There’s a deep-seeded angst amongst creatives. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling it too. A sense of sensing something. Something seemingly insurmountable.
Over last few years, I’ve watched countless colleagues leave the business. They go to a startup, take client-side jobs, and go to Apple, Google or Facebook. Some just say, “fuck it.” Based on the proliferation of articles in my Twitter circle, there seems to be a pretty universal theme - advertising’s not worth it anymore. Bernbach’s resignation letter shows up every couple weeks. Linds Redding’s bit in the SF Egoist was a big one. The article itself was insightful and damning. Then, the byline at the end…devastating. I lost an entire afternoon asking, “what the hell am I doing?”
George Parker blames the holding companies, which is part of it. Many more blame the always-on speed of digital. The quarterly desire for financial efficiency combined with instant measurement leave little room for considered thought. It doesn’t help that CMOs are job-hopping every couple years - the new one always wants to blow things up. But like everything creatives do, and everything that resonates with consumers, there’s something deeper going on in our subconscious. And those subconscious thoughts are what matter.
It’s pretty much proven most people don’t think much about brands. Our beloved "differentiation" doesn’t register with consumers at all. Consumer decisions aren’t based on the rational stuff we put in ads. Sure, a crazy Black Friday door-buster might get attention, but it won’t do anything for your brand. The purchase decisions are subconscious, particularly on commodity products - and let’s face it, what hasn’t been commoditized? How often do you think about glass cleaner? You don’t. But somehow, when you go to the store, something deep in your brain kicks in and you pick the one you irrationally think is better. A few seconds every few months is about all the thought you’ll ever give to glass cleaner. But there’s something there.
That thing in the back of your mind, yeah, that’s the brand. Good brands decide what they are and demonstrate it consistently for years. It’s not how it’s “new and improved.” It’s not about the great new package. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s a vague notion of what a brand stands for which has been developing for years in your subconscious. You’ve never actually thought about it.
Where does that work come from? It also comes from a subconscious place. Great ads, the ones people talk about, are never rational. (If you can name one great ad that did well in testing, I’m happy to learn.) They tap into something deep in our collective human-ness.
Einstein once said, “Creativity comes from waste.” And there’s something to that. It’s a deeply inefficient process - because it has to be. You take a bunch of rational input, then after banging on it for a while, going down lots of dead ends, you stop thinking about it for a bit, something snaps in your subconscious, and there it is. You connect your brands purpose with scene you saw in a movie. A product innovation reminds you of a turn of phrase from your grandmother. Some irrational ethereal connection. (I could go on for days, but a considerably better written version is Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works.) But there’s the rub, we’ve pushed efficiency to the point where there’s no time for input.
There’s that old joke, “If you can’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” We’ve never worked a 40 hour week. But we used to have more control over our time. If you were stuck, you’d go to a movie in the middle of the day. Or go for a long walk. Or, we could put it aside for a day or two and work on something else to clear our heads. Those days are long gone. We sit in 8 hours of meetings a day. Then, somehow, have to make stuff after hours all in the name of productivity. But the belief that working more hours leads to more productivity has been repeatedly proven false. We’ve squeezed efficiency on creative development to the point where there’s simply no way to sustainably come up with ideas. No time for input. No time to push it off to the subconscious. No time to step back and look at it.
Put that all together and you start getting at that thing bugging us. The immediacy of digital kills time to dig into those subconscious thoughts that’ll resonate with consumers. The margin pressures of public companies create additional pressures so we never have time to really get at it. We end up regurgitating the rational bullet-pointed list in the brief. And once you finally spend a year or two cranking stuff out, and starting feeling comfortable with the brand voice on a subconscious level, a new CMO comes in (or the account goes into review) and it starts all over again.
A sense of sensing…