Wednesday 29 October 2008

Meaning Management - Grant McCracken

I had one of those 'oh shit' moments about planning recently. I follow Crispin Porter reasonably closely, more because of the cultural framework of the United States that their work illuminates than the brilliance of their creative. I get the feeling Crispin understand the macro task more than most and that gives me a kick. I like it that their work annoys people and yet they still get hired. I believe they play a broader and more intelligent game than just the commercials that the industry obsesses about.

Big Bucking Chicken was very memorable. A mate I grew up with in Southampton, and I would endlessly goof around saying 'bucking hell, for bucks sake, buck me' the list goes on and it's nice when an ad agency can deal the obscenity card with charm.

Getting back to my epiphany, I've followed the run up to, and execution of the long awaited Microsoft work by Crispin because I had strong views on how to solve the Microsoft communication challenge which sounds arrogant (and is) but there are some basic denial dimensions when it comes to Microsoft that nobody discusses openly and yet they are the issues, that if addressed can shift the brand to where it needs to be. Embracing the truth is a brilliant start. It's also the most challenging isn't it?

So when the Seinfeld and Gates work came out, contrary to the widespread chorus of derision I was up for it. It may not be as brilliant as we perhaps expected, but a quick deconstruction ticked off a few valuable boxes and then I subsequently wrote about it here just as the follow up work came out which was much stronger in my view. Whatever anyone says, it got talked about an awful lot. More than say an incredible brand like Nokia who have failed to deliver an ad that resonates.

The first endorsement I came across the Seinfeld and Gate's work, that added to my own thoughts was from Grant McCracken's blog Cultureby. It's often a challenging blog. It can be uphill to grasp some of his conceptual conclusions. His posting is prolific, and can seem daunting when there is a backlog of RSS feeds to catch up with, but they are best digested distraction free with time to go over the points that at first glance can seem either cryptically elusive or elliptically bloody simple. Maybe they're the same thing sometimes.

In any case, because I've been dropping by his blog for some time I'm quite fond of Grant's writing, it's the strength of conviction, spectrum of creative writing styles and unequivocal impatience with mediocrity - the man does not suffer fools at all. Like it or not Grant has an ace way of demolishing even his own academic peers. I'm sure this must be quite incendiary for the colleagues it's aimed at, but it pleases me no end that making chums is not the point of his Blog.

So anyway, Grant identified that many people were confused by the MS work. What was the point? And this is where Grant sort of says his plain stuff that has much more depth then is easily captured. He wrote: "The microsoft spot has a clear task: to rebuild the the Microsoft brand. It is using Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates and a particular situation to perform an act of "meaning manufacture"

That's the first pointer at a really important reframing of the quality end of planning. "Meaning manufacture" As if the fundamentals of signifier and signified can be remanufactured, hammered into shape, retooled for fresh purposes or stripped bare, skim the head gasket, grind the valves and rebore the cylinders to achieve new tasks or maybe it's time to deliver on tougher and evolved performance expectations.

He goes on in the Microsoft post to say "We can say it is good meaning manufacture. We can say it's bad meaning manufacture, But we can't be mystified a) that this ad exists, b) what it means to do, or c) what it has to do with "selling computers"

I agree, how can anyone not grasp what is being done. Sure the inexplicable is present in the narrative, but isn't that de rigeur for any self respecting piece of communication to leave gaps for the individual to fill in, or if struggling, to enjoy amusement through absurdity. Who cares? Most of it is as it is. But then the killer words emerged for me.

Grant writes "Microsoft is utterly out of touch with contemporary culture, and Bill Gates is, as someone once said of Dick Cavett, "spectacularly gentile" which is to say, utterly out of touch with contemporary culture. The Aquatic Life was a world too far. Some day. Perhaps someday this will be the 'sufficient act of meaning management.

This is where Grant serves up a bit of intellectual corporal punishment. I've had to look up Dick Cavett. My mobile is not playing fair and it seems from the clumps I caught that he's an inner circle Television celebrity from the golden era of American TV. I'm not sure how an Emmy Winner can be spectacularly gentile; I'm genuinely confused but if I were looking for an off the cuff comparison could the same thing be said about Mrs Palin? Ostensibly an executive fishwife with a nose for plain talking that fits sweet in a barren nature reserve with puffy fingered politicians in denial of Russia's proximity and the whole country of Canada before the U.S. really starts?

