I went to Gaysorn Plaza, a luxury shopping mall in Bangkok today before having a wonderful lunch with Tim who generously gave me some time and thoughts on a simulacra post that I want to write at some point - he's massively brainy like that. Tim is a writer who also does restaurant reviews when not contributing to The Guardian, The Bangkok Post, writing a book or blogging over here, and it was toptastic to have a humungus steak and a charmingly insolent bottle of red which for professional reasons I was largely forced to polish off on my own.
I was struck how empty Gaysorn Plaza was. The luxury brands are commencing a world of pain over the next five to ten years and I think it's safe to say that the awful moniker of masstige brands may finally be buried along with all the other marketing hubris we inflated ourselves on in the bubbled up economy.
I was however delighted to see a few early birds taking a flyer and doing 40% discount sales which is unheard of in the run up to Christmas (widely celebrated in this Buddhist country - not the day - the festive season) but even more pleased to see that one brand has taken an interesting approach to the way that they advertise a sale.
This post is over a year late but reading Scamp's blog has prompted me to get on and do the right thing. You may remember (if there’s any of you left) that I was doing some groups around the UK last summer in 2007 that I wrote about here. It was on my birthday and I remember it well, not because it was 'my day' which matters little to me given how much I’ve just generally celebrated life, but because a few of you called me in Edinburgh to wish me happy birthday and I realised that my blogging friends were just as important if not more important than the ones I’d met in a different order of media. We certainly stay in touch much more frequently. Maybe email decimated the urge to keep contact and blogging added some context to communication. That's another post. A good one too.
In any case many of you asked what work I was doing and who for. I don’t mind sharing because it’s time to wind the clock back a little and go over what for me ended up being a kind of conflict of interest. Tell the client the truth or just the agency and let the agency handle it. The former is always more costly both personally and professional, and is yet the right thing to do.
My first recommendation when seeing the brief was that NCH (formerly National Children’s Homes) were blowing a lot of money on a name change that would not be a return on investment - and that’s what I told the agency I was employed by. But it’s a little more complex than that as I discovered more each day. Unlike Barnardos who have a much higher profile, NCH are a fantastically interesting charity that work very closely with government to provide more than just homes to children; opportunities to reenter education, learn skills they need to find work as well as all the other headline grabbing work that childrens charities do, including fostering. NCH felt that the 'Homes' in their abbreviation was misleading as that was not what they really did and this prompted the name change. When dealing with government funds it’s important that the bureaucrats have a clear idea what the millions upon millions of pounds are for but that was a technical issue which I gave some recommendations on.
The difficulty of the problem was that when I turned up to present my findings to the charity I tried to convey to them that the research methodology was inappropriate for young delinquents. I was working from a discussion guide and stimulus material that was not of my own making but as I was passed the baton only the night before flying to Glasgow I had little choice but to run with it and frankly I was also presenting pro bono because I had missed one of the flights to Scotland and felt guilty about losing charity money.
In any case the findings were still fascinating and I really loved discovering the complexity of charitable issues when collaborating with government as well as learning that practically all the cool ‘head down’ get on with it people were strongly anti brand. They felt that consumerism drove a lot of the dissatisfaction that the neglected kids and their families felt with their lives.
However they all loved taking the kids to McDonalds which is a real treat for deprived children in Scotland. So there’s the context for contradiction. There’s always a context. Everything is contextual.
So I made the mistake of being blunt about my findings. One of the groups was with tagged offenders in the rougher parts of Glasgow where opportunities are slim and role models few and far between. I remember doing the group so well because the young lads were some of the trickiest people I’ve had to coax some meaning out of. They were sullen and moody but really this masked their insecurity at having some fella from London tip up and embrace their world much more quickly than they could mine. In difficult situations I like to invite the respondents to ask me any questions they like, so that I can dispel any fears they may have of looking silly when replying or just to make them more comfortable. Try as hard as I could, I couldn’t get anything out of the lads apart from one who as the leader, seemed obliged to say something. The truth was that they were emotionally immature and intellectually starved so asking them about the brand dimensions of car or financial services brands that advertised on the telly was a waste of time. I got the good stuff out of them on McDonalds and Nike and Carling Beer or Football clubs as brands but nothing that really contributed to NCH’s needs.
