Friday, April 24, 2015

over the counter-culture


The following is an excerpt (and slight expansion) from a section of a talk I gave earlier this week at the Google 'Firestarters' event in Melbourne.

The theme was 'Adaptive Strategy for an Adaptive Age'.

In this particular section of the talk I speculated around some of the external cultural factors that have implications for strategy (rather than discussing specifics of strategy or process and the like).

To illustrate I called upon two important texts in particular, a snippet of a recent interview in the Observer with Don Letts - legendary DJ, film-maker, Rasta punk and musician with Big Audio Dynamite - and the significance of the performance given by KLF at the Brits in 1992.

The first text was 'Subculture' by sociologist Dick Hebdige, a study of UK youth subcultures from the 50's to late 70's (a fantastic academic book, fairly unique among academic writing in that it is actually readable for mere mortals).

Hebdige describes the two principle methods by which every counter-culture idea of any significance is later incorporated or co-opted by the establishment.

He calls these the commodity form and the ideological form.

In the commodity form the establishment attempts to transform the 'other' into meaningless 'exotica'.
This is done by taking the style, trends, dress, music etc of the subcultures and popularising them so that the subcultures lose their exclusivity and gradually become mass-produced commodities made available to all. 

Or, secondly the ‘other’ is trivialised. What was 'otherness' is reduced to 'sameness'.
This incorporation minimises the ‘otherness’ and then ultimately defines the subculture in exactly the terms that it originally sought to resist in the first place.  So, as soon as the innovations that signified a subculture are translated into commodities and become everyday they lose meaning, i.e. what were subcultural 'signs' become mass-produced stuff. 

What begins as symbolic challenges end up becoming the new conventions.

For instance, the music of the Sex Pistols was played to the Queen, as an enduring symbol of Britishness, at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012.

For a long time, as I fancied myself as a sort of left-wing pseudo sociology professor and agitator type, this point of view made perfect sense.

So if a subculture could somehow resist incorporation and not 'sell-out' it could prevail, values intact.

However approaching the problem from another angle reveals a somewhat different possibility.

What if there is/was no subculture?

What if mainstream culture and counter-culture were simply two sides of the same coin?
What if consumer capitalism was not about conformity at all, but actually depended upon rebellion and counter-culture absolutely in order to generate the next wave of rebel product for integration into the mainstream?

This is the argument put forward by Heath and Potter in our second text 'The Rebel Sell - Why The Culture Can't BeJammed'.

That much of consumption is not about conformity- but distinction.

(From an evolutionary bases standpoint these would be the types of buying behaviour related to signaling - status and reproductive fitness - versus consumption broadly driven by survival instincts)

Cultural products that are purchased to display that we are smarter, cooler, more 'authentic' than others, generate competitive consumption.

Heath and Potter further argue that the cycle perpetuates itself because one the early adopters see too many people jumping on the latest counter-cultural bandwagon, they get off and move onto something else.

The irony being that "anti-consumerist" consumers are actually the most brand conscious.

As Debord would have observed ‘Opposition to the spectacle can produce only the spectacle of opposition’.

Don Letts makes a point in his Observer article.

(Ideologically he appears to be coming from the Hebdige point of view – lamenting the decline and slow death of the counter-culture from the rebel standpoint.

However what he also describes is the adaptation facing consumer capitalism. When there is no longer any significant counter culture from which to draw the next wave of cultural consumer products, then they begin to emerge from somewhere else altogether.)

'These days, people get into music to be part of the establishment. 
The most fuck-you guy around is Justin Bieber. What does that mean? 
There’s no counter culture – only over-the-counter culture.'

Selling out is now no longer something that needs to be post-rationalised to stave off cognitive dissonance in rebellious youth.

Selling-out is the objective, right from the get-go!

For Gen Xers this is a hard one to swallow.

Not so for millennials, rebellion has never been part of their culture – their only culture has been a marketing culture.

Later I argued that the real genius of Uber is nothing to do with technology or even (dubious) business practices.

The genius of Uber is in turning a commodity (consumption) product – the Taxi – into a display (status) product and spinning it’s anti-unionisation, anti-regulation winner-takes-all form of ultra-capitalism as some sort of signal of non-conformity and rebellion.

