On the 3rd floor of a London terraced house, I have a double bed with a very ancient mattress that I have been thinking of replacing for years. What stops me? The obvious problem, as Rory Sutherland noted in his recent British Brands Group Lecture is how do I get rid of the old one? A New York company apparently has captured virtually the entire market by promising to dispose of the purchaser's previous mattress.
The last 10 years or so have brought a flood of books that in one way or another focus on how people behave. In fact, we have probably learned more in the last decade than in the previous 50 years. And while what people say can be apparently interesting, it is rarely a guide to what they will do. My early life was spent trawling the murky depths of motivation, assuming rather lazily, that the link between motivation and actual behaviour was a more or less direct one. With the mattress problem the focus would have been on the insomnia index of the sleeper along with particular benefits of one mattress over others - the springs, the duck down component, the back support etc. All no doubt important but fails to grasp the real barrier which is much more mundane.
Many years ago I was doing creative research for a company called Silhouette, makers of women's corsetry and worn, as you will imagine, by overweight middle aged women. The first response of such a group to the press ads which showed fairly slim women as models was - "why do they always show thin models rather than real women?" I took this observation seriously and duly returned to the next research group with ads showing moderately chubby models. Their first response was - why are you showing fat women when we want to dream about how we will look? So conventional wisdom had triumphed and back we were to slim, glamorous models.
Through my entire career such arguments raged given various degrees of feminist spin. Misogynist art directors, fashion photographers, male clients, men in general, and global capitalism were all blamed for women's eating disorders. Until Dove broke the mould with a campaign deliberately shattering the convention that women prefer seeing inspirational rather than real models.
A recent neuroscience experiment, however, suggests that conventional wisdom may be right.
The great gardener and creator of Sissinghurst in the south-eastern UK country of Kent, Vita Sackville West, was said to keep a cemetery noting the plants that died in her care: a constant reminder that living things need proper attention. Brand watchers amongst us typically have the same concern for the brands we nourish and grow. But although plants do die, disappear into the soil and come back as compost, brands, even when badly treated can be revived.
Jeremy Bullmore used to encourage clients to see if they had what he called 'attic brands' in their portfolios; brands which had lain untended for years or had been overtaken by trends that could possibly be given the kiss of life. Remember the inspired re-invention of Lucozade from an illness drink to a life giving energy drink. Camilo Panne, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser recently described how a young graduate found a profitable new life for Goddards silver polish in cleaning computer and iPod screens. Examples abound. Good brands are resilient and can often sustain long periods of neglect.
The psychologist Oliver James recently quoted research which said that in the 1950s, two out of three women said they would marry someone they didn't love. The same question asked recently produced 95% saying they would only marry for love. This led him to conclude that many women are unhappy today because their expectations are too high and they are too fussy. (More than one friend has despaired of her daughter's tendency to rank, order, rate and make lists of good and bad points of perspective mates - dangerous territory.)
It may seem a ridiculous leap of logic but something along these lines may be at the root of client and agency relationships. When full service agencies were in their heyday, it was fashionable to speak of clients as marrying the big, solid, reliable one, but occasionally straying into dalliances with a small alluring shop promising fabulous creative. That, at least, was a metaphor everyone understood. The big agencies cooked dinner, washed clothes, took the children to school, did the housework, provided comfort and reassurance and generally kept the show on the road, while the small ones provided the fireworks sex.
I am by no means the first person to quote this old chestnut about advertising waste and I am sure I will not be the last. But it came to mind when I read a study by Booz &Co and Procter and Gamble on the subject of how 'whole new marketing systems must be built to accommodate the new media and the dramatic shifts in the industry'. The survey pointed out that in the US the shift from traditional television and press advertising to online and other digital platforms is 'shocking' and that both online and mobile phone advertising held up well during the recession in contrast to traditional media.
The 'model in the mind' of how advertising works that is behind this study needs to be examined: it is direct response. Target the exact person, shoot them the message privately and watch the sales roll in. Super efficient, no wastage.
Technorati tells us that the female blogging population in Europe is about half the size of the male blogging population. Why? They don't give specific breakdowns by country or indeed subject matter, but my observations in the UK - particularly in the marketing communications world - is that women aren't much in evidence (Mumsnet and all the personal/makeup/sex/relationship blogs don't count).
What are the obvious reasons? Women don't talk as much as men? Women don't write as much as men? Women don't think as much as men? Women aren't employed in the 'thinking' jobs as much as men? None of these work.
A speaker at the recent CMO conference in Zurich performed a witty experiment on his audience. Telling us to cover our (analogue) watch faces, the task was to describe the 6: was it a Roman or Arabic numeral, a dot or a mark or something else?
Faces uncovered, he then asked who got it correct. Only a small clutch of hands went up from this senior and surprisingly honest audience.
I recently tried to explain to an elderly relative what my step-daughter’s interest in ‘sustainable fashion’ meant. Turning mouldy carrots into silk and banana skins into linen (or bottle tops into handbags as Mrs. Clegg demonstrates) to make clothes that Marks and Spencer believe would be bought by their customers was the most concrete I could make it. He pressed me to explain why girls wanted clothes made out of mouldy carrots or banana skins so I tried, probably unsuccessfully, to explain that the girls probably didn’t care. They just wanted clothes to be fashionable and affordable. But M&S did care because of (no) Plan B which promised that what they sold would be as environmentally friendly as possible and that’s all that mattered.
From time to time I am reminded of the world's best business book title. It's not surprising that Dale Carnegie's 1937 best seller ‘How to win friends and influence people' has sold more than 15 million copies in numerous languages. A more compelling promise has never been put so succinctly – seven words that nakedly sum up the aspiration that unites every human being on the planet. (I like to think that Dale Carnegie wasn't his real name and that the whole thing – classy nom de plume and bold compelling title – were the work of an uncharacteristically inspired publisher).
Some years ago, idly flipping through the New Yorker on the train from Bath, I came across a seductive title: 'The talent myth: are smart people over rated?' And a gripping read it was too. So much so that I wanted to see if I could publish it in Market Leader. A couple of phone calls and several emails later, Malcolm Gladwell, whose 'Tipping Point' was just beginning to make him a reputation outside of the New Yorker, agreed to an edited version (which I was to make) for the princely sum of $100. (Market Leader Autumn 2002).
The full version of this article which is about the role McKinsey played in the kinds of people Enron hired and why this policy contributed to the culture that eventually collapsed so spectacularly, can be found in his new book: 'What the Dog Saw' - a collection of his favourite pieces. Like every one else, Gladwell was fascinated by Enron but in a far more interesting way than most people who were just keen to nail Lay and Skilling.