News & Views

Precisely The Opposite Of What We Now Know To Be True

by Contagious Contributor

Laurence Green, founding partner of 101 London names and shames industry behaviours that will not look smart from some future vantage point.

Thanks to Cate Blanchett’s star turn in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s critical rehabilitation is now sufficiently advanced for it to be socially acceptable once more – if, for some, still morally dubious – to quote the great film-maker liberally.

Woody’s sci-fi comedy Sleeper was the first film I ever saw at my school film club, so it’s entirely possible that it commands an unduly generous share of heart, albeit it contains at least one wonderful passage of dialogue...

Emerging into a dystopian future state 200 years on from his cryogenic immersion in 1973, Miles Monroe – jazz musician and owner of the ‘Happy Carrot’ health food store – is understandably discombobulated.

Having woken him from his deep sleep, Doctors Melik and Aragon are comparing notes on their patient’s state of mind:

Dr Melik: ‘This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat-germ”, organic honey and tiger’s milk.’

Dr Aragon: (chuckling) ‘Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.’

Dr Melik: ‘You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or…hot fudge?’

Dr Aragon: ‘Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.’

Dr Melik: ‘Incredible.’

Allen’s sleight of hand – the health food crank proved wrong by future scientific endeavour – made almost as much of a dent on my impressionable adolescent self as the ‘orgasmatron’ (yep, that’s right) that features in the same film.

It’s an indulgent anecdote, I’ll grant you, but one that serves my basic premise: that much of the agency activity that we take for granted today, or rather much of the agency inactivity we tolerate or fail even to notice today, will look bewildering to future historians of ‘advertising’ (or however it comes to be known).

In other words, that much of what agencies routinely do – or don’t do – will come to be seen as ‘precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.’

Others may like to play this particular game for themselves but my own conscience is best salved and my commercial self-interest best served by naming and shaming the following as industry behaviours that will not look especially smart from some future vantage point.
(I absent any reference to ‘digital’ in observance of my New Year’s Resolution).

- The separation of media and creative
- The separation of strategy and creative
- The preservation of industry siloes
- Our preoccupation with comms and ‘messages out’ (as opposed to brand behaviour and ‘messages in’)
- Most specifically, perhaps, the distance of agency folk from New Product Development (NPD)

The first three, I suspect, speak for themselves, as anyone who has sat in an all-agency meeting or received a dispiriting brief from a ‘pure play’ brand consultancy will recognise. 

• The potential for media and creative to embellish one another has long been understood, the possibilities and rewards of doing so even greater today, yet it is harder than ever to plan for and pull off given the absence of those serendipitous corridor conversations’ that were once the hallmark of the full service agency.

• Likewise, with due caveats and room for some exceptions, great brand thinking is – I believe – typically enhanced by contemplating execution and the happy dance of logic and magic that then plays out. Again, ‘best practice’ that is undone rather than encouraged by the incremental abandonment – forced or otherwise – of strategic duty and overall brand guardianship by agencies.

• That our siloes, meanwhile, remain somehow untouched, integrated seamlessly behind a genuinely common agenda only by the brilliant or in times of crisis, is an ongoing source both of mystery and irritation.

The last two may reward a little more dwell time.

• The modern imperative for brands to do as well as say, or at the very least to do what they say, is well understood. But resource still tracks irresistibly towards comms rather than behaviour. Likewise, we are sometimes to be found in denial of the truth that the very best marketing is often distinguished by the messages it ushers into a business rather than sends out on its behalf. Check out any higher order definition of marketing and it will most likely describe the orientation of the company around the consumer, and not vice versa.

But agencies – and, if we’re honest, many marketing departments – still chiefly dedicate their time and money to ‘messages out’. Our ‘messages in’ muscle needs training, for sure, if only because it offers more genuinely transformational potential than even the best marketing campaign.

I love the messages 101 sends out on behalf of the Art Fund. But it was the ‘message in’ – that their members value their ‘club’ privileges just as much as any philanthropic thrill – that helped to reinvent them as a retailer rather than charity. I loved our re-launch of Mr. Kipling. But the ‘message in’ – that the nation now takes its sweet treats in ones not sixes – had the power to inform packaging, pricing and even distribution, not just ‘the ads’.

• And so to product. At a time when it has never been easier to ‘make’, agencies are further from ‘NPD’ than ever. We’re lucky to have been invited to design everything from tea-towels for the Art Fund to T-shirts for French Connection and – more materially – to have co-created rather than just launched the National Art Pass (for the Art Fund) and Baileys Chocolat Luxe (for Diageo).

This more fundamental engagement with clients is not without its problems for agencies. It rewards patience and the long game rather than the sure and swift sprint to production that typically characterises pure comms development. It demands a broader skill set – from commercial to production chops – than most agencies are set up to deliver. But the common pursuit of a new product or service not only aligns agency and client objectives more completely (not least a joint preoccupation with sales after the event), it also undeniably raises the bar in terms of an agency’s genuine commercial contribution rather than just its ability to knock a comms brief out of the park as well as or better than its peers.

I believe our industry would enjoy more stock – perhaps even, dare I say it, better margins – if more agencies volunteered for service on this deeper footing. We used to do just that. That it’s one of the most material ways in which we might chart a path to a less confused and compromised future for our industry than the one enjoyed by Miles Monroe: 

Miles Monroe: ‘Where am I anyhow, I mean, what happened to everybody? Where are all my friends?’

Dr Aragon: ‘You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly two hundred years.’

Miles Monroe: ‘But they all ate organic rice!’



Laurence Green is founding partner of 101 London