Branding is a battle of ideas. So job one is to understand how ideas are created. Periodically I seek refuge and inspiration by going back in time to the works of the original advertising masters. On one of these journeys I came across a little yellow book by JWT’s James Webb Young called: “A Technique for Producing Ideas”. How could someone be so bold or so naïve as to suggest that there is a “technique for producing ideas”? The title sounded ridiculous. Ideas aren’t produced like sausages, right. Wrong.
Here’s the backstory. In 1928 the boss of a big magazine decided that they were not in the business of selling space but rather in the business of selling ideas. Everybody was very enthused with this notion but there was one little rub. Nobody could figure out how to get ideas. So he enlisted the help of Young whose big discovery was that ideas are not magical things that pop out of nowhere but rather nothing more or less than new combinations of old elements. To find these new combinations (or ideas) Young proposed five steps; and it’s well worthwhile revisiting them because the “technique” works every time.
Step one: gather raw materials. This of course is the first thing we all do when confronted with a problem. But most of us tend to gather information that’s specifically related to the immediate issue at hand. Not enough, Young cautions. Go wide. Be fascinated with a wide array of subjects and develop a system to collect and record good thoughts. Stop dear adman (madman) to think about this for a minute. Clients come to an ad agency because they are not used to gathering raw material that is outside of the confines of their industries. A client’s thinking tends to be vertical and deep whereas agencies work across a spectrum of categories and therefore have a wider range of raw material to draw from; and therefore more likely to find new combinations. Anyway principle one for step one, is dig deep and wide.
Step two: “digest the information”. Churn it in your head. Rather than looking for insights, “listen” for them Young advises. Now most of us are running around like chickens without heads, for it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place! Who has got the time to “digest” data when it’s business at the speed of thought, eight days a week? Worse — these days we all want to be seen to be doing stuff. Being busy (and more important looking busy) is where it’s at, if you want to keep your job, right? Who has the time to be quiet, to digest what we learn, to synthesise, to make connections, find new combinations between the bits and pieces of data at hand, to listen to that voice in our heads, to listen for insights, to find human truths and brand truths and marketplace truths… and combinations between them.
Step three: “put it out of your head”. Walk away, sleep on it, play golf with it, shower with it…this is the vital step; Young counselled. When we proverbially walk away from something, it appears as if by magic. How many times has an idea just popped into your head when you least expect it? How many times have you heard that the blue print for a great idea was jotted down on a napkin? This sage advice of “walking away” couldn’t be more relevant for our work today when we must multi task or die. Turns out that doing different things at the same time might be good after all! We might think we’ve put the problem at hand out of our minds but our sub-conscious brains are still working at it unbeknownst to us, our limbic brain is churning away… and finally out of the blue comes step four.
Step four: Eureka! Named after old Archimedes, the famous mathematician and physician who was lying in the bath presumably with some part of his brilliant Greek mind still working on how to measure the force (or was it the weight) of an object, when all of a sudden he must have noticed that the water level went down as he reached up for the soap… and then the water went up again as he lowered himself back into the tub. “Eureka” he exclaimed, as the idea came to him that you can measure the force of an object by the amount of fluid that it displaces. The other quintessential example of this phenomenon is the story of how Isaac Newton discovered the force of gravity. It didn’t happen of course while he was hunched up over a test tube in the lab but rather under an apple tree where Newton lay sleeping. The apple of course fell on old Isaac’s head, so suddenly he woke up to discover that the law of gravity had proverbially hit him! This all goes to show that behind every cliché, there’s a pearl of wisdom. So next time someone tells you to “sleep on it”; just do it!
The final stage of ideation is to shape and develop the idea. This for Young was about taking the new born idea into the hard, cold world of reality to develop it into something that is practical and useful. Idea men like inventors, Young felt, are often too impatient or too impractical to do this. New ideas too are fragile things in great need of nurture but all too often brutally destroyed by a cutting remark by the power broker in the room. (But that’s another story).
Said Raymond Rubicam the father of Young & Rubicam whose mantra: “Resist the Usual” we still celebrate today. Surprisingly little has been written and even less published about my hero Ray Rubicam. You don’t read books about him like you do about Bill Bernbach or David Ogilvy but if you’ve read Ogilvy you will know that Raymond was one of David’s great mentors.