I could go on. Grant refers to "The Aquatic life" too. I'm stumped for the time being and so is the concise search engine results on my phone.

I'll get back to the point I want to make. It occurred to me that at the most cerebral end of advertising planning our job is 'meaning management'. I looked back into the archives and saw that there were many references to this reframing of the planning function and realised that it had slowly but surely seeped into my brain. So there it is. In my opinion we're either flogging stuff or working at a higher level and it's called Meaning Management' and Grant McCracken owns it. I wrote to him a quick mail to explain that I think it's ironic it took an anthropologist to explain my job to me and I hope you are as enthused by the term as I am when looking at tasks that fit the bill.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Charlie's Angle - Not made for TV

I've been pussyfooting around what I think, the future agency model should look like, and I may have failed quite badly by alluding to things rather than getting to the point. I was trying to suggest that the future agency (in some way) was likely to have some sort of Black Swan meets transmedia planning as a fundamental approach to work, although I never really explained in simple terms how things would tick, and then I saw that Adrants wrote that Wendy's used the inefficacy of an ad to explain what I wanted to say, and so I thought it best to be brutally simple given that I haven't seen enough to support the article's main assertion and more importantly the one I wish to emphatically make.

These are fast moving times and so it's even more important to be professionally radical, given there are fewer chances as the money dries up, to do what ad agencies excel at under the right conditions: kick ass commercial messages, produced to the highest level with flawless scripting (something the US market leaves the UK in the dust for), micro second timing and creative touches that often are more emotive than the creative idea. I think the days of doing an expensive TV commercial as the shop window output of the agency, or ground-to-air communication missile for clients are numbered. There will always be room for this kind of work. A smarter agency-client relationship will coalesce that it's a lot more effective to deliver more frequently and more experimentally, then execute in Lo-Fidelity, responding lightening quick and making use of contextual dynamics such as what was on the news an hour beforehand. That's just for starters.

Easier said than done, as to embrace this communication ideology means making and accepting lots more mistakes, yes more inexpensively but creatively (statistically speaking) doing more surprising and successful work that is, by the potential of its breadth, much more internet sticky. It makes a lot of sense to do 20 to 50 different types of communication pieces for a brand knowing that one or more is destined to be a Black Swan viral than to do a one-off that is by any historical assessment likely to be a well-polished and quickly forgotten museum piece. Sure there will be times when it's not smart to use this route. But in principle, if a polished but unmemorable piece of work is the category modus operandi, then more variations (and predictably forgettable failure) make sense in much the same way that say the author of The Black Swan (Yes I know, his pecker is rarely removed from my chops these days) Naseem Nicolas Taleb espouses spreading risk over 50 biotech stocks rather than one blue chip as an investment strategy providing worthwhile returns.

We can see in the prevailing global financial topography, that mediocristan is not so safe or smart is now self evident. Actually it's dangerous but nobody took an economy down by doing mediocristan advertising to my knowledge. Or maybe just by beating any creative or intellectual pulses into submission we extinguished the likelihood of respect from our customers.

If we start to reorganise agencies around the idea that experimentation and failure make for much more interesting and effective work, as well as marrying the successes into transmedia execution -- or part of it -- I think a more robust case is made for spending marketing budgets today by deploying more unprecedented attempts at risky but rewarding ideas than are currently being implemented. There you have it. 50 scripts, Lo-Fi execution, one or more hits that get passed around, and a model that doesn't bank on the bazooka approach but takes a good idea and lets other media play around with it as Faris would espouse. I would love to know if any people disagree with this. There are lots of gaps that need filling but surely the status quo of risk aversion and forgettable TV commercials is a scandalous waste of money. Particularly in these belt tightening times.

Let me say that again. Most shit is scandalously shit and furthermore it isn't hard to figure out why it was so easy to get away with in the past. That media context is changing so fast I can't see many modern marketing/advertising types surviving a brutal employment cull. My only hesitation is that as the volume of output increases with the model I'm proposing, the attention intervention, isn't necessarily deserved. It's likely though that the old frequency metrics which shaped 'campaign' efficacy are nowhere near the levels I'm thinking of for Transmedia meets Black Swan. Even the best virals I've watched only a handful of times. Naturally this idea will piss off a lot of creatives, and scare the crap out of agencies and clients who have built whole careers on risk aversion, but there's a shed load of opportunities too, if any are suspicious of what ostensibly looks like random shot blast for marketing communications. It isn't. It's about playing.

