The consequence of not having sufficient perspective is that it’s easy to start believing your own publicity, therefore, Malcolm White says, an agency’s most valuable strategic service to their clients is to put the client brief through a constructively sceptical filter.
These days, scepticism has a pretty dodgy reputation. It’s almost exclusively associated with the cranky debunking of everything from vaccination to climate change to the lunar landings. Scepticism like this can be easily laughed off or dismissed but there’s also a serious side to it which can even have political implications. For example, I’m thinking of that very strange President Trump-endorsed scepticism about Barack Obama’s birthplace – the so-called ‘Birther’ movement.
I think I know what prompted my newly found interest in scepticism. Just a couple of days ago, a client of ours challenged me to explain why we needed to translate her agency brief into our own creative brief, and also why we felt it necessary to insert a separate stage into the advertising development process (‘agency develops creative brief and agrees it with client’).
I gave her a number of what I think are decent explanations. I explained that the target audience for the creative brief (our creative teams) is different from the target audience written in the brief. I pointed out that our primary aim in writing a creative brief was to give our teams a ‘leg up’ to help them answer the brief, because we know them and how to get the best out of them, and because ‘we need to translate your brief into their language’.
I think that these explanations are all true but, on reflection, perhaps they miss the point, or at least the main point. The main point is surely that the agency’s creative brief is probably the first time that a client’s brief has been subject to sceptical scrutiny from outside the commissioning organisation (the client).
When you are wholly immersed in a project, a product, or a brand, in fact in any subject, it becomes increasingly hard to see that subject from a distance, because one is so up close to it. The consequence of not having sufficient perspective is that it’s easy to start believing your own publicity.
This is not unique to marketers, but it is perhaps an unfortunate and unintended consequence of what is so great about the marketing function, namely the opportunity for total immersion in one brand or one product. And insufficient perspective is often what renders what could have been an interesting brief into something unworkable.
But, we can all fall foul of a loss of helpful perspective. Almost 30 years ago, I was lucky enough to work with Unilever, but less fortunate that I was working at an agency that had been asked to repitch for one of their then brands – Batchelors Super Noodles. For those of you who don’t know, Super Noodles is the brand name of a range of dehydrated instant noodle snacks. As it says on the Super Noodles website, “They couldn’t be easier to make – all it takes is boiling water and a stir, and in four minutes you’ve got a delicious on the go snack that suits busy modern lifestyles.”
Now, perhaps it was the pressure of a repitch – which always creates its unique mix of self-doubt, existential angst and desperation – but I remember that we happily went along with the memorable (for all the wrong reasons) primary objective of the client brief: ‘Position Super Noodles as the modern side-of-plate alternative to the potato.’
Although I now see this as wishful thinking perhaps born of hubris and groupthink, my 25-year-old self didn’t. He duly copied this portentous aim into our creative brief and off we went to work, turning all sorts of creative somersaults along the way, until we, you’ve guessed it, lost the pitch.
We lost to the newly-formed agency, Mother, who won by performing what I now see is an agency’s most valuable strategic service to their clients: putting the client brief through a constructively sceptical filter. They won the pitch by sceptically refuting the client’s overweening potato replacement ambition and instead observed that Super Noodles should be repositioned as the ultimate post-pub snack – as ‘foody nosh’, was the way they memorably put it. Their creative was much better than ours, because their creative brief was much better than mine, because it was more sceptical.
Back in 300 BC, Pyrrho of Elis, who is credited as the first Greek sceptic philosopher, explained why scepticism is so useful. He said, “You will never be able to teach others what is good while dancing attendance on kings in their courts.”
So, channelling the other Trump, Melania, as I am fond of doing, let me encourage all agencies, and especially all planners, to ‘Be Sceptic’, especially when it comes to your next client brief.