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.

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.