Feature

The battle of big thinking

JWT's Guy Murphy relished the chance to hear adland's biggest, and most stylishly dressed, thinkers talk about what issues face the industry. So what did he learn?

The second Battle of Big Thinking was fought at the Royal College of Physicians recently. Similar to last year's event, it was a superb opportunity for the industry to hear some leading-edge views from 20 of our finest minds, across seven important categories of thought. As judged by the full house of spectators, Poke's Simon Waterfall won the "Biggest Thinker Of Them All" award.

It's a challenge to put on a good conference these days, since most of our industry knowledge is already collectively known via the web. It is also hard, as the APG's Malcolm White recognised in his programme notes, to follow the great success of the first of these events last year. Nevertheless, the competitive format, which gives every speaker 15 minutes to dazzle the crowd, creates a winning formula by putting control of the day firmly into the hands of the delegates. Most left the event feeling as though they had witnessed at least some moderate-sized thinking, glimpsed a selection of extraordinary characters, and heard some once-in-a-lifetime quotes (more of which later).

It is not often you get a chance to hear the views of such a cross-section of our industry. We heard the latest from the worlds of design, green marketing, media, new media and planning. As such, the Battle of Big Thinking is a unique opportunity to look across our siloed industry and assess our collective health. A giant MRI scan, if you like.

Overall, we looked like a worried lot. Colourful and dynamic, for sure, but worried nonetheless.

Every speaker dwelt upon the pace and extent of the changes. As an industry of control freaks, they are making us feel insecure and pessimistic.

"Business models are under threat," Tim Brooks of Guardian Media Group threatened. "Traditional media models are in the shit," Fru Hazlitt strained. Short-term media sensationalism is creating "a pessimistic nation", she added. Hazlitt was a member of the angry marketing triumvirate that began the day with their new show, "Grumpy Old Clients".

Even before lunch was served, Channel 4's Cameron Saunders told us that "planning is dead" (yawn) and "Bad media behaviours are polluting" the new-media promised land, according to Starcom's Pru Parkinson, who stated at least four times that "the Age of Repetition is dead". Richard Murray, of Williams Murray Hamm, topped off his tirade about dull innovation by pointing out "a Walnut Whip couldn't happen today". A stark warning for some, but a blessed relief to others.

Optimism, however, did show its face very briefly when Stephen Kelsey, from PI Global, went on to explain that changes in technology promise eternal life. But in the spirit of the day, he went on to limit the odds of that actually happening to just a single person in the 300-strong audience.

While it is understandable that people want to rehearse the problem, it was surprising how few speakers were able - or willing - to propose a solution. Indeed, our "Big Thinkers" didn't really know what to think of the big industry changes. So while the mantra du jour seemed to be "old things no longer work", there was a paucity of "new things that work well" on offer. We were subject to lots of new vocabulary ("scalata", "seeding plans", "Ghandi marketing") and some interesting observations (such as Simon Waterfall's "digital works in dog years"), but little in the way of cohesive, solution-oriented thought.

In fact, there was a feeling we might be better off if we quit this thinking malarkey altogether, because many panellists felt all this intellectualising was just getting in the way of progress.

"It's the species most responsive to change, not the most intelligent that survives," Brooks quoted (incorrectly). Saunders' Big Brother-style tact continued as he went on to undermine Stephen King's notion of planner as "grand strategist" and reductionist thinking as having any lasting value.

Richard Huntington of adliterate.com aphorised that we should focus on "being interesting more than being right", while 118 118's Chris Moss took the pressure off by endorsing "little thinking and little ideas". Murray later concurred, recommending that we start "thinking less, not bigger". I look forward to the "Battle of Little and Lesser Thought" next year.

Another theme of the day was identity crisis. Most speakers chose to spend most of their address discussing neighbouring disciplines, often in less than flattering terms.

The designer blamed the clients, the ex-planner decried the "shambles of planners", the planner criticised the lack of creative craft, the creative berated research (no surprise there), the researcher bemoaned the gimmick-obsessed clients, the client ranted about media, and the (old) media man criticised new media. The coming Age of Collaboration is going to be fun.

Joel Levy, of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, seemed intent on exploring the complex machinations of political strategy and swing voting, illustrated by the apparently oft-used political mantra of "If you're not winning, you're losing". On the strength of this conference, I don't think we are in any danger of not knowing that we are not winning.

There were, however, a few other optimistic moments.

