Thu, 26 May 2022 17:47:00 GMT
In the advertising industry, it can be very easy to slip into the mindset that those of us that are embroiled – all day, every day – in campaigns, pitches, advertising thought pieces and creative innovation talk are experts on what the public wants to see, hear and experience. However, after discussing the adland bubble with industry strategy experts for this feature, it can be said that much of the most important – and representative – insights and inspirations for creative commercial work is drawn from experiences outside of our advertising echo chambers.
So how do strategy leaders at some of the world’s top agencies step out of their ‘bubbles’, leave their biases behind and get a picture of the ‘real world’? And what do they recommend that other strategists, creatives and agencies do to break open their echo chambers and invite a variety of real-world perspectives to inform the ads of the future?
To answer these questions and give advice on breaking out of the adland bubble, LBB’s Ben Conway spoke to 12 strategy experts from: Mullenlowe New York, M&C Saatchi London, Cossette Toronto, BETC, Ogilvy North America, VMLY&R New York, Wunderman Thompson UK, FCB Canada, The Martin Agency, WT NYC, Engine Creative and Little Dot Studios.
See what they had to say below.
On the one hand, it’s relatively easy. Seek out differences – people, cultures, and groups who look at the world differently – and spend time with them. Be all the things we know a good strategist should be: open, curious, constantly learning. On the other hand, it’s quite hard. Lose our egos. Our perception of the world is a projection of ourselves, so we have to minimise the role we play in looking at the world. This means making it not about us. Stop thinking that we’re the smartest, or believing that our world view is the dominant world view. Cultivate a belief that we might be wrong. And that our assumptions about somebody else’s motivations are almost certainly off-base. That’s a lifetime’s work for most of us.
As we're seeking genuine reasons to come back together after a couple of years of working from home, strategy teams might use this time to create shared activities that take us out of our bubbles. Hang out with people with different political beliefs, people older than us, and communities around us that we’ve previously ignored. Develop a highly tuned, always-on adland bubble meter. Are you planning your next offsite in Los Angeles? The bubble meter is running high. How about the candidates you're seeing for that director role? If I'm honest, the bubble meter is off the charts.
Crave being and working with diverse people who think differently, because your heart is open and your mind is hungry.
Yesterday morning I took my kids to ‘Sing 2’ at the Marina Cineworld. After it had finished, we walked out into the sunshine and went into the bowling arcade to play on their favourites including the 10p shovel thing, the Jurassic Park dinosaur shoot ‘em up and the motorbike circuits. About 30 quid poorer, we got the 21 bus back from the Marina, via Whitehawk. In the afternoon I went for a run (slow, painful) on the seafront. I recount all this, not to impress you with my parenting skills (dubious) but to explain the number of people-watching scenarios I found myself in on one day. I walk around. I open my eyes. I listen and watch, and I go to the places my audiences are. I spend time in supermarket aisles and corner shops, and I have probably listened to hundreds of people talk in front rooms in cities all over the UK.
(And with the owners’ permission, obviously) I have nosed around kitchens, fridges, bathroom cabinets, lunchboxes, make-up bags. Yes, that’s what a good usage and attitude study includes. I’ve been kicked out of the bread aisle in ASDA and Aldi for filming. I’ve listened to heavily pregnant women talk about smoking. I’ve stacked shelves in Sainsbury’s. I’ve attempted to buy Viagra on the internet (yes, for work).
At M&C Saatchi we say we are experts in behaviour change. And if you’re going to try and change someone’s behaviour, you first have to understand what they are currently doing, and why. It’s not an extra part of the job. It is the job. I love it.
Beyond going down internet rabbit holes triggered by whatever sparks my curiosity, I attend classes, fireside chats, film festivals, exhibitions, and events that seem interesting and force myself to completion – even if I realise mid-way it’s not for me. This has resulted in newfound passions as well as a continually growing mental archive of insights and observations, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice for any future project.