I make no claim for coming up with something new. Just being a bit culturally recombinant about existing ideas and knowing how the system worked in the past. Those days are numbered.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Fox Me Harder

One of the upsides of the current financial turmoil is my new found love for Fox News. I'm no CNN fan boy though, as they feel hopelessly incapable of appearing either robustly partisan or assiduously impartial. CNN strikes me as trying too hard to be a friend and having no solid position apart from the pursuit of ratings.

Fox has succeeded in invoking nauseous feelings with me, ever since our paths first crossed. The 'fair and balanced' tagline is Orwellian, and it perturbs me when reasonably educated people sing it's praises as the lone voice of truth against the liberal bias in the media (while forgetting about right-wing radio, the WSJ editorial and a slew of right-wing blogs).  Bias is evident in the media but it generally balances out. However the ferocity of the Fox presenters against the Democratic party members is distasteful, and symptomatic of everything  that is divisive about modern day politics in the United States.

Watching Fox presenters at work is like seeing a co-ordinated and telegenic gang of thugs at work. Like A Clockwork Orange with impeccable presenter hair do's, lickable teeth that blaze sparking enamel, and blusher that smoothes out aging and skin-colour differences under the intense bright lights. It is for me ugly, unhealthy and has reduced the U.S. media landscape to a default position of defining plurality of opinion as un-American activity, which is quite the reverse of what largely made the U.S. great in the first place. The makeup may be flawless and the colour graphics capable of rekindling the glare on the dimmest of aged TV screens, but it's the hate that fuels a grotesque spectacle of 'Newspeak' on offer 24/7 by Fox.

Despite avoiding Fox (or even TV as a general rule in recent years) I know their key political pundits reasonably well through Al Franken's book which did a pretty good job of demolishing the individuals who drive the ratings on this channel, including the token 'Liberal' Holmes, who hasn't quite figured out that Hannity on occasions is evidentally  a borderline sociopath (I believe if I heard correctly that the man admitted he'd never danced with his wife the other day, thus revealing as any double left-footer knows, a cauterized personality that is in need of therapeutic liberation.

It's not how well you dance it's about the joining in and participation Hannity. What next? No foreplay in case it distracts from and contributes to the time saving serious business of getting down to business? What next?  Supreme court appeals against fellatio and cunnilingus as incontrovertible evidence that Roe Versus Wade exclude all else that has no direct contribution to conception? What a tool.

Recently though I've started to enjoy the dysphoria that Fox News is experiencing through observing everything they have stood for, in the last eight years and more, disintegrate in daily live broadcasting of their televisual dingo pack life. All that they have despised, smeared and belittled is now becoming the bipartisan and consensually agreed way forward for their beloved government to avoid sparking off financial paralysis. The U.S. among other measures is nationalizing  financial institutions, and has done so to the worlds 20th largest company, throwing taxpayers money into anything that can be rescued if it keeps Wall Street propped up - whether that is strapped to the lamp post in a vein attempt to bluff sobriety matters not.

The rationalization for this remarkable about-face on the government's role in business and their increasing intervention  by the Fox news presenter line-up is more perverse than say the genre of fisting pornography popular with smooth talking Japanese admen. But all that Bill O'Reilly, Hannity et al can say in these astonishing times, is that these Trotskyite measures are not as painful as the alternatives of an instantaneous meltdown. What are we talking about here? Hot-dripping-wax meltdown on crying Japanese schoolgirls or just economic collapse? I must remember to write the Japanese humiliation sex post one day. It will be a corker. You can count on it.

If however that's what happens when a country avoids short sharp shocks and opts for long drawn out economic decline as medicine, drip fed over a decade or more, as the US is seemingly inclined to do, then I question the efficacy.

Break it up now and rebuild quickly no? Didn't Jung say the best thing to subvert human growth is the delay of legitimate pain?

Isn't this perverse denial by the Fox line-up called ideological bankruptcy?  Shouldn't this require some measure of contrition if not a full mea culpa? The Fox/Republican ideology that the markets are unfailingly wise has been unmasked as a laser focused and greed-driven wealth-acquisition spree with no concern for the people who are now being asked to pick up the bill or more accurately left with bills they will struggle to pay should their salaries be the next victim of liquidity problems.

