Strategy-Wategy

Strategy-Wategy

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.

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

The amoral tounge

In my earlier years of advertising, I was fairly uneasy with the thought of working in advertising on moral grounds. There is a sense of lack of control over the truth about what we are talking about on behalf of the brand. In a sense, advertising is just a rented tongue for an organisation. The tongue doesn’t control the hands and legs or even the mind of the organisation. The disembodied nature of corporate makes it easy for morality to escape its being. Advertising says sweet things, it serenades consumers with beautiful tag lines and jingles, it says sorry on behalf of insincere suitors when shit hits the fan. It would all have been fine if advertising industry had the ‘agency’ to direct and compel organisations to ‘walk the talk’. But it can’t. and there in lies a problem.

The agency-less agencies

For example I worked on Volkswagen’s campaign for ‘blue planet’ early in my career, talking about their ecological innovations. And then it turns out that it is a fucking decepticon of a brand that innovated a lying machine to save itself from it’s ecological responsibility. What a douche brand.

Then came Nestle’s asshole MD talking about privatising all water of the earth. And then came the lead laced maggi. How fucking irresponsible. And I was working in Publicis then, it’s Agency On Record, globally. I managed to not work on that brand for most of the time. But I was not comfortable working in the company that worked for Nestle, and I quit soon after.

I jumped the ship the first chance I got with Junxion strategy, an agency working in the social sector (NGOs, CSR etc). The opportunity to do something good with my narrow skill set was tremendously exciting. But it couldn’t sustain.

I returned to advertising with a clarity there after. I joined Dentsu a tad bit mature from the earlier angry phase of working in advertising. I accepted the role with the realistic appraisal of its limitations and morality.

Advertising industry is a symptom, the disease is Capitalism

Systemically, advertising is morally problematic. But once you accept that you are within the system, then you can try to work with good people and better brands from within the system. That choice is liberating: If you can’t cure the disease, then it your duty to at-least alleviate the symptoms. There is always a choice to be made, to rebel and to strengthen an alternative system (to cure the disease)  or to work with the system (to alleviate the symptoms until you can cure the disease). But until you have the wherewithal and clarity of rebelling constructively, work within the system, as constructively as possible within the small domain of your existence.

I know that systemically, I am contributing to the capitalist engine of pollution – polluting minds, polluting ecology, polluting communities. But there’s a large distance between the immediate ‘good’ that I am doing and long distance ‘bad’ I am contributing to. It’s a trade-off with which I have made my peace for now.