Ad agencies could offer a training stipend outside of advertising-specific courses to encourage its people to get out there and delve deeper into their passions or try new things with little risk. Strategists can then share their experiences with a twist that directly relates to their job, bringing that thinking back into the agency, so it can percolate among the entire team. At Cossette, I thankfully have had the privilege of being reimbursed for courses I pursued on my own.
In turn, I have brought new thinking to the agency with the following:
- A semiotic code map presentation that compares the codes of contemporary art museums and NFT marketplaces.
- A culture-led inspiration session that draws parallels between personal fashion styling learnings from London College of Fashion and advertising’s four C’s to fulfil the needs of a client.
- An inspiration session that draws parallels between the art world, with learnings from Central Saint Martins, and advertising, focusing on impactful creativity tied to race, gender and identity, sustainability and surveillance – to provoke new thinking and encourage us all to ‘question the canon’.
An obvious answer would be to say that the best way to break out of this advertising bubble is to simply delve into books, pursue a hobby, or follow Twitter accounts and Reddit threads on a variety of topics. But I think that the essence of a strategist is already to go beyond the horizon of agencies and panel tests. It's the core of the job to dig into a subject, to understand its deeper meaning, leaving behind the clichés and biases. I think the best advice I ever got was from John Hegarty who once said: "Take off your f****** headphones when you leave your house". And while this may not necessarily please the big electronic brands, it clearly makes sense: listening to people around us, in public transport, in bars or in restaurants is the best way to really understand what interests, excites or worries them.
This desire to open up to the world must obviously also be encouraged by agencies, which can offer their employees conferences on various societal topics (and not only on the gen Z behaviour on TikTok). For example, BETC regularly organises exhibitions or installations by local artists in the lobby of our office, which allows us to really exchange and connect with what is inspiring today, outside the world of advertising. In the end, a good strategist should listen and question everything, since ultimately, they should not rely on what they already know today, but rather on what they will know tomorrow.
David Ogilvy famously said, “Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.” Decades later, he’s still right. Jargon is a shortcut we use to speak in a shared language. It’s also a living manifestation of our natural tendency to opt for living inside a bubble where ads and marketing publications make us feel familiar, safe. Yet after years where shifts in power and a pandemic forced us to re-evaluate priorities, getting out of the ‘ad bubble’ can be the difference between thriving and dying in this ever-changing industry.
Why? Because the skill that makes us valuable is only achieved when we open our world:
Diversity of perspective - Perspective is everything. There are over 7.5 billion people in the world and each thinks in a unique way. Perspective means breaking free of the narrowed world our industry traffics on and expanding our take by nurturing ourselves through richer lived experiences.
How do we get there? By going back to the fundamentals. By being inspired as humans, not as marketers. That’s where things get personal. It’s about choosing to lean into the randomness that feeds our natural curiosity. It could be dark comedy. A proven recipe to absorb news and get smarter about the world. Or old-fashioned pen and paper. Whether people-watching or plotting, a way to purposefully wander.
Diversity of perspectives is a gift, available to all of us. It’s our job to turn it into a practice that promotes craft and kindness.
I spend a great deal of time thinking about this peculiar business of building brands, and the need to break away from the same voices saying the same things. For a creative strategy to be truly inspiring, it should be steeped in a truth that makes creative teams, and ultimately audiences, really feel something. Rarely do I achieve this by sitting at my desk or scrolling a feed. Here are three simple ways to pursue the uncomfortable:
I don’t mean the latest algorithm-served news or social posts. I mean books. Books can be a form of strategic refusal from the echo chamber. Reading is an inherently intimate and radical thing, where we are untethered from expectations and addictive design. Social media is an echo chamber where people are unable to share deeply honest thoughts and social commentary – by its very nature, it’s skewed by the reality of having followers.
The need to write is the psychological product of certain types of people. While many copywriters expectedly have this need, many strategists do as well. Writing is a way to intensify the experience of being a person. Well-crafted insights are often merely observations written to be relatable or provocative on a human level. The best insights are written to speak to the core of who we are as people.
When I travel, this is my time to be free to observe rather than analyse. Travelling lets me be a person beyond my job, and it opens my world beyond our industry’s professional expectations that push us into certain cultural and class expectations. I talk to strangers a lot when I travel. In my view, learning about what’s rattling around in people’s heads is really the only way to effectively be a part of their future.