Now we know what’s going on, is it possible to map the disruption over time?

Possibly. This is purely a thought experiment - an ‘acausal connecting principle’ – e.g. a sequence of events that cannot be fully explained by simple cause and effect but something may be behind these events, even if we don’t know what.

I’ve joked in the past that the millennials are unique in post-war youth culture in one respect at least.

They are the first generation that was unable to come up with any kind of counter-culture idea that their parents would be afraid of. Sorry hipsters.

1980 was the year that millennials started being born, and therefore started to enter their teens around 1993 – the year that the internet began to be adopted and began it’s ten year march towards critical mass.

The previous year the KLF appeared on the televised Brit awards show, to perform and collect the award for ‘Best Act’.

In a final futile act of defiance Drummond and Cauty appeared on stage backed by Extreme Noise Terror (thrash metallists) and performed a barely recognizable thrash noise rendition of their biggest hit ‘3am Eternal’ before Drummond sprayed the audience (the music business itself) with  (blank) bullets from a machine gun and announcing ‘The KLF have left the music business’.

In The KLF:Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs the author offers this:

‘In a strange way, something about the music industry did die around that point. Music in the twentieth century had shown an incredible ability for invention. New musical genres were constantly created and explored – so much so, in fact, that this was considered normal. The first half of the century had given us such distinctive new genres as blues or jazz. The Fifties gave us rock ’n’ roll, and the Sixties gave us psychedelia and soul. The Seventies gave us reggae, heavy metal, disco and punk, and the Eighties had delivered hip-hop, techno, acid house and indie. The assumption was that this level of creativity was normal and would continue indefinitely…. It would never have occurred to anyone in those seats, as Drummond fired blanks into the ranks of their peers, that this period of invention had come to an end’.

The final nail in the coffin for the counter-culture – given that pop music of some shape or form has always been central to these movements - can then probably (and not without some significant irony), be traced to sometime around the turn of the century with the advent of the iPod, file sharing and streaming music services such as Spotify.

Is it that the emergence of devices and services that at first look appeared to democratise the music industry, shifting the power structure and giving us access to all music, all for free was an incorporation or co-optation too far?

Music began to lose it's signalling and galvanising power because it became an individualised 'pleasure' commodity product consumed (for free) by individuals in private within their earbuds.
That's if the individuals could even make it through the 3 minutes without pressing skip.

The well was now dry.

Our relationship with music had now changed forever – seemingly overnight, though it had been incrementally creeping up on us for 10 years and we hadn’t noticed.


Therefore consumer capitalism’s (profitable) relationship with the counter-culture has changed forever.

What happens now?
I’ve no idea, but the adaptive challenge for strategy needs to take this on board.

Or since the millennials dropped the ball, maybe Gen Z can come up with something.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

you get what you pay for

Every week now there seems to be another social media marketing disaster, usually revolving around the hijacking of the campaign hashtag or - as in the case of the lamentable #freshinourmemories debacle most recently - the hijacking of a 'branded' meme generator gizmo.

Blamestorming from the chattering classes obviously divides it's finger-pointing towards either the agency or the client.

I'll always tend to look at the agency and wonder what on earth they were thinking.
It's grade-A Dunning-Kruger.

In the #freshinourmemories case it appears that the agency in question may pay heavily.

Their website has gone offline completely and other clients have been reported to have dumped them.

But this hurts us all. It makes the whole industry looks bad.

To those who would blame the client - they signed it off etc - I would say, perhaps.

But then don't expect clients to come to agencies for strategic counsel for much longer.

Do we want to be just implementers?

Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. He'd be having a laugh at this business.

But here's a question.

Would there have been the same kerfuffle if the campaign had been a bunch of press ads and posters, for example?

Media that had to be paid for.

Rory Sutherland mentions this a lot.

The act of advertising - in a paid form and because that form is expensive - conveys an implicit meaning which free (ie social) media does not.

Paying for advertising is a kind of 'costly-signalling' by the brand that says ' we have some confidence our service and we value our reputation. So much so that we are prepared to stick some money behind it.'

The message of #freshinourmemories was not exploitative in itself (though 'fresh' is pretty clumsy).

But to simply pay to promote it may have been viewed as showing more commitment to the spirit.

