Of lunatics and asylums

Creative people – and I say this as someone who still counts himself among them, even though I pick up a pen in anger fairly rarely these days – are awful.  Selfish, egocentric, lazy, bad-tempered and, worst of all, just dreadfully conservative.  We hate change. We think things were brilliant in the past, are much worse in the present and will be absolutely awful in the future.

Which is why I respond extremely cautiously, to say the least, to the new Big Idea that has swept across a large chunk of my agency group (not, actually, including my own agency, Tangible, or at least not yet).

This new Big Idea is something called Co-Creation, and it’s championed by one of the agencies within my group, Face, who indeed describe themselves as Co-Creation specialists.  If you want to know more about it please visit http://ldn.co-creationhub.com/, but in a nutshell the Big Idea is that Big Ideas about brands – new products, websites, comms, ads, promotions, whatever - should be developed by means of a process that involves groups of people from the client company, from the agency and from the target market all working together in a collaborative process.

This is clearly an idea that brings multiple zeitgeisty things together into a single uber-zeitgeist. There’s the whole crowd-sourcing thing, the user-generated content thing, the interactive thing, the social networks thing, the collaborative working thing, the online research thing (Face are originally a market research company) and all sorts of other things you can read about in Revolution and New Media Age all brought together into a single process.  Face are doing very well with it – so well that various other parts of my group have decided that they want a piece of the co-creation action, and have joined together to establish the Co-Creation Hub thing whose web address I gave you a minute ago.

If you visit it for a moment, you’ll understand why I approach it with extreme caution – the kind of caution with which a platoon in Helmand Province approaches a bump in the road with wires protruding from it.  On the home page, for example, you’ll see a link to a White Paper called “Do Brands Really Need Agencies?”.  And although the white paper concludes that they may do, kind of, it certainly seems that they don’t need agencies’ creative departments:  instead, they need a series of workshops made up of clients and consumers and moderated by people from Face.

My problem – and, I suspect, the problem of 99% of creative people – begins right at the beginning, with the Co-Creation Hub strapline.  This says simply “Doing Things With, Not At.”  I get it.  Of course I get it.  I’ve read all the case studies, seen all the online co-created businesses, learned how you can harness the energy and enthusiasm of consumers to shape and build your brand.  (It also hasn’t escaped my attention that this is an extremely cheap way of maintaining a brand, a significant point in these tough times.)

But, like 99% of creative people, I don’t basically buy it.  I don’t basically accept that the best way to do creative things is “with, not at.”  From Romeo and Juliet to the Shake’n’Vac commercial, all the great flowerings of creativity have been done at, not with.   Like 99% of creative people I accept that up to a point, the consumer and indeed the client can play a valuable part in this process. We need to listen to them, engage with them, understand them.  But there comes a point where you have to send all those people away, close the door, wrap a towel round your head, and either on your own or with a trusted partner stay in that room until inspiration strikes.

After that, you may well go back to everyone – clients, colleagues, consumers – to make sure that your great idea works as you thought and hoped it would.  And after that, you may need all sorts of co-creationists (photographers, film directors, illustrators, actors, whatever) to give substance to your creation.  But the actual creative process itself isn’t with, it’s at.  And it isn’t co-, it’s solo.

In saying this, I know I’m sounding like a dinosaur.  At the very least I’m deeply, deeply out of fashion – Face are developing their co-creation business about 20 times quicker than any other part of the group, including my bit.  And actually, I’m almost certain that it’s worse than that.  This isn’t just a fashion thing, it’s a step change, and there’s no going back.

That being so, I’m delighted that my group is right at the forefront of the change.  And not least as someone who holds quite a few shares in it, I enthusiastically encourage everyone to visit   http://ldn.co-creationhub.com/, to get in touch with my co-creationist colleagues and, if you’re a client with a large budget, to allocate it to them immediately.

But as an agency creative who has been surrounded for decades by clients, account handlers, planners and researchers all bitterly resenting the way that this stroppy, difficult, lazy bunch of people get almost all the glory going despite playing such a limited part in the process, I can’t help suspecting that at another level, the success of co-creation reflects a long-sought opportunity for revenge.