How do we burst adland’s bubble? The question suggests that, like a bubble, we need a huge needle and pop. I don’t think it works that way or is that easy or simple. Rather than thinking of this like we often do, as a campaign, something we can fire, fix and forget, by citing inspiring sources of diversity or populism to lance the bubble, I think it’s more useful to think of it as something we’ve got to continually work at, like training or a craft.
Repetition = routine = habit. We need to find lots of simple actions we can repeat, turn into routines and into habits in our everyday lives to stop the isolation and elitism. It might not sound exciting, but it’s the culture we need to build around practices that will help most. As an example, I’m a firm believer that people need to fill themselves up with interesting things if they are to remain interesting in their work. For example when I had my children my access to the arts withered, so I tried to find the quickest most readily available art, and started reading a poem everyday (BTW, poets would make great planners).
I cite this not only as a way I tried to integrate outside influences into my working life, but also to open us beyond believing that bursting the bubble is only designed to get closer to the real lives of consumers and be more empathetic. That’s certainly true, but we also need a myriad of other influences, from all the arts to mass performances to science and technology. We need empathy and understanding if we’re to inspire and elevate people.
We all know that the most interesting thinking is done on the margins – but working in this industry has a way of sucking you in. Even when we make the time to experience culture and be a part of it, we can’t remove that lens.
At FCB, we believe it must be an active effort. We use a suite of research tools called the Data Patterns Toolkit to consciously inform our work with real data from unbiased sources. We’re not looking at what the influencers say people want to see, or what someone thinks the moderator of a focus group wants to hear. Instead, we use quantitative and behavioural data to figure out what people are truly interested in, aware of, afraid of and excited by.
A few years ago, we also launched a research project aimed at answering this exact question – the FCB Bubble Project. After Trump, it was clear that if US pollsters could be so wildly incorrect, we needed to examine our own methods as well. You need the right data, about the right people, if you want to create work that will actually resonate with the mass public.
To us, that’s the most fun part about advertising in Canada: uncovering data that is itself as diverse as our population. We’re a non-homogeneous country, so no one person can inherently understand how our mass population thinks. We need the research in order to create, which is why strategists and creatives need to be sure to form ideas together — not just at the brief, but throughout the creative process.
You can’t burst a bubble you’re not attuned to. First and foremost, learn to identify your own bias. This is trickier than it seems. Humans avoid cognitive dissonance because it causes us psychological discomfort. We tend to return to our ‘comfort food’ media because it affirms our perspectives. Perhaps we throw in some other sources for schadenfreude and sport. Rarely do we ask ourselves: ‘What is the best version of the oppositional view?’ - and seek to truly understand the ‘other.’
If your eyes are on Adland, you’re looking in the wrong place. The trade press is there to tell us what Adland is doing and what Adland is interested in - it’s not a window to the wider world (nor does it pretend to be). 96% of consumers don’t trust ads at all. I once went to an award show where a presenter said (with a straight face) ‘advertising can change the world’ - and proceeded to celebrate things most consumers have never seen or heard of.
There’s nothing wrong with setting lofty ambitions and looking to what’s interesting and artful among our peers and partners — but when it gets to the point of insular navel gazing, we need to check ourselves.
Think in the third person. Working in advertising involves a great deal of empathy. We study and try to internalise the needs and experiences of: a first-time home buyer, a frontline worker, a millennial parent, a small business owner. But we are not them. Even when we think we are (I, for example, am a millennial mom) we bring the intersections of our experience to bear on our assumptions about the target audience. ‘Focus groups of one’ are dangerous for a reason.
Choose curiosity over empathy. Think of yourself less like Jane Smith (everywoman) and more like Jane Gooddall - there to be an immersed observer. We should question our assumptions. We need to become better listeners. I’m preaching to myself here . I think we need to do a better job of laying our hypotheses down. Confirmation bias is real - and desktop research has created a dirth of real insights.