A company’s mythology tends to be built by being faithful to past thinking but Rubicam discouraged this! He exhorted each new leader of Y&R to reinvent the company, to start afresh. He believed that you had to “resist the usual”. He feared habit. He was frightened of rules. And comfort zones. So one has to stand back and reflect on the threads of thinking as they’ve been passed down in order to weave Y&R’s mythology together. My insight is that the reason Y&R is an icon of the advertising business is that its leaders have transmitted the wisdom of their forefathers somewhat unconsciously while consciously (and sometimes even self- consciously) striven to resist it. This tension (today we call this “Tensity”) has fueled creativity in the company as has been witnessed by Y&R’s proud heritage of firsts.
Today’s leadership is attentive to building the Y&R brand but it hasn’t always been so. In my view we haven’t consistently spread the Y&R gospel as we should have. One day flying somewhere over South America in the buoyant late 90s, I asked Joe de Deo, one of our great leaders why? Never short of words, Joe started his reply by telling me the story about three girls who were sitting around discussing how disappointing their dates were the night before. The first one said that she had a date with a construction worker who was very big and handsome but he was too tired from working all day to do anything. The next one had a date with a very rich banker but he was too tired to do anything. The third one had a date with an advertising man. She said he was tall, handsome, rich, very witty, and young, dressed great and was a terrific dancer. So what went wrong? “Well you know advertising men — he just sat on the edge of the bed all night and told me how great it was going to be”. That, Joe went on to say, goes to the heart of our business. Too many advertising people think they can make it by clever self promotion as opposed to performance.
His answer silenced me at the time but as I said in installment #1, never has it been more important for “advertising” to promote itself as a collective force with an incredible “common cause”: the creation of ideas, brand ideas thatbuild businesses. The bigger the idea, the bigger the business. But nobody has trumpeted the common cause of the “Brand Idea”. In fact advertising agencies (demoted in today’s parlance to “traditional” or “creative” agencies” don’t even put a value on their Strategic Brand Ideas, never mind sell them for money. Sad fact. We sell time. The multiplier is gone. Clients buy the creative work and largely undervalue our brand ideas.
It’s ironic therefore that the father of Young & Rubicam, in my book the first father of the art of advertising was all about brand ideas and like the Young of JWT quite clear on how they are created and very clear about their worth. Not a man of too many words, Rubicam bred a culture of ideas and a way to create them which he summarized is just three words:
“Thoroughness” said Rubicam “is the ability to completely surround and penetrate a selling problem”. This effectively covers steps 1 and 2 of Young’s rule book. But it also reminds me of the story of the two kids in “The hitchhikers guide to the galaxy” who decided to ask a computer the size of a room what the meaning of life, the universe and everything is? Well the computer churned away and to cut a long story short, finally spat out the answer “42”. The moral of the story of course is that you’ve got to know 80% of the answer before you can ask the right question. And the art of thoroughness rests in asking the right questions.
As I’ll say time and again the most important word in advertising specifically and business in general is “why”. If you’re scared to ask “why”, you’re dead. You’ve got to be like a six years old that asks “why” and then “why” again. Probe deep because if you don’t, you get stuck with the symptoms of the problem. You don’t “surround and penetrate the problem”. The thing about clichés is that they are true. A problem well defined is a problem mostly solved. Sometimes we tend to forget in advertising, that we’re in the problem solving business. Sir Martin Sorrell came to visit us in Miami shortly after he had bought Y&R in 1999. He was taking us through “the treasure chest of WPP brands” when someone in the room asked about the big purpose that holds them all together. Quick as a wink, Martin answered that if we hadn’t coined it as the slogan for IBM, he’d brand WPP as people who live to deliver “solutions for a small planet”. The caveat being emphasized is that Rubicam spoke about “completely surrounding” a problem. This entails having the ability to look at it from many angles and viewpoints and to come out with a kaleidoscopic 360 degree solution. My reflection on his notion of “thoroughness” therefore is that it doesn’t just apply to the critical first step in problem solving but also must be applied to the execution of the solution found. Back in the seventies, many years before it was fashionable for agencies to talk about bringing “total” or “integrated” or “orchestrated” or “360 degree” or “through the line” solutions that synergistically blend all the disciplines of marketing communication together online and offline; Ed Ney the longstanding leader of Y&R preached this philosophy under the banner of “The Whole Egg”. The concept of a “whole egg” was new and strange at the time. An egg is one of the most powerful symbols of new life and a “whole egg” promised a new full life; exactly what we should be doing to the ideas we bring to consumers.
