Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is selling creative without the bullshit possible?

It was close to midnight. The agency was abuzz with frenetic activity for an important presentation in the morning. The client was a large MNC with an extremely tough marketing head. The agency had failed couple of times before in trying to sell their campaign ideas. The agency team was at their wits end. My boss had rounded up the entire team to discuss the presentation strategy. He was trying to develop a ‘rationale’ for each of the creative idea in front of us. Being the junior-most at that time, I was perplexed at the contrived explanations that the team members were coming up with. It was a whole lot of bull-crap. I was not alone in thinking that way.
The consequences suffered at the presentation could have been a little less painful had we carried a jar of Vaseline. We paid the price of bullshit overshadowing the creative and therefore becoming the point of debate. It is critical not to fall into this trap and important to sell the creative, not the bullshit. This is the problem with ‘rationale’. It is a logical or process driven explanation of a product (creative) that triggers an asymmetric, non-linear process within the mind. One is on a slippery and dangerous ground with it as clients can easily identify with logic.
Sometimes I wonder what Michelangelo’s pitch to the Vatican was when he shared his idea for the Sistine Chapel. Or for that matter that of the architect of Taj Mahal. Did he, for instance, tell the Emperor that the four minarets represented the eternal hard-on he had for his beloved?  
I suspect there has always been an element of bullshit that is used to sell creative. It will always be that way. Eminent designer Michael Bierut in this brilliant and candid post explains why. The post has its LoL moments one of which I have copied below. 

Every once in a while, however, there is satisfaction to be had when design bullshit attains the level of art. I remember working years ago with a challenging client who kept rejecting brochure designs for a Francophile real estate development because they "weren't French enough." I had no idea what French graphic design was supposed to look like but came up with an approach using Empire, a typeface designed by Milwaukee-born Morris Fuller Benton in 1937, and showed it to my boss, Massimo Vignelli. "That will work," he said, his eyes narrowing.
At the presentation, Massimo unveiled the new font choice with a flourish. "As you see," he said, "in this new design, we're using a typeface called Ahm-peere."
I was about to correct him when I realized he was using the French pronunciation of Empire.
The client bought it.
Now is the time for the million dollar question. What if the bullshit becomes the creative, which is the case most of the time?

(Image courtesy: Haags Uitburo)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Contradictions work

Sometime back I was listening to a western classical music program on the radio. Before you jump to the conclusion that I am some kind of music buff, I wish to squelch it. I am not but I listen to all kinds of music. What I like about this particular program are the interesting details the RJ shares about the composer and the respective composition. The RJ was talking about a piece by Brahms, ‘German Requiem’, that he considered a masterpiece. He described the inherent contradiction in the composition as ‘profound gravity of magisterial sadness tinged with solemn optimism’. He went on to say that all great composers were a bundle of contradictions and that somehow these contradictions made its way into their composition. This made the composition interesting and sometimes it even became a masterpiece.
It will not be wrong to say that it is contradictions that make people interesting and interesting people even more interesting. This holds true for brands and it is something we can help create or so I feel.
If it is so, why are we then afraid to play with contradictions when it comes to brands?
We do create a contradiction of sorts. It is in the yawning gap between intent, like personality or DNA for the brand, and the actual output. When I say output I am not just talking about communication. It covers everything - product, packaging, distribution/retailing, pricing and communication.
I am aware that contradiction for the sake of it can be extremely dangerous and can make someone (or something) seem hypocritical.
However, there is another aspect of contradictions that is probably desirable, especially for a brand. Contradictions can create dissonance which when handled well can be disruptive. Greater the level of contradictions, greater the disruption and greater is the likelihood of success. The classic Beetle case study best exemplifies this. There was a contradiction, violent one at that, in the product for a market like US in the ‘60’s. And yet the contradiction was used to Beetle’s advantage in communication and the rest is history.
In recent times, Google is a company that is constantly playing with contradictions. On the one hand Google has grown into a large corporation with the accompanying baggage in perception (‘evil’, ‘monopoly’) and yet it actively encourages open-source philosophy in development which is antithesis to everything a large corporation is. Somehow I get the feeling that the contradictions within Google are by design and enable them to create tremors even for a small launch. So far, Google has managed it reasonably well. I really admire that and wish more companies (and brands) dared to create and play with contradictions.
But then we have been conditioned into thinking that predictability is a desired virtue for brands. The repercussion of this is that over a period of time we have created clones of products and brands across categories. One could argue that a lot is at stake and therefore being ‘unpredictable’ because of contradictions is harmful. Maybe sometimes. 

All I can say to all those who harbor a doubt about whether contradictions work or not. There is proof. And it is over 10000 years old. 


(Image courtesy: modio)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Top 10 I wish I had written this

This is the fifth edition. As always, ‘I like them and my gut says so’ is the only criteria for the selection of the posts mentioned below. They are not in any order of priority. Hope you like them as much as I did. More importantly, I request you to continue to direct me to such awesome posts. 

The author rightly says that we need something inspire us away from the fight over smaller and smaller pieces of attention. That got my attention.

“The world will be what we make it”. Ditto.

 A spirited defence of Twitter against all those who dismiss it as a mere ‘babble’ and I agree wholeheartedly.

The logical fall-out of an increasingly ‘social’ world is crowdsourcing and design contests. Accept it.

10 simple must-read points that I have started to use with my geeky clients

With examples from ancient history to today’s networked world, this post reinforces the most obvious reason on why innovation happens

‘Social world’ will be as impactful as the invention of printing press. Goes beyond stating the obvious and explains what is to follow.

The post gives 10 directions for any information visualisation to aspire for. If followed it will be a boon...for readers!