Dare I say, more 'authentic'.

But as long as agencies are peddling 'the answer is social media, now what's the question?' then the clients that 'buy' into that will be getting what they pay for.

At best, not a lot.

At worst, regrettable and avoidable gubbins of the kind we've witnesses this week.






Thursday, April 02, 2015

the return of nietzsche marketing [ #dashbutton edition]

We conducted a small survey on supermarket shopping behaviour using the agency staff as our sample group of around 50.

It was relatively unscientific, however, the aim was to crudely test one particular covert thought.

We simply asked our respondents if they used a shopping list when visiting the supermarket.

For those who answered 'yes' we asked them to provide an example of a typical shopping list.

For those who answered 'no' we asked them to jot down what their mental list might typically be, anyway.

This gave us some interesting feedback - scribbled paper lists were by far the most popular, followed by self-text messages - and among this group no-one used a list-type app.

But that wasn't what we were really looking at.

Recently we've been reading Herb Sorensen's 2009 book 'Inside the Mind of the Shopper'.

His research that suggests that:
1. Around half of supermarket trips result in baskets of 5 items or less.
2. The most common basket size is just one item.

(This data is further referenced in the Byron Sharp textbook 'Marketing: Theory, Evidence, Practice' Chapter 8.)

Close to 90% of our responses contained 5 items or fewer.
The other 10% were 6.

For psych fans, and in the context of of Millers Law - The Magic Number 7, this was also curious.

The 'law' asserts that humans can retain 7 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information easily in working memory.

It turns out that this is less of a law and more of a decent hunch, the real number is closer to 5.

We could infer then, that shopping lists (list apps or other ‘solutions’) don’t necessarily add any utility to shoppers. We are reasonably capable of remembering 5 things.

More on shopping technology in a minute.

So our data was obviously slightly skewed as midweek shopping trips will be more likely to be quick trips, but you get the general idea, and our mode was 2 (pretty close to 1).

(Milk, bread and tissues in case you are wondering.)

Again, all this was interesting but not what I wanted to observe.

What I was looking for was specific brand name mentions.

And among the 86 different product categories listed by our respondents were only two instances of brand names.

Everything else was generic category - bread, milk, fruit, meat, tissues etc.

This seemed to be clear indication that, for the most part, people set out to buy from categories first, brands come second.

Of course preferences do exist, but these are more implicit rather than explicit.

In many fmcg categories brand either doesn't exist or is invisible (meat, fruit, vegetables) might exist but have little or no effect (bread, milk) and in the categories where it does have some influence the brand that gets bought is the one most salient at the point, and context of purchase.

Familiarity, popularity, habit and availability drive FMCG categories.

Unlike fashion or cars for example there is no 'display' or 'social' value for consumers.

One's choice of washing powder does not signal anything to anyone else.

It is simply something to be consumed.

Display value is only a marginally stronger pull anyway.

This is the eternal conundrum for commodity type brands.

All of which is the long way round to looking at Amazon Dash.

The Dash Button is a single-use Wi-Fi enabled ordering device for a selected set of partners including Gillette, Pampers, Tide and Olay. You press it and it orders directly - and frictionless - for you.

The promise of, for example, self-replenishing fridges, has long been part of the lore of 'the internet of things' and this appears to be Amazon’s play in that area, allowing customers to instantly repeat buy partner brands without thinking about it, more importantly, without being distracted by a competing brand at the shelf.

For the remainder of this piece we need to put aside any notions of could/should.

Amazon (and the other SV corporate giants) winner-takes-all disintermediation of every category imaginable is another debate.

Though as Andrew Keen quotes in 'The Internet is Not The Answer'.

“In Darwinian terms these new corporate giants are just the latest stage in the evolution of the public corporation, they exist to create wealth—vast quantities of it—for their founders and shareholders.

Their imperative is to grow and achieve dominance in their chosen markets—as well as in others which they now deem to be within their reach. They are as hostile to trade unions, taxation, and regulation as John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie ever were in their day. The only difference is that the new titans employ far fewer people, enjoy higher margins and are less harassed by governments than their predecessors.”


For FMCG brands, however, this is of little concern. Distribution is distribution.