With researchers, clients and consumers in charge of the whole creative process, it’s not that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.  On the contrary, it’s that the asylum is now firmly back under the control of the warders and the administrators.

Cart vs horse

No big deal, this.  But I guess that when I walked past Saatchis’ offices in Charlotte St the other day, it must have been the day they were pitching to the owners of the west London shopping centre Westfield, or possibly the day they heard they’d won it, because their windows were full of a Westfield-related graphic.

It was a simple idea:  dozens of normal-sized Westfield carrier bags, together with some others carrying the Saatchi strapline “Nothing Is Impossible”, all funnelling into a giant Saatchi & Saatchi-branded carrier bag at the centre of the display.  As far as I can remember, there weren’t any other words involved.

A nice simple idea, you might say:  Saatchis “bagging” the Westfield account.  But, at risk of thinking about it too hard, isn’t there a trace of good old-fashioned big agency arrogance at work here?  It’s a question of who’s bagging who, or even whom:  has Saatchis bagged Westfield, or has Westfield chosen Saatchis?  It’s both, of course. But if I was the Westfield marketing director, and I saw my little normal-sized carrier bags being swallowed up in the maw of the giant Saatchi bag, I think I might wonder who’s going to be calling the shots in my shiny new agency relationship.

Well, OK, but what is it you want to talk about?

There’s a campaign running at the moment for the stockbrokers (or wealth managers, as they probably call themselves these days) Brewin Dolphin.  Executionally it’s not bad, in a classy-but-somewhat-dull-and-recessive way.  But it’s the proposition that bothers me.

Basically, all the ads are all about the huge amount of time and effort that the company wants to put into getting to know me before it starts doing any wealth managing on my behalf.  To me, I have to say, this is a proposition that seems unwelcome and unnecessary in equal measure.

I’m a very busy person with far too many meetings in my diary and a poor work/life balance.  Sitting down for interminable getting-to-know-you sessions with a pinstriped Rupert is just about my last idea of fun. 

But I suppose I’d be reluctantly willing if I could imagine what on earth is likely to emerge from these discussions.  My investment needs can be summed up in 30 seconds:  over the years I haven’t put away enough for my retirement, and therefore a) I’m keen that my money should grow as much as possible to make up the deficit, but b) I can’t afford to lose a lot of it trying.  (The fact that these two requirements are entirely incompatible is basically the challenge for any chosen wealth manager to rise to.)

In having these rather contradictory needs, I have no doubt that I’m typical of thousands of other people, and therefore that the investment solution that’ll suit me best will be the same as thousands of other people’s.  Rupert can chat away with me for as long as he likes, but I don’t think he’s going to find anything more interesting or distinctive to inform my investment brief.  In fact, I can’t really imagine what interesting or distinctive discoveries there could be.  I suppose maybe a commitment to ethical investing, say.  Or, I don’t know, some personal history that leads to a profound reluctance to invest in Korea.  But even if I did possess some personal idiosyncracies of this kind, I’m sure they’d emerge in 15 minutes.  I can’t envisage Rupert triumphantly dragging them to the surface two hours into our eighth working session, like an angler finally landing the one trout from the pond.

This issue – the sheer routine ordinariness of most of our financial needs – seems to me to raise a big issue not just with this one slightly second-rate advertising campaign, but also with very large parts of the whole world of “wealth management” and financial advice.  Yes, certainly, a few very rich people with complicated personal lives do need sophisticated strategies to minimise tax, keep money out of the hands of ex-spouses and so forth.  But for the huge majority of us, it’s all childishly simple – and the only real dilemmas are ones that no adviser can solve for us anyway, like for example given the inadequacy of our resources is it better to underfund our pensions, our life assurance or our short term savings.

As I’ve written before in this blog, the only reason why most of us need all this tiresome and expensive individual service is that the whole industry has been built to be operated like that.  Like a restaurant without a self-service counter, which would surely degenerate into chaos if all the diners turned up in the kitchen demanding their chosen dishes directly from the chefs, it can’t currently work in any other way.  But spend a bit of time and money on building a decent self-service counter and it’s a different story:  and if a chef with a proper palate flinches at the sight of customers spooning parmesan onto their spaghetti vongole, it doesn’t really matter and no-one’s going to die.