 A wonderful advice on career (and life) that adds life to life that will help anyone.

The post raises serious issues about journalistic objectivity and ethics in this ‘social world’

(Image courtesy:e_walk)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

When our strength trips us

In one of my earlier post, I had mentioned that ‘strength over a period of time can become irrelevant’. There are enough examples from the world of business, marketing and brands to prove this point. For a change, I wish to refresh our collective memories with examples from modern history across diverse topics. 

The breaking down of the Berlin Wall is one of the most dramatic moments in modern history symbolising the end of communism in Easter Europe. What seems to be forgotten is that the first crack to appear was in the most unlikely of places, a worker’s union. I am talking about the dock workers union (Solidarity Union) led by Lech Walesa in Poland. This crack rapidly became an ever expanding fault that brought down communism. Isn’t it ironic that the backbone and strength of the communist movement, unions, should be the prime mover in its collapse?
Experts attribute this collapse for Deng to open up the Chinese economy and save Chinese communism. The timing is too much of a coincidence to disbelieve this theory.
Once upon a time, Indian field hockey team were world beaters. Their strength was their amazing dribbling and ball-play ability, almost wizard like. They won gold in all the Olympics from 1928 to 1956. Their crowning moment was when they won the World Cup in 1975. Since then it has been downhill all the way except for the occasional patches of brilliance. In fact, India did not even qualify for Beijing Games last year.
An important reason, amongst many others, for the dramatic decline in Indian hockey team fortunes was the introduction of Astroturf during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Their strength, artistry, suddenly became irrelevant. Playing on Astroturf was all about power, stamina and lusty hitting. By the time India managed to get their first Astroturf (I think in 1982) other countries and Cricket had marginalised Indian hockey.
In direct contrast to India’s decline is the amazing record of Chinese table-tennis (or Ping Pong) team. Rules were continuously modified to make it difficult for Chinese to win. However, Chinese teams adapted to the ever changing rules and continue to dominate. 

Indian movie production and distribution until the 60’s was dominated by large studios. A studio’s fortune (or strength) rested on the popularity of the actors and technicians in their ‘portfolio’. Studio’s felt that they needed to have a vice-like grip on them (bonded labourers). Little did they realise that once an actor became a star, it is the public who had control over them. The stars threatened and demanded exorbitant fees. When the studios couldn’t cough up, they simply walked out to work with independent producers.
By 1970, most of the studios were wiped out and the movie scene in India is dominated by numerous independent producers.
In contrast, Hollywood studios have continuously adapted to take on challenges that threatened their existence. They did go through anxious moments and almost capitulated. Entry of large corporations like Sony, Viacom saved the day. And today they peacefully co-exist with Indie producers. 

There are various reasons for this phenomenon. Strength tends to blind-side us, strength tends to makes us play it safe, strength creates inertia to change, strength becomes irrelevant with dramatic changes in the eco-system and so on.
The ones who do not take their strength for granted and work on it to make it relevant are the ones who succeed.
I am throwing a few names here with what I think are their strengths. If you think I am wrong or wish to add to the list, please do so.
Microsoft: Windows or Proprietary Software or both                             
Google: Search
Apple: Steve Jobs or innovation or both
Hollywood: Marketing
Amazon: e-Retailing
Nokia: Low cost phones
USA: Capitalism
India: India?

(Image courtesy:jemil75)

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I am as far removed from the world of finance as one can be. I simply do not understand how billions can vanish or how blue-chip companies can get hosed down overnight or how people earn millions as bonuses or how all this has made our lives interesting since 2008. The ramble of economists was a bit too academic for my liking, more so when flavoured with politics. Therefore, I asked a friend of mine who is from that world to enlighten me. The more he explained, the more it sounded like bullshit. And I should know bullshit, having spent most of my career in advertising!
I accidently laid my hands on Bombardiers by Po Bronson. It was published in 1995 and happens to be Po Bronson’s first book. The book is one hell of a ride. It is insightful, provocative and an extremely funny look at the world of investment banks. Bombardiers are the sales guys who sell ‘creative financial instruments’ in an investment bank. The fact that Po Bronson was a hotshot executive in a blue-chip investment bank makes this book seem real even though it is a work of fiction.
The book was prophetic. In fact, one of the reviews of the book urges politicians and financiers to read the book in the hope that they will think twice about the way they’re mortgaging America’s future. I guess, they did not and we know what happened. Well, at least I got answers to my questions.
Here’s a nugget from the pages of Bombardiers:

“The Information Economy was a Ponzi scheme spiralling out of control. The investment bankers got rich slaving away, so they call their tax accountants, who got so rich filing government forms that they called their investment bankers back for advice about where to invest their surging wealth...........The politicians kept changing the laws so the lawyers could keep busy, and they kept changing the tax code so that the accountants could keep busy, and they kept borrowing money to keep the investment bankers busy. This was the Third Law of Information Economy at work, and it was the future.......They all profited from the increasing disarray of the information glut. So many experts led to so many theories, and they needed an expert to sort them all out.
....They bought and sold money, and every year the Fed pumped more money into the economy for them to buy and sell. They paid for the money they had bought with money they had sold...........Money had direction, and a speed, and acceleration. The acceleration was always increasing with the benefit of computers and politicians, who gave the markets free rein in the name of efficiency. It was the most efficient system at making the rich richer. It was a far better system than entrepreneurism – that antiquated way of starting a business from scratch and growing it a little every year without borrowing, which sometimes took a decade to make a rich man richer.” 

Read this book if you haven’t already and when the economy tanks next time, you can say with confidence “I know why it happened!”

(Update: I would also recommend Liar's Poker which is a true story of a young man's experience working in an investment bank. It is funny and brilliant.)