Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sunday afternoon reading: Hume or a refreshing dose of skepticism

Reading Hume today for no particular reason than I love Hume. I miss Hume. He always clears my head from all the half-baked claims and blather that I've been wading through for the past week. Here he is in a famous critique of dubious testimony about miraculous events from his 1768 Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects:

“When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.”
Ah, now doesn’t that feel better?

So, having fueled my skeptical fires, it seems like a good autumnal afternoon to question another set of claims that seem to be circulating around here a lot. I know I’m bound to come off as the recalcitrant crank with this point but after reading post after post from respected colleagues in the field (Adrian and Gareth and Mark), I’m wondering if we might be stretching the distance between all our talk about a changed way of doing things and the amount of work that actually gets done that way.

Different advocates use different language--though usually with the same sets of examples (Nike, Axe, etc)--but the point is generally that brands today are built by doing and behaving and servicing rather than just showing and telling and entertaining.

Now I think this is true, or should be true, but channeling Hume, I'm inclined to ask, how often is it empirically true? I certainly haven't gotten to execute most of these new-world branding ideas. I've suggested a lot of them, and even sold through some behaviorist strategies (about the experience or even usability of a service vs. a brand benefit) but most of the brands didn’t really have the managerial will to fully execute on them. Or at least not yet.

In no way do I want to suggest that all of us who are making claims about this bold new era of brand development are lying or lazy or totally full of shit. (Though one comment I recently read claiming that ":30 second ads never really worked" seems to be solidly within bs territory.)

But in most cases, I think the points we’ve all been making do reflect an insightful response to the changed marketplace, but the opportunities to act on them--rather than talk or blog or consult about them--are still the exceptions to the rule, for the obvious reason that we don’t write the checks that pay for them. And most of the people who do write these checks are not willing to risk marketing budgets on experiments.

I recently spoke to a partner in one of the current crop of small agency hotshops trying to do things differently. They’ve got a differentiated strategic approach, rooted in all kinds of fancy research, backed by planners with very deep connections in the C-suite. Even still, when I asked him tell me--honestly--how much of the work they do actually gets done his agency's special X-factor proprietary way, he said, “probably about a 1/3.” Another 1/3 they do "X-factor lite" and the remaining 1/3 of the business is totally conventional old-school advertising.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with everyone I've cited above. I left a pleasant job in a big agency for the same reason: because it seemed obvious that communications, let alone advertising, wasn't going to solve the business problems it was being asked to solve.

In my own current shop, we've built a new structure (based on a network model) designed to liberate brand development from communications. We've got lots of smart people working across a variety of disciplines and start every project with a deep strategic engagement, examining operations and product development as well as consumer experience. But how often do we really get to execute what we think is right? In a way that we think is best for the client? Off the top of my head, I'm not sure we beat my friend's odds.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it’s the sign of a mature business though it's a lot less glamorous than declaring we have a new way of doing everything.

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