When presenting to the Board of NCH I made the fatal mistake of describing the boys in the Glasgow group as ‘not the sharpest tools in the box’. What I was trying to say was that it was pointless asking them for their opinions (based on similar findings from a group of girls in the hills of former coal mining communities in Wales). I was suggesting they pay attention to what and how they researched. In short how not to waste valuable money.
The committee went nuts on me and as I was there trying to tell them the work was not necessarily right, the methodology wasn’t right and that there was a huge potential to attach so much narrative and meaning around NCH (They drip with history and intersting complexity) that positioned the charity appropriately - in my view.
In any case I took offense that one overly politically correct member of the committee was losing sight of the wood for the trees and I wrapped up my presentation promptly and left it to the agency to take over the the disappointing findings I had conveyed.
I gave it a lot of thought over the next months. I thought to myself “what an idiot” that guy was for losing sight of what it was all about, over the use of what I thought was politically correct language. I think he wanted me to use ‘intellectually deprived” or something instead of the unsharp tool metaphor.
However it suddenly occurred to me one day that my own sister had taught me the power of unkind words. My sister has walking difficulties from birth, and not so long back, she called to tell me that her condition was Celebral Palsy. I had always grown up with my sister and swhat I thought was some strange condition that disabled her from walking properly, which we always thought was just some variant of spastic disability; which is a general word for a problem between the brain and muscle control. However, listening to my sister I realised that there was a proper name for it. But why did she want to give it a name now, so much later in life, surely it didn’t change anything, it sounded like there was no way it would have ever helped giving it a different name?
Well I was wrong wasn’t I. Because when she called me up all those years later, and explained to me the condition that she had, I realised all those years of with her condition referred to as spastic had been deeply painful and the name change of The Spastic Society to SCOPE (something I argued had lost it resonance) was in fact very appropriate. Sometimes hard hitting can be a little too hard hitting.
To deprived people and actually people in general, words can be very hurtful, so in a flash it dawned on me that the whole politically correct movement, while sometimes tedious, is based on the power of words. Particularly how hurtful they can be and I although I have already apologised fully to that lovely little agency in Soho called Baby Creative, particularly Lawrence Sassoon, who is a really top bloke, I want to do it publicly and draw attention to their client who now go by the name of Action For Children, which is a much more appropriate name for a children’s charity that does huge amounts with a less advertising budget than the Barnardo’s. I believe Barnardo's fund raising model is to spend more to raise more.
I should also apologise to my sister for being so thick.
It's interesting isn't it that social causes like political movements appear to have more traction in social media than plain selling (i.e Not what's in it for me, What's in it for us?) James pitched in here about social value as more important than brand value though they could be the same thing sometimes in the future, and I wrote back here and here and God knows elsewhere, that this is the time for brand's to live with real values. It's not important whether they're left or right with their politics or their social causes, but whether they have a standpoint at all. The days of placing wealth creation at the centre of the wealth creation model seem to be diminishing when I see great creative ideas like this don't you think?
Couple that with a tweet I picked(nicked) off Faris early this Sunday morning, which single handedly redefines the academic definition of marketing, and I think we might see a valuable role for brands in social media. Only thing is they need to have some values and a standpoint in the first place. Not many yet are there? But surely it's only a matter of time before a global FMCG brand becomes the first to really stand behind say a powerful idea like 'campaign for real beauty' across all it's products and not just be cynical about one while pushing another message with others.
C'mon what are you waiting for? It's a mini depression and you all look and sell the same things. Stand for something.
Here's a post I've had brewing in my head for a while now. I've never stopped trying to reconcile selling more stuff (my work) in a world of finite resources. I believe that even if climate change is not happening because of the way we use carbon fuels and behave like it's a disposable society (ironic that isn't it?) that it's our moral responsibility to take care of this planet in a way which shows future generations that we tried to hand over the best torch possible.
