partners. Agency heads and industry leaders appear intelligent when they talk about agency business model looking towards consultancies and looking to eat their pie. Their inaction towards improving dignity of agency labour belies these tall talk. There is too much gas in the upper echelon of holding companies and agencies and not enough will to do what is right.

The industry association in advertising doesn’t do anything that other industries do. They don’t organise in the interest of industry or its people. They only organise around narcissistic games of chest thumping and celebration of individuals – Awards. Clients don’t care  nearly as much about awards as agencies do. If it doesn’t help companies as much (it’s a competitive edge, but an expensive one to maintain), it doesn’t help its people (apart from egos of a few. It doesn’t empower anyone. It creates false ideals), it doesn’t help its clients… what good are awards for?

The inevitability of marginalisation of agencies in marketing world can be reversed. But not by its leaders. They still get paid well. They aren’t hurting much personally with the slow erosion of industry’s value.

The change will be effective only if creatives and studio people unite across companies and countries in a union. It doesn’t help that most of us in agencies are hopeless narcissists. We want individual glory. Anything that is achieved collectively makes us doubtful of our own importance. So unless we grow up from that infantile tendency, we are doomed.

Creative people imagine themselves as free birds. But in reality, they are more like the rocks at ocean face – sitting in the office, unmoving, against the assault of never ending and scarcely ebbing waves of briefs and reworks. The rocks need to grow roots and connect with each other across agencies to grow. Otherwise, neither their creativity will improve nor their lives.

The idea is to simply assert self-interest. Why should you (people in agencies) work for more than 8 hours a day?  What good are those annoying timesheets if they can’t help bring in accountability of labour. There should be compulsory overtime payment for hours worked beyond office times and other perks and compensations for opportunities lost in the darkness of late night cubicle dwelling. The idea is for over hours to become an exception, not rule. It is an escapist’s ideal to dwell in his cubicle to escape having to face real life and real relationships at home. For people like these, leaders need to intervene and help them grow in healthier ways.
If the agency has to pay creatives for each hour spent extra, they will be pinched for free work and pitches too. Hopefully, that will inspire pitch fees to become norm in all agencies. The idea is to not absorb the shocks of overwork. Make the management feel the pinch too.

Stop whining. Start organising.

Honest marketing meetings

Honest marketing meetings

Humanity is quite immature as species. A stunning example of our intellectual frailty is the specimen inhabiting glass towers in uncomfortable suits and ties: the marketers. They are ace bullshit artists (well, of-course not you, but others🙂 ). They can shift responsibilities of decision making as fluidly as a tai chi master might shift qi (apparently the life force, the energy). With the same slow grace of a tai chi master they will words and notions into existence that mean nothing to other creatures who are burdened with logic and common sense. It is their fate to consume the gibberish being spewed by the hippo (highest paid person’s opinion) at the table.

Hippos often hide behind the notion of ‘balance‘ to escape from taking a decision. Should the brand cater to this emotional need or that another emotional need? The client will say that the brand will stand for both – we just need to balance it – 60% this, 40% that. They conjure up percentage right from between their asses and mouths. with complete certainty and confidence. It’s amazing really.

So here are few of the examples of the gibberish I was forced to consume as strategist for advertising agencies. Obviously in service of my future paycheques, I have changed the products/ brands enough to be unrecognisable. Let’s assume we are talking about “Cuttle Soaps” (my favourite nonexistent brand).

Exhibit 1: One soap to bleach them all

Context: Trying to relaunch a failed soap for the umpteenth time. People feel that the soap is dated and was terrible. Apparently, the soap is now as good as the competitor (if not better). No performance superiority story though (and it’s not ‘apple’ to say ‘best iphone yet’. How to make the soap relevant again, purely on the back of bullshitting?

Me: category growth is coming from esteem needs. Our major competitor can’t do that. The current users of that brand show affinity towards such and such esteem need statements. Our pricing is also higher than competition. We should own the category esteem need and position the brand based on that ONE need. And here’s the creative that convincingly establishes brand credentials.

Marketer: Yes. Yes. Exactly what I was thinking. BUT, our source of growth is all soap users. So, we will have to talk about not just about this one need, but soap’s suds and soap’s fragrance and soap’s octopus vitamins and soap’s sequoia-like logevity too. Our communication needs to work harder. The models need to look as soft as a jellyfish. but not too puffy. very slim, like an eletric eel but not too sexy. and not prickly like starfish, but attractive like star fish. Clutter breaking you know. We need to break the clutter. Break it like you mean it. BREAK IT. also, we only have 50 cents for the marketing budget. so think out of the box. But not too out of the box – here are the brand guidelines and category cues. and remember our management is fairly conservative, so nothing outrageous.

So this is the new brief. Yes, yes. this is a pitch and we should ideally be paying you for your work so far. But why don’t you run along and do the 2nd and then a 3rd round for free as well like the pathetic weasel of an industry you guys are.

