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How Planners Grow: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Byron Sharp
There are few things of which I am certain, in this crazy old topsy-turvy world, but here are two that were confirmed in 2015:
1. Every second of my life spent being optimistic about Newcastle United FC has been wasted, utterly wasted.
2. I hate Byron Sharp.
I hate Byron Sharp. Not the bloke, obviously. I don’t know the man, so I can’t judge. In reality, he could well be a real ‘one’ with a fine line in zesty jive dancing and a way with a Manhattan. Alternatively, he could be one of those people who get very vaguely but incrementally on your nerves over time, until you’re contemplating murder-suicide every time you hear them breathe. I just don’t know.
But Byron Sharp the Thing? The Thing strategists are duty bound to know about? The Thing that you float across the table at a creative like an errant husband confessing an embarrassing itch? I hate that.
I’ve hated that since I first heard about it a few years back, when someone, misrepresenting his argument like loads of others in the industry, gave me the bare bones – basically, jack in trying to build a relationship with a consumer. Instead implant yourself into their brain in the short but possibly frequent times they might give a toss about your product, through the consistent deployment distinctive brand assets.
I hated it when I read the introduction to ‘How Brands Grow’ and saw the claim that it was all backed up by data. I hated it more when I read all of the data and analysis.
I have hated it increasingly over the past 18 months, as it’s spread itself across the industry.
I hated the certainty of the theory. I hated how conveniently it sat with a Big TV model. I hated its reductive nature. I hated the fact that it seemed like a remorseless, unfeeling machine sent from the future to eradicate all creativity and humanity from the industry, replacing it with meaningless, ohrworm-style jingles and content-free branding. I hated that so many people who touted it seemed to be pretty okay with those implications.
But all of this was nothing more than a moment of fleeting grumpiness compared to the all-encompassing, incandescent rage I experienced about nine months ago. Because I realised that Byron Sharp is probably right. And will probably get more right with time.
I know you don’t want to hear about adblockers again but: adblockers.
And where adblockers aren’t? Shorter, eminently avoidable ad formats provided by platforms who get that what - to us - is an emotion-filled, CG-slathered, Terrence Malick-influenced meisterwerk is the next bloke’s price of entry for stuff they really want to see.
And where these aren’t? People just looking at a different screen, barely catching us out the corner of their eye.
Building BIG ENGAGING THINGS in the hope they’ll tip the internet over and everything will slide across in our direction isn’t the answer, as I believe we’ve all expensively discovered.
Shorter, faster, lighter and more memorable are the future. Even worse, they’re the present.
But it’s a new year. So enough of the hate, for now at least. Here’s my moment of plannery cheer, for what it’s worth.
Byron Sharp is right. But rightness isn’t enough. Knowing the shape of the answer, still doesn’t give us the answer.
There’s only one Meerkat, one Epic. Aping them has already encountered diminishing returns (I’m looking at you, Copycat-Brand-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless). There have to be different techniques to produce the same result - ones that combine the power of meaning with the effectiveness of speed and memorability. Different stories, or things that aren’t quite stories but we don’t have a name for yet; different production techniques that help us produce moments of humanity or tension or humour that will be in and out of the mind in a heartbeat, leaving indelible traces.
It’s a tricky (and annoying) brief, but I think it’s the really ambitious one for the next year. Because if we can’t nail it, then self-optimising programmatic systems will come and do a crap version of the job instead. And don’t get me started on them.
So, yes, this year, like a maverick cop finding himself partnered with a straight-laced family man by those goddam pen pushers in City Hall, we’ve all had to grit our teeth and take it. But maybe, hopefully, in 2016 Byron and us will look at each other (possibly over a mound of bullet-ridden bodies) and realise that, hey, this guy ain’t so bad after all.
And yes, I did just compare myself to Martin Riggs.
Simon Robertson is Head of Communications Strategy at Anomaly