Now that my former prejudice against Fox is dropping quicker than the dollar is about to in markets that have figured out how deep and long the US congress is going to embrace economic decline, I've discovered the upside of the Channel such as unexpected broadcasts  of the people I've seen as reluctant to be interviewed by serious media in the manner that proper journalists do. It's a complete revelation to see Donald Trump predicting that oil prices will drop like a rock (they will because of demand) and that this will be a silver lining (a slim one, the system is broken - not the cost of energy you cretinous syrup)

Here we have a phenomenally successful property tycoon incapable of providing anything close to the inspiration that these critical times are crying out for, and all the while  ingnoring impending complete loss of systemic confidence. I was however chuffed to see Bill O'Reilly lambast Karl Rove for the first time ever on home turf. I suspect that this was fueled by the realisation Bill's pension fund is looking like toast. Typically many Republicans feel outraged when it's their own financial well being at risk or when their prescriptive morality is challenged on say abortion or gay marriage. I could go on about Karl Rove and his constant appearances on Fox of late, although I doubt he's going to demand his own arrest any time soon now that the fake yellow cake from Niger for WMD's in Iraq has been discredited at the expense of outing a CIA operative so the case for war was perceived as robust. Karl Rove; yet another chicken hawk who sent the young sons of the United States to a war that will line the pockets of people in oil, defense and private security such as Karl Rove and his jackal consorts.

I  doubt a better time to enjoy Fox in their current predicament will occur again quite so soon. Here we have a bunch of people with a clear ideology that is articulated often and openly with more than an whiff of superiority, about where tax is taken and spent, the importance of business over society, war over peace, tolerance over intolerance, self sufficiency over charity, prison as a lucrative business necessity, war on drugs, war on terror, war on anti-war, and war on anything that galvanizes people to respond to the knee-jerk corrosive nationalism that fear invokes. Fox have supported the government on every major decision taken by the GOP; from the Iraq War to their negligent response over Hurricane Katrina. There is not an envelope to squeeze between them and the GOP, and so the impending displacement of U.S financial supremacy surely has their fervent endorsement held fully responsible? Some people say that if you're not on the left when young you've no heart and if you're not on the right when older you've no head. I say if you're not capable of conceding disastrous errors of judgement or acting with contrition towards society as a whole then the word sociopathic springs too mind again.

I don't wish this post to give the impression that I'm some fully paid up evangelist for the entire Liberal sentiment or that the Democratic party are the solution to the unprecedented challenges we are all about to face. I'm heavily disappointed with the lack of Democratic backbone in recent years, and their inability to voice the unpopular when a few years in the wilderness would have earned their stripes as people of principle and conviction. They've overseen a colossal failure of duty, and hardly deserve to inherit the cyclical momentum that appears increasingly likely to go there way. I'm on record as saying that Ron Paul was my preferred candidate for the presidency because of his sheer courage and frankness in policy proposal. So please no blind partisan loyalty from this neck of the woods. Binary views on life are unhelpful and probably anachronistic given the complexity and volume of  the information age we live in.

But for the time being Fox is making great TV as their reality disintegrates around them. Thanks for the show guys.

Monday 13 October 2008

Economics - A Reality Construction

Noah has written one of the most intelligent and thought provoking pieces on the demise of U.S. Economic supremacy I've come across on the net. However I've been reliant on a tiny N95 mobile phone for internet usage of late and it crashed twice after considerable effort.
I have now secured the Wifi needed to respond fully to both his post and questions in the comments section. However I decided that here is more appropriate to respond given they are quite extensive.

"Hey Noah, as you know my N95 browser extinguished some pretty extensive comments I laboriously squeezed out through predictive text to respond to both your questions and terrific post. It's disappointing because they were more coherent than what will follow but now I'm in front of a traditional keyboard I'll try and resume the key thoughts.

I think the point you make early on that everything is imaginary echoes my hyperbole of simulacrum as insanely useful. It lends credence to the notion that much of what we hold as valuable or important is largely illusory, Baudrillard's work supports that much is not as it seems, or indeed is largely defined by what we collectively determine it to be. The Herd dynamic is a potent one for reality definition.

