Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why strat/plan is more like nursing than doctoring these days or a different defense of listening

Saw a great show on the growing Nursing Crisis on NOW the other night. Now comes at the end of a series of newsweekly shows (Greater Boston, McLaughlin Group, Washington Week) that generally occupies the attention of my media junky family on Friday evening so I'm usually pretty burned out on current events by then, but this show caught my attention.

The segment began by describing how important nurses were--the proportion of well-trained nurses to patients has huge impact on survival rates--and then went on to detail the causes behind the nurse shortage.

While the majority of the show was about the nurse shortage, I'm writing about the first half of the show here because it reminded me once again that the exhausting, repetitive, caring, tedious work of just paying attention--or what we can call listening now that "listening" is a technical term--is often more important than the single, grand deductive insight in achieving a successful and satisfying outcome.

Maybe it’s because I had spent several hours of that day monitoring radian6 feeds and optimizing keywords for a paid search. Or maybe it was because the earlier half of my week was spent listening to franchisees talk about trying to drive traffic to their stores in our challenging times, but the combination of events made me think that the work I do--strategy and brand planning--seems to be shifting from more high-level diagnostic type work (voila, the strategy is X) that we associate with doctoring to the more continuous listening, monitoring, supporting, comforting and adjusting that we associate with nursing.

I don’t think this shift from big top-down thinking to continual ongoing vigilance is unique to our planning/strategy profession. On the contrary, as others have noted, this shift seems to have impacted just about every field in which an expert has to make an important decision with imperfect information. There are many reasons for this new appreciation for careful, ongoing attention, but the most significant ones seem to be:

  • New technologies of measurement have created an overabundance of data: access to an increasing complexity of data in almost all fields makes it harder to make a simple overarching decision with confidence.
  • We suck at making decisions: Those who study the way we make decisions (from cognitive scientists to behavioral economists) have uncovered innumerable “heuristics” or cognitive biases we all use when we make decisions, often without being aware of them.
  • Skepticism about expertise in general: And related to the above, an empowered non-pro population with new access to pro-grade info is growing increasingly dubious about expertise in general. Just this morning the NYT cited a study in the Journal of Consumer research here that showed we find confident amateur reviews more convincing than expert evaluations. (So it's no accident, I think, that our popular culture is suddenly more interested in nurses than doctors.)

And then, reinforcing my developing thoughts on subject was an article/review I read in the NYRB making exactly the same points about the medical profession.

The review- “Diagnosis: What Doctors are Missing” by Jerome Groopman--isn’t an attack on the profession so much as a description of how so many interpretive professions have evolved: from an early optimism that new technology would help produce infallible expertise to a growing recognition that the complexity of these tools and the limits of our brains only increase the need for good old-fashioned human attention and listening (along with a healthy skepticism about our over-confidence) in order to solve complex problems.

Groopman’s biggest gripe is that the economic structure of the profession make it difficult for doctors to spend time doing what doctors most need to do: that is, listen because the system doesn't allow them to charge for it. Or to put it another way: they can't make money when they behave more like nurses.

There’s obviously been a lot of talk about the importance of listening in the marketing profession as well. And I think listening is important too, but not necessarily for reasons most often cited. Among proponents of listening in marketing, the argument generally goes that now that consumers are in control of our brands we have to listen to them in order to serve their needs. They don't want to be told what to think anymore. (TV is dead: the monologue is out, the dialogue is in, etc., etc.) They want to tell us what to think.

I actually don’t think consumers are in control of brands except in a highly relative way, at least so far. (They can choose among options; just as the patient can choose among doctors; if they could they cure themselves they wouldn't be at the doctor in the first place) Nor does evidence suggest that consumers are very good at knowing what they want. So we shouldn’t convince ourselves that giving consumers what they think they want will make them happy for very long.

No, I think listening is so important less because the consumer is always right than because we (like doctors) are so often wrong, especially when we are making lots of complex decisions. In our newly complex media/culture-scape, it's almost impossible to get everything right the first time, or at least get it so right you that you can't make it better in the near future by paying attention to what happens and making adjustments. It's only by listening that we fix our first mistakes fast enough so that we don't kill our own patients and our brands.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why we (or at least I) still need creative departments: a tribute

A combination of both long-term trends and recent events impacting our business have led to some interesting conversations about eliminating creative departments altogether. Like the talk on this panel here. One can see the logic. Creatives are, or at least were, pretty expensive. And, the logic goes, they only did one or two things. And it's certainly true that these days we need lots of people to do lots of different things. We can't possibly afford to keep all this multifarious talent under one roof. Wouldn’t it be great to just outsource all the creative?

This should be good news for strategists like me. It could potentially elevate roles like mine even higher, making creative strategists and strategic creatives brand orchestrators or, in the latest buzz word, "curators" of creative elements that we arrange to form brand experiences and communications. And in many ways I do think this is a golden age for planners, but I’m not so sure I want to do away with creative departments altogether, if it means I don't get to have daily meetings with people who actually make stuff.

