News & Views

Opinion / The Buzzwords are OK

by Will Sansom

Why our industry’s favourite buzzwords aren’t the problem – it’s how we use them.

We have a wall in the Contagious London office – more of a stout pillar actually – that is covered in whiteboard paint allowing inspired members of the team to scrawl ideas, targets or even their favourite nonsensical quotes uttered by fellow team members in the dark watches of a client/magazine deadline. One of the most enduring pieces of legal graffiti, however, is a Vocab of Shame list, to which we have gradually added words that we’re just plain sick of hearing – in the hope that a good public shaming will prevent them, at least, from being used in Contagious parlance.

‘Phygital’ was a favourite, as was ‘savvy’ (as in, tech-savvy, Emoji-savvy, etc) and even ‘piece’ (as in, ‘first we did the social piece, then next came the mobile piece’, etc). I think in the case of the latter, the Contagious team took issue with the fact that this industry makes advertising, not bloody baked goods.

The list is largely unused now because someone deemed a coat stand more useful and placed one directly in front of it, but it came into conversation again last week as we were discussing the Budget 2015 Bingo in which Britain’s public was invited to spot the Conservative party’s favourite buzzwords or phrases (such as ‘rewarding hardworking people’) in chancellor George Osborne's pre-election Budget. And just for reference, he didn’t disappoint.

The more I think about the Contagious list though, the more I am glad it’s fading into redundancy. And not just because I cringe every time I reminisce about gibbering myself into a corner during a presentation or workshop, where only a hearty 'holistic’ would save me (come on – we’ve ALL been there). No, it’s because when I look at that wall, it echoes a broader, endemic trait of facetiousness within our industry which – aside from being thoroughly un-Contagious – is frustrating at best but plain destructive at worst.

I remember once talking to the former head of strategy at a highly-respected global agency who told me that they hated when people overuse the word ‘insight’ because ‘it doesn’t really mean anything’. And the other day, a client said exactly the same thing of the word ‘context’. I beg to differ in both cases. I know citing dictionary definitions is the only thing more clichéd than a good buzzword, but just so we’re clear, ‘insight’ means discerning the true nature or meaning of something and ‘context’ is the situation or collection of conditions in which something happens. Both, I’d argue, are pretty important to what our industry does, so we should probably forgive the frequent use of both.

I thoroughly respect both these individuals (particularly the client) so in an attempt to give them the benefit of the doubt, I’ve been questioning why all our hackles get raised by words like this – surely there’s more to it than the ennui of repetition? The only conclusion I’ve reached is that perhaps, when people criticise these words, they're confusing the weakness of the word with the weakness of the creative or strategic context (ahem) that it's being used in.

Example: if you watched a case study video for a beer brand-sponsored bar finder mobile application that claimed ‘ground-breaking user engagement’, you’d probably throw up a bit in your mouth or at the very least, deal yourself a good face-palm. However, if you heard the creative team from Dentsu describing the engagement of new generations of sports fans through their data-powered storytelling on Sound Of Senna… well, you get my point. The difference is that one example uses the word ‘engagement’ to describe a near-fictional type of interaction with consumers through a thoroughly unoriginal idea. The other uses it to describe how a global brand and its agency cracked the data vs. storytelling nut by turning hard, dry telemetry into something that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

What I would like to propose therefore is simple: if someone uses a common word but in the correct semantic context (third time lucky) to describe something entirely worthy of that word… we all have to promise to let it slide. And if you do this yourself but someone calls you out, feel free to ask them to replace your offending word with a more accurate or appropriate one. If they can’t, but instead say something along the lines of ‘we can finesse the copy later’, you are entirely within your rights to give them a good slap and tell them to finesse the copy now or shut the f*ck up. If only for being a hypocrite and using the phrase ‘finesse the copy’.