Some aspects of modern life are completely unfathomable. The success of Mrs Brown’s Boys, for example. The Trivago woman. Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But of all the great imponderables of our age, none are more enigmatic than the questions you get at the end of a pitch. Agencies pore over these like ancient Romans picking through chicken entrails – except without the intellectual rigour or predictive accuracy.
Hidden meanings are not only sought in the questions themselves, but who asked them, in what order, and with which expressions on their faces. Then, after exhaustive analysis of every eyebrow movement, laugh and handshake, the team’s greyheads deliver their perceptive verdict, which is always: "It’s difficult to say".
Of course, some comments require little interpretation. "Thank you for all your hard work" obviously means: "We can’t believe you have put so much time and money into this risible idea and we have absolutely no intention of awarding you our business."
Likewise, "You’ve certainly given us plenty to think about" clearly translates into "You’ve given us plenty to laugh about in the taxi home". Meanwhile, "You’ve shown a great understanding of our brief…" needs to be read with the coda "…which we gave to you a month ago and which you have just parroted back without enhancing. PS – your creative idea is rubbish."
Then there are the double-edged ones. For instance questions like "Is this doable on the budget?", "Have you checked out the soundtrack?" and "Are they available?" are usually gratefully received as buying signals. But after a decade or two of bitter experience, you learn that they can equally be silent screams to the rest of the marketing team ("FFS Caroline – we’re never going to get Geoff to sign this off!").
The worst question
There is one query that causes more head-scratching and bullshitting than any other though. An inquiry which marketers appear to be contractually obliged to ask at the end of every pitch. A question which agencies dread because it sounds entirely sensible but cannot be answered with a straight face. It’s this one: "How do you see the idea working in five years’ time?"
As I say, at first sight, this seems like a highly reasonable request. Companies have become too short-termist in recent times, so we should applaud any desire to look further ahead. Except that there’s a big difference between developing a concept with long-term potential – and literally predicting how it will be executed in half a decade’s time.
To illustrate the conundrum, one need only consider how the world has changed in the last five years. Brexit. Trump. Corbyn. Alexa. Tinder. #MeToo. Perhaps you foresaw exactly how all of these would pan out – but most of us didn’t (even if we might have spotted some of the underlying trends). And the same goes for a thousand and one other shifts, both big and small. So if you claim to know precisely how a newly formed idea will manifest itself in 2023, you’re either being dishonest, naïve, lazy or all of the above.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the future, or make educated guesses as to what might happen within culture, your own market, competitive set, brand and consumer landscape. In fact, the opposite is true: it’s more important than ever to attempt to create your own future, rather than have it dictated to you. But it’s a mistake to mix up strategy and execution.
Perhaps an analogy with parenting might help. Most of us will be familiar with the claim that today’s children will end up doing jobs that don’t currently exist. Therefore, the argument goes, we should try to make sure they’re adaptable rather than fixate on a specific career. I reckon the same applies to ideas these days. Our job as marketers and agencies is to develop big ideas that are highly flexible, rather than try to map out exactly how they will grow up, far into the future.
So if you’re asked how an idea will work in five years’ time, I’d focus on the qualities that give it longevity, rather than literally describe how it might look. Is it based on a deep and enduring human insight? Is it true to the brand’s role in culture? Does it feel like it’s capable of multiple articulations or is it tied to a particular expression? Good marketers will be more interested in these strategic questions than executional guesswork. Just be careful if they congratulate you for "all the hard work" behind your answer.
Andy Nairn is a founding partner of Lucky Generals