Richard Exon: Why actions will speak louder than words in year ahead

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Richard Exon is the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R
Richard Exon is the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

Rather unfashionably (you do the funniest things with a bit of extra time on your hands), I've just been rereading the published diaries of Alan Clark, the 90s Tory minister and MP.

Controversial at the time, these memoirs are still compelling because what he lacks in empathy and, frankly, decency, he makes up for with impressive honesty about his own shortcomings, fears and doubts.

The passage that stuck most in my mind, though, and made me think about all things marketing and communication in 2012, was where he relates Margaret Thatcher's (referred to cloyingly as "The Lady" throughout) utter bemusement at what she regarded as an emergent, in 1988, national obsession with feeling rather than action. Just as Yoda famously said "Do or do not, there is no try", Thatcher apparently dismissed general observations of what might/could/should happen on any given issue, always demanding of her ministers: "That's all very well, but what are we actually going to do?"

This is the kind of pointed interrogation that politicians themselves have since found themselves subject to from Paxman et al - "Thanks for the mood-music, Minister, but what are your policies?" - and is exactly the short shrift that consumers will increasingly give brands that go heavy on sizzle but light on substance.

One of the joys of working with Virgin Atlantic, for example, is that this airline has always matched its highly emotive brand personality with rational product advantages - superior in-flight entertainment, first true flat-bed, eye-popping club house etc.

Yes, it remains true that modern brands need a reason to exist beyond the stuff they sell. But in a world where Time magazine makes "The Protester" its Person of the Year 2011 and the 2012 US presidential primaries are informed by the competing popular activist groups Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, we will likely be working with brands that, more than ever, are judged by their actions rather than their words. Compelling manifesto messages - "At XYZ, we believe ... etc etc" - will no longer be sufficient in themselves. Consumers in 2012 aren't going to let us or our clients off the hook that easily.

This is challenging and exciting in equal measure. Take the deftly handled Virgin Money launch by Beattie McGuinness Bungay. The scale of the threat this represents to the bigger, more established banks is far more dependent on what Virgin Money will be doing differently (plenty, one imagines) rather than what they say differently, elegant though that is.

So, in 2012, I for one will try to hold Paxman's (I can't bear Thatcher's) voice in my head, asking me what, exactly, I am going to DO.

Richard Exon is the the outgoing chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R


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