“All I want is the idea to convey memorably the advantage of the product… and if I gave advice to anybody, it’s to know his product inside out before he starts working. Your cleverness, your provocative- ness and imagination must stem from knowledge of the product”.
Rubicam defined “Ingenuity” as “the resourcefulness to command a bigger proportion of the public’s attention for a client’s advertising than his competitors are getting for theirs”. This was the golden age of the commission system. Although the pulling power of one ad could be twenty times greater than another of the same cost, all ads received the same compensation, a fixed percentage commission. So Rubicam was talking to what he believed to be Y&R’s fundamental source of competitive advantage: the ingenuity to capture more eyeballs for the same money through the creation of a sharper nail (idea) rather than the use of a bigger hammer (budget). This notion was later articulated in a famous house ad that appeared for Young & Rubicam in 1951. Using all the drama of black and white, it featured a gloved fist smashing into an opponent’s face.
Headline: “Impact”. Body copy: “According to Webster: the single instantaneous striking of a body in motion against another body. According to Young & Rubicam — that quality in an advertisement which strikes suddenly against a reader’s indifference and enlivens his mind to receive a sales message”.
Impact takes ingenuity. It takes the sheer power of imagination. It takes an “eureka”. It takes an idea. But as both Young and Rubicam knew, great advertising ideas cannot stop at the “eureka” moment. Young spoke about the need to take the newborn idea out into the light, to kick it around, to polish it and to perfect it. Rubicam went further with his notion of restlessness.
“Restlessness” he said is “a state of mind that compels an agency to seek a still better way to do a job after a good way has already been found”. At the entrance of 285 Madison Avenue, Y&R’s home until recently, a plaque was put up that read: “Good is the enemy of great”. It served to remind us that the enemy of complacency is inside us all. That being “good” is one of the greatest impediments to being “great”. A mentality that says “that’s good enough” is the enemy because it stops us from pushing the envelope. It stops us from being “restless”. It stops us “to seek a still better way to do a job after an already good way has been found”.
Restlessness is the hardest thing in the world to practice. It’s hard enough to come up with a good solution in the first place. There was a blank piece of paper, now there’s a strategy and the creative department must get it if we’re going to make the deadline. Restlessness is so hard to practice because seeking a “still better way” takes blood, sweat and tears. It takes doing it, then starting over to do it again and again as the wastepaper basket at your side get fuller and fuller with good discarded attempts that have failed to reach the heights of great. Beyond just perspiration, restlessness takes faith.
The insight to “restlessness”, I’ve come to realize, is that it must be passed on, from client to client service to planner to creative to channel planners to film directors to digital mavens…and then back to the client in a never ending iterative process of continual improvement. Along the way, each player must restlessly seek a still better way to do it.
It’s easy to call yourself a creative. Its a term bandied around almost as much as “I’m a marketer” in our a field. But what does one have to do to truly call himself or herself a creative? Is it winning a pitch? Is it seeing your advert flight in the paper as 26×4.5? Is it sitting around discussing why client didn’t buy into to your half-baked, get-it-out-of-my-face idea?
Perhaps to most…for the rest of us, it can be described in many ways, all of which culminate into that one inexpressibly remarkable emotion.
That warm and fuzzy feeling you get when what you create is exactly what you saw in mind. The uncontrollable sensation that comes when you don’t even have to construct a complete sentence for your designer to know exactly what your idea is. It’s that moment during a creative review when the team goes to the worlds end to find fault only to return disappointed but motivated to up their game. That self-assuredness when you know it’s a done deal.
In my view, being creative isn’t so much a choice but the search for this emotion. So simple yet so rare…
The Creative Conundrum: Creativity vs. Revenue
In Zimbabwe now more than ever, many agencies are struggling to find the right balance. In my mind its simple, big ideas will bring in the big bucks. It’s far better to have a client who appreciates our role as advertisers and respects our way of thinking, than to have a client who cant see they’re throwing their money into “campaigns” which are incorrect from conception. While the stick is bigger and stronger than the carrot, the carrot always has to come first.
