To say that I’m fascinated by how things work is a huge understatement.
If something piques my interest I CAN’T STAND not knowing how it works.
Is that down to nature, nurture or both?
In the early 70’s, as I approached the ripe old age of 10, I read exclusively non fiction. And, egged on by my scientist dad, I read, read and re-read dozens of How And Why Wonder Books.
There must be a stack of theM somewhere in the loft at my parents’ house.
The content will be ridiculously dated for things like Robots And Electronic Brains.
Less so for Dinosaurs (a childhood obsession of mine) or Lost Cities.
But all perfectly pitched at the inquiring young mind full of How? and Why? questions.
It was probably inevitable that I would study engineering at university. It is the ultimate how-things-work discipline. It is also a creative discipline. Engineering is as much about elegant solutions as architecture or product design.
I never worked as an engineer.
Almost by accident I fell into advertising instead.
I think a Chemical Engineering degree from London was more interesting to BBH than a History degree from Oxford. And all credit to them if that was indeed the case.
I’ve loved just about every day of my advertising career.
But my biggest frustration has always been the lack of rigorous, scientific attention to how our ideas actually work.
We can intuitively recognise what is a good idea. We can explain why an idea is on strategy. But our understanding of how ideas work is flimsy.
Our explanation of how ideas work tends to default to correlation rather than causation – if people like your ads they will like your brand, and if they like your brand they will buy your brand.
That sort of thing.
Unfortunately explanations like this are never going to stand up to Five Why (or Five How) style interrogation.
Things have got better in recent years.
Healthy attention is being given to behavioural economics and neuroscience, not just by enlightened individuals within the planning community, but by the industry as a whole.
Indeed the most intellectually satisfying campaign I ever worked on was “I Like Standard Life“. Not the most “creative” advertising by any stretch of the imagination but intensely rewarding because the brief was based on how we wanted the ads to work rather than what we wanted them to say.
The brief was underpinned not by a brand or audience insight but by neuroscience.
Robert Heath worked with us on the brief and we deliberately set out to develop a campaign that would work through Low Involvement (Low Attention) Processing. And, to cut a long story short, it did (work) (as intended).
Why? and How? are powerful questions because they are fundamental questions. They are, or at least they should be, the first principles underpinning everything we do.
Owning the Why? and How? thinking should be the aspiration of every planner. That is our role in quality control.
What is the purpose? (Why?)
What is the model? (How?)
Our job is to get these things right and then let the creative guys deliver the Wonder.
I know these are the days of “great ideas can come from anywhere”, and I want to believe it. But I’ve been lucky to work with enough truly outstanding creative teams to have my doubts.
In the process of generating commercial ideas I see planners as Sherpas. Supremely competent, trustworthy and inspirational. We establish strategic basecamps, plan routes of ascent, and lead on the way up. But the summit push for creative excellence is made by the creative team.
This train of thought was prompted by a ten minute speaking gig for Google Firestarters last week.
Seven other speakers and I each had to say something provocative about innovation in agencies.
I chose to speak about innovating on purpose rather than for the sake of it.
The slides are embedded below, with extra text to make them easy to follow.
I was speaking in the context of innovation but I don’t think enough attention is paid to the definition of purpose generally.
We should always be looking to get well beyond first base with how we define and frame commercial purpose to make the problem “juicy” and appetising for creative teams.
(Like the Airbus example in the slides.)
It is really satisfying for a planner when the creative idea that “cracks it” falls straight out of how the planning problem was shared, and we should pay at least as much attention to how we share the problem as we do to suggesting possible solutions elsewhere in the brief.