Coley Porter Bell's Vicky Bullen raised the tone with an impassioned speech (agency creds?) about "beauty". Once again, she told us that "there is too much strategy", and that we should focus on "making our brands beautiful". Just as the feel-good factor was starting to flood back into the room, however, Bullen brought up a study that found the more beautiful the rape victim, the longer the sentence her attacker received.

Jim Hytner later held forth on the topic of "time famine", describing consumer frustration with companies that appear to waste their time. One solution he suggested to the customer service issues that plague our country (or at least him) was a new delivery company that would arrive at your house when requested. He claimed the company could be found at fetch.com, and hopes in the room soared at the prospect of a revolution in the oxymoron that is UK customer service.

I am sure I wasn't the first to be disappointed to discover that this url belongs, in fact, to a data solutions company, a pet directory (.co.uk) and a removals company (.org). Jim, how could you toy with us like that?

During the day, bad news seemed to come thinly disguised as good. Teresa Pereira, Yahoo!'s European trade marketing director, described how Yahoo! can track an individual's every online move over the course of a year, creating a complete 12-month behavioural profile that allows for a previously unknown precision of targeting.

The level of discomfort this brought was heightened when Kelsey spoke about how technology will know people so well it could "fine-tune people's orgasms to bottle up and take home". Hmm. I wonder what kind of future will make that service attractive?

On a lighter note, the conference did not disappoint in showcasing some of the more eclectic personalities that populate our world. I defy any other industry to attract a more intelligent, opinionated, entertaining and characterful team. The winner wore a collection of fake medals across his chest (even before his triumph was announced), as if his spatz just wouldn't cut it alone.

In retrospect, despite the few solutions offered on the day, I feel that if we continue to keep and attract this quality of fascinating talent to our industry, we will be OK. Although our content may be confused, our style is superb. We may not have all the answers, but we do have the people to find them.

Waterfall won because he seemed to be having the most fun. In this industry, we cling to confidence. We want new media to have the answers, because if it doesn't, we are all buggered. While I'm not sure the answer lies in smaller thinking and meeker ideas, I did leave the Battle thinking we need to relax more, enjoy ourselves, and let the answers find us. Medals also seem to help.

I did find there was an omission in the categories of Big Thinking. There was not a category for Big Brand Thinking.

I can't help feeling that people are responding to the changes by staring hard at the changes themselves and searching for a pattern in the chaos. The truth is that change is happening so fast, that by the time we figure out our new-and-improved industry, it will already be obsolete. An understanding of our world has never had such a short "use-by" date.

Instead of trying to piece together the complexities of media, technological, and consumer change, we should be trying to find a simpler way through, acknowledging that we are allowed to move with a degree of ignorance in what we are doing.

Instead of keeping our eyes down in the microscope, trying to see the future's DNA, we should just look up. As Mr Einstein said: "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them."

We should've looked up on our way into the conference because we literally walked past the answer. On the tables, next to the regiments of name badges, was the recently reprinted paper What is a Brand?. That was almost the first and last time that big brand thinking interrupted the day.

We will find our way through the complex jungle of change if we are led by brand thinking. Brands give us a point on the horizon to aim for. When you know what kind of brand you are building - its personality, its effect on the senses, the reason and the emotions - the complex array of choices become clearer to decide between.

If we need to know how to express our brands in a more digital, media-complex world, then the answer won't be found digging around in the world of media and digital itself. The answer will come from asking the question: How would my brand behave?

My thanks go to all at Campaign and the APG, who made the conference happen. Put me down for next year. To prepare, I'm off to Google "spatz".

- Guy Murphy is the worldwide planning director for JWT.

BIG QUOTES

"It's impossible for the Italians to commit atrocities"

"At least Harold Shipman did house calls"

"You (Londoners) might not care what Wales thinks of the Olympics, but at least we can build a fucking stadium"

- Rory Sutherland in a speech about metrics.

"Would I mind being financially destroyed by this person?" - Jim Hytner defines the test of true love.

"We create litter" - Richard Murray introduces his packaging design agency.

"Let's nuke the whale" - Stephen Kelsey dramatises how technology will save us.

"The client requested we film people removing their incontinence pants" - Jeff Payne stresses the need for research to become more intelligent.

"Pre-testing is just a 'shit-test'" - Richard Huntington's roll of aphorisms.

"Asylum seekers carry a strain of Aids that lower property prices" - Fru Hazlitt in a speech about optimism.

"Look at you with your fat ankles" - Simon Waterfall heckles Teresa Pereira's speech.

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