The Outlaw In Promotion
Marketing is not just something that every organization should have or every organization should do. As a blueprint for creative thinking, The Outlaw is a way of thinking and a belief system that should permeate our industry and inspire everyone in it, if we are to continue to be valuable and valued.
Information technology, the liberalization of markets, the globalization of the market economy, the fragmentation of media, and the shift of Western consumerism towards experience and desire-based drivers and away from needs-based drivers, all contribute to the increase in importance of intangibles and the dominance of creativity, coupled of course with the ability to apply it as a primary asset of businesses and organizations today.
When I worked in the States in the eighties, I was struck by the open acknowledgement, even by some practitioners, that there were 2 kinds of promotion. Creative promotion and promotion that sells, whereas in Britain the creative imperative was widely accepted at the time.
I think that since than things have changed for the better in the States, nevertheless in these recent straitened times in all of our markets, in which some organization clearly still see creativity as a luxury, the reality is that more than ever The Outlaw way of thinking is not a choice it is a mandate.
In fact debatably, there is no other industry in which creativity in its broadest sense (which would encompass innovation and even boldness) is such an absolute prerequisite as it is in promotion.
In many other industries which use innovation, creative skills and creativity are only a part of the product mix. The film business, while producing highly creative and innovative new films, is also openly enslaved by formula.
Likewise, the music business churns out endless best off and compilations alongside the genuinely new bands and albums. Architects, software developers, game designers have a leading edge and a bleeding edge, however all also have genuine markets for the familiar and the tried and trusted.
In other aspects of culture, I may appreciate and thrive on the new and the different (or I may not), however I will surely at least some of a the time be comforted, reassured and entertained by the familiar, in fact often by the identical. This self evidently can't be said of promotion at least in principle. I think it's less about in principle and more about in theory.
People consume music, games, film, etc. in an open and active marketplace. They exchange money for them and exert choices and preferences for them. They do not consume promotion in the same way although it exists in the same cultural space and of course we use this term (to consume) to describe what people do with promotion.
This, while being the bleeding obvious, is at the heart of the creative imperative for promotion and is often overlooked. Like other aspects of culture, promotion of course operates in the public sphere, nevertheless unlike other aspects of culture it is compelled to intrude and will only effectively be consumed if it succeeds in doing so in some way. It makes sense then that the sine qua non of any promotion is to get noticed.
In purely neurological terms, the brain notices what's different and relegates or files away the familiar. Suddenly, resist the usual becomes less of a folksy slogan than an astonishingly compelling summary of pattern Recognition and Signal Detection Theory, and at least 2 vital and reputable scientific fields are clearly seen to support The Outlaw way of thinking for promotion.
One of the most gleeful and persistent predictions of the last 10 years has been that of the death of mass media and of promotion. In fact in the firmament of promotion services as a whole, promotion is now pretty much the business that dares not speak its name.
There would be no such thing as as broadcast, mass media and little occasion for shared media experiences as people endlessly interacted with programming or entertainment in real time. Certainly they would not be passive consumer or even receivers of promotion, as they would naturally want to edit that out. Their world would be entirely on-demand and customized. And boring, and isolated, and predictable, and of course as it turns out, deeply unlikely. This vision of the future consistently overlooked the social nature of being human and the herd or tribal instinct of the individual human being.
It also entirely took too lightly the hedonics of the physical browsing and shopping experience and took too lightly the ability of conventional retailers to innovate towards this. It dismissed the entire foundation of the entertainment industry, i.e. that the vast majority of entertainment is lean back not lean forward, because people like it that way.
It overlooked one of the driving features of the market economy as defined by Adam Smith, that one of the primary functions of wealth is the display of wealth, and that hence we must have a shared understanding of what the signifiers of wealth are, i.e. brands and brand values and images.
And it also overlooked why brands evolved in the first place to make choice more simple in an oversupplied, overcooked world. Five years later, the bubble burst and while many of the frantically predicted effects of the internet are now happening more slowly but for real, they are largely creating shifts in the balance and mix of people's behaviour rather than changing it completely.
While mass market ratings have declined as a percentage of the whole, TV promotion both in the UK and in the US is more in demand and sold for more of a premium than ever. There are still many shared media experiences and we still have water cooler (or pub or chat room) conversations about ads and programs because of course they are part of our shared culture.
The power of good television promotion, in particular to work broadly over a population and quickly in time, is still dramatically demonstrated everyday by tracking study results.
There are, however, also wonderful new opportunities in other media and in using media and the mix of media differently that are now available which, when The Outlaw way of thinking is practical, give us even more chances to innovate, add value and have fun doing it. Creativity and The Outlaw way of thinking are still vital for the science of promotion to work as moat of it still works on the push model and much of it always will.
Creativity is even more essential than ever now though as complexity increases as networks of connections, influences and channels multiply, as people's experience dissects their image of things in more and more ways at more and more points.
Being creative in how you communicate is a much, much more weighty responsibility when everything communicates. People's experience of thing in general and brads in particular is highly impressionistic rather than highly opinionated.
It is also constantly changing and evolving relative to other brands in contexts which we can't know or control. Jeremy Bellmore uses the lovely image of a bird building a nest from twigs and found objects to describe this. A similar argument runs through the work of Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell, which, in this interconnected world, the most vital and great communication about a brand is that between customers and other customers, rather than that which happens between a brand and its customers.
Communication and specifically promotion has never simply been about the paint job at the end of the production line, nevertheless these days that way of the production line, nevertheless these days that way of thinking, that way of using creativity is positively dangerous.
In fact, there is one law that I consider probably be worth codifying at this point and that's the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is no longer possible to simply measure the effects to our intended messages on our intended target, and trade off conversion against wastage.
We need to understand that any action will have an impact on all recipients and that the negative impact probably be as powerful an influence on the many as the positive is on the few. Why is it still OK for the direct marketing industry to response that a 3% response rate is a good thing if it can be proved to be cost effective? When about the 97% you bored, insulted, misunderstood, inconvenienced or angered in order to achieve it?
A similar argument might be made about promotion which seeks to shock or pander, or indeed promotion which clearly creates a promise which bears no relations to people's actual experience of the brand.
So the challenges for promotion are far more complex now and hence the requirement to harness creativity throughout the process is clearly there. Our industry recognizes creativity better than most because it has been an imperative
for us for so long. We know how to foster, use, manage and reward creativity.
We accommodate The Outlaw way of thinking, whereas many client cultures would find it unfamiliar and the organism would tend to expel it. The way of thinking that might be termed The Outlaw way of thinking, so prized in our culture, should then be even more valued by our clients.
And yet there is a sense in which we are our own worst adversary in this industry; by seeking to become more like them by being seen to be more driven by rationality and accountability when in fact we should be helping them to be more like us. The two are not incompatible at all. They are just different parts of the whole. As Bob Dylan once said, Only an honest man can live outside the law.