Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Russell Davies 1 Maurice Saatchi 0

I am sure you read Russell's blog. Yesterday he (incredibly generously) posted what he calls his schtick, which is basically the presentation he has been giving for the last couple of years. It's the most interesting post about advertising/marketing I have read in a long time. Highly illuminating, and brilliantly argued.

Having said that, I do disagree with nearly all of it.

Mostly, he's arguing against Maurice Saatchi's one-word equity or "brutal simplicity" theory, and advocating complexity.

Now, the ideal way to resolve this is to place Russell and Maurice in a sand-floored arena, stripped to the waist, armed with tridents and nets.

However, this plan is fraught with logistical difficulties. Not the least of which is Maurice's packed schedule. In fact Maurice is so busy, I'm going to do him a favour and take on Russell myself.

1. Russell uses this funny video to ridicule the idea that the consumer is just sitting there, waiting to receive our messages. His alternative model is this other funny video portraying ad messages as interruptions to something more interesting that we're doing. I think he's only half-right. He's right that we're not 'waiting to receive' a message. But he's wrong that we're doing something more interesting. Often we're not. We're ironing when a radio ad comes on. We're slumped in front of the TV after a hard day at work when a TV ad comes on. We're staring into space on the underground, when our eyes rest on a poster. And in those situations, if your ad can do something like this then that's fine.

2. Russell shows this ad:

and wonders "What would you say the 'message' of that ad is? No idea. Me neither. Because it doesn't really have one... it's not about a single, clear message." Hmmm. Surely it's just saying "Nike is cool"? " It does this by associating Nike with basketball players, fancy basketball moves and hip-hop, which are cleverly connected by the 'idea' of having the players and moves create the track. Simple.

3. Russell says that "this:


is the model of idea creation that most agencies (advertising, digital, whatever) sell their clients. A bunch of smart strategists narrow down the strategic possiblities (with their clients or without) getting to a simple, smart, sharp, focused strategic idea which forms the basis of a controlled explostion of creativity. (Not too big, not too small). This idea is then implemented across a number of media channels to the happiness of everyone . This model is, of course, complete bollocks, and it's designed chiefly, to save money by a) keeping the really expensive people (the creatives) working for the minimum amount of time and b) making the process look calm and predictable. No good idea has ever happened like this.

The reality of any good process that produces great work is more like this:


It's a mess. A good strategist involves the executers as soon and as often as possible. She allows execution to feedback into strategy and vice versa. Something that happens at the end changes something you thought of at the beginning. It's chaotic, wasteful and unpredicatble. It involves lots of people, lots of dead-ends and wastes lots of ideas. But it's the only way to produce stuff that goes beyond the everyday run of communications. Something that people actually want to engage with. Something that works."

Brilliantly argued. But completely wrong.

"No good idea has ever happened like this."


So M&C Saatchi have never had a good idea? Not their road safety work? Or Vogue.com poster?

There were never any good ideas in the old days, before Honda, before complexity, before the internet?

And ruthlessly simple ideas like 'Lemon', 'Snowplough', the Hamlet campaign, the Lynx/Axe campaign, and Apple '1984' are no good?

Speaking personally, the (admittedly very few) good ideas I've ever had came from a simple brief.

Creatives spend ages sitting around discussing briefs. And all the creatives I know prefer simple ones. Our number one complaint about briefs is that they are confused, unclear or complicated.

Yes, Wieden & Kennedy do produce great work. And yes, it apparently does come out of complexity and chaos. (This no doubt explains the place's nickname - Weekend & Kennedy). But they are not the only people producing great work. And theirs is not the only way to produce great work.


Anonymous said...

All good points.

And I'm only going to have one go at this, because there's no end to it really. And I'm just going to ramble.

First thing, there is a difference between complexity and complication. Just as there's a difference between being short and being simple.

'Picnic. Lightning' is a short description of a death (Nabokov) but it's not simple. It's complex. It's compressed a lot of meaning into a couple of words. Good briefs are short, memorable and dense with meaning. Average briefs are short, un-memorable and short of meaning. Most briefs are average.

Of course M&C do good work and of couse good ideas happened before the internet. It's just that the way we say they happened is usually a lie (Or at least a simplification Ha!) Good ideas happen in conversation between teams, within teams, with other people, around the brief, people circle around ideas, they go up cul-de-sacs, it's just we never talk about that. We always claim it's a linear process. In the old world of a single creative team solving a problem that was OK because the circling was normally hidden behind a door, in the modern world, where more people have to get involved we can't and shouldn't hide the circling anymore.

