This headline is brilliant.

Whenever I’m a bit stuck for something to write about, one obvious option is a bit of myth-debunking.  There are so many myths around that there are plenty of targets to aim at, but the one that comes to the top of my mind today will be known to pretty much everyone, agency and client side, involved in marketing and communications:  the idea that if the opposite of any statement or proposition is obvious nonsense, then the statement or proposition isn’t worth making.

I hear this all the time:  in fact, rather unexpectedly, I heard it on the Today programme ealier this morning, in an interview with a Tory politician about something or other.

In fact, though, it takes about 17 milliseconds to realise that it’s total rubbish.  I’m not sure if my headline really proves the point:  it’s true to say that I’m not very likely to write a headline that admits to being absolutely hopeless.  But there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of point-provers to be found in the wider world.  It would obviously be nonsense for a short-haul airline to claim to be extremely expensive:  does that mean easyJet is wrong to claim to be extremely cheap?  It would obviously be nonsense for a mortgage lender to claim to process mortgages incredibly slowly:  does this mean that, say, Charcol Online is wrong to claim to process them incredibly quickly? It would obviously be nonsense for a lager to claim that it’s best when extremely hot: does this mean that Fosters is wrong to claim that it’s best when extremely cold?  The fact that I can come up with examples like these much quicker than I can type them only serves to highlight how stupid this idea actually is.

What baffles me is the way that such self-evidently idiotic ideas can possibly prove so potent and last so long.  Do people simply not realise they’re talking rubbish?  Or, more likely, do they have a sneaking suspicion that they are, but lack the confidence to back their own judgement? I don’t know.  But I do know that in the world of marketing and communications, virtually every idea that’s big and famous enough to become a cliche will turn out, on reflection, to be completely and obviously wrong.

Next in the series:  “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”  I can think of at least six reasons why that isn’t true.  Can you find a seventh?

Did I ever tell you I was once mistaken for Martin Jol?

Only by a very drunk fan, admittedly.  But I don’t suppose I should let the fall of my club’s latest manager and body double pass without comment.

Personally, I thought he had to go and should have gone in the summer.  Lovely bloke, helped us make essential progress, but never going to get us higher than 5th.  (I think of him as the Neil Kinnock of N17:  a vital role, but not Tony Blair.  To which some might say “thank goodness,” but not the ones who want to win premierships, or elections.)

If this was the season we were determined to get to 4th, we had to replace him before it started.  Now, whatever happens, that opportunity is blown to pieces and the last four years of rebuilding have been for nothing.  Shame on Daniel Levy and the Board for allowing about six months of catastrophic infighting to go on without taking action.

As ever, I see an analogy: feuding at the top disastrously distracts attention, and leads to massive problems on the pitch whatever kind of pitch you may plan on.    The Premiership season, showing the kind of strict obsession with targets and performance that modern politicians favour, measures the effects much more precisely than the average business can.  Last year, with little feuding, we were 5th.  This year, with lots of feuding, we’re 18th.  Considering that a fair amount of feuding goes on in pretty much every organisation, it’s obviously a big thing.   We’ve had our share of feuding here in recent years, but there’s virtually none at the moment:  oddly enough, things are going very well, we’re doing good work and making good money.  Funny, that.

The worst financial services advertisement ever

Before I get to that, I know you’re longing to hear how we got on yesterday with those two brilliant pieces of work I mentioned yesterday.  The usual frustrations, I’m afraid – one meeting postponed at the last minute, and one where the most senior client didn’t turn up.  I should have known: the more you focus your energy on fretting about whether you’ll win or lose, the more likely it is that the match will be called off.  Oh well.

Anyway.  Did you see that programme on BBC2 last night in which a variety of grumpy old men and women talked about financial services?  Even though the grumpies were of course a wildly unrepresentative bunch of ageing thesps and humourists, it was essential viewing:  we all know the extent to which people hate, misunderstand and go out of their way to ignore us, but this was a particularly vivid reminder.

To me, the main point was the way that people bring together all the things that they don’t like about us and put them all into one enormous sack, which they then carry arround and pour indiscriminately over any part of the industry they come into contact with.  So, for example, when asked to consider the possibility of putting money into a pension, their reasons for not doing so included some reasonably relevant things like Equitable and that steel company that went bust (ASW?), but also a whole litany of other negatives including Nick Leeson, Northern Rock, excessive City bonuses, endowment mis-selling and precipice bonds.  This is obviously bad, because it means that people bring huge amounts of miscellaneously negative baggage to pretty much every financial decision they make, not just the baggage that is directly relevant to the decision in question.

