The Direct Approach: The outside world

It is essential to remember what it was like to be 'just' a consumer if the industry is to keep up with change, John Minnec says.

I'm not really a fan of Big Brother. Like a lot of people I was initially intrigued, but now I've grown tired of both the format and the contestants. It's contrived and formulaic, relying on ever more extreme tactics to make the news (although, to be fair, make the news it does - even I know Pete won, whoever he is). Seven series in, it seems to have had its day.

Defenders of Big Brother often claim it has value as a sociological study. On the face of it, there's something in this: take a dozen or so strong and distinctive characters, stick them in a room, cut them off from the outside world and watch them slowly disintegrate. By the end of the whole interminable marathon, contestants tend to turn into either shadows or grotesque caricatures of their former selves. It's Lord of the Flies for the text generation, but without the grizzly descent into murderous chaos, even though there are times when you really, really would like them to kill each other.

What the series illustrates is that human beings, left to their own devices and isolated from wider society, struggle to remain rational and analytical. It shows that we become boring, self-obsessed and, to be honest, pretty unimaginative and irritating.

So, why have I spent the first part of this essay banging on about an ageing reality TV show format? Consider our industry for a second. Communications is about tapping into the real world, real people and real lives. It's about inhaling as much of life as possible to create cogent, persuasive, compelling messages and engage with audiences. To do this, we attempt to assemble teams of the most interesting, intelligent, eloquent and artistic people. In more recent times, we have tried to immerse them into communications culture, attempting to add a layer of professionalism and training to bring legitimacy to our efforts. People enter our industry now with degrees in marketing, diplomas in advertising and A-levels in media studies. In some ways, a person's agency career can begin at school, where they can study communications almost to the exclusion of the wider world.

Of course, aspects of this are hugely positive. Training is a vital part of delivering what we do, and the fact that people can gain a working knowledge of communications theory at 16 has a definite value to us. Equally, as our work - particularly in the direct and digital arenas - takes on a more technical complexity, it's hugely important that our expertise is as consummate as possible, and that it is refreshed regularly to keep pace with any changes. A lack of professionalism is a criticism levelled against our industry on many occasions over the years, so it's only right that we should take serious steps to address this.

But there's a flip side to this issue. Like the Big Brother housemates, we're in danger of losing touch with the outside world. Instead of challenging received wisdom, we make decisions based on it. We slip into routines, we make assumptions, we dismiss possibilities that stray beyond accepted best practice, we subjugate ourselves under rules, guidelines and traditions. And you know what the worst aspect of all this is?

We've constructed a closed system, in which our techniques and methods are perpetuated with each new entrant to the industry. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting someone with a degree in marketing isn't going to be a brilliant addition to the payroll, but in a world so utterly dependent on remaining fresh, we seem hell-bent on becoming stale.

In many ways, we're getting too close to our work. This might seem ridiculous in a world that prides itself on devotion to the job, but we have developed a slightly skewed view of what we do. Naturally, we notice and appreciate advertising more than "normal" people. We also, sometimes, value qualities in our work that may not necessarily help us sell products. Mike Figgis (Campaign, 18 August) recalls someone telling him that he knew too much about the process to appreciate films any more. He didn't agree entirely with this assessment, but he conceded that they had a point. Crucially, as an industry, we forget how much most people dislike the fruits of our labours, which could be considered a fatal character flaw, especially if it leads to us delivering ill-conceived, irritating executions.

Creatives from places like Argentina and Sweden have been responsible for some of the most exhilarating work in recent years. They are hugely talented, of course, but there is no question that a large part of their appeal comes from their fresh perspective. It's natural for them to think and do things differently. Looking around my office, my head of planning began his career as an architect and my client services director was an engineer. The industry is littered with latecomers who, having lived a life away from our world and all of its idiosyncrasies, turn out to be breaths of fresh air; new brooms, enthusiastically sweeping away the cobwebs of tired concepts, prosaic ideas and outmoded traditions.

The pace of change we are experiencing in our industry makes it more important than ever that we embrace these influences. Not since the birth of commercial TV has our landscape altered so dramatically in such a short space of time, and there is a very real sense that we are entering "year zero" in our relatively small universe. As techniques change, it is vitally important that we not only change with them, but also retain an outsider's view. It's essential that we remove ourselves from the business, retain that critical eye, remember what it was like to be "just" a consumer, and bring ideas in from other walks of life if our industry is to prosper. There's a new reality taking shape all around us. Marketing today is based on an emerging model - one that doesn't follow all the same old rules, and requires us to address diverse, multiple audiences via a host of new and challenging media.

The people are still watching Big Brother, but the voices of dissent grow louder, the tactics more desperate, and the housemates more ludicrous and extraterrestrial. If we continue to grow insular and parochial, the danger that the public may switch off altogether is as real as the prospect of Big Brother not making it past another series. I wouldn't be alone in celebrating the latter, and we only have ourselves to blame if the majority of people would rejoice in the former.

- John Minnec is the managing director of Draft London.


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