“Insights” as revealations of hidden optionalities

Terrace. say the word 50 times.
Slowly.
As if you are pondering over the word. Letting your tongue linger over the r’s and letting it bid adieu to the dimming sss sound at the end with a gentle flourish. Do this over and over again.

What happens?

You begin to doubt the meaning of word. Or imagine different meanings for it. The evolving sounds of the word nudging you towards different notions and worlds.

Something similar happens in pursuit of ‘insights’. either alone or in group, after a few hours of meditating and mining for the insight, we begin to lose the shape of the very concept of insight. we might have a list of contenders by then. But when you look back, the contenders stare back at you with a question. is this really an ‘insight’?

***

Insights sit at the edge of epistemic boundaries.


Epistemy is the kind of word whose meaning deserts our mind as soon as our focus shifts away from it. If intellectual pursuits are scaffolds, the concept of epistemy sits perhaps high enough where clouds obscure the vision of ground reality below. Which is to say, it is one of those concepts you brush away in an encounter out of confusion or being intimidated. But try and hold onto it for a minute here. I think it would be worth your while.

Epistemology is knowledge about knowledge. how we know what we know? what are the limits of what we know? how we know what we know is true? how we believe in something and what constitutes reality?

Epistemy deals with perception, memory, cognition, reasoning… things that advertising professional deal in. In that sense, we are itinerant traders of epistemic goods; chiseling out notions, transporting it from minds to minds, fertilizing beliefs, harvesting behaviours and preferences.

When we talk about insights, we are really talking with purpose of effective inception – an ‘a ha’ moment. So within the epistemic set, insight is purposive subset. An insight that cannot trigger a response is not useful.

Secondly, insight is relative. what is insightful to me might not be insightful for you. what is insightful for me now might not be insightful for me the day after. what is insightful for me when commuting might not be when I am drowsy with sleep.
In other words, insight needs to be TG, occassion and behaviour specific. I saw an ad recently by a footwear brand talking about woman empowerment. Nothing wrong with the politics. The insight is right for the politics, but not relevant to the brand at all.

thirdly, insight is epistemic. this is to say that it is relative to the knowledge, expectations, beliefs of the person we are trying to communicate with. The reader of this blog might enjoy this epistemic discourse. But this insight about insight is not of interest, concern or vocabulary of, say a parle G biscuit consumer. It is precisely of interest to a very narrow group of people interested in advertising, media AND who are intellectually curious. The latter group might have the vocabulary, the context and the interest in what I am saying, most others won’t.

Now is a good time to ask the question – so what?
Tthe thing is, to create an ‘a ha’ moment, we need to drive the person right beyond the edge of his knowledge, his beliefs, his perspectives.

So it is not enough to know what your consumer knows, feels, believes in. We need to know what are the limits of those ideas in their mind and heart. We need a humanist perspective to expand their boundaries of tolerance, beliefs, knowledge (Which is relevant to the brand in question).

***

Insights and optionality

Life is essentially a journey through optionality. We move ahead in life, only by making choices (knowingly or unknowingly). We are under the illusion that time is what pushes us ahead. But that’s a fallacy. Time just moves our mortality. We stagnate and solidify into inert calcified husks if we postpone choices and doggedly ignore them. We move in life if we take chances, if we make choices.

and the journey is outwards, expanding the boudaries of what and how we know, feel, belong etc.

so every insight can essentially be framed as a choice, as an option, as an invitation to expand the boundaries of our lives. These insights sit at the boundary of our cognition. Often unsaid or invisible to the consumer, until it is made apparent by an outside agency (hopefully us).

I think this conception of insight is beautiful and MECE enough to settle all ‘what do you mean by an insight’ debate. what do you think?

summary: insight = identify epistemic boundary + an option to explore the beyond

An ostrich, an Albatross, a beaver and a phoenix walk into a pandemic…

Ostrich buries its head in the sand.
(actually doesn’t. but metaphically does)
Brands that never got out of the PSA mode. Brands that actually could do something useful, but instead chose to eject platitudes out of their insincere mouths (with those ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘we are here for you’ ads). The Marie-Antoinette of Brands who managed to be tone-deaf inspite of having actual humans running the show.
And then there are brands that actually do amazing commercials – commercials that move you, spur you into action. You wish you had done such ads. But then you realise who the ad is for. A platform of misinformation, an enabler of autocracies (Sheryl Sandberg actually wrote ‘I am fine with this.‘ when shutting down voice of Kurdish minority seeking support while getting bombed by the Turkish strongman. Well, listing all of facebook’s misdeeds would turn into a tome. Read Antisocial Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan instead or An Ugly truth by Sheera Frenkel & Cecilia Kang.)