Why? Well, I could explain my hesitation with a bunch of big unsupported generalizations, but since this a blog, I'll just speak for myself. I’ve worked at a bunch of different agencies and brand consultancies and the simple truth is that my thinking is exponentially better when it is developed through an ongoing dialogue with a creative partner. And not "creative" in the general sense of someone who has ideas, but someone who spends the majority of their time thinking about and making creative objects. (I still think there is a difference, but that would take a post by itself)

I’ve been doing this for awhile now and I have some evidence that I'm pretty good at asking useful questions that yield intriguing data points. And a fair amount of people have told me I'm also not bad at synthesizing these data points with various perspectives into platforms and provocative formulations that help inspire creatives across a number of disciplines from advertising to design to application development. (And if only to prevent this post from being relegated to the POV of a wonky analyst, I’m a published fiction writer too)

But again, much to my annoyance, whatever ideas I'm able to generate using my right or left brain (and, on very special occasions, both halves of my brain!) those ideas get infinitely better whenever I share them with creative partners as they develop. Simply put, the good creatives I work with see things I don’t see. Over and over again. And I'm not just talking about the creative development stage. I'm talking about the research stage too. Even the pre-research, wtf are we going to do, stage.

Good creatives see tangents and weird possibilities and just bizarre inversions that would never come to me and frankly I could never get to through the data (quant or qual or cultural) in any conventional analytical way. And these sometime wacky, sometimes insightful thoughts in turn help me ask better questions that yield even more interesting answers which in turn yields better work.

So when I propose a thought and a creative says to me, what if we asked the same question but from a bunny's perspective, or, I think it's just the opposite of what you just said, I couldn't be happier, because that's exactly what I need.

The point I'm making should be obvious, but I haven't seen it in the dialogue around these points. Creatives don't just execute ideas; they are especially good at generating ideas of a certain kind, the kind that are, well, creative, intuitive, weird, surprising etc, And I'd argue that the kind of ideas that agency's develop are great and valuable in part because of the dialogue between analytical and conceptual thinking types like me and the many creative thinkers I've worked with.

It's this dialogue that makes agency ideas different from the business ideas that are generated by big consulting firms like Mckinsey and Accenture. They aren't just insightful and rooted in lots of data and analysis. They may be rooted in data and analysis, but at their best, they do more than that, they engage with the broader culture in a surprising unique powerful way that only art can and thereby transform consumer behavior and culture. .

Can you do what I'm talking about with outsourced creatives? One great company I worked at called Mechanica is built on just this principle. And they are particularly good at thinking broadly about addressing business problems beyond communications, and using a range of network partners to address those issues, whether they require employee training or new product development. On the creative communications front, my experience suggests it's not as easy to outsource great creative as it might appear.

Why? Again, I'll speak personally. If you've ever worked in a really creative agency, one which really valued creative excellence, you know how many conversations and iterations it takes to get the idea where it needs to go. And it isn't one or two or five. It was more like 20 or 30 or a 100. If you’re using freelance talent that can get pretty expensive pretty fast. And we all know how hard it is to work creatively when you don't have existing relationships.

I'm all for the new models emerging out there and I'm curious to see how they develop. But to do my job well, I, for one, want and need daily interaction with people who spend most of their time making strange, new, beautiful, compelling things.

So Jason and Tommy and John and Bruce. And Trish and Laura and Ted and Ed and Greg and Karen and Jim and Libby and many many other art directors and writers and designers and developers who've collaborated with me every step of the way: I couldn't have, still can't and don't want to do it without you so I hope we all get to stick together.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Inspiration remains a hot commodity, even in these tough times

I just heard they are closing the Bank of America branch in the small New England village around the corner from my house. It's convenient having a bank so close but not a big hardship to see it go. Worse by far is the news that the great cheese shop next to the BofA is suffering too. The owner is going to try out some different inventory to try and get sales going but he told me he’s taken a big hit in the past year. Since it’s fair to say that most of the people in my neighborhood aren’t about to go into foreclosure (though one did), it’s another sign that the recession is changing everyone’s habits.

It was with this frame of mind that I noticed that despite the bad news, some stores seemed to be thriving. In one set of stores in a plaza down the road here's what I saw doing well: a yoga studio, a karate school, one of those working kitchen/culinary arts places where they teach people how to cook again. What else, well there’s also a fantastic running shoe store with super knowledgeable staff and a brand new performance bike shop. Oh, and there's also a hairdresser/manicure salon and a (therapeutic) massage place.

Now, you don’t have to be a genuine professional brand planner like me to see the common thread here. People might be buying fewer fancy cheeses and mutual funds but they are still buying experiences, especially ones that make them look and feel better, that expand their horizons and teach them new skills.

Pine and Gilmore first talked about this coming wave in their 1999 hit “The Experience Economy.” The part that’s most relevant to my point here is in the final chapters where they discussed the next wave of business, after experience businesses, what they called “Transformation” businesses, because these businesses help people transform themselves into something they want to be: lighter or prettier or smarter or more relaxed or more effective martial arts killing machines.

I think they’re right. And you don’t have to go to the mall to see it. You can just look at your twitter/social media feed where dozens of people will tell you every day, over and over again, that you should be more focused, more determined, more positive, more entrepreneurial more committed to doing what you love. And that many of these people who call themselves life coaches and/or human potential professionals, can be hired to help you be all these things and more, because that's what it means to reach your limitless potential.

You can tell by my uncharitable tone here that I personally have a limited tolerance for these kind of platitudes, but as a senior consumer insight professional, my job isn’t to let my own snotty tastes interfere with the accuracy of my observations. And I’d be a very bad consumer insight professional indeed if I didn’t see what was staring me in the face everywhere I looked: people want to be inspired, inspired to transform themselves into something they haven't quite become yet, and even in these very challenging economic times, those that can afford it are still very willing to pay for it