Me and the team: Excellent. What an illuminating discourse this has been. We think we finally are beginning to understand what you want. But it would be really great if we could ‘arrive at’ and agree on a single benefit to talk about. We can even do a workshop for free…

Marketer: No no. No workshops. Look at my waist. I am getting so fat eating all those free cookies in the countless workshops and meetings I attend. I can’t spare anymore time besides for something that is practically my biggest responsibility. I need to go suck up my higher ups and boss around with the lower downs. No time for any actual decision making. I expect awesome work from you guys. Don’t come unless its AWESOME. (Fake smile)

Exhibit 2: Schrödinger’s soap

Context: Big ass boardroom the size of noah’s ship filled with assorted animals too. A major soap leader has been selling soaps to kill germs for ages. Everybody knows them as the germ kill soap. They are at a mature stage of growth. They can’t handle that maturity though. They want to become hip and young again. The source of growth is younger people who buy more expensive shower gels. They don’t use soaps at all. Marketer has hired an expensive consultant to think on his behalf. The consultant hasn’t thought much, or couldn’t think much. So we get a confused brief. The consultant and marketer duo want the impossibility – the brand, he insists, must be both at once -a soap and a shower gel. They are willing to change the product formulation somewhat. We don’t know exactly how. But they assure us, it would be something real – like photon that is a particle but exhibits wave like properties.

Marketer: So we want to say that soap is now also a shower gel.

Me: Ok. (Trying to digest that. heavy quantum physics shit going down here. Trying to think through this muddle) You are a big corporate. Why can’t you build a new brand of shower gels? That would be easier, isn’t it?

Marketer: We have strong equity. We are rich but too risk averse. Our management lacks common sense too. So there’s that. Decision’s made.

Me: Ok. So lets try to think about what is the cumulative ‘single benefit’ of the duality. What is the one benefit consumer might get out of a soap that is also a shower gel?

(Pin drop silence).
Me: Lets look at it this way. How would your salesman sell this soap? what’s the pitch?

Marketer: That now your soap can now be used as shower gel too. perhaps… what are we paying you for? you tell me what should that be.

Me: Ok. But who needs a shower gel – soap transmorgification? Hmm. lets see… what if the soap is to be shared between family members and the soap can be what the family members want it to be. so the proposition could be soap for the full family.

Marketer: hmm.. but we need to balance shower gel 60%, soap 40% with the launch with eventual stabilisation at 50% – 50%.

Me and the team: Wow. So much. We will let the engineers know that. We will get our R&D pants on now. How about a written brief to begin though?

Marketer: Hmm. I guess we can hire another consultant for that.



What do you do when you have a shitty creative that is to the brief and a kickass creative that is absolutely useless?
Imagine you need to sell a soap. Imagine that for the sales to move, “strategically”, the brand needs to say,

“This soap will make your elephant like skin into a soft and smooth love affair between velvet and cuttle fish”.

(Because research says so. Perhaps you are in 22nd century Japan and people are really into cuttle fish skin implants.) But the creative team is bored of soaps and they hate soft things. The like edgy things, like armadillo’s back. So they are not really inspired with the whole thought of ‘soft like a cuttle fish’ shtick. Just to get the servicing and planners off their backs, they create something. It says

“Remember that time when you got drunk and left your hand in a water jar for the night and the skin went all mush? That’s how soft your skin will be when you use this soap.”

But in 22nd century Japan, they don’t drink anymore and they don’t have jars anymore. So no one understands what the ad is saying. And the ones who do understand are violently retching. But hey, that was to the brief! “So shut your soft ass up, servicing people” says the creative guy.

The other creative route they prepare says,

“Your elephant skin is sexy as it is. But you can make it sexier with this armadillo fart scented soap that is totally out of this world. Wow. So. Much. Armadillo.”

For some reason, armadillo fart scent is all the rage in 22nd century Japan. Its not just a scent, it is a way of life for the young there. It is like #YOLO, but more chill. So you know the ad has the potential to go viral. The young (who are not the TG) would devour this campaign whole. It looks amazing. Fabulous. I mean, creative teams are crying over the beauty of the whole campaign. It is that good. But, our customers with elephant skin are older people. They are old school. They don’t even know armadillos or their farts.

But it’s a pitch. and this one client is excitable. easily so. You know he will love the second route. Because, remember, all our decisions are emotional. And the first route is not exciting by design. Perhaps he feels these are only two choices for him. Perhaps his guts are reactive and they have reacted positively.

You take both routes to the client to keep everyone happy. Client likes the second route. We get the business. In a year’s time, it will be agency review time.

And the client will keep on choosing armadillo farts over cuttle fish, because agency can’t always afford to push for the seemingly right solution at the expense of their business. Who knows what will work at the end of the day, anyways. You can only make educated guesses and hypothesis.

And pitches go on.


Advertising is not art

Advertising is not art

Well, of-course advertising requires creativity. It is one of the most creative industries. And that is about the only thing that is common between advertising and artistic pursuits.