The majestic flying beast falters.
The mighty flying beast, The Albatross, unaccustomed to walking on ground, much less the uncertain and treacherous ground of pandemic, falters, gets taken advantage of, is jeered at. His giant wings coming in the way of walking, it falters where it could soar.
Airline brands, lifestyle brands, hospitality brands even Healthcare brands… The uncertainty and ugliness of the times cost some businesses heavily, without their own fault. Fate was unkind to them. Many of them chose to be mute when it comes to branding and communications. And it was a wise decision. The time demands us to be useful, to be silent comrades. So when brands could, they did try to be useful. Like hotels turning into health infrastructure, factories manufacturing ventilators, and that’s something to be proud of. No matter the weak sentiment now, the weak performance in stock market for such businesses now, they stand to be repaid in gratitude when situation eases. They need the ramp of digitization, tax breaks to take off again. Hopefully, they will get the help they need in time.

The beaver soldiers on.
The beaver keeps building what he was building before the pandemic. He is stoic and agile. If his dam gets damaged, he promptly gets back to repairing it. There’s no place for sentimentality or pause for him. He has domesticated his feelings and is on work-mode, all the time.
We need the stoics. The FMCG, retail, logistics companies and brands that ensured that the people staying home have access to all necessities and the ones who are desperate find some support, some subsidy.

These are institutions like Tata that stood by their employees unreservedly. These are also brands that pivoted with emerging challenges like Marico prioritising easy to make food categories or FMCG players expanding their hygiene offerings.

These brands find a way to keep going on. They reframe the conversation, and respond to emerging situations as necessary.
These brands also aid in escapes. escape is vital in recovery. As we recover from the pandemic, we need humorous and inspiring escapes. (BurgerKing, Cheetos, etc.)

Here are some examples.

Check out the cannes Lions winner playlist to see more good work.

The phoenix soars out of ashes.
The phoenix that rose in the ashes of pandemic. Well, the metaphor is slightly skewed here. Here, the ashes are external not Phoenix’s own. the phoenix is an opportunist siezing the day, dragging the world ahead in its wake.

Digital platforms. Green energy. Surveillance economy. Meme stocks. The pandemic was a gulf stream of accelerated trends.
When it comes to brand and comms – check out Tesla’s stunts or food aggregator apps’ social presence.

Which acts/ campaigns were phoenix in your perspective?

Greenwashing extinction

Mastercard’s greenwashing campaign

Donation from this campaign per new card: $1
The average value of a typical gift card: Guessing, more than $100 at least.
CLV of a typical credit card: US$ 3,600 – US$ 48,000
(Fairly rough estimate courtesy of a Quora user. This campaign and gifted cards will likely lead to new user acquisitions beyond the actual card bought. So the likely payoff is much higher.)

PR value: Priceless

Credit card companies are at the very center of the capitalist structure that endangers ecologies by promoting unsustainable growth in consumption.

So this campaign ends up precipitating exactly the opposite of what it intends. It is encouraging needless consumption (worth hundreds of dollars more than the donated amount) while it talks about conservation efforts (which get $1). Do the math.
It gives mindless consumers an easy way out of their guilt.

If this is not Greenwashing, please tell me what is.

Can the ad agencies please stop greenwashing for award considerations?
Also, please tell me if this campaign doesn’t exist, just because someone thought the wordplay on ‘expires’ is amusing.

This is another good reason to do away with Advertising awards. They incentivise disingenuous shit like this.

“Raising awareness”

Do campaigns like these that aim to ‘raise awareness’ really make a dent?

The key questions to know if the campaign has its heart in the right place are –

  1. Who is it aimed at?
  2. What is the Behaviour change/ Call to action?
  3. Who benefits the most out of the exercise?
  4. Consider the total budget of the campaign. Is this the best use of the money for the stated goal?