When was the last time you went to a coffee shop alone, sat for a while and just listened to the conversations happening around you? Or walked through a grocery store as an observer to see what people were doing at the shelf? I once stood in a Walmart at 11:50pm on the 31st, watching exhausted parents in line with carts full of diapers and formula, anxiously waiting for paychecks to hit at midnight. It’s an experience I will never forget, and it showed me something a focus group never could.
Trade the uber in favour of the bus, or ask your DoorDash driver an open ended question and have the discipline to remain present when the answer comes. Even if the answer is something we might have anticipated (say inflationary concerns), I guarantee the human in front of us will bring a personal poignancy we’re not going to get from reading an article (no matter how well written). Even the best journalism is no proxy for personal experience.
Most discussions about echo chambers start by dissing social media and dismissing its relevance. Let’s leave that simplistic argument behind. Most strategists I know of and work with are high-functioning, critical thinkers who can separate the signal from noise and temper their response. And the great ones go beyond – putting on their lateral thinking caps and creating the not-so-obvious connections.
I believe we should be curious and non-judgmental about using social media as a tool to uncover the new dimension that brands are steeped in – culture! Today, TikTok is a space where varied micro-interests flourish, and where Twitter can reveal deep stream-of-consciousness thoughts that are extremely illuminating and not worth ignoring. Research on social can never replace being out in the world and talking to the consumer, but it can definitely inform our thinking and make brand narratives richer.
At Wunderman Thompson, it helps that we work with multicultural, multi-talented thinkers - each of whom brings something different to the table. Co-authoring sessions around a brief with creatives and strategists are rousing moments of discussion and debate. Offline and online, we often take field trips to stay informed of new thinking and meet new doers. But, getting together a group of critical, lateral, multi- multi thinkers is a journey and it starts with hiring - looking for cultural ‘build’ and not just cultural fit makes for a real-life social group that can help break out of any inadvertent echo chamber we might get locked in.
The first step to addressing a problem is to acknowledge it is a problem. In this case, it’s that people working in our industry are ‘weird’, in the sense that we don’t reflect the wider British public or the audiences we are often trying to engage. Let’s have the humility to recognise our weirdness, and our biases.
One practical way out of the echo chamber is asking questions. The best strategists are those who, when faced with unfamiliar sectors and markets, go back to first principles in the form of high-quality research – and have a good grounding in effective research techniques. Senior strategists can also deal with these issues by making our workplaces safe spaces for calling out language and attitudes that are ignorant and biassed, to create teams that are genuinely collaborative and open to feedback.
One way we approach this at ENGINE, is through tactical ‘time-outs’ in meetings. These enable people to pause and reset a discussion if they feel we are being narrow-minded in our weirdness. Of course the best way to avoid being trapped in an echo chamber is to not have one at all, which means working to bring diverse thinkers into the agency. At Engine, I’m particularly proud of how our strategy team has introduced apprentice-level entry-points. These provide an environment for people from different routes to join us and get support as they continue to learn, including at degree level. Small steps, but important ones.
Stop constantly looking ahead and be in the present. It's so easy to be swept up in preparing for the future that is 10 years off, that current issues are not being dealt with first. Building a metaverse is amazing but why can't I buy easily from your brands’ social platforms? My advice is to take notice of the world we are currently living in and take the time to change perspective to truly understand what consumer's want and need from brands.
Marketers, agencies and brands need to look from the outside in, not look from the inside out. It's only then the challenges and problems consumers are facing can be identified. Products and services need to offer a solution, to ease the stresses and strains of everyday life and provide more time, one of the most valuable commodities in today. Once the problem is understood, a human response needs to be applied. This is where diversity of thought becomes incredibly important. Having a range of age, class, gender and ethnicity ensures the human response is truly reflecting the society we are living in and it's solving problems in the best way for the consumer.
I, myself, am a diverse person. I bring all my experiences and 'differences' to the table when doing strategic planning along with my 20 years of experience working in TV, social, marketing and media. It's this sense of perspective and understanding of people from inside and outside of the industry that makes great work. Take a breath, step back and absorb the world as it is right now. We can help shape the future but we need to understand the present to do so.