What's interesting here is not the idea that push button instant replenishment is anything to do with notions of brand loyalty (active, in an attitudinal sense).

But is everything about enabling 'loyalty' in the passive behavioural sense.

On the one hand, commodity products with no display value can try and create 'meaning' by spending on huge emotional advertising - eg P&G's 'Thank You Mom' and the like.

Being famous and familiar will always be important.

But the Dash Button is somehow more refreshingly Nietzschean in it's acceptance of the kind of emptiness of consumption. In reaching acceptance that it will never be loved Tide is now happy just to be bought.



Who will press a button to order Tide? Or 5 boxes of Tide?
Well, we've already seen that people will trek to the supermarket for less than five items.
And most of the time for just one.

To come back to Professor Sharp's idea of brand salience, by which we mean the propensity of a particular brand to come to mind in a particular buying or usage situation.

If the buying situation occurs at the point of usage, ie in front of the washing machine then the brand that was last used, and the brand on the button becomes the most salient by default. No other brand is in it.

This is what Dave Trott might describe as 'getting upstream of the problem'.

People will never love their soap powder brand, but will be inclined to repeat purchase out of habit providing nothing else gets in the way.

So make sure nothing else gets in the way, then.

There's a statement attributed to Jeff Bezos that we often recall and use.

Bezos says that - given that Amazon are a cutting-edge tech retailer - people are interested in their innovation pipeline and therefore he often fields questions asking about what Jeff thinks might change in business in the next 5-10 years.

His reply is that he is more interested in what will stay the same. Because you can build a business on things that are stable in time.

People will always want things faster and cheaper.>



Friday, March 27, 2015

the cult of authenticity [five minutes]

Sorry young millennials.
You are not special.

Your old Gen X mums and dads were just as confused as you, in their day.

'Ultimately, the uneasy relationship The Stranglers had with the punk scene reflected the need that the various protagonists within the movement had for 'authenticity'.

In 'The Culture Of Narcissism', Lasch had noticed that in the late-industrial cultures of the West, in which basic needs had become easily satisfied, and new wants had to be created by the propaganda....a “cult of authenticity” had emerged within “the spectacle” of consumerism that fetishised spontaneity and the confessional.

Punk’s most glaring, and therefore most sensitive, internal contradiction was that it was a largely manufactured movement that was intended to give vent to the organic, spontaneous rage of British youth.

The Stranglers weren’t marginalised because their “opportunism” made them less “real” than the other punk groups. They were marginalised because their established history drew attention to the inauthenticity of the others.'

Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers by Phil Knight.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

norman whitfield and barrett strong are here to make everything right that's wrong

Our good friend @MarkSareff had a pop at the growing tendency for some sections of the marketing world to be bewitched by 'neurobollocks' in a post over on Linked in.

And rightly so.

The infamous Martin Lindstrom 'You Love Your iPhone, Literally' article is a particularly salient example.

In any case the idea that individual human brains, studied in isolation from other factors can predict future buying behaviour is pretty flawed.

Studying how and why people behave the way they do in real buying situations over time, and how they act within the broader culture and environment is far more important.

Indeed much of what passes for - and is acceptable as - standard 'market data' - derived from surveys, focus groups, satisfaction scores and the like - is equally flawed, and suffers from many of the same limitations.

Small sample sizes invariably produce more extreme results.

Separate small groups often produce results that bear no resemblance to each other’s.

And, most importantly, lab or focus group outputs are not an analysis of real world behavioural data because the environment has no similarity to the one in which buying decisions will actually be made.

Neuroscience is an important science, there's no doubt about that.

However, as with every new shiny object adopted by the marketing community in an attempt to shortcut real planning rigour, cherry picking and misusing a few 'sexy' techniques off the top and then using the outputs to jump to conclusions is neither correct nor advantageous.

I commented on Mark's piece, noting that we should again be mindful of Sturgeon's revelation (that 90% of EVERYTHING is shit).

For advertising, there must be a middle way, however.

On the art side of the art v science debate is the Bernbach-ian dictate of taste, artistry and magic so venerated by creative departments. But this is not satisfactory either.

In Paul Feldwick's recent book 'The Anatomy of Humbug' - a compendium of popular advertising theory from the last hundred or so years - he correctly points out that all those words exist to close down discussion rather than open it up.