I suppose that in the end, like about two-thirds of the entries in this blog, the point is ultimately no more and no less interesting than a single three-word observation:  all markets segment.   For everyone who, like me, is mystified and alienated by Brewin Dolphin’s advertising, there’s someone else who can’t wait to book up those interminable meetings.  And, as I’ve said myself a million times, it’s better to turn on 20% of your market and turn off 80% than to be greeted with indifference by the whole lot of them.

Still, if a wealth manager wants a positive response from me to an advertising campaign, they’d do much better to emphasise how little they want to talk to me.

Proud not to understand brand valuation

I don’t even begin to understand the brand valuation formulae used by the leaders in the field – notably Interbrand and David Haigh’s Brand Finance – and I’m very happy to keep it that way.  I don’t suppose I’d get it anyway, even if I tried, but in any case there’s no point, because it’s all obviously complete tosh.

Brand Finance has just published its Top 500 most valuable global banking brands, and I’d like to share a couple of highlights with you.

First, I’m sure you’d like to congratulate Santander on their storming rise up the charts, to number 3 in the overall table and number 1 among retail banks.  Just before you start on the congratulations, though, you might like to consider what was said by a speaker from Santander at the conference at which the Top 500 was launched:  that Santander think of themselves as being at the very earliest stages of developing and implementing their global brand strategy, and in fact that of the 14 countries around the world where they’re a major retail player, they were only actually trading under the Santander brand in one (Spain) at the time the valuations were calculated. 

Yet according to David’s formula, the Santander brand is nevertheless more valuable than, say, Deutsche, Credit Suisse and Standard Chartered put together.  And if that’s right, then I’m a Dutchman – and a rather disappointed Dutchman, actually, since according to David my global direct savings brand ING Bank is worth a little less than a tenth of Santander’s.

This is so stupid that I can’t believe people were able to sit through a presentation of these results with straight faces.  But it gets worse.

Way down at No. 206, with a brand allegedly worth £565 million, I find Carol Vordermann’s favourite sub-prime lender, FirstPlus.  This horrible business is just about as distressed as its customers these days, and the home page of the website tersely announces that FirstPlus is no longer making new loans to customers.

As you’re getting the hang of this preposterous league table by now, you probably won’t be surprised to find that the Coutts brand, one of the best-known and most powerful in financial services, ranks some way below FirstPlus. But how far below?  Well, about 175 places below, in fact.  Coutts comes in at No. 381, with a brand valued at £192 million – a little over a third of FirstPlus.  This may actually be the silliest statistic that I’ve ever seen published in my entire business career.

I don’t think I can find anything more absurd than this in the table, but you may be amused to hear that the much-loathed and financially-troubled doorstep lender Provident Financial ranks about 70 places, and £100 million, above Coutts in the survey too.  And if you can find me anyone on this planet who is willing to pay £100 million more for the Provident Financial brand than for the Coutts brand, I will borrow £1000 from you and pay you back at Provident Financial’s standard APR.  Which is something over a thousand per cent.

It’s tempting to chuckle bleakly at the folly of all this.  But there’s a genuinely scary side to it:  this pathetic science of brand valuation is the best shot that we brand-builders have in our locker when it comes to winning the support – and the financial backing – of finance directors and senior corporate management for our brand development plans.

Using stuff like this, we just make fools of ourselves.  How would you feel going to the main board of, say, Coutts, with a plan to spend £50 million on the brand over the next five years – and then, when they ask what results can be expected from this investment, only being able to say that by the year 2015 you anticipate that the Coutts brand may be almost as valuable as Provident Financial’s?   Absolutely idiotic?  I thought so.

Can the letter “M” be a brand? Mmm, yes, it can

Went to a conference about bank branding recently, and hated it.  The whole event felt, oddly, like a gathering of medieval physicians discussing the latest thinking on the medical use of leeches:  earnest, intense, full of zeal and certainty, but actually – as subsequent events would prove – about 95% wrong.

The keynote speaker was someone responsible for a very large bank’s global brand strategy.  She made a very odd presentation, falling basically into two halves.

In the first half, she explained how a close study of the international branding strategies available had convinced her that a single global master brand was the right option for her bank.  She explained how her thinking had been influenced by other best-of-breed global brands:  McDonald’s, BMW and Coca-Cola were three that she cited approvingly.