While I understand that good creativity never comes cheap, we should never compromise on our craft. Ultimately, you gain more respect for your creativity than your bank balance.
To be completely honest, I felt I should rather share my philosophy (albeit in condensed form) on why we do what we do than list the hundreds reasons why as it stands, Zimbabwe will not move forward creatively. There needs to be concerted effort to reassert the value and purpose of our industry. Many clients find it easier to blame agency when they themselves haven’t taken the time to understand the market and where they want be. I think it all comes down to the Zimbabwe mentality of growing for today and hoping tomorrow will take care of care of itself. Many Zimbabwean brands are thankful to still be alive but is it enough to just be alive or shouldn’t they prescribe to a higher order?
So the other day I was asked that very question and my first reaction was one of horror. Lucky me for me, being dark and it being at night; I’m sure the look on my face was grotesque. It was a bit of “Little Johnny Roger, how’s your father” kind of moment.
Anyway, as is customary, I immediately began to analyze the question searching for what society would deem a fitting response. I resisted the urge to throw a sarcastic quip just to knock her off balance but I realized it wasn’t her fault. As I looked deeper for the answer, this all happening in a split second, I thought back at what I had done in the moments leading up to this less than glamorous accusation. My brain was in over drive.
Then I narrowed my potential answers down to four.
- I could be an asshole because I was in unfamiliar territory and was just trying to get to the social plateau that the majority people tend to congregate. But then what self-respecting man hides behind arrogance and petulance in awkward moments, justifying them as a “defense mechanism”? I mean really, who does that?
- Ah crap, I’ve bin busted. Dammit! OMG you know me so well that you can tell when I’m being an asshole. Wait, you don’t. Not everyone I know has had the extremely uncomfortable pleasure of learning to judge a book by its cover. We’ve been taught all our lives not to do so but yet we do.
I will not coat my words with lumps of sugar
But serve them to our people with the bitter quinine.
– Frank Chipasula
All those facades and smoke screens we put up in orders to convince ourselves, but more importantly those around us are exactly that, bollocks and baby Mellons. And war stories and f***ings don’t cut it either.
- The third possible answer was that someone had done something (and continues to do so) that pisses me off every time. That person really, really gets to the snarky, snide, asshole side and has no choice but to clap back. By my own admission, I have my moments, which are often uncalled for but always calculated. Nobody is ever on the receiving end without due reason (even if indirectly, just don’t take it personally, its just business).
Columbo see me and wanna lock it,
But I’m mutombo when i see imma block it!
– Beatz Galaw
- That I’ve bin through a whole lotta shit, shit that I’m even afraid to admit to myself. Maybe when I’m a little older. But I had to grow up faster than most, but that’s no excuse and it’d be rude for me compare what I went through to anyone else’s life. I learnt from my peers that there is a whole world that we never see but sooner or later it’ll come knocking and if you don’t recognize it WAKWARA. All that teaches you is huge self-awareness and where you fit into the ZIM Asset doc of life. Your learn to not just protect but project. Sounds like some inception shit but its true. Try it one day. You have greater command of you surroundings than you realize.
I’m a writer so I like to think of myself as a ebony hued Hank Moody, bar the fame, success, temperamental baby mama, outta control young’un, banged up stallion, broken head board and mentally gesticulating best friend (no I got that last one). That’s the great thing about the imagination, I could be going insane but who cares? I live life with my heart on my sleeve and my pet dragon feeding the furnace in my soul. I never say sorry unless I mean it. If I did then I’m sorry coz I didn’t mean it (oops, my bad, I did it again).
So to sign off, what I can say is of the four, only one is completely true and correct, there’s a second that partly true but if you blink you’ll miss it. Through all the pandemonium it always seems that I always feel like shit before I feel better, but when I do, I always come out a better person. Like I said its not your fault but there’s still so much more to what we see everyday. Life is just one massive Kansas City shuffle and sometimes you think you’re the main character but you’re really just the one opening the curtains for the show.
P.S. Got chills from the least likely source, well at least for me