’So what do the plankton eat?’
Francis Bacon famously said knowledge is power. If you were being picky
- and as an ex-planner old habits die hard - you could argue this is a
In actual fact, since there is no true way of defining knowledge, the
only thing you can confidently say is that power lies in the search for
As a result, those people and companies who commit themselves to this
search most strenuously tend to be the least complacent and most
And, of course, this search is based on questioning. Lots of it. As the
ancient Chinese proverb goes: ’He who thirsts for knowledge must
question the earth, the sea, the moon and the stars.’ (Source: made-up
Chinese proverbs, May 1999.)
At WCRS, we reckon that questions are the most valuable weapon in the
communications armoury, bar none.
Which is why, perhaps more than anything else he has achieved over the
last 20 years, Robin Wight is famous for defining the principle of
’product interrogation’, with its attendant exhortation to ’interrogate
the product until it confesses to its strengths’. That, and the bow
Given Robin’s general fanaticism, it is virtually impossible to get an
ad off the premises until it has been questioned to within an inch of
its life. The result is what we call hard-centred advertising.
Scrape a WCRS ad, we like to think, and you’ll soon be scratching your
nail against a substantial and compelling product truth. Call us
old-fashioned, but we still believe this is the first obligation of
advertising - to supply people with a solid and unequivocal reason to
It’s not rocket science, but you would be surprised how often
advertising seems to stray from the point.
As our founding client, BMW is a classic example of hard-centred
For 20 years the campaign has been providing concrete evidence of why
BMW is the ’ultimate driving machine’.
And yet, in the world of car advertising, it remains something of an
As an advertising sector it is awash with borrowed interest, lifestyle
flannel, and flimsy user imagery. BMW is not the only exception to the
rule: Volkswagen, Land Rover and Volvo build their campaigns around
solid product claims. But, curiously, the club is a relatively small
So, if product interrogation seems a rather obvious place to start, it
remains an entirely valid one which can still be surprisingly
But it is not sufficient in itself. For all the BMW factory visits,
cam-shafts, cylinder heads and carburettors, our campaign has never been
an encyclopaedia of product nuggets. By far the most important word in
the endline is ’driving’ - the intangible and emotional side of the
BMW owners are not distinguished by their superior mechanical knowledge
of automotive science, they are distinguished by the fact that they love
driving and by their corresponding desire for a car which actively
involves them in the driving experience - as opposed to an armchair on
wheels designed to obviate the unpleasantness of getting from A to B (if
you want that, buy a Merc).
So, product interrogation is only one part of a restless questioning
process. There is no point in having a strong product claim if it isn’t
strongly connected to an over-riding emotional need.
Thus, when we talk of hard-centred advertising, we don’t necessarily
mean that the centre should slavishly involve a tangible product point.
(Mind you, try telling that to Robin.) It can just as well be
intangible, if this is the richest source of competitive advantage.
Our work for Camelot is a good example of a re-engineering exercise
which shifted the centre for advertising away from tangible towards
After weeks of intensive questioning, we began to realise that the
problems the Lottery faced stemmed largely from a positioning which had
increasingly begun to emphasise the tangible outcome of playing - namely
winning and, more specifically, winning the jackpot.
The problem, of course, is that the odds of this tangible outcome are
rather long - and the more our hopes are built up, the greater our
disappointment each successive week.
As we started to get the answers to our questions, we realised we needed
to re-frame people’s expectations. Instead of selling jackpots we needed
to sell possibilities: unresolved, intangible and, as a result,
sustainable week after week.
The hard centre in this case involved the nerve to re-introduce doubt
into a product which had become too closely associated with likelihood
in millions of individual minds.
In contrast to BMW, the process took us away from the product and into
the playing experience. But the end point was the same: a non-rejectable
proposition; in this case the simple observation that ’unpredictable
possibilities make life more interesting’. The greatest advantage of a
questioning approach is the simplicity it imposes on any given
Like a child’s reductive logic, it leaves no scope for ambiguity or
waffle, and it tends to lead to profound answers as opposed to
Moreover, if you’ve managed to dig one, two or three levels deeper than
your competition, it’s likely to give you a disproportionate advantage
since, ultimately, their more shallow roots will come adrift and they
will be forced to reposition off you. Witness the flurry of rebranding
in the mobile phone market following the launch of Orange.
So what’s all this about plankton, anyway? Well, it relates to a story
my wife tells about a time when she was working for the World Wildlife
Every so often she had to give wildlife lectures to local schools where
she tended to fob the local youth off with a talk about the ocean’s food
chain; the delicate ecological balance between the predators and the
prey, the sharks, the fish, the whales and, of course, the plankton.
On one occasion she had just finished her talk explaining plankton’s
role at the bottom of the food chain, when an inquisitive but puzzled
seven-year-old enquired: ’So what do the plankton eat?’
Charles Vallance is the managing director of WCRS
Advertising and archaeology may sound like strange bedmates. One
concerns itself with tapping into the most up-to-date market trends and
consumer needs. The other, the study of ancient and long-forgotten
cultures by digging up relics and remains.
At WCRS we think there’s a strong connection between the two, which is
why we like to look backwards before looking forwards. Excavate the
ancient remains first, and then work out if the brand needs a new idea,
identity or line. You would be surprised how often the consumer
remembers what client and agency have long since forgotten.
One of the first things we do is ask: ’Is there an old ad idea waiting
to be reconnected with the brand?’ Sometimes a gem of an old idea can be
buffed and polished and made to work harder than any new idea.
Ah, but what do the creatives have to say about their precious blank
sheet of paper, I hear you ask? Well, ’not invented here’ is a syndrome
WCRS is mercilessly free of. Proof of this is how comfortable the
creative director, Rooney Carruthers, is with sticking by an old ad
property if it is strong and can be built upon.
The creative challenge is often to keep those long-term advertising
properties fresh, not to try and recreate them. In 1979, when BMW
awarded us its business, the first thing that was done, along with some
consumer research, was an examination of the global markets and how the
brand was presented.
’The ultimate driving machine’ was a line used in the US, and was a
prime encapsulation of the thoughts drivers articulated about the brand.
It was adopted as a statement of intent of the brand’s future
aspirations and is now an enduring brand property. And when it came to
winning the Land Rover business in 1997, ’the best 4X4XFar’ was one
wheel we weren’t looking to re-invent.
So why are we so convinced that optimising returns from old brand assets
should be the first port of call? Because if we rediscover and reconnect
a brand to its founding principles, we will have a greater chance of
enhancing that brand’s footprint by building on what’s already
Getting people’s attention has to start with a relevant product message,
but that on its own is not enough, particularly when product
differentiation is harder and harder to find. The only way that
advertising will ever be effective is if each bit of it connects
together and is part of a long-term advertising property.
Obvious? Not when you consider how often brands chop and change their
advertising properties, often caused by a new team trying to make its
mark. Certainly not when you consider the usual situation we are in when
having this debate. It’s usually pitch time, and brave is the agency
that says it wants to resurrect an old line or campaign when the client
is there precisely because they want to move the brand in a different
It’s tempting to ignore when we know it’s inventive thinking that will
win the business.
Which is why it takes brave clients that think long term about their
brands. Clients who get out their shovel with the rest of us and start
carbon dating. This means putting as much energy into making old ideas
new as it does into creating completely new ideas. Creating enduring
brand properties is at the heart of what we do, and sometimes we have to
be brave enough to admit that one is staring us right in the face.
Debbie Klein is the planning director of WCRS.