This campaign is aimed at credit card users among the elite of the world. The call to action is to buy a gift card. 99% of benefit goes to the credit card company. (1$ is nothing compared to CLV of a typical credit card user). The best use of the money, IMHO, would have been to straight away donate the entire amount (the creative agency fees, the cost of PR, the future cost of award entry etc) to the NGO in question.

A better brand would have ensured that –

  1. the campaign be aimed at people whose behaviour change/ act would actually make a meaningful impact for the cause.
  2. The behaviour change is permanent or atleast long enough to see the change through. A better brand would have clear objective of change. Even if the objective is not measurable, it should atleast be definite.
    How many people’s / animals suffering are we a alleviating? What useful information are we spreading among the affected?
  3. The campaign should actually benefit the people it is supposed to be helping more than the brand, in some concrete way. Otherwise it’s just a narcissistic play.
  4. the client should think through about their intentions and costs. Is it the best way to spend this money on this cause?

I know that this campaign was probably born in an agency which thought ‘expiry’ wordplay was interesting. The client was on-board because it didn’t seem like a costly affair to do and might actually help the brand appear more humane. they would have said, ‘what’s the harm?

The brand might not get harmed. but the world does get harmed.
With communications like these, we are spreading a dangerous belief system that sharing, liking or feeling sorry for something for a few seconds makes a difference. The viewer has not been engaged in any meaningful way. So the person remains ignorant, but feels that he is doing something good for the world.

It is perpetuating a fiction – their useless gestures matter. the world is actually running out of time when it comes to climate change. we badly need actual allies, helping actually move the needle on the ground.

it infuriates me to see such mindless drivel being appreciated. Because it sucks away the oxygen for actual meaningful dialog about real issues.

***

The checklist mentioned above, is also available here – https://rewiringchaos.com/2021/06/14/22-greenwashing/

A black hole called mobile phone

Self-help books suggest that to gain control over ourselves, we must first clear our environment of distractions. But we now live a life where we depend on these distracting devices. If I earn my livelihood by being mediated through a laptop, what do I do? It’s some sort of Pavlov’s dog principle in action. We are so accustomed to servicing through the device that we stop noticing when we begin to serve the device itself. ‘Just say no’, won’t work. Simplistic solutions like these often don’t work.

A physically non-remarkable flat surface (and we have gone to great lengths to make it unremarkable. The portal itself shouldn’t distract from what it portals to!) has become the focal point of all our attention – work triumphs, work anxieties, deadlines, cat videos, video calls, meetings, movies, songs, news, friends, memories, sex, commiseration, plans… all through a screen. The screen is a singularity around which our every action, concern, decision, and of course attention converge.
Our brains were not made to work with such transparent magic. We think in spaces, distances, physical efforts, causes & effects. But everything collapses at the edge of these modern-day black holes. The singularity FEELS endless, of indeterminate consequence, immediate yet all-encompassing. And indeed, the compression is in our feelings, not the actual world of consequences. Our thoughts and feelings are separated from reality and focused in this singularity. And how does this singularity feel? A whirlwind that rifles through many nerves one after another – Neurotic. Anxious. Elated. Aroused. Bored. Excited. Jealous. Sad. Potentially, all at once.

This is somewhat similar to the Uncertainty inherent in the quantum realm, isn’t it? A state of a particle is always potentially something and it manifests a certainty only when influenced by an observer. When no one’s looking, it could be anything (the cat being potentially dead and alive.) Perhaps something similar is at play here too. The feelings we feel depends on the observer in this panopticon. So, the question is, who is the observer?

The observer is the one whose attention we are considering – it could be ourselves or an imagined someone else. Our, imaged outside-in view.
We potentially feel everything, the actual feeling manifest depends on the observer we are imaging doing the observing.

So, in a sense, the device turns us into an actor, forever performing for this variable observer. At times the observer is the idealized us, at times the imagined judgemental gaze of friends, our colleagues, our partner, or an imagined stranger who somehow holds a string tied to our life.

We are actors for an imagined audience playing variable parts not knowing when the spotlight is on us and when the curtains are down. In this uncertainty, we keep acting. That’s the real transformation engineered by our mediated-ness.

