Brevity is a skill, so speak simply
A view from Callum McCahon

Brevity is a skill, so speak simply

Callum McCahon, strategy director at Born Social and Media Week 30 Under 30 2017 alumnus, shares his lessons from the ladder.

We're living inside a giant echo chamber - it’s time to break out.

What’s the single biggest problem facing our industry at the moment?

The rise of the management consultancies? Ad fraud? The digital duopoly?

All credible answers, but there’s one which is much more pressing: we are all operating inside a warm, cosy, self-perpetuating echo chamber.

We all speak like each other. We all think like each other. We all create work like each other. As a result, we’re moving rapidly away from the stuff that really matters.

Here’s how we should address that.  

Solve the business problem

The most dangerous implication from our residency within the echo chamber is that we have drifted away from our fundamental reason for existence - creating effective work that solves business problems.

I’d argue that the majority of the work produced by our industry is more interested in winning a pat on the back from peers than making a dent in real, meaty, business problems.

We strive for originality and creativity instead of impact and results. A Cannes Lion instead of raising the bottom line.

We have to get back to basics. Spend real time and resource defining the business problem, before starting to figure out how we’re going to solve it. Stephen King’s planning cycle is timeless, for one simple reason - it forces us to think in this mindset.

Understanding, clarifying and communicating a business problem is a real skill that needs to be honed. Make sure you are working with people who can do this well.  

Our metrics for success should simply be the extent to which we are solving the business problem. Kill any and all vanity metrics, they’re just a distraction.

Nothing leads to real-world effectiveness as reliably as a well defined problem.

Champion long-termism

We’re high on the supply of ROI.

The rise to dominance of performance marketing has meant that we’ve never been better at showing the return on investment in our work. That’s clearly a good thing.

The byproduct of this, however, is that that we seem to have forgotten the importance of good old fashioned brand building.

The work that doesn’t sell in the short term, but builds an image in the mind of the consumer. The ads that change perceptions. The spots that make you famous. The bread and butter of our industry for so long, now wholly out of fashion.

In The Long and Short of It, Les Binet and Peter Field warned of "the considerable dangers of judging success over the short term and of assuming that it will apply to the long term".

They recommended "a balance of brand (long-term) and activation (short-term) elements", accompanied by "a balanced scorecard of metrics capable of monitoring both short and long-term effects".

This report came out four years ago now, and I’m still not sure we are taking their recommendations seriously enough.

The key lies in knowing that the two activities - short-term and long-term - aren’t mutually exclusive.

Short term and long term strategies can work beautifully in tandem. Short term delivering on the long-term groundwork. But we all know that that rarely happens.  

Firstly, inter-agency politics will often stand in the way of such a truly integrated approach.

Secondly, we make what we can measure. Our metrics are much more reliable and accurate for short-term activity, so we neglect the long-term brand building work.

We can only solve this if we work out a more accurate way to measure brand building activity, and commit to working in a much more collaborative way.

Speak simply

To an outsider, the ad industry is intimidating.

The vocabulary we use holds a lot of the blame for this. You need a glossary on you at all times to even begin to understand it all.

This leads to a clear "us and them" feeling. Those on the inside of the industry and those on the outside - with an unbridgeable chasm in between.

This means we often speak in a different language to our clients. We do this to look smart and clever. This is one of the great fallacies of our industry and as a result we sacrifice true agency-client collaboration.

This undermines our ability to create effective work. We’re often solving a different problem to the one the client needs, because we aren’t on the same page.

More importantly perhaps, apply it to the young people considering advertising as a career. The vocabulary we use has a serious negative impact on our ability to influence outside of our echo chamber. People just switch off.

No one applies this better than Dave Trott. Brevity is a skill that should be held in much higher regard.

Anyone, no matter what level you are operating at, has the power to apply this to their work. Don’t fall into the trap. Speak simply.

If we just committed to these three things - solving business problems, championing long-termism, and speaking simply - we’d be in a much better place as an industry.

What are we waiting for?

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