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Substance versus technique

People are always asking me where advertising is headed. Well, there are big changes happening in advertising right now. We've never known anything like it before, have we?

In fact, I recently got hold of this letter. It's from the creative director of an ad agency, to the board of directors.

"Dear -----,

Our agency is getting successful, that's something to be happy about. But it's something to worry about, too. And I don't mind telling you I'm damn worried. I'm worried that we're going to fall into the trap of worshipping techniques instead of substance.

That we're going to be drowned by superficialities, instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I'm worried that hardening of the creative arteries is beginning to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. But there's one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion. And persuasion happens not to be a science, but an art.

It's that creative spark that I'm so jealous of for our agency, and that I'm so desperately fearful of losing. I don't want academicians. I don't want scientists. I don't want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

All this is not to say a technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make the good better. But the danger is in a preoccupation with technical skill. Or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability.

Yours respectfully."

All the problems in that letter are the same problems we all face. It could have been written last week. But it wasn't.

It was written by Bill Bernbach when he was the creative director of Grey Advertising. Two years before he opened Doyle Dane Bernbach. In fact, he wrote that letter the week I was born.

Dave Trott,



Check e-mail. Facebook. Read the paper. Tweet. Check voicemail. And all of that while watching TV. We are increasingly becoming defined by connectivity. Multi-tasking extends now into most of modern life.

Is that what we really want? Well, many people tell me that multi-tasking makes them more productive. Increasingly, scientists disagree. Even after the multi-tasking ends, Stanford University research shows fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.

I see consequences in my own life. Only ten years ago, I would read a novel a fortnight. Now I fill most of my reading hours with browser behaviour - the sort of material I can consume in seconds: Twitter, news alerts, blogs, e-mail.

Last summer, Emily Yoffe convinced me in an article in Slate, drawing on more than 50 years of psychology experiments, to conclude that the internet feeds the "seeking" part of our brains, flooding them with dopamine, but never accessing the opioids to deliver pleasure to the brain.

Whether it's reading a novel for pleasure, concentrating utterly on a work task or even just spending time on a conversation with the children, it may be time to ask whether, for all our connectivity keeping us plugged in to what's going on, we might do better to concentrate on the task in hand. For our own sake, one task at a time please.



While like most readers of this blog, I am thrilled, delighted and more than a bit jealous of the brilliance behind the new Old Spice campaign (the social media portion, in particular), a couple of business stories I've seen have raised the question of who the campaign is actually targeting and whether, say, followers of Guy Kawasaki would ever buy something from a brand that seems mostly geared towards teenage boys and older men.

The counter-argument to all that chatter though, is that Old Spice is not some hipster upstart, but rather an established Procter & Gamble brand, and that P&G always does things for a reason, with numbers and research behind the reason, so clearly it has something in mind with the way it is running this campaign.

Overall awareness for a brand that's mostly slipped off the radar is one possible theory. So is seeding the ground for line extensions that would be aimed at more upscale consumers or even women. And the final argument is that not everyone using social media is a Silicon Valley professional, and that social media's reach (YouTube, in particular) is much broader than we realise. (Then there's the final, final reason: seeing this campaign actually boost sales would make my life much easier, especially in the "convincing clients this stuff actually works" department.)