Malcolm White believes that marketing communications should strive to be useful, rather than entertaining, which could also have the knock-on effect of making what marketers and communicators do be regarded as more useful, and maybe more valuable, too.
I'm very keen on books. Not that I'm a bibliokleptomaniac (a compulsive book-stealer), nor a bibliophagist (book-eater), and certainly not a bibliotaphist (a book-burier), you understand. Bibliomaniac suits me fine, thank you. So you won't be surprised to hear that I recently spent some time in my favourite library, namely The London Library.
Founded in 1841 by the historian Thomas Carlyle, and numbering among its famous past members Charles Dickens and Sir Winston Churchill, The London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world. Its collection currently stands at over 1,000,000 titles, covering over 2,000 subjects in 55 different languages, with books ranging in date from 1500 to 2017.
Unique though it is, The London Library of course has the usual rules about 'not making any marks in books, whether in pencil, pen or highlighter', so it was with some surprise that I discovered in a book that I borrowed from there the heavy markings and significant annotations in the margins of the pages by a very enthusiastic reader, all in surprisingly neat and tidy handwriting.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, I enjoyed these annotations. I found them interesting and engaging, unlike the librarian who had added a caustic condemnation of them to the inside front cover of the book: "Systematically vandalised throughout by a reader, June 2010."
You see, the thoughts and comments of this anonymous pen-in-hand reader made me think harder about what I was reading. It was like being in a book group of two but without the wine.
Thanks to another book in The London Library collection, I have now discovered that making marks in books to show assent, dissent or just to highlight important passages was the norm rather than the exception way back in Medieval and Renaissance times. In fact, educators of the time recommended that the best way to learn from a book wasn't just to read it like we do now, but to physically mark passages, perhaps to stitch pieces of thread into the page to mark the important bits or even to tear pages from the book itself: in other words, to use it as required and not just to read it, passively.
We have evolved from a culture in which readers of the past literally took hold of texts for specific purposes, to one in which texts generally take hold of readers who may not be looking for anything beyond a good read.
All this got me thinking about how we think about, and develop, today's marketing communications. It seems to me that too much of what we produce is still the communications equivalent of trying to give people a 'good read'. Nothing much wrong with that, of course, except that wouldn't it be better if we thought of our audience as users, not consumers? Just like those Medieval bookworms.
A good step in the right direction would be if we excised the language of 'audience' or 'target' from marketing briefs, and replaced them with the question: 'Who do we want to use this communication and how do we want them to use it?' I think that the idea of communications having a 'use value' is, how should I put it, more useful, than the concept of shareability which gets bandied about so much, because usefulness puts more onus on clients and producers to actually make something useful.
The best UK examples of communications that are truly useful and that have real 'use value' that I can think of are from public service categories. For example, a few years back the British Heart Foundation and the agency Grey London came together to create a campaign to educate the public about how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in the event of someone having a heart attack. Instead of 'telling' people how vital CPR could be in helping someone to survive a heart attack, the idea was to give the intended communication users the CPR skills they could actually use. The TV component of the campaign features infamous and iconic hard man Vinnie Jones demonstrating how simple hands-only CPR can be, to the unforgettable soundtrack of the Bee Gees' classic Stayin' Alive – which was the correct beat-per-minute tempo at which to perform chest compressions. Vinnie took viewers through the simple steps of hands-only CPR, flanked by two dancing henchmen. At least 38 lives were saved as a direct result of the campaign.
Perhaps if our communications were more useful then perhaps what we marketers and communicators do would also be thought of as more useful, and maybe more valuable, too.
Not something you'd find recorded in the pages of The London Library's most borrowed book on advertising – E.S. Turner's The Shocking History of Advertising! – but something to aim for, nonetheless.