The quality of our attention is not without judgment, not without displacement. In a mediated world, our attention has that actor’s quality to it. It is once removed – hedged for the observer, enacting an idealized version of ourselves, looking in from outside – wondering how may we look, wondering what is expected of us.

Since that other ‘looks’ at us through mediated devices – phones, laptops, surveillance cameras… the gaze that matters to us is not our own, but the one that emanates from these devices. We perform for our devices, not the other way around.
We were not made for this. But this is our Sisyphean boulder now – performing forever for the screens. There’s no easy escape from it.

So how can a modern person, carrying this Sisyphean boulder all the time, even begin to think about reclaiming her agency, regaining control over her own attention? How can she make sense of the world, fight against powers trying to steal her attention?

***

This text is part of the draft of a book I am writing. Don’t know when (and if) I will finish it.
I have started a new blog relevant to this topic – rewiringchaos.com Do check it out.

Curb the enthusiasm to share

When i read something interesting, a desire to share it interrupts me. I would be perhaps 5% in with the content i am reading, i would have only begun to appreciate the insight being communicated. I develop an impatience towards reading it completely, to ponder over it or absorb it. I feel the need to share it first. And I think this desire is stupid and counterproductive.

The biggest problem with it is, it reduces my focus. I lose the intensity with which i perhaps was absorbing the content before the desire to share robbed me of that focus. With great focus, comes great productivity. With lost focus, we lose time.

After that disruption, i might complete reading it (often i don’t), but i don’t absorb it fully. I don’t ruminate on it. I don’t build on it. I don’t put it to work.

The content becomes another scrap in the stream of conscience. It passes through without really enriching me. the fault obviously lies with me.

Good content, good ideas need to absorbed, incorporated in our work or intellectual repertoire. To do that, either I must write about it, expand on it, react to it. Or ruminate over it, enjoy it, imagine with it.

For that to happen, I must definitely curb the enthusiasm to share it.

What’s Covid got to do with your chips’ and biscuits’ pricing?

Well, the reasoning here is pretty simple.

Covid led to increased digital adoption in payments. Damn, i wish i had invested some money in upi or gpay.

Anyways, so as digital payments go mainstream, even for small ticket items, how long before considerations of physical money fall behind in our culture?

In a sense, it’s already happening in China. and in that sense, it is a dystopia. I personally prefer the anonymity, the freedom from big data, that cash offers.

But if most people started to pay with e-money, then why would a biscuit box need to be priced at 10 or a soap at 20?

How long before we see mass FMCG SKUs prized at 13.34 rs and 57.31 rs?

This will work in brand’s favour too – it will complicate the maths for the consumers, making it more difficult for them to compare between two, unless a plugin/ feature does that job for them.

hmm, if i must punt, i will give it another year for some premium variants of some FMCG brand to start appearing on shelves with non rounded numbers.

Chasing the abyss

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A political spokesperson cites a meme to target his opponent. The point isn’t about the meme or the target. The point is the callousness, the sheer intellectual ‘fuck you’ of getting away with nonsense on prime time TV. The anchor, the guest intellectual and presumably the audience react with stiff lips, a manufactured performance of seriousness. Either everyone’s in on the con (more likely) or they have lost the faculty of reason.

This is merely the most recent ‘fuck you’ in prime time media. Consider the Bollywood award shows where the performers obviously don’t care enough to prepare their acts. Consider the banal conspiracies in TV serials. Consider the high-decibel browbeating on entertainment channels masquerading as news channels. Consider the politicians who get away with blatant lies and malicious propaganda that is visibly based on falsehood but sustains on the power of cult.

It feels as if there has been a mass realization of the absurd and there’s a race on now to the bottom of abyss, of trying to figure out what one can get away with.

Reality has lost its bearings. Meaning has come unhinged. The god is dead and the world is in free fall.

The idea in the past (modernity) used to be that One Big Lie holds the world together.But reality of today (post-modernity) is that many lies gives the bottom away.

Now no one cares. Or rather, now no one is capable of caring even if they want to. To care is to hold onto an ideal and salvaging that ideal. People now instead use ideals as stepping stones to climb up. Everyone’s tasted the absurd. And there’s a tumultuous race to the bottom to discover just how low we can go, how much can we get away with.