I must say, I was struck by how much of this baggage originates in the City.  The deep and toxic reservoir of envy, incomprehension, dislike and resentment that people feel towards the prototypical arrogant, overpaid, selfish City boy spills over to poison many people’s perceptions of the financial world as a whole.   And by far the most toxic zone within this whole toxic environment is that old open-outcry market at LIFFE – you know, the one where those ghastly chavs in the comedy jackets scream and howl at each other across a densely-crowded trading floor in a way that’s oddly reminscent of a cock-fight, the chimpanzee cage at the zoo and a bunch of on-course bookies in the moments before a big race begins.

This market disappeared several years ago now, but sadly the footage of it lives on and is still dragged out regularly on television – as it was last night – to represent the way your money is looked after by the expert and experienced professionals in Europe’s biggest and most sophisticated financial centre.

As such, it’s a communications disaster of truly extraordinary proportions – a bit like illustrating, say, a piece about air travel with footage of that Concorde crash, or a piece about agriculture with a cow suffering from mad cow disease.  In a few seconds, it quite literally confirms all your worst fears about how the financial services industry is going to look after your money.

Knowledgeable and intelligent peple in the industry will be loftily dismissive, saying that LIFFE isn’t an open outcry market any more and in any case few mainstream retail customers have any significant exposure to derivatives.  But that’s so not the point:  as last night’s programme made all too clear, in consumers’ minds everything is everything. That horrible spectacle colours their attitudes towards everything we do and everything we offer them. 

I strongly suspect we’d be wise to set aside, say, five or ten per cent of all our advertising budgets to track down, buy up and destroy as many copies of this footage, and other scenes like it, as we could get our hands on.  In fact, in terms of bang for our advertising buck, we’d be daft not to.

Is my gorgeous picture looking a little yellower than usual?

Green means envy, blue means cold, red means anger, but yellow means jaundice.  And although I try – believe me, I try – not to be an envious, or cold, or angry, or jaundiced old man, I can’t deny that the odd change in my colouring does occur.

There’s one good-news message that I’ve delivered a thousand times to people in agency creative departments, myself included:  clients may be pretty tricky when you show them mediocre or half-decent stuff, but when you show them stuff that’s obviously brilliant it all becomes very simple and appreciative.

“It’s not my experience,” I tell my colleagues, “that we all have dozens of really brilliant rejected campaigns hanging around in our portfolios.  We have lots of pretty good ones.  But the hard part about brilliant ideas is having them, not selling them.  On the rare occasions when we do have them, the clients are suitably grateful.”

I’ve stopped telling them this a bit lately.  On two or three recent occasions we’ve shown stuff that I thought was brilliant, and the clients have savaged it like pit bulls.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  On a couple of occasions they’ve savaged it like pit bulls, and on another occasion it was more a question of that weirdly descriptive cliche about being nibbled to death by ducks.  (Why ducks?  Do they nibble?)

Anyway.  Hence my jaundice.  But today – it’s 8am now – we’re showing clients not one but two things that I think are brilliant.  Will my natural colouring be restored?  I’ll let you know. 


Something to think about, although not for very long

I’m not sure why, but I like writing pieces for this blog about awkward discoveries and developments that challenge all the things I believe most strongly about financial brands, marketing and communications.

Here’s a good one.  One of the things that I believe most strongly in this area is that if you try hard enough, it is possible to win people’s interest and invovement in communications to do with their financial affairs.  I believe this so strongly that it’s implicit in the wording of the cchm:ping Mission Statement, which simply says “We make financial matters interesting to people.”

But here’s a dispiriting statistic.  According to a conference presentation I heard last week, on average American college professors spend an hour dealing with their pension arrangements.  But an hour what?  An hour a week?  An hour a month? An hour a year?  Well, actually, none of these:  it’s an hour in a lifetime.

Obviously there’s room for plenty of “yes but.”  Yes but….I’m not at all sure I actually believe it: surely just opening the envelope and barely glancing at an annual pension statement would take up more than an hour in a lifetime?  Yes but….they’re Americans, and that’s different.  Yes but….they’re college professors, and I suspect they may well still have nice fat final salary schemes, and that being so how much time do they actually need to spend on them?  Yes but….the alleged hour is an alleged average, so some of the profs are spending several hours on it, even if the hour figure is reliable which, as I said, I reckon it isn’t.

Still, despite all that, it is a bit dispiriting.  This “making financial matters interesting to people” business is a lot harder than it sounds.

How do you have ideas? And where?