I believe one day in the vast future we will look back at planet Earth, maybe from distant solar systems and see it as the genesis of something beautiful. If it's in good shape it might be reminiscent of a garden of Eden. Of course the religous references will get some people's backs up, but I have my own system of belief that belongs to no one else because it's mine and I'm quite convinced that without some belief there would be an equal amount of problems. This doesn't make me any less of a hypocrite as I'm a human and all too fallible.
I think John Grant went a long way to reconciling the notions of making money (or value) and treating the planet as if it's resources are meagre instead of full. It's not and, our evolutionary (yes I think evolution makes sense) programming doesn't allow us to instinctively take care of relatively slow moving events. We'll only know if we've fucked up when we've fucked and by then it's too late. So change our lives and do one right thing. Be frugal.
I'll share something about John and I. We never really get it on in real life, and because I think he's a genius, a bit of a hero, and also a brilliant communicator when given centre stage, I don't want people to confuse that with kissing ass. John and I had the same girlfriend in the late nineties. Not at the same time. I after him, and truthfully I only realised it when I started reading his blog nearly ten years later. I've never been one to follow industry stars because it's only advertising and not nearly as important as saving someone's life with a defibrillator which is far more useful when push comes to shove - It is however what I love doing. This may or may not be the reason why John and I are not best mates, but I know deep down as do many others that his book The Green Marketing Manifesto is one of the most important books in our business if for instance, working on a tobacco account is something you would find offensive. Aren't rising sea levels and climate change affecting the poorest on this planet much more offensive than auto-exposure to lung cancer?
My hopes for a 'rewiring of our economies' which is something I've been talking about for quite a while was never strong. I know that everything changes and everything stays the same so I couldn't see how we could slow down our economies and population growth to take the time to find solutions for not choking on our own growth. I spent long days talking about it in the US with my political mentor and he finally came round to my way of thinking that we need 'managed population decline' to really find ways of keeping this incredible thing called life continuing for millenia before we jettison ourselves off this planet, find somewhere else and let it grow fallow for a long time while observing it from distant galaxies as the birth of something quite special.
And then along comes something I've felt in my gut for about 5 to 10 years that we are facing a massive financial implosion. Nothing brainy or clever but simply put the idea of making money out of losses (shorting on a stock market) seems to me as stupid as having a bookmakers where betting on losers is the point. It's dumb and we were hoodwinked by the financial markets into believing it was a valid financial mechanism. Unless of course you were the creatives on this remarkable piece of prescience that I loved so much and tried to bring your attention to back in March.
Anyway, we've hit the sweet spot. It looks like we've had a hell of a party, there's cake and booze everywhere but now it's time to clean up and we can build a better world because of it. Yes we can do marketing in new ways while managing decline and add value and creativity to peoples lives with big thoughts such as more ideas less stuff. Isn't that what the internet is? Isn't sharing our lives more important that acquisition of more stuff. Shouldn't we compare ourselves by what we do, how we act and what we believe in rather than the bullshit marketing methodology that has been outed for what it really is so very recently; fear marketing of "if you don't wash your hair with our shampoo, you wont be as pretty as the other succesful girls in the office" or in this case, baby straps? Yes it took mothers to rebel and say fuck you to shitty advertising. I love this business and I am very optimistic about the future. We've hit a remarkable sweet spot. A big problem that needs sorting out with slower economies, enter stage right a mini global depression, the tools to fix it, as social media is nothing short of a revolution, and the kind of leadership that only tips up once every eighty years or so that has the mandate to really change things. Yes we can. Oy!
Now it's over to the economists. Why don't you do something useful for once and rewire our economies based on what we have and not on what we want. Because as we now know, we want it all. Including redemption.
I'll tidy this post up later as even two years of blogging I still write in this crappy box and make a tonne of mistakes.