I'm not also not saying that briefs should be complex, I'm saying that work should be complex, it should have nuance, depth, subtlty, emotion. Too many ads are thin and dumb. Too few briefs acknowledge this. All the work you've cited is complex. It has a simple wrapping with depth of association and meaning inside it.

Freestyle has no message. No proposition. That doesn't mean it doesn't communicate. Would you accept a brief that says 'Nike is cool?' I hope not.

And for the record I think M&C are brilliant and One Word Equity is very smart because they're selling what people want to buy. And we all know that they'll take that and transform it into splendid creative work that contains worlds of complexity in the type, the colours, the art direction, the casting, the everything. They'll just pretend it's dead simple. Which is fine. That's their schtick.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the structure of agencies' idea-generation processes, the answer is this: (and I quote Russell):

"It's just that the way we say they happened is usually a lie (Or at least a simplification Ha!)

Definitely a lie, not even a simplification!

I don't believe there is a single great idea out there that came about from a linear process....the kind that all agencies tell their clients they use (almost all agencies anyway).

The re-packaging of the idea generation process, however, is a necessity due to how we as human beings (clients included) need reassurance in our decision-making. Familiarity, constancy and linearity are normally guarantors of that when it comes to critical areas/decisions.

Clients are generally more comfortable to pay big money when they feel they're getting a 'rigorous' and solid process that seems to flow with mathematical, logical precision and doesn't change depending on the business problem at hand.

It's very hard to sell reality - an unstructured, creative process (read: an unplanned, non-process) that begins with the exploration of hunches, gut-feel and chaos, leads to a couple of hypotheses which are then evaluated 'backwords' to validate / falisfy the thinking based on available data.

It's a packaging thing. The geometrically 'perfect' shapes, such as triangles and boxes provide more credibility in process charts than lines and curves that change form and direction every time will ever be able to do.

Fredrik Sarnblad

Scamp said...

Okay, russell, I'll only have one go too!

I'm not sure I get this...

Let me try to work my way through it slowly. Haven't had any coffee yet this afternoon.

You are against complication. Me too. Great.

But then... are you saying complex and simple can be the same thing... i.e. a simple word like "consolation" (Hamlet brand proposition) is really in fact complex because it can encompass a complex web of ideas about class, gender relations etc?

If so, then I don't see how you disagree with Maurice Saatchi? He'd happily stamp the single word 'consolation' onto the top of every Hamlet brief and have done with it. But you seem to be saying you wouldn't. Unless you would?

Sorry; I'm no intellectual.

The bit I do understand (I think) is the bit about how ideas happen, since it's my job to have ideas and I've been doing it every day for 12 years now. (Okay, I don't have them every day... but often enough not to get fired... at least not recently...)

So how do ideas happen?

They happen when one individual (n.b. that's one individual, not a team or a committee) makes a connection in his brain. A connection between two ideas or things that were not hitherto generally thought to be connected.

("Hey, the squeaks of trainers and ball-bouncing on a court sound a bit like music...")

This step can only happen inside someone's head.

And sorry, it's a linear process. Step 1 get brief. Step 2 have idea.

Any other steps imply a muff-up. E.g. brief was wrong, or ideas were no good. Then you have to have iterations.

And for the record, I would love a brief that said "Nike is cool."

All too often, the simple thing that the client wants to say (Nike is cool) and that the consumer wants to know (which trainers are cool?) is hidden behind a load of obfuscation.

It normally falls to someone like the creative director to see through the obfuscation of the brief. We'll walk in with a brief we don't understand. He'll shut the door and say "don't worry, guys, just do something cool" or "just say reliability" or whatever.


Scamp said...

Hi Fredrik.

What? you mean you planners aren't rigorous? all the boxes and parallelograms and stuff are just packaging?


not sure i believe you. I think you're being modest!

But seriously, maybe you do explore a lot of hunches and go down a lot of false paths along the way. Nothing wrong with that. Clients want that. They want their business problem looked at from a lot of different angles.

All I'm saying is, it shouldn't be like that at the point the brief goes into the creative department.

Creatives want simplicity.

Anonymous said...


I'm with you. Can't imagine anyone arguing for complexity over simplicity for any reason other than as an attention-getting device. Guess it really is a schtick after all. Too bad the schtick gets in the way of the actual message. (Funny how it still comes down to good writing isn't it?)

Anonymous said...

No theory can explain a great ad.

Brutal simplicity comes closest, the most times.

Like democracy, it is the least worst kind of ad. Everything else is just designed to fit someone's theory.

