Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The idea assembly line


Tl;dr Coming up with insights is the first stage of the creative process, so planners shouldn't do it without creatives. It doubles the work and creates a subpar product.


Ideas have become the pins in Adam Smith’s eighteenth century assembly line. The creative process has been chopped up and divided across departments.

Stephen King, the planner, not the creepy clown guy, was onto something when he said the creative process is like Francis Bacon’s scientific method.

They’re both journeys of discovery. You start with observations (insights), then you hypothesise (ideas), and then you stress-test (reviews).


The ‘idea’ assembly line takes the first step of the journey - observation - from the creatives, and gives it to planners, who then pass them down the line to creatives to come up with the ideas. 

But creatives simply can’t inherit an insight. It’s part of the process we can’t outsource, because it’s an integral building block to coming up with the idea.

John Lennon sums it up nicely: "You can't paint a picture on dirty paper, you need a clean sheet". By having someone else do part of the process, creatives start with dirty paper.

A planner’s role isn’t to do part of the creative’s job, so they certainly shouldn't be doing the insight stage without creatives. At the very least, insights should be worked on together.

When planners do concept insights independently, it results in the work spending more time away from the creatives; resulting in a rushed, subpar product.

Worse, because creatives can’t begin the process halfway through, they invariably redo the work, coming up with new insights - unbilled and afterhours.

It’s like being in a relay team, but the first runner is a chess player, and when they finally pass the baton, the second runner is actually at the start, anyway.

Of course a planner has a valuable role to play, interrogating a client brief before it reaches creative, but that should lead to the start of the creative process; not start it.

If we need to get from A to B, a strategy outlines what A and B are; an idea is the route we take to get there. In other words, ideas are how we’re going to tactically achieve a strategy.

Yet, all too often creatives can get hemmed in by a planner’s idea - sold to client - masquerading as strategy. In that case, not only has the process been started, but its first step is set in stone.

We can’t treat ideas like a widget on an assembly line. It’s reductive to the creative process; it wastes everyone’s time, effort and sanity, and worst of all, it treats ideas like a commodity. 


Christopher Ott

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Buyhaviour 10: Survivorship bias



Picture the end-scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: the rickety bridge with the crocs snapping below. What's the odds of swimming across that river and surviving?

Now imagine, if you miraculously avoided getting eaten alive, that it was your job to do it again - and again and again. You'd be on a hiding to nothing. 


This was the lot of WW2 bomber pilots. They had to fly mission after mission across enemy lines in highly-vulnerable planes. 

To give them a fighting chance, airforce engineers found a way to lighten the aircraft so to add more armour, but they couldn't put it everywhere otherwise the plane would be too heavy. So, the question was: where should they attach the extra armour for maximum effectiveness? 

So they analysed their returned bombers, observed where bullet holes were clustered, and then 
proposed the armour be reinforced in the spots where the clusters were most dense. 

Pretty logical, right - protect where you can see takes the most bullets? 

Nope. It's a mental short-cut: the survivorship bias. The clusters actually show where the plane is the strongest, not weakest - the areas that could take damage and the plane return - the proof palpable. 

Marketers and advertisers are victim to this bias, too. It explains the irrational intoxication with loyalty and retention (targeting existing buyers). Let me translate a couple of the above lines for context:

To help save a brand, marketers were given a finite sum of funds. The only question: where should they allocate them? So they analysed their category, observed where their current customers clustered, and then proposed the funds be allocated towards them. 

In other words: a campaign reinforcing - like the bullet holes - where they're already strong. And like the bombers, at first glance, this feels logical (just ask Kevin Roberts), but it's not. 

"Retention is better than acquisition, is one of the most enduring myths of marketing... In reality, potential gains from acquisition dwarf the potential gains from retention." (Sharp & Newstead 2010)

If you actually want your brand (airplane) to survive and be successful you need to pay attention to the customers (bullet holes) you don't have. 'Pay' being the operative word, because you need to generally 'pay' to reach them; then nudge them into becoming buyers.

And, if you're after evidence, look no further than Disney - the smartest advertisers on the planet - and how they marketed the new Star Wars: The force is strong in this placement

Byron Sharp and Kate Newstead, ‘Loyalty is not the Holy Grail’, Admap, September 2010

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Buddha's poisoned arrow and advertising


Buddha said, suppose you were shot by a poisoned arrow, but instead of letting the doctor remove it immediately, you first need to know who shot it, his age, his parents, his hometown, his favourite colour, his favourite food, what type of bow he used, what the bow was made of, what the arrows were made of, and what feathers were on the arrow. You'll be dead before you get your answers. 