That's not to say that intuition and gut feel aren't useful to guide advertising decisions. In fact there's some pretty decent science to back up the value of smart heuristics.

If I were to open a market research company I'd name it Whitfield and Strong.

A small section of the lyrics from 'I Heard it Through The Grapevine' tell us most of what we need to know.

'People say believe half of what you see, son,
And none of what you hear,
I can't help bein' confused,
If it's true please tell me dear?
Do you plan to let me go,
for the other guy you loved before?'


Believe nothing that consumers tell you they they do.
Believe about half of what you see them do.
And believe nearly all of what the behavioural/sales data tells you they have done, because that's best indicator of what they might do in the future.

Though, you still can't be sure.

All of which is a decent excuse for this...



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

if it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together

For a time during World War II, the chances of a member of US bomber crews actually making it back from any given mission, were on the side of slim.

The nature of the work meant that bombers were out for a long time, they were massive cumbersome planes visible from a long way away, and their ability to do serious damage if successful meant they were the number one target of both the guns on the ground and in the air.

For the bomber crews, each subsequent mission piled up the odds against them making it back this time.

And the Army Air Force couldn’t make planes quick enough to replace the ones that went down.

The situation was unsustainable.

In the hope of a solution the military engineers examined the bombers that made it back from their missions.

Patterns started to emerge. They saw the damage tended to accumulate in the same places.

They observed clusters of bullet holes along both wings, down the center of the bomber’s body and around the tail gunner area.

The answer was clear. The bombers needed more armour.

However they couldn’t just reinforce the entire plane – the weight would prevent them from even taking off.

So, based on the data they had, the obvious solution was to put thicker protection where they see the most damage, and ramp up reinforcement in the areas where the bullet holes clustered.

Just to be sure they were doing the right thing, the engineers called in a statistician, one Abraham Wald.

Wald was a member of the military’s ‘Applied Mathematics Panel’ – a secret boffin unit working out of Columbia University applying the science of probability and statistics to the war effort.

And good job they did, as Wald saw immediately that they were about to make exactly the wrong decision.

Because the common patterns of bullet holes actually showed where the planes were strongest.

The holes showed where a bomber could be hit repeatedly and still make it back.

The planes that didn’t make it home were being hit in different places.

Until Wald’s intervention the military were overly focused on the planes that made it home and almost made a potentially catastrophic decision by ignoring the planes that got shot down.

That’s a long-winded way round to pointing out that the same survivorship bias is prevalent in marketing departments and agencies every day.

Just like our Air Force engineers, it’s easy for marketers and agencies to get distracted by the high response rates and dramatic ROI that appears to fall out of marketing discounts or offers to a particular segment of heavy customers.

On the surface it appears logical.

But these are people who are likely to buy anyway.

These customers are the cluster of bullet holes that registered on the wings of the planes that made it home.

And the bigger the plane the bigger those clusters will naturally be. This is because the bigger brands in any given category tend to have slightly higher rates of bullet hole frequency (and loyalty) than their smaller competitors.

For just about any brand, attracting the mass of category buyers who are light and non-buyers of the particular brand – just like the bullet holes that didn’t show up, or barely registered on the bombers that made it home – holds the key as to whether the mission is going to be successful or not.

Survivorship bias in marketing is your tendency to focus on heavy buyers instead of light or non-buyers and on activities that look like winners in the short term which turn out to be losers in the long game.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

never tell anyone outside the agency what you're thinking

At the beginning of 'The Godfather', just before the scene of Don Vito Corleone's daughter Connie's wedding, Santino 'Sonny' Corleone is in a clandestine meeting with Virgil 'The Turk' Sollozzo in which they discuss a potential opportunity for the Corleone's in Sollozzo's nascent heroin business, which he plans to bring to New York.

(This discussion is happening without Don Vito Corleone's prior knowledge and ultimately leads to the attempt on the Don's life later on.)

Sonny is already receptive to the heroin idea, narcotics looks likely to be a lucrative business in the near future and worth getting in early on, and proceeds to sets up a meeting with Sollozzo, Tom Hagen - the Corleones' consigliere (who is similarly enthusiastic), and the Don.