Buddhism has plenty to say on the folly of illusions, but I'm not in the business of proselytizing so moving onwards, all this intellectual posturing is of little value should a not inconceivable liquidity breakdown come about, causing the economic eco-system to stall rapidly, incurring supply shortages through cash flow paralysis, inflationary pressure and a dysfunctional and erratic distribution of basic goods such as food.

Should hunger present itself in such a catastrophic scenario as this, then simulacrum will provide no relief for stomachs, save for the likes of the intellectual and pampered elite such as ourselves. I hope such a scenario doesn't take place, as in an interdependent world we all need to find a commonly beneficial solution.

However it's clear when referring to simulacrum, that the financial institutions have played fast and loose with their customers money and furthermore expect to be rescued from their excesses with additional funds that the taxpayers will bear the brunt of. As you point out, any run on the banks hurts the customers just as much as the key stakeholders . There is an emerging consensus that banks need to have the bricks they indiscriminately loaned money for covered - over and against say a food/travel subsidy program that will keep Joe Sixpack sufficiently nourished and mobile to do the work he is compelled rather than would elect to do. That's the nature of mass unemployment but more importantly that emerging consensus is wrong. People first not bricks and mortgages.

There is no imaginary dimension to the naked greed that gave the likes of Dick Grasso a $200 million pay-off for ringing that triumphalist Dow Jones, record profit-taking bell, which to the outside world rang more of hubris than fairness.

The US is an amazing country that was in part built on the notion of an optimism for today, driving future growth. It's still an incredible idea; however, the point of crossover not entirely removed from a 'prosperity simulacra' emerged when today's growth fueled the optimism for tomorrow's continued success. This is an entirely different, and logically unsustainable scenario - indistinguishable to many who prefer swift moving scenarios that are easier to track.

It's about optimism driving fortune as opposed to fortune driving optimism. One is the free and self determining dynamic that pays a dividends, the other the dividend that encourages more and increasingly greedy higher risk-taking.

I don't concur that events are as random as you assert. I've pointed out that attendants of the World Economic Forum at Davos were raising the flag of an impending crisis quite some time back, and that on page 225 in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan the footnote could not be clearer of the statistical backflips performed by J.P. Morgan's 'Riskmetrics' and the dangerous situation Fanny Mae was in. I would include my post in July that while in the States I saw what was coming and that the reluctance to even discuss the subject of recession and financial collapse by perfectly intelligent Americans was of a magnitude I've encountered in Beijing during the recent Tibetan crisis when any mention of sovereignty was met with the same furious indignation that another point of view could have some validity.

I am however still fueled by a recent rereading of Talebs 'Fooled by Randomness' to concede that it's difficult to divine where this will eventually flesh out. Sure developed economies will hurt more, and developing economies unexposed to the toxicity of goofy financial instruments will experience a rise in commensurate currency-strengthening which, while not stratospheric will have a contextual rise in influence. Those are just broad sweeps but a consensus that it's still early days is one I agree with fully.

As for the lack of moral clarity, you write about, I understand your point in resolving the complexity of being both resentful towards the bank's actions and the need for ostensibly indiscriminate bailouts to diminish the potential for loss of savings. I think there are creative ways of making sure the punitive measures are soaked up by errant banks and not their customers. The idea that they have a carte blanche get out of jail free card, is unacceptable. All it takes is resolve, creativity, strong government defending the populace and not the privileged, and the banks can sit on the paperwork they have a claim to,while the real task of ensuring that the day to day needs of the people who are invariably screwed time and time again are taken care of.

It's crucial in these unprecedented times to ask ourselves the question: am I going to trust the same people who screwed up my mortgage, credit line, savings, security, national liquidity, international credibility and much much more to provide an answer that is audacious, creative, transnational, collaborative and most importantly punitive on the people who at present have mistaken their ability to create wealth with the randomness that potentially could clean them out if the panic concludes they are no longer to be trusted.

Should this come across as supportive that now is a good time to adress poverty redistribution you wouldn't be far wrong right. The disparity between the haves and the have nots globally is unacceptable and now is a good time to to ensure that culture drives economics and not the other way round.

These are quite remarkable times and the opportunity for a new approach is way more tempting than propping up the greedy people who never fail to fleece the people and ask for more."

A sensational post Noah. Exactly what I'd expect from you and an heroic attempt to use intellect to impose a sense of much needed order. We only probably differ on what that order should look like.