Likewise with advertising briefs. The agency receives a brief from the client, and instead of giving it straight to the creatives - the doctors in this metaphor - who will solve the problem (pull the arrow out), it instead spends months getting analysed to death in planning.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”, said the sagacious Mike Tyson. We know we're going to (figuratively) get punched in the face by client feedback, so aren't we better off just jumping in the ring as soon as possible, to give ourselves the best chance to get it right?

The cynic in me is aware it's corporate procrastination to extract more money out of our clients, who are happy to oblige because of an irrational enchantment of the mere mention of the word 'strategy'.

But make no mistake, the singular reason top brands use agencies is for their creative ideas. The rest they can do themselves. So, just imagine how much better the ideas would be, if the people doing the actual ideas, got more time to work on them? 
What if the man in Buddha's teachings just let the doctor get on with his job? 

Christopher Ott

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

A second technique for producing ideas


Says James Webb Young, "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements". And, like balding CDs in trucker hats, this concept is now entrenched in our industry.

The concept metaphorically being that our brains are something like a depository of dots - experiences, impressions, observations and ideas - all waiting to be joined.

This familiar technique is actually called analogy thinking. And, along with ad agencies everywhere becoming increasingly homogenous - being filled with upper-middle class white people on Google, referencing Errol Morris commercials - it helps explain why so much advertising is the same.

We're all using the same technique.

But it's not the only technique. There's a second: 'first principles'. It's a science term also known as ab initio. Latin for: from the beginning.

With this technique you build an idea from the ground up, rather than from an existing experience sideways.

In other words, First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental truths and reasoning up from there.

In philosophy it's called a priori knowledge, which means knowledge independent of experience. Plato describes it as inherent and intrinsic to the subject.

Just like first principle, it has an antithesis; called a posteriori knowledge, which is defined by its dependancy on experience, or analogy.

And, while a posteriori or analogy thinking is well established in our industry, a priori or first principles thinking is not.

Elon Musk used First Principle thinking for his ground breaking batteries, and we can do the same for ideas. Once you isolate all its elements (or brand assets) you can build your advertising from the bottom up - ab initio.

Whatever execution you come up with from that will be, like Plato said, 'intrinsic' or 'inherent' to the subject. In other words it'll be inexorably salient and ownable by your brand.

Compare that to gratuitously transplanting a brand sideways into something 'cool' you’ve seen on Youtube or (worse) another commercial, and it's easy to see the value of first principles thinking in advertising.

Where analogy thinking promotes derivative, hackneyed ideas. First principles - unshackled by the safety of previous experience - has the power to produce genuinely original and exciting ideas.


Christopher Ott

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Why a creative became a planner (and then went back to creative)


To save us all from dying, King Sisyphus tricked and chained-up Hades, the god of the underworld. This enraged Ares the god of war, who’s job, sans killing, became somewhat redundant.

For his effrontery, Ares found and punished Sisyphus. Damning him to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only for it to roll down each night for him to start over, ad infinitum.

Whether for new business or new ideas, advertising creatives get stuck in this Sisyphean nightmare - pitching for the paper shredder. Toiling to conceive creative ideas that don't get sold in.

Einstein's platitudinous quote comes to mind: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Yet that's what we ask of creatives.

Dan Ariely quantified the effect in an experiment. In it he paid 2 groups to build Lego Bionicles. The pivotal difference between the groups was this: the first's was pulled apart later, while the second's was dismantled as they were built - in front of their eyes.

The result: The first group averaged 11 Bionicles; the second only 7. In other words, seeing the fruits of your labor amount to nothing - like the boulder rolling back down the hill - decreases motivation.

The same way the participants were demotivated by seeing their Lego destroyed, so are creatives when their work persistently finds a home in their bottom drawers rather than out in the wild.

Albert Camus, the french existentialist, says "the struggle itself towards the heights [of the mountain] is enough to fill a man's heart". While some version of this is what creatives tell themselves to carry-on, I don't buy it - not when it's proven that creativity's the cornerstone of effectiveness.

