Here’s a great tip for fun in a meeting: ask everyone how advertising works. It always leads to blank stares; then, when everyone has had a chance to think about it, you normally get to something about condensed message delivery. Which might be right. I have no idea, but I find it interesting that we do so much without ever thinking about it. Some agencies actively make sure there’s consensus at the beginning of the project but, largely, we just blunder on doing what we’ve always done.
I once saw Paul Feldwick illuminate this situation by talking about "espoused theories" and "theories in use". "Espoused theories" are what we say about what we think – in this instance, they are what we say about how advertising works. "Theories in use" are what our behaviour indicates we actually think. To put it confusingly: "espoused theories" are only what we think we think – they are often not what we actually do.
I thought of this when reading a brilliant post by Patricia McDonald on her blog, Planning In High Heels. She does a fantastic job summing up the current consensus in "planning thinking" – what you would get if you asked the average planner about how brands and marketing work. For instance: "That brands are now built as much by what they do as by what they say. That we live in the age of a vocal, connected consumer where peer-to-peer influence is now powerful at scale. That ideas are used, shared and propagated in networks, not solely in agencies. That consumers are telling us, in real time, more about what they need and want than ever before, and we can and must respond to this in real time."
Some agencies make sure there's consensus at he beginning of a project, but largely, we blunder on
Or: "That brands grow through scale, not depth. That most consumers, most of the time, don’t care very much about brands. That they care enormously about the things they have always cared about – connecting with their loved ones, building social capital, connecting around their passions, improving themselves and their communities. Old motivations, new techniques."
It’s a powerful summary of the consensus in the world of brands. And it’s a measure of the influence of the planning community how little of this has had any impact on the behaviour of brands and advertisers.
As McDonald points out, we need to "work harder to add value, not simply have a presence". We need to move it from espoused theory to theory in use. Stating it as well as she has should be the beginning of actually doing something, not starting the hunt for an alternative.
Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service