Spine

I believe that the differentiating factor between a successful agency and an unsuccessful one isn’t really about the star power of its creatives or planners. The key ingredient is the work culture and account management capabilities.

I have worked in some great agencies and some really shitty ones. I grew the most, along with others, in the best agencies. We did our best work there. We could do so because it was led by capable people in management who encouraged when encouragement was due, who gave clarity, who ensured clear lines of communications and responsibilities.

A capable ‘servicing’/ management person understands the business of their client. They might not be capable of thinking of original solutions but they must be capable of appreciating the problem that needs solving and be able to evaluate the work against the objective of solving that problem. They must be capable of building a relationship where client learns to articulate their problems clearly, where each person respects each other’s time, where there is enough openness to perform blue sky thinking.

These are essential KRAs for management people in agencies. These capabilities form the spine of an agency. Without this spine, an agency begins its descent towards being a brown dwarf.

Unfortunately, I see many agencies losing that spine. People are working without clarity, without conviction, without purpose. I am not blaming a particular agency. I believe it is systemic.

The reality is, a capable manager can earn more, do more on client side/ media side or with tech companies. Agencies don’t pay well enough at entry level, they don’t train their people meaningfully and neither is there a vision of where the agency businesses will be and consequently where the manager’s careers will be in the future. Any sensible person will jump the ship.

That’s what is happening. We have overworked smart juniors who are growing disillusioned with the industry that doesn’t recognise their input. We have under-challenged, angsty, under-motivated senior management who are not keeping up with the times. The smart agile ones are leaving the industry and the ones who are left (out of love for the craft or otherwise) are increasingly cynical, quite naturally.

Its not tough to change course and build agencies for the 21st century. I am yet to witness it though.

Value of an idea

What can an idea do?

It can inform, amuse and inspire.
It can clarify. It can change perspective. It can shift worldviews. It can create and destroy biases/ perceptions.
It can change the way we live, work, play, buy, interact.
It can give purpose, alleviate pain, help gain contentment.

How big can an idea be?

It can reach hundred or billions depend on the media spend and the luck of ‘the viral’ roulette.
It can reach the depth of our souls and transform us. First a few, then many.
It can transform the way world works even if we don’t want to.
It can make real difference to people’s lives.

Can every idea do that?

No. Some ideas are expressions, some others are acts, some other inform our being and yet another our belief systems.

Advertising is about expressions. At most it can progress to momentary acts.
Big tech is informing the way we live, its shaping our being.
Big government/ conspiracies/ interest groups are trying to shape our belief systems.

The last two decades have been largely about the latter two. Big tech and big govt. playing with the malleable minds of masses. They are using the biggest ideas cynically, to control, to subjugate.

We need big ideas in good faith. We need big ideas that empower people to see reality more clearly, act more authentically, be the best they can be.

Advertising is trivial in the bigger scheme of things. It wasn’t so always. It was an important aspect of pushing progressive ideals, consumerism, globalism in 20th century. It has no values now. It serves no purpose beyond peddling goods, that too inefficiently.

Why waste ideas on the trivial when there’s so much good that an
idea can do with right tools (digital tech or analog systems) and right people?


Crashing out of Goldilocks zone

I wrote this article for WARC’s ‘Future of Strategy report – 2020′.

___

Survival is a delicate affair of balance and luck. Consider a monarch butterfly for instance. The place where they breed should have temperatures between 86°f to 95°f. Too high, eggs go dry. Too low, the monarch can’t fly. The climate change, loss of milkweed (their food & shelter), loss of overwintering habitat, are among other variables pushing the monarchs out of existence.

We might not be as beautiful and blameless as the monarchs. But we are just as much under threat. Digital disruptions, Covid-19, lack of organising culture among industry workers, lack of vision among leaders…we are crashing out of the goldilocks zone hard.

As advertising agencies refuse to evolve quickly enough, strategy departments (cost centre with an increasingly uncertain payoff) will be the among the first sacrificial lambs at the altar of P&L statements sinking towards red. Covid-19 is merely accelerating this trend.

Here’s my thesis on the industry’s growing fragility.

1. Advertising is no longer as important for brand growth as it was in 20th century.

In 20th century, a memorable jingle ‘scaled’ quickly in the collective consciousness translating to years of brand success. 
But in 21st century, commercials simply can’t make that kind of imprint on the collective consciousness.