People talk and write a lot about the “how.”  For most, it’s a process that’s about 80% rational, needing time to filter and sift the task at hand in your mind, going round it time after time, until you’re ready for something irrational to happen.  And that irrational thing is rarely a great big eureka moment, but usually something more like a gentle “pop” or “fizz,” and all of a sudden there’s a thought in your mind that wasn’t there a moment ago.

And one of the things this means is that although you probably can’t train yourself to have ideas exactly, you can train yourself to get into a position where you could have an idea.  Which, in practice, is almost the same thing.

Part of it, for me at least, is about places.  As I was saying in the piece on Friday evening, I find it very hard to concentrate.  But I concentrate better in some places than others: unromantically, I’m best looking ahead of me at a screen.

Since I spend about three-quarters of my time in my office looking ahead of me at a screen this sounds pretty convenient, but it’s not quite that simple.  I’m much happier if I can see a great big screen or stage, like a cinema screen or a theatre curtain before the play starts or the band comes on.  Somehow, in this situation, I find I can hardly stop myself from projecting ideas onto the screen or curtain.  If the film or band or play is boring and hasn’t captured my attention, I can project ideas quite easily onto the screen or stage even in the middle of the show, and sometimes these ideas seem interesting enough that I have to use the Blackberry to email them to myself in case I forget them.  (As always with ideas, though, they may well be much less good than I think they are.  The last two I emailed to myself occurred to me during the very dull Police gig at Twickenham a few weeks ago, and at the time I thought they were absolutely perfect for a pitch we were doing a week or so later to a Jersey-based fund management group:  I went on thinking this right up to the moment when they called to say they’d given the business to someone else.  Oh well.)  

Second to the screen or stage is the view out of the front window of the car, which I guess is a similar sort of thing.  Early in my copywriting career, when I used to think about briefs until I thought my brain would burst, the moment of relief when I came up with something half-decent was unforgettable:  there are still places in the London streets which, twenty years or more later, I still associate with the copylines that occurred to me there.  The Piccadilly underpass will always say “Embassy Number One.  Every time” to me.  And the Old Street roundabout is, bizarrely, indefinitely associated with “What has a hazelnut in every bite?”

I’m not sure quite why I’m telling you this except – as you may cleverly have guessed, noticing that it’s the end of the weekend – I still haven’t written that piece I was fretting about on Friday.  And amazingly, I’m still prevaricating.


Looks like blog entry, actually displacement activity

This is ridiculous.  I have a big, difficult and important piece of writing to do for a client.  I haven’t started yet – in fact, I haven’t even got an idea for it.  It’s 6.15 on Friday evening, and it’s only by a miracle that he didn’t come in to see it earlier today.  Instead, he’s coming in early on Tuesday.  I’m in meetings all day Monday.  I have about 45 minutes now before I have to go.

And instead of working on this very urgent and very real client brief, I’m pratting about writing a pointless and actually not-particularly-interesting blog entry.

The reason, of course, is that this deadline pressure thing just gets worse and worse.  I look back on the days when I used to start work at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour as a time of unbelievable calm and ease.  These days, I can’t bring myself to start until…well, practically until the clients are waiting in Reception.

Ah, good.  Writing this, and a couple of brief interruptions, and two emails, and now it’s time to go.  I’ll write that thing on…on…whenever.

Maybe my “Building Brands” textbook had a chapter missing

You always ask for feedback and comments in blogs, but on this occasion I’d really like some feedback and comments.  Because it’s time to fess up – there’s one big thing about this brand-building business that I’ve never really got my head round.

It’s simply this:  to what extent is it necessary, or indeed desirable, to aim to build different brand perceptions among different target groups?

For us, this issue most often raises its head with clients who are distributing their products to the public wholly or partly via financial advisers.  For these businesses, the B2B and B2C brands are both vitally important – but often it really is difficult to see how they can be the same, or indeed how they can share any significant qualities at all.  To take a single example, we’re working with a mutual organisation at the moment which believes that as far as the B2C brand is concerned, it can express its mutuality and the benefits arising from it in some new, different and really compelling ways.  But our research among advisers indicates that as far as they’re concerned, mutuality is for the birds:  the B2B brand that would turn them on is one promising great service, commission and good sales support, and keeping as quiet about stupid mutuality as possible.

I remember first becoming aware of this issue a million years ago, before I even really knew what brands were, when I used to write advertising for Mars confectionery brands.  To consumers, Milky Way was (all together now…) The Sweet You Can Eat Between Meals Without Ruining Your Appetite.  To the trade, it was the best way to make money out of mums who didn’t approve of sweet-eating. 