The thing with art is – it means different thing for different people. The beauty of art is in its plurality of purposes or complete purposelessness. An artist may chisel away for perfection at one corner of his mind for that one specific purpose. Another artist may move around aimlessly, exploring worlds through his subconscious. Someone else might simply want to evoke reactions. Someone purely wants to push limits of her craft/ morality/ possibility.

However, advertising can afford none of these explorations. Often, young creative writers justify their copy with ‘poetic license’. It’s almost a knee jerk reaction to defend one’s work. I have never seen a senior creative guy however justifying work for its artistic merit. And that is one of the key things that a creative learns as he grows in industry. The poetics are to be used only to accentuate, to increase the impact of what we want to say. And what we say is in the service of increasing someone’s business, not for creative pursuits.

In an attempt to become an artist or a poet, ad folks like us often create muddled and  half-baked commercials. Sometimes even planner like me are swayed to go with a tremendously creative idea even when it might not work for the objective. This is bound to happen, as it is mostly people with ‘artistic aspirations’ that come to advertising (and even some marketing departments of clients). I am one of them. It has to be a conscious effort not to be awed by ‘mind-blowing’ ideas that do not fit the strategy.

But it is not an easy battle to fight, especially if the client is also taken by the creative idea. And once a client is in awe of something, you can’t choose the less appealing but strategically correct route. Clients, if not seasoned, are more likely to fall for creatively stunning but superfluous ideas. They don’t push hard enough for better ideas. They get happy far too quickly with the first ‘decent enough’ idea that comes their way. They live vicariously a ‘creative’ life for the duration of the project. They do everything they need to, to sell the project internally. They like their names in the credit. It is natural. Our decisions are always emotional. They fall prey to the same emotional bait that they intend to lure with the consumers. They just bought themselves a creative ego massage that was served in one of the lazy creative routes.

But smarter, more experienced marketers know better than that. The key determinant here is, would the consumer we are trying to target react with just as much awe to the commercial? He/she is subjected to hundreds of commercials everyday that they are increasingly capable of ‘tuning out’ of. And most ads look the same to a layman. We, consumers, while consuming media, don’t give a rat’s ass about the ‘thought’ behind the commercial, or how lovely it all looks. All commercials peddling the capitalist philosophy of #YOLO look the same.

The commercial must work for the favourable reaction of the person who the advertiser is trying to influence. No one else’s reactions matter.


A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

As a strategic planner, I try to make choices clear for a marketer: for example, whether a campaign needs to talk about ‘new ingredients’, ‘benefit of new ingredients’, ‘advantage of the product’, emotional pitch for the brand and so on. Now, for a reasonable person, making that choice, though not easy, is possible. All it needs is to do is to consider the data at hand, understand the objective well and review lessons learnt in past.

The point is, for a communication to be strong, marketers must choose ‘one’ direction. Mostly, I propose a choice to them with a rationale why. Most of the times those suggestions are accepted. But then comes a certain breed of clients that can’t make up its minds.

It treats communications as an act of piloting an airplane. a lever dialed down here, a button pushed there. They recognise the various variables at play. But instead of choosing the one variable to push for this one campaign, they try to pilot their brand through the inundated sea of medias with a single commercial that talks of five different things – ofcouse – some ‘dialled up’ and some ‘dialled down’.

These commercials always ‘pass like a ship in the night.’ Then it becomes a challenge in avoiding the inevitable when the  client has made up its mind about the whole business of dialing up and down.

The trick is to understand that, while the marketing plan and budgeting might be similar to piloting an airplane with various dials to turn up and down. When it comes to a campaign, it is more like rowing a boat. Build on previous strength and pedal forward in a defined direction. No room of pedaling other boats or pedaling in multiple directions at the same time.

Choose one direction, choose wisely, push hard.

The theater of freedom

The theater of freedom

In the sense that security guards at an airport are part of the ‘security theater‘ – for e.g., the guard mechanically moving a beeping baton across your crotch for explosives might not actually reduce the risk of  a terrorist attack as much it makes people feel secure that someone is doing something to reduce the threat of terrorism.

Advertising plays a similar role. It creates a ‘freedom theater’ for the creatively inclined within the system. In the straight jacketed world of corporate hypocrisy, the capitalist system has advertising in its midst to let go of steam of the most dangerous lot of people; the people with imagination. Imagine if all the creative folks who could be thinking of utopias, who could write dangerous ideas of alternatives to ‘status-quo’ were let to do that. Instead, they get hired in corporate jobs. ‘Hey. I get to think of ideas and get paid for it too!’. In an anarchist, communist society, ideas would be freely shared without any premium. In a capitalist world, ideas and even half-baked perspectives are worth millions in speculative dollars.

Entering offices wearing T-shirt of our choice creates that false sense of freedom. There’s that sense of being not a machine yet. It is superficial, but we at least have that.