I'm not sure what sense of inadequacy leads planners to use Michelangelo stories as metaphors, but in planning books they seem to be a regular feature. I suppose it's an attempt to make what is basically common sense sound a bit more grand and artistic.
Anyway, to continue that great tradition, my obligatory Michelangelo anecdote is set in the back streets of Rome.
It concerns a little urchin who sat watching the master sculptor at work. After a while, the child called out: 'Aye, Signore, why are you hitting that rock?' Michelangelo looked up, smiled at him, and said: 'Because there's an angel inside and it wants to come out.'
Michelangelo described sculpting in terms of enablement. He believed his skill was to release what was dormant but already there. I believe that there's a natural solution waiting to be freed inside every marketing problem. Of course, it's unlikely to come out unless you pick up your chisel and hammer and work at it.
Why bother at all? After all, we're talking about selling things, not great art. All the agony and the ecstasy of producing the perfect brief might culminate in one little mail pack. And yet, call me sad but I love direct mail as much as the more glamorous mass media. I think it's quite thrilling to pop through someone's letter-box unannounced and make them smile at eight o'clock in the morning.
The rest of the junk mail on the doormat merely serves as the ugly sisters to highlight the perfection of our beautiful offspring. We've approximately two seconds as our sleepy-eyed consumer squints at their post and decides what's going in the bin. I can tell you that it won't be our pack because we've thought long and hard about how to use our insight to capture that consumer's imagination at every level. Even if they don't want what we're selling, they are going to harbour warm thoughts about the brand forever after.
What I'm saying is that the closer we planners get to the consumer, the more we try to understand their hopes and dreams and the processes they go through when they buy, the better our insight and understanding, and ultimately the better the creative work.
And it's with the strength of the creative work that your whole campaign lives or dies, whether that's a website, a mail pack or a fully integrated multi-media package.
Of course, sometimes the difficulty is not so much releasing the angel as persuading the clients that they've got a nice bit of marble in the first place. But that comes with the territory. (Ask Michelangelo about the joys of working with Pope Clement VII.)
The bliss of starting your own agency is that it lets you pursue your own vision. You can go and find clients who are as obsessive and enthusiastic as you are. You can grow at your own pace, only ever employing people whom you believe in and who scare you because they're so good.
We set up Craik Jones to do great work for brands we believed in, with people we liked, and in a good working environment. We would produce intelligent, original, creative work based on consumer insight and understanding.
As the planning director of the new agency, it was my mission to import to direct marketing the emphasis on consumer insight, the brand knowledge and the creative standards of the best advertising agencies.
And that, ten years ago, was not a common view in direct marketing.
In most direct agencies then (and in still quite a few today), what was called planning was actually a database function. It seems crazy now, but there was a belief that consumer understanding could be obtained by interrogating a database. This led to creative briefs that were more like civil service work requisitions. I remember one particularly left-brain example which identified the target audience as 'the top 20 per cent of the acquisition model'. My, how the creative team must have salivated over that job.
Of course, getting close to the consumer is hardly a new thought. But that's not the point. The point is to do it. Don't just take your client's brief at face value, but listen to the subtext of what it's really trying to tell you. Keep on looking at it and shaping it and reworking it until, suddenly, the hairs on your neck start to bristle slightly. If your brief is ready, you should be able to hear a muffled, but unmistakable, flapping of wings.