The art of more: a strategist's manifesto

Technology and economics have conspired to elevate tactics above strategy in advertising. But, on the tenth anniversary of the IPA Excellence Diploma, Nick Kendall says that the pendulum has swung too far - it's time for the big ideas and the long-term thinking to make a comeback.

Nick Kendall
Nick Kendall

At its simplest, I believe in brands.

I have spent most of my career sitting at the feet of Messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty. So baked into my thinking from an early age was an unwavering belief in the power of brands and advertising’s unique role in building them.

My belief has grown, not wavered

As my experience and knowledge deepened, so has my respect for the value of brands.

I have seen the uses and benefits of brands multiply as the world has changed around me. Brands are marvellously adaptive tools; intellectual Swiss army knives with a built-in update ability.

In short, I believe brands have utility, not just as communication organisers but as alternative chief executives. Brands can supply vision, a compass to guide a business, a living expression of the contract between company and consumer. A tool to shape the experience of the whole business, not just a blind taste test.

I believe in brand ideas

I believe not just in the power of brands but also the power of brand ideas.

Indeed, I should confess, I love them. I love ideas.

Not executions (though I love them too), but big, fat brand ideas. The bigger the better. For three reasons.

First, they are the epitome of distillation and reduction. In a world of over-choice, they are the haikus of brand management, and I love haikus.

Second, brand ideas have a public tangibility that any amount of brand diagrams and videos cannot capture. That is why the broader media so often hoists a company by its own brand idea.

Third, brand ideas by definition are required to engage and be felt in order to cut through. That is why I have found people – internally or externally – tend to prefer to work with an idea, not an explanation. If brands are conceptual glue, brand ideas are superglue.

But even as I/we all admire and proselytise the power of brands and brand ideas, I believe market forces beyond our control are pulling us away from putting those beliefs into action.

Sometimes I fear we are in danger of becoming an example of the modern-day "cookery shows as porn" inversion where people spend more time watching them than actually cooking. Maybe we are beginning to spend more time talking about brands and brand ideas than actually building them.

Indeed, I would go further and argue that those forces are pulling us into a focus on the short term and the tactical versus the long and broad. And, in so doing, we are being pulled away from our core added-value role as partners – building brands and ideas for the long run.

The manifold market forces in play

For me, there are manifold forces, all acting together and all interacting to seduce us away from the long and the broad effects of what we do.

In the broader environment, I see the rise of economic theories in books such as Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen’s Absolute Value that focus on purchasing as a wholly rational process and brands as losing their purpose "in the age of (nearly) perfect information". I love that "(nearly)" in their title.

In the business environment, I see the rise of accountability, and the need for proof, driving us to focus on what we can measure most easily, no matter how often we warn ourselves against doing it.

In the media environment, I see the rise of just-in-time targeting that allows us to focus on those "in the marketplace now" versus those in the future or on the periphery as onlookers.

I see the rise of interactivity that has inevitably drawn our focus on to the final part of the consumer journey into purchase; the final click, and the fulfilment of demand versus the creation of it.

I see the rise of promotional offers as a share of total budget. I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review by Thales Teixeira that reported that, in 2013, promotional budgets were 2.5 times bigger than advertising budgets, versus being evenly matched in 2000.

In the research environment, I see the rise of research and data tools that focus on the intermediate or immediate effect.

I see the decline in the average tenure of brand managers and chief marketing officers, leading to stop-and-start management and discontinuities. And I see the average length of agency/client relationship dropping in length from seven years and two months in 1984 to just two years and six months today.

These are just some of the market forces I see at play. I am sure you see these and others.

Market forces are undermining our belief in the long term

To be clear, the forces do not mean to do what they are doing. Each of these forces is a necessary part of the world we live in in business today. Indeed, many – particularly the rise of data and interactivity – are wonderful opportunities.

To be equally clear, I am not an "either/or" kind of guy. I believe in "and".

Any modern practitioner and professional, and any modern agency, has to build the mindset, skills and capabilities to combine and blend these new forces into their thinking and ideas.

They offer us a new golden age of agencies when we can manage the long and the short, the broad and the particular, the strategic and the agile.

The pendulum has swung too far

I am not trying to go back. To put Pandora back in the box. But I do believe the pendulum has swung too far.

When the chief executive of the world’s most famous agency, Kevin Roberts, stands up in front of a room of senior business leaders at the Institute of Directors’ Annual Convention and proclaims brands and big (brand) ideas are dead…

"Brands have run out of juice. Now the consumer is boss. There is nowhere for brands to hide… the big idea is dead. There are no more big ideas. Creative leaders should go for getting lots and lots of small ideas out there."

I guess I just worry.

And when I see young IPA Excellence Diploma delegates follow their leaders and herald the end of strategy and the triumph of tactics, or that long is just a series of shorts, or that we should light lots of small fires and see what happens etc, I guess I just am not surprised.

I fear the market forces are becoming us and our own views. They are becoming our beliefs.

I believe we need brands and brand ideas even more, not less

I don’t know about you but, in a volatile world, my answer is to look for things that can create clarity, that can create meaning, that can fix a broken world rather than add to the noise.

And so I would argue that, in our world, brands and brand ideas are needed more and more to glue things back together – both conceptually and tangibly. We need ideas to fix it.

We need bigger, not smaller, ideas

If you think of what a brand idea is required to do in today’s world, it needs to be inspiring enough to create demand and agile enough to exploit it. It needs to be emotional, functional and social. It needs to engage inside and outside to create loyalty. It needs to spark communications across channels, and innovation in product and service. It needs to help organise a myriad of channels and activities.

To achieve this, it needs to be baked into the business idea and become more than an executional tool. It needs to become a culture-shaping tool. It needs to be bigger, not smaller.

…and therefore

In truth, the debate has to go much broader than the diploma. We need to think harder about how to push the pendulum back. For example, maybe we need to commission and publish our own long and broad effectiveness cases, rather than hope they will enter the Effectiveness Awards.

I personally would love to learn about the value of Nike, having had one brand vision and one brand idea across multiple markets, both sporting and geographic, versus Reebok’s multiple short-terms ideas, or Adidas’ idea changeover every four or five years. Or learn more about British Airways’ ROI on "To fly. To serve" both internally and externally; or, for example, how the idea helped BA reshape its holiday proposition as well as improve summer sales.

I am sure you can think of your own "therefores". But, for my part, I do believe training our future stars in the fundamentals of what a brand is in the 21st century is something we have to do.

Not everyone can have the pleasure of learning from Messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty. But they can all study the shared texts, learnings and case histories of our business and be encouraged to think what "they believe" on the back of that.

On the tenth anniversary of this diploma, I would like our movement to grow. Both broadly by extending the diploma around the world and around agency groups, and inspiring many more future leaders.
Together, I believe, we can tip the balance back to our future.

Nick Kendall is a founding partner of Bro-Ken and former group strategy director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He is the author of What Is A 21st Century Brand?, part of a trilogy of best-practice books from the IPA. It will be published by Kogan Page in April priced £39.99