Look no further than Binet and Field's watershed work 'The Long and Short of It', which irrefutably concludes that big fame-making ideas - the ones clients are averse to - are the most effective.

Coming up with ideas is punishing enough on creatives for them to be repeatedly dismantled. Someone, who clients aren't skeptical of acting out of self-interest, has to protect the ideas. To champion creativity. To help avoid a Sisyphean tragedy.

And that's why I swapped Keynote for Powerpoint, and why I went back to study, and became a full time planner - not just a creative who thought they’re a strategist because they learned the word ‘differentiation’.

But it didn’t last. It was all input and no output. I missed creating things, so I went back to the creative department - better, smarter, stronger for the experience. Who says the Renaissance man is dead, eh?

Christopher Ott.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Buyhaviour 9: Red Queen Hypothesis

The most curious part of the thing was [as they ran] that the trees and the other things around them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. And the Queen cried, 'Faster! Don't try to talk!'...

... And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy. The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, 'You may rest a little now'.


Alice looked round her in great surprise. 'Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!' 'Of course it is,' said the Queen, 'what would you have it?' 'Well, in our country,' said Alice, still panting a little, 'you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing. 


''A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. 'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

From Lewis Carroll's “Through the Looking-Glass; known as The Red Queen's Race. And a metaphor for marketing. 

At The Ehrenberg Bass Institute we called it 'The Leaky Bucket Effect': Your brand inexorably leaks customers (as it shares them with other brands according to the duplication of purchase law), so you have to continuously acquire new ones, just to keep the bucket at the same level

In other words, like the Red Queen, you have to run very fast just to stay in the exact same spot - hold your market share. Yet, because of the current fascination with loyalty, this presents an opportunity for your brand:

While others are obsessed with trying to plug the leak - over-investing in digital, which generally limits reach to existing customers - you have a chance to follow the queen's advice and 'run twice as fast' by focussing on reach and acquisition.

More from the Buyhaviour Series:

Buyhaviour Series: An Introduction 
Buyhaviour 1: Availability Bias 
Buyhaviour 2: Status Quo Bias 
Buyhaviour 3: Confirmation Bias 
Buyhaviour 4: Conjunction Fallacy 
Buyhaviour 5: The Spotlight Effect
Buyhaviour 6: The Matthew Effect  
Buyhaviour 7: Fight or Flight Heuristic
Buyhaviour 8: Imposter Phenomenon 
Buyhaviour 9: Red Queen Hypothesis 

Christopher Ott

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Thinking outside the Lego box

Originally published in Adnews 14 October 2015: What Lego can teach us about creative briefs.


A planner is only as good as the ideas of their creatives. Which means, next to representing the consumer, a planner's role should be to champion ideas and be the guardian of creative culture.

Page Moreau, marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Marit Gundersen Engeset of Norway's Buskerud and Vestfold University, conducted an experiment on creativity, which produced results that can arguably be applied to advertising.

Their experiment got one group of children to build Lego using kits with instructions (i.e. Star Wars Lego), and the other group to free-build using Lego arbitrarily poured on the ground (i.e. childhood).

And the results: "The kids who tackled the well-defined problem of building the kits performed worse on subsequent creative tasks than a control group and those who built whatever they felt like."

Moreau's main take-out: "The search for the single right answer was largely responsible for the decline in creative performance." In other words: Instructions undermine creativity.

John Lennon - one of the most creative men in history - sums it up nicely: "You can't paint a picture on dirty paper, you need a clean sheet".

Which begs the question: By dictating what's to be communicated, in the form of a 'strategic' advertising brief, have we been unwittingly fostering an uncreative environment?

Because if a brief is not essentially a set of instructions, what is it? And, equally, what's a proposition - single minded, unique or otherwise - if it's not aiming for a 'single right answer'?

Effective advertising, according to Binet and Field's IPA research, is work that achieves salient fame (not the transmission of a persuasive message, or proposition). There's certainly no 'single right' message to achieve fame, so why have we been writing briefs like there is?

All we've been achieving by doing so, if the results of the Lego study are correct, is putting the creatives in a mindset that inhibits creative thinking - and subsequently, results.

So, instead of writing as if briefs are a set of instructions (dirtying John Lennon's paper), all we need to include are the building blocks - insights, associations, category conventions, brand's market-based assets etc.

Then get out of the way and let creatives play.

Christopher Ott