The dichotomy didn’t really matter, because we hardly communicated with the trade -just the odd “stock up now because we’re advertising on TV” message in The Grocer.  But in our financial world today, it matters a lot.  Many of our clients divide the emphasis in their marketing and communications pretty much equally between the two:  it’s an issue we can’t duck.

Trouble is, there are three options and I don’t like any of them much.  The first, despite what I’ve said here, is to try to find a single brand definition that can play out for both (or indeed all) target groups;  the second is to look for a same-but-different approach where there’s a single definition at the higher levels (brand essence, brand values and so on) but room for variation at the lower, more practical, benefit-oriented levels;  and the third is to adopt entirely separate definitions for both (or indeed all) target groups.

(The reason I keep inserting the words “or indeed all,” obviously, is that this consumer-vs-trade thing is the thin end of a wedge.  If we accept that separate brand definitions will work better for these groups, then I guess we’ll have to apply the same logic to other groups.  What about staff?  Corporate customers?  Local communities?) 

But going back to my three options, I really can’t decide which is the least unsatisfactory:  I really don’t like any of them much.  The first just doesn’t seem achievable;  the third seems impossibly confusing; and the second feels like a fudge designed to build some spurious connections between unrelated things.

I need your help on this, chaps, and not just the usual 100 useless spam messages about sex and drugs.  (“Useless messages about sex and drugs”?  I must be getting old.)  What’s the answer? 

Two reasons why I love football

I love football because I love football (is this a reason? ed) but also because it tells me so much about life.  Take the current shenanigans at my club, Tottenham Hotspur.  The poor old manager, Martin Jol, who’s a lovely bloke but a pretty hopeless manager, lost the confidence of the Board over the course of the last six months or so.  This process has been exacerbated by various other people at the club sticking the knife in and missing no opportunity to slag him off, but in fact he is in reality pretty hopeless anyway.  The Board could have replaced him during the close season but dithered, and since the new season started things have gone from bad to worse.  Poor old Martin knows that he’s living on borrowed time and the only reason he hasn’t been sacked is because the Board can’t find a replacement.  As a result he’s angry and demoralised and doing a worse and worse job as manager, and as a result of that the team is playing worse and worse.

And the poor old fans, like me, shell out about £60 a game, or £1000 for a season ticket (or in my case £2000 for two season tickets) to watch a bunch of talented young footballers making fools of themselves.

Just another example of lions led by donkeys, you might say.  But actually, a hideously compelling reminder of the way that it’s the people at the top who make the really big decisions that percolate down through the business. I know financial institutions that seem just as shambolic and desperate as my football club.  And I know the reason is the same:  no leadership.

Does this piece need a more original headline?

Years ago, I went to make my first creative presentation to a new client (Prudential Direct, actually, since you ask.)  I was showing some small-space lead-generation ads for home insurance, as I recall.  Eager to make a good impression, I’d taken along dozens of layouts.  I ploughed through them all.  The clients gave little away.

At the end, the senior client rummaged through the pile and pulled out one layout.  “I’ve seen this one before,” he said.  “Sun Life used it.”  Naturally I was embarrassed and apologetic.  “I am sorry,” I said.  “I had no idea.”  “No, no, lad,” he replied, which was odd because he wasn’t a Yorkshireman.  “Nothing to apologise for.  They used it for ages.  It must work really well.” 

The fact is, many clients value originality a lot less than we do in agencies.  There are at least a couple of reasons for this.  One is that most are simply much less aware of advertising than we are, and don’t know how often an idea has been used.  But the more important reason is that particularly in direct response (but actually elsewhere too) they judge the ad on its performance, not its originality.  Which would Pru Direct have preferred:  a Sun Life rip-off that pulled like a train, or an original flash of inspiration that left consumers cold?  Easiest decision of the year.  So easy, in fact, that they’d rather choose the proven performer than take a chance on a new idea.  Very happy to leave Sun Life to do the concept testing:  we’ll just use the lines that worked for them.

Even so, it comes as a bit of a surprise when advertisers use genuinely famous and striking lines originated in other campaigns.  There are Adshels around London at the moment promoting the Lombard RAC Rally with the line “Gripping Stuff.”   This was, of course, the line in Pirelli’s advertising during those great years of the 80s and 90s – remember Carl Lewis running on water?  Are the RAC Rally people and their agency simply unaware of this?  Or are they aware and unconcerned?  Or are they aware and actually quite pleased if the line brings echoes of Pirelli’s great ads to people’s minds?

I don’t know.  But I do know that if we’d been working on the brief and someone here had come up with “Gripping Stuff,” I’d have turned it down and asked them to try to do something original.  And in so doing, I guess I’d have been highlighting one of the worryingly many ways in which what agencies and clients care about are two very different things.