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News, 07 April 2015

LONDON: There are few if any unique brand challenges and marketers would do better to spend their time learning from others who have faced similar challenges rather than behave as though they are the first to encounter such problems.

Writing in the current issue of Admap, former planner Mark Earls argues that "strategists' singularity default setting, all the digging deeper and searching for the hidden truth or insight in the consumer or the product, isn't actually that helpful".

Indeed, such activity can even result in a surfeit of 'the planning of planning' rather than the 'doing of planning'.

Or, in a version of Parkinson's Law, "strategy work expands to fill the space allocated for it".

A genuinely new idea is a rare event, argues Earls, the truth being that most innovation involves borrowing and repurposing ideas and strategies from elsewhere.

Thus, James Watt did not invent the steam engine, as so many people learn at school, but he fixed a weakness in a 50-year-old design and markedly improved its efficiency.

While he advocates copying as a strategy, Earls is at pains to point out that there are limits to this approach. Copying too closely, for instance, is unlikely to create value for anyone, while copying from within one's category should, in general, be avoided. Copy loosely and copy from afar, he advises.

And rather than going back to tried and tested strategies or studying the brand leader, "ask yourself a different kind of question about the problem you're wrestling with" – the 'what kind of' question.

"Start thinking of individual problems as instances of 'kinds of' problems, rather than novel and never-seen-before singular phenomena." What kind of behaviour or choice are you seeking to influence? What are your default assumptions about that behaviour? How are things really chosen by consumers?

A striking example of how this approach can work comes from an unrelated field: a team of cardiac surgeons reached out to the world of Formula One racing, on the basis that it faced the same kind of problem – handing over control from one set of experts to another and in which the slightest human error in the team (misconnected tube or mistimed signals) could result in fatalities.

This way of operating, Earls suggests, can quickly surface hidden assumptions and force them to be tested against reality.

Data sourced from Admap