Would I Lie To You?

With one child still left in the nest with a chance to go to Oxford, an article in the Telegraph about Oxford interview questions caught my eye. David Leal at Brasenose uses this question for aspiring philosophy students – “Lie, deceive and mislead seem to mean a similar thing but not exactly. Help me sort them out from each other”. Great question. Even if you had a dictionary it wouldn’t help you. What Mr. Leal wants to see is how you tackle the question for which there is no real answer other than “You can’t, without a context”. As a failed Cambridge applicant (Economics) I am tempted to provide an answer that I might have given in the context of a university interview just to show the opportunity they missed. I applied to Selwyn, a college, I was told, was so poor no-one with half a brain could fail to get accepted. My humiliation upon receiving a firm rejection was thus all the worse, slightly eased by discovering that the friend I made in my first week at Bristol had also tried the same strategy and had also been refused by Selwyn. No names, no pack drill, but you know who you are Charlie K (still one of my best friends).

No, I shall attempt to answer the question in the context of marketing. I will seek to prove that only one of them is unacceptable in the promotion of a brand. In the Oxford question, had one said the answer lay in the context, one would have had to go on to show that who was doing the lying, deceiving, misleading, to whom and with what motivation might indicate nuances of meaning. In marketing we can answer that straight away. It is the brand, they might be lying, deceiving or misleading “consumers”  (people) for the purpose of making profits by gaining an unfair advantage over their competitors. I will argue that in which case, there is really only a difference in acceptability.

It’s OK to deceive your “consumer”, brands do it all the time. We spend millions of $ and engage the brightest and most creative minds to deceive people into believing that our brands are better and will improve their lives. It is not just part of what we do, it is what we do. We seek to persuade them that the smallest of performance difference will actually make any difference, that our brand will make you more of a man or woman, a more attractive and confident person, that it will earn you the respect of your peers and the attention of the opposite sex. Oh yes we do.

We mislead people into thinking that our brands are terribly popular among people who, according to our research, our target consumers will find credible and motivating. You don’t think so? So how many Irish people drink Baileys or Magners, how many Aussies drink Fosters? Did Michael Schumacher really help develop that premium petrol, does he deliberately drive out of his way to find the gas station that sells it to put it in his own car? Do all those starlets actually use that shampoo and derive their self-esteem from it? Do they ‘ecky thump. Are our shoes hand crafted in grottos by little elves, is our whisky lovingly scraped from the wings of angels by men in kilts? Or are they, respectively, knocked out in Chinese sweat shops and distilled as a chemical in something the size and appeal of a school science lab?

These days we twitter and post to create ‘a human face for the brand and to engage our consumers’. A slight deception as there rarely is one human guiding the brand, rather a large cumbersome team acting on behalf of shareholders. You are being misled if you believe we really want to engage with ‘you’ because we care about ‘you’. We only care if there are millions of “you” buying our brand. We engage because we have to not because we want to. The old didactic days of marketing were far easier.

Yes we both deceive and mislead people and revel in the focus group findings and Nielsen results that show we have succeeded.

We are magicians, we simply but cleverly misdirect. We use sleight of hand, theatricality, the set-up (is there any difference between planting someone in the audience or paying George Clooney to flog your coffee?).

But we don’t lie and if we do we get caught, which is probably why we don’t lie. You think this is harsh? I imagine if you had been born 100 years ago you would have been convinced Guinness was good for you and Marlboro cigarettes were part of a healthy outdoor lifestyle too. (I still believe both).

I did not get into the easiest college in Cambridge let alone the philosophy department of Oxford. I ended up a murketeer and in the context of murketing, “deceive” and “mislead” mean pretty much the same thing. They are not just acceptable, they are aspirational. A lie is not acceptable and it’s bad for business. That’s the difference.

Or put another way – great advertising is “truth, well told”  not a pack of lies. (Did I pass?)

How To Position Your Agency

It is one of life’s divine little ironies that Ad agencies, for the most part, are not very good at marketing themselves. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. Clients get preached to that they must have a clear positioning based on real differentiation that is both fresh and relevant. The clients must not try to be all things to all people – they must have a clear creative target in terms of user and/or ‘needstate’ (hate that word).

This is the springboard for a strong, distinctive identity that must permeate every consumer touchpoint (I’m getting all the buzzwords in here) and provides the platform for great – not just good – communications. And of course the client must back this up with a stream of innovations – you can’t be all sizzle and no sausage, you gotta give us some new news to advertise.

The typical Ad agency can’t even make up their minds whether they should be called an Ad agency (should it be Comms, Through-the-line, Born Digital or Brand agency?). They might have a decent identity and the benefits of some cool interior design (especially the all important reception area) but to what brief exactly? They call themselves original names like “Athos, Portos, Aramis and D’Artagnan”. Athos is the suit, Portos is the Creative, Aramis is the Media guy and D’Artagnan is the New Media guy.

Perhaps they do believe there is something different about their agency but as someone once said (I think it was Nigel Bogle of BBH but I might be wrong) “all agencies start out wanting to be different and they all end up looking just the same”. Why is that?  Because as someone else once said (I do know who it was but will spare his blushes) “any question to an agency that starts with ‘Can you’ always gets the answer ‘yes’”.

There are some exceptions – but not many and even fewer once the agency gets any scale and/or the founders move on.

As for innovation, ask any new marketing technology start-up what they think of Ad Agencies and you will find out just how receptive big agencies are to innovation ideas. “New, different, better, first, best, only – great but none of our clients have asked for this so we’ll wait until they do. Or I’ll tell you what, we’ll set up something called Athos, Portos, Aramis & D’Artagnan Labs, a place where we showcase the latest and best in new marketing and positions us at the bleeding edge of technology. Then we’ll wait until a client says they fancy giving it a try, we’ll add our margin and then screw up the implementation because we won’t invest any time to understand how this new stuff actually works.”

OK maybe the comments on the luddite nature of Ad Agencies are a little harsh – they’re true but to be fair clients don’t offer much encouragement. They prefer to be courted directly by the new tech start ups, then they run a charter project which if it works they will palm off the rollout to their Ad Agency, who will of course then f**** it up and blame the technology.

But what excuse is there for having no positioning for your agency? And yes it is possible but it does require principles (driven by the principals), a point of view, dare I say it a consumer/client facing view of the world.

Let me illustrate my point with two examples from little old Cape Town. I was at the birthday party of a really good friend who is CMO of one of the biggest businesses over here. She had invited an old friend and colleague of hers and mine who is a very senior Regional President of a very large global business. We introduced him to some other mates who run a couple of relatively new agencies based in the Mother City. Both have very clear positionings. One is called OFYT which officially stands for “Old Friends, Young Talent” but which is unofficially known as “Old Farts/Young Turks”. The agency is run by 3 very smart and experienced people and they have attracted some other highly experienced mates to work with them. Clients get to work directly with the kind of senior talent that not even the biggest agencies can field. They have made it their business to hire very junior but high potential talent often from under-privileged backgrounds (so there is a strong feel good factor here). Clients get to work with top talent underpinned by young fresh ideas at a better price.

The other agency is called Bletchley Park, it is run by a really smart marketing guy and probably the best creative in the country (any country). Their positioning is very simply “Beautiful Problems”. They want to work on only the most interesting and most challenging marketing problems where strategic thinking, creative ideas and practical thinking are needed to crack them – just like the folk who cracked the Enigma code at Bletchley Park.

Guess what – the Senior Regional President (a very experienced and super bright marketer himself) got the ideas in a nano second and loved them both.

A good positioning will do that for you.

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