Sollozzo arrives in New York and has already 'secretly' allied with the rival Tattaglia family, however still has ideas on bringing in the Corleone family for further financial backing and to ensure heat protection from the police and justice departments in the city, whom the Corleone's have in their pocket.

Vito Corleone - who, unbeknown to Sollozzo - is already wise to the Tattaglia involvement, decides to decline the offer on the basis that heroin is generally a bad business and - in any case - would put a strain his political connections, which he viewed as strategically more valuable in the long game.

During Vito's polite refusal of Sollozzo's offer, Sonny - understandably inscensed by Sollozzo's faintly ridiculous suggestion that the Tattaglia's would guarantee the Corleone's investment - breaks ranks and interrupts his father with an display of temper directed at Sollozzo.

Vito calmly puts Sonny back in his box, and once their guests have departed expresses his disappointment with Sonny's indiscretion.

'Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking again'.

The damage has been done, unfortunately.

Sollozzo, realising that Sonny (Vito's eldest son, family underboss and therefore next in line to the throne) is:

a) more receptive to the heroin idea
b) prepared to speak over the top of Vito and
c) unable to keep his cool in a business situation.

The Turk now starts to think that a good strategy would be to take out Vito.

Sonny's outburst not only undermined the Don but sowed the seeds for and undermining of the credibility of the entire Corleone family/organisation.

As it transpires this will now lead to all kinds of trouble for the family - including the death of Sonny - and Vito's capitulation into the heroin business, a compromise in order to prevent an all-out war among the crime families.

Many years ago I was a designer in a small but emerging agency.

The founders had a lot to say for themselves, a definite point of view on the world and it was an exciting - if sometimes seat-of-the-pants - time.

One Friday afternoon a not very senior client called up and asked the account person if we could make a small change to some element of an ad.

This was right at the last minute before the thing was due out of the door.

Both the Creative Director and the Planning Director were out so the account person agreed, instructed me to make the change, the ad went off and that was that.

Later that evening I got a message from the Planning Director indicating we would be having a chat on the Monday morning.

By 'chat' it became clear that he meant getting the metaphorical shit kicked out of me by him and the CD.

By making a - what seemed to me to be minor - change to the ad on the request of a junior client, without consulting the CD I had undermined the credibility of the entire agency.

I had made us look like we didn't know what we were doing.

I learned something that day.

Several years and several agencies later I sat in presentation to a brand new client at an agency I had just joined. The ECD was presenting a camapign to this new client.

At the end of the show the client started making comments on the work and suggesting small changes to copy, edits and suchlike.

The ECD sat stony faced while receiving the feedback and then removed the work from the table explaining that if the client didn't like the idea then we would take it away and come back with something else.

The client wouldn't be put off, insisting that just a few of his changes and the work would be fine.

To which the ECD responded, 'Thank you Mr [name], but we'll come back with another idea. I don't tell you how to make [product X] so please don't tell me how to make advertising'.

That might look like arrogance to some, to me this was necessary.

The creative credibility of the agency must be preserved, almost at all costs.

This is not about stroking creative egos. I have had many a stand-up fight with CDs over the years. It's the planner's job to make sure the advertising is 'right'.

For one's own credibility that means being prepared to scrap.

However, those things happen behind closed doors. It doesn't matter how much I disagree with a Creative Director I would never voice that in a client situation or any other situation where their status could be undermined.

Bob Hoffman says that 'everyone else in an agency are organisers, and the creatives make the ads'.

This is right to a certain extent, but most certainly should be the impression given to people from outside.

Agencies are judged by their creative output.

While we all know that a huge amount of work goes into making the advertising 'right' but when non-creatives undermine the creative product - by unquestioningly agreeing to client whims or making their own suggestions in the presence of anyone outside of the agency - it undermines the entire agency.

The popular notion of 'ideas can come from anywhere' is in part to blame for these incidents.

Of course ideas can come from anywhere, however that does not make them good ideas.

Good commercial creative ideas tend to come from people who's job it is to have them.

When you devalue ideas, you capitulate.

When you devalue ideas, you undermine the whole agency.

Before you know it you become a chop shop and it's a long long way back.

Never tell anyone outside the agency what you're thinking, again.