What scales instead?
Supply chains with tech-based innovations;
Predicting consumers’ needs and desires with big data analytics;
Targeted nudges to consumer desire with cookies & notifications;
Product personalisation with material innovation, delivery experience or social engagement;

Memes that resonate with the zeitgeist…. The list is endless.

Digital technologies have given brand owners so many new tools to creatively find new ways to grow brands. Digital transformation is simply more deserving of the ‘growth’ budget. Consequently, advertising budgets are under pressure. Consequently, advertising agency business models are under pressure.

What can help?

As dimensions of brand growth grow, so must strategist’s capabilities even if agency’s offerings don’t. Strategist must develop appreciation of the broader context and not be focused merely on communications strategy. This can help build agency’s capability, but also strategist’s prospects beyond agency roles.

2. Agency leadership so far, have shown a deep incapability to respond to this shift.

  • The advertising industry’s choices to grow are clear –
    • Improve its capabilities in view of the changing world and offer new services or
    • Increase the premium of its offerings to earn more from the shrinking set of clients for whom advertising remains critical or
    • Leverage digital tech to scale – serve more brands with fewer people

Even after loud ‘Relaunchings’ and ‘transformations’, most agencies still are fundamentally unchanged.
The business model is still unchanged. (I don’t know of a single major agency that has substantially invested in either its capabilities, its delivery or its systems. Most changes are cosmetic.)
There are no path-breaking offerings/ new products being created by agencies. Mass media communications remains the major source of revenue for most agencies.

There is no serious attempt at improving capabilities of their people. (The deluge of webinars doesn’t count. What is needed is a culture of positive feedback and experimentation.)     

As agency margins come under pressure, agency leadership look to prune the costs rather than spending capital on building capabilities. This lack of vision is detrimental to strategy department’s relevance.


Ideally, strategists should play a major role in helping agencies navigate the transformation agenda.
This hasn’t happened so far to the best of my knowledge.People leading the transformation agendas in top agencies are usually business folks who are invested in the status-quo.

What can help?

Strategists should actively participate in the agenda of agency transformation. Strategists must appreciate reality of agency business and be capable of leading organisational improvements.

3. The role of communications in brand building is increasingly relevant in shorter time frame of here and now and not long-term brand legacies.  

Many brands these days don’t find the need for long term campaigns or big TVCs, altogether. Since their product/ service is evolving daily, they are more aligned to keep their communications just as alive with daily/ weekly refreshes. They are often more attuned to the changing market dynamics and want to respond at the speed of thought.

The new client expectation is for agency leadership and strategy team to be just as immersed in the brand world as they are. They want agencies to proactively respond to emerging trends, events, sentiment etc.

But often agencies expect the linear flow of directive – client brief -> creative brief -> idea. Repeat.

Agency leadership needs to step in here to set right expectations and enable a working environment where client-talent collaboration is fruitful and not marred by mismatched expectations. It’s not a difficult problem to solve. We just need a will to adapt and partner in new ways, work in new ways.

What can help?

Strategists need to be more vocal in re-engineering the work-flows and creative processes. Strategists need to lead the effort in guiding clients and agency leadership in collaborating more fruitfully in the new fluid brand world.

4.  Covid’s impact

Covid has accelerated the shift of advertising dollars towards digital media. This has meant agencies have lost majority of revenues very suddenly. Agencies that had not worked on their transformation so far, are bleeding now. It’s time for tough choices in such agencies. 

What can help?

Covid has precipitated economic hardships. Many of us will lose our jobs in this crisis. The industry bodies must take steps in safeguarding livelihoods, augmenting capabilities and creating opportunities to collaborate.

WFH

WFH hasn’t affected the effectiveness or efficiency of work. However, WFH has radically alienated people from each other’s journeys. Some teams are exploiting the full potential of productivity tools while some aren’t. Webinars have helped some gain perspective while many have gotten tired with their frequency. Some of us will accelerate in their skill improvement while some will languish. The lack of visibility over each other’s work/ conversations will only increase the disparity.

What can help?

Leadership needs to be more active in communicating with its team members during this time of crisis-lived-from-home. Efficiency and effectiveness are not everything. Community is being ruptured and we are not doing enough to heal it.