In the second half, she went on to explain how, beneath her global master brand, the bank now catered for its target markets’ needs by means of five segmented “propositions” – individually named and promoted packages of services relevant to each of the five groups.  She focused on two, the upmarket package for older and more affluent people, and the package for younger customers earlier in their careers.  Of the other three, one is for small businesses, one is for big businesses and I don’t know anything about the fifth.

I must say, I can’t decide which half of the presentation I found harder to understand. 

 In the first half, it seemed to me that her analysis of these “global master brands” was simply wrong.  Although McDonald’s, BMW and Coke are all extremely strong brands, I wouldn’t say that any of them stand alone by any means as monolithic master brands.  I’d say that McDonald’s has quite clearly and deliberately developed a growing range of sub-brands, connecting either to products (Big Mac) or to packages (Happy Meals) or to other elements of their iconography (the bizarre and frightening Ronald McDonald).  I’d say that although BMW products have boring names, to their target markets these are product brand identities rich in rational and emotional engagement:  for any petrol-head the simple prefix “M” – as in M3 and M5 – says everything that needs to be said about the high-performance variant of BMW’s saloons, and actually to those who know and care about such things the difference between, say, 316 and 335 is all the difference in the world.   

But the oddest of her three examples is undoubtedly Coca-Cola.  Within the Coke family, it seems to me that the company is trying to create at least one distinct sub-brand, Coke Zero, and probably more.  But much more importantly, the Coca-Cola Corporation has a whole range of other brands in its portfolio, including Sprite, Dr Pepper, Fanta, Powerade and Malvern mineral water, among many others.  Corporately, Coca-Cola absolutely isn’t a master-brander at all:  it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, as a leading proponent of the “brand portfolio” or “house of brands” approach.

So by the time the presentation moved into its second half, I was already struggling with the speaker’s argument.  But, if anything, I found the second part even more difficult to understand.  First and foremost, I simply couldn’t understand how the separately-named, discretely-targeted, individually-promoted “propositions” that she spoke about were anything other than brands under another name.  OK, a bit like BMWs, they have fairly bland and generic sounding names, and their individual look and feel (including the typography) fits within the brand’s overall visual identity (as indeed do BMW’s).  But to say that as a result these things are not “brands” seems to me to make a complete nonsense of what the word “brand” actually means.

There was another aspect of this second part of the talk that bothered me, which was how on earth a huge global bank can respond to the needs of all of its customers with just five “propositions.”  Thinking about the range of things that the bank can do for just one customer – take, for the sake of argument, me – I’d have thought you’d have needed dozens of “propositions”, or whatever you want to call them, just to respond to my needs alone.

And in fact, it was pondering this apparently unsustainable idea – that five propositions can cover the entire global waterfront – that gave me a vague sense of a possible explanation for the whole presentation’s line of thought.

Like everyone addressing this kind of topic, the speaker had several slides designed to show us how, until quite recently, the approach to branding and sub-branding around the world had been chaotic, and not in a good way.  There was a huge amount of pointless, unnecessary and expensive complication, contradiction and duplication of resources.  Any cost-conscious senior manager looking at the slides showing the logos of literally hundreds of business unit, product and service sub-brands from all corners of the world would itch to cut a swathe through it all, creating order out of total chaos. 

And what’s the best way to tackle the problems of extreme complication?  To oppose them with an approach that’s based on extreme simplicity.  You’re not going to be able to dispose of the hundreds or even thousands of sub-brands championed by various groups of people in parts of the group by being nice, and reasonable, and suggesting that perhaps you should meet half-way.  You’re going to have to be completely unreasonable – you need to adopt a position that makes no sense, maintain complete and selective blindness to its obvious unsustainability and refuse to engage in any kind of discussion about it.

It seems the strategy has worked.  Worldwide, the bank has now discarded many, many hundreds of sub-brand identities (even though I don’t actually believe that it’s been able to replace them with just five “propositions.”)  Sometimes, in corporate life as elsewhere, it’s the unreasonable person who gets things done.  Fair enough.  But I must say, the unreasonable person may not be the best choice to make sense of it all in a conference presentation.