Anonymous said...

It's like the Cold War all over again ... and just as pointless.

You're both right ... you're both wrong ... and at the end of the day, it's not about a 'one-size-fits-all' process that leads to brilliant work, it's a collective philosophy and mindset - a desire to truly captivate and entice ... which is why great work can come from anywhere and why the most impactful creative idea of the last decade hasn't come from an ad agency, but a single woman who wrote a book called Harry Potter on her breakie table.

The quicker we stop all seeking validation for our brilliance the better. For everyone.

Scamp said...

I dunno, Rob. Is the Cold War a good example for "you're both right, you're both wrong"?

I think you're giving communism a lot of credit!

Anyway, I don't think the argument is pointless. I think it's important.

(Although you could argue that having it here is pointless, as opposed to, say, in a cafe where 3 people are discussing how to structure a start-up)

But let's face it, an organisation like an ad agency that has 25, 100, or 400 people needs a system to run by. (Even if they decide that system is going to be 'chaos')

And it's quite important to me what that system is, because people advocating complexity will screw up my life...

Anonymous said...

I think the Cold War is a perfect example for 'You're Both Right / You're Both Wrong' ... but I do appreciate your point as regards companies needing some sort of system to operate efficiently.

[My issue is too many organisations think PROCESS leads to creativity - but it doesn't, it just helps it along]

Now as regards ONE WORD EQUITY - well I do appreciate it and I also understand why creatives [and clients] like it - but I do believe in the wrong hands, it encourages over-simplistic, one dimensional communication that fails to make a real impact on consumers and the clients business.

It's all very well to use Lynx and Hamlet as examples - but I wonder if the thinking behind those campaigns really came from one word or have been post-rationalised to appear that way.

A single word - without context, tone and insight means fuck all [well, actually it means too fucking much] so whilst it's a great PR thing for M&C, there is little doubt in my mind alot more that goes on in the background to produce the great work you guys do.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for simplicity, but I know that the campaigns I've been part of [Apple / Mini / Virgin / Tango] never came about because of one word being handed over [I'd of been shot on sight if I'd done that to someone like Steve Henry] but because we developed a clearly defined idea to focus on - even if brand experts post rationalise it into one word. [ie: Tango / Irreverence]

A question, what would be the one word to define M&C on a creative brief ... and how/why would that be different from other agencies?

Scamp said...

Rob I'm going to be generous. You can have two words! One for proposition, one for tone. E.g. for Orange Tango: proposition=hit, tone=irreverent.

Combining any two words from the dictionary surely gives billions of possible results or areas. Why would you need more?

Anonymous said...

What a sweet man you are ... though you realise you have now just launched TWO Word Equity!

However, given your 2 words to me didn't include 'XXXX OFF', I'll not tell if you don't.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the thing you (Scamp) said about ideas happening inside one person's head.

It reminded me of a debate/argument I was having with a friend about Wikipedia. He said it was great because it was written by committee. I suggested it was the opposite - not committee, but a series of individuals with ideas building off each other.

It's the new meaning of 'team'. It used to be like football (American), with different members of the team doing different things (running, throwing, blocking, silly dancing). Now it's more like football (British) with everyone doing the same thing (kicking) but building off each other.

Or something.

Scamp said...

Nice sport-related wikipedia analogy there, dylan.

The only thing that worries me about the new teamwork thing, or co-creation, or whatever you call it, is that although everyone can have ideas, not everyone can have ideas that are big enough to be an ad, or indeed a whole communications platform. Not consistently, anyway.

The wardrobe person can 'have ideas' ("let's go with this hat, I think the hat will look good") but they are not as valuable as ideas like "Hey, the squeaks of trainers and ball-bouncing on a court sound a bit like music..."

Sounds like i'm being a terrible fascist here, but there it is.

To continue the football theme, you need teamwork of course, and the midfielders who provide the assists are very important, but more than anything else you need strikers who can get you 10 or 20 goals a season.

These strikers are paid the most. They're not better human beings, it's just their particular skill is a bit rarer, that's all.

Unfortunately they're often arrogant, but that's another story.

Anonymous said...

My, you've all been having fun haven't you?
Convetional wisdom these days says that adland is out of ideas, everyone is worried about the future. Don't you think the debate above goes a long way in proving this wrong. There's loads if thinking about what's coming, it's just that Campaign is more interested in black and white shots of people looking mean.
For what it's worth, I think there's a danger in sticking to one theory, media, model or way of using the force. Most will work for some of the time, but isn't the trick knowing what to do when? Doing what's right for right now?