Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Future of Advertising is a Mystery

Problems reside in things; mysteries surround people

Earlier this month, on This Week, Gilbert and George explained to Andrew Neil when asked whether they were conventional or eccentric, that they do not see themselves as either. They said: “we are weird and normal at the same time. We don’t believe in conventional or eccentric”. How refreshing! The idea that complete opposites can live in harmony despite the differences, makes for a much more interesting world. And it makes for a much more interesting ‘team’. And, I would argue, makes for a much more interesting environment, in which one solves more interesting problems in more interesting ways. This should be the future of advertising.

I think we should stop seeing our job as ‘manufacturing’ messages and arguably, stop seeing our jobs as solving problems. Why don’t we start seeing our role as solving mysteries. Problems require ‘solutions’ and solutions tend to be thought of as ‘final’. But what we do, isn’t imbued with that kind of finality, or certainty , or rationality – not in the information age.

Usually, brand problems exist in various guises, they hide amongst things, then reveal themselves, and just when we think they are extinguished pop up again elsewhere as something altogether different. Brand problems move around, they’re social – and in this digital world we live in, they don’t disappear. So I see what we do as much more akin to solving mysteries than solving problems.

If we ‘Re-Imagine’ what we’re doing as solving mysteries, we start asking different questions. We don’t expect to ‘extinguish’ something, we expect to ‘understand’ it’; we don’t expect the solution to reside in one simple action, but in a variety of spaces; and we don’t assume the answer lies only within analysis rather from a combination of analysis and imagination. Like Gilbert and George, a mystery has within it both ‘weird’ and ‘normal’ and therefore requires both weird-ness and normal-ness present together to tackle it.

In summary: We are no longer taking on a brief we are taking on a case!

Like Holmes, Morse, or Columbo, when we take on a case, we start with behaviour; that of the suspect, that of their associates, we look for patterns and anomalies. We assume that what we’re being told is not entirely the ‘truth’ and we search for fragments of gossip, information, and other types of stories that are given from various perspectives …and whilst we do, we tend to believe our eyes more so than our ears.

Imagine the implications for how we approach data. We should be investigating it for patterns and perspectives. Seen through the lens of ‘mystery’ we’re not simply seeing data as a way to ‘analyse’. We see it less as a stream of numbers, and more as a snapshot of behaviour and therefore ultimately, an insight into human nature.

We would look for the human stories within the numbers. Searching not for ‘answers’ but for patterns; approaching it from various perspectives and searching for links with other things we have observed in ‘real’ life. For what we should be doing with data, is exactly the same thing we do when we sit on a park bench or at a pavement café – we’re people-watching. If we’re in the business of mystery, our data analysts are merely people-watching, albeit from their desks.

The interesting thing about this is, whilst people sometimes don’t want to pay for ‘data’, because it’s just numbers isn’t it (!), and therefore in some sense a commodity; people do pay for stories. Over thousands and thousands of years, people have paid for access to plays, poetry and pantomimes. Because story-telling around the human condition has universal appeal – unlike problem-solving (your problem isn’t necessarily the same as mine) which is particular and seen as ‘specialist’.

Anyway, in the realms of data if we think we’re solving a problem we’ll look for similarities; if we think we’re solving a mystery we will look for similarities as well as differences – we’ll be looking not only for the normal (the things that seem ‘true’) - but also for the things we don’t understand - the weird. For example, often it appears to no longer be ‘normal’ to be a ‘normal’ weight. What do we now perceive as ‘normal weight? Perhaps a size 8 if you read Vogue, but size 16 if you shop in M&S. so, what is ‘normal’ for someone who reads Vogue and shops in M&S? Again this moves us from framing the task as one of ‘analysis’ to framing the task to one of ‘understanding’. Problems reside in ‘things’; mysteries surround ‘people’.

Which brings me to teams: I hope by now, it’s become clear as to why whilst a ‘collective’ might solve a problem, it will never solve a mystery. It’s for that reason that we might want to re-think not only ‘agency’, but ‘collective’ as the right format for describing the optimum team-dynamic. The team solving a mystery needs to be normal, and weird. Like Gilbert & George it should be a partnership. Which does not necessarily suggest similarity; in fact it could be made up of complete opposites; complete opposites that co-exist.

We are in an era of which I would like to term as ‘co-incidence culture’. Where people are doing lots of seemingly contradictory things at the same time. One in which people are at the same time exercising individual rational choice and being influenced by social norms; transmitting digital data whilst enjoying the physical reality; sharing whilst being completely alone; ‘liking ‘ the things they are at the same time moaning about it; and giving away one thing whilst buying another. In this crazy culture of co-occurrence, of co-existence and synchronicity, how can we isolate and identify things as ‘problems’ – as if something utterly ‘weird’ needs to be utterly ‘normalised’ by us.

To finish where we started, the entymology of ‘mystery’, in addition to meaning ‘truth via divine revelation’, is also explained as ‘handicraft, trade or art’. The sense of craft-skills, intuition, experience and humanity is all there, and a better way of describing what we do in the world of pluralism these days.

After all a leap requires both a ‘left’ and ‘right’ and could never come about without both.


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