Category Archives: advertising

Design for collaboration

Years ago I heard a fascinating anecdote: Ferrari was such an artisanal company that any mechanic would be able to build the whole car just by himself. A management guru would call this a holistic approach, but at Maranello it was just seen as knowing how to do their job. To this date I don’t know if that anecdote was ever correct, but even if it was at the time, I’m certain it no longer is: electronics have made cars exponentially more complex, and no mechanic can make sense of the whole thing any more. Every Ferrari is now the result of a multitude of highly skilled talents working together: out goes the artisan, in comes the crew. The same is true for pretty much any job, and the need for collaboration has generated a flourishing industry of books, processes and technology.

What this industry has produced so far is ambitious and fragile: it requires significant investments in time, money, effort and patience, and doesn’t come without problems. Not all companies are willing to outsource their whole project management or to throw away the baby with the bathwater: not everything can be left to Agile, and not everyone can be abandoned to Hola.

If that’s you, here are some guidelines on achieving meaningful collaboration, based on over 10 years of work in creative companies in Europe and Asia. They can be boiled down to a tweet:

Hire talented people. Then provide an environment where they can be at their best.

It’s as simple as that, you just need to follow through. That’s the hard part.


This is absolutely obvious, and absolutely disregarded. We spend too much time talking about talent and too little effort dismissing everything else until we find it. Lack of collaboration is the evidence that your team may just not be very good, because, despite conventional wisdom, detrimental egos are more associated with mediocrity than with brilliance.

In short, talented people love to work with other talented people and will actively pursue every opportunity for collaboration.

Talented people hate to work with mediocre people and will actively avoid any opportunity for collaboration.

It’s not because they have an ego. It’s because they don’t want to wast their time and spoil their work. Thankfully.


This is equally hard, but it shouldn’t be. In fact, there is an extensive body of research on what kind of spaces and processes make organizations more productive and effective. It’s been validated across cultures and industries, and it’s left sitting in the shadow of management myths.

This is a much bigger problem than we acknowledge, because space is destiny: neighborhoods with walkable access to shops and services have higher levels of trust among neighbours; schools designed like prisons result in more violence and less education. It works both ways, and right now our offices are working against us.

1. Get rid of the open plan offices

They’re not trendy. They’re not cool. Nobody likes them, and even if someone did, they don’t work:

There is no excuse. It’s costing you more money than you think you’re saving, and making everything worse in the process.

2. Get rid of brainstormings

That’s another popular myth that should have died a long time ago. Brainstorming was invented in 1953 as a method for group thinking based on deferring judgment and reaching for quantity. It was proved useless only a few years later, and since then the evidence of its flaws has been piling up:

  • Deferring judgment “appears to be a counterproductive strategy […] debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition”
  • Combining and improving ideas (1+1=3) fundamentally ignores that an idea is good within its context, and two ideas can hardly share the same (cronut, anyone?)
  • Group thinking disregards how “people are more creative away from the crowd”, while instead “over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressurise others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity.”

So if your usual brainstormings involve getting a bunch of random people in a room to throw ideas against a wall and see what sticks, stop. If anyone complains, tell them that science is backing you up. brainstorm

3. In fact, get rid of as much as possible

Enforcing collaboration doesn’t work, and is actually counterproductive.

  • Newsletters may be useful, but if no one is reading them you should give up: spending time on something nobody wants is a waste and sends the wrong signal. Focus instead on creating work so good that it makes people curious about it.
  • Work-In-Progress meetings should be abolished: they’re the equivalent of press releases, but they leave everyone under the impression that they’ve been working together. If real collaboration is required, it should be a working session. And if it’s just a matter of sharing information, there are better ways to do it than congregating half a dozen people around a table.
  • Collaboration councils should have the same expiration date as a yoghurt: real collaboration must happen at a granular level, and if a council doesn’t instigate that within a few days or weeks, it’s never going to succeed.
  • Get rid of most of your vocabulary: you only need a very few common words to make sure you speak the same language, but most corporate speak is engineered to be a verbal fence to keep people out, resulting in the same old words spoken by the same old people and leading to the same old ideas.

4. Keep people together

Collaboration either happens organically, or it doesn’t happen at all, so you want the key doers of a project to be physically together (to question, integrate and improve their contribution) while keeping everyone else distant (to avoid distractions and misaligned incentives).

At the same time, you want to give visibility to what the group is doing so that the rest of the organization can take it into account and approach it if relevant.

The best example I’ve seen of a space designed to accomodate this set of constraints is the MIT Media Lab in Boston:

  • Each project is assigned to a team of 3-6 people that is assembled at the beginning based on the skills required and dismantled at the end
  • Each team is assigned a room where all the work happens
  • All rooms have glass ceilings and walls so that everyone can have a bird’s eye view of the purpose and progress without interfering
  • The building is designed to maximise the relative exposure of each room

The whole space feels like a hybrid between a factory and a museum, and I think that’s exactly the purpose: a place where  some people can make stuff, others can see it happen before their eyes, and the two don’t get in the way of one another.

Now compare it to open plan offices: they are designed with no separation between doing and showing. It’s no surprise that they turn out to be spaces where people talk to one another incessantly but hardly get work done. Space is destiny.

5. Use gravity to your advantage

Minor details in the environment trigger instinctive, unconscious changes in our behaviour that can make a huge difference: heart surgery patients in intensive care units who viewed landscape scenes reported less anxiety and stress and needed fewer pain medications. If space design can affect our hearts, it can surely affect our minds and hands.

Furniture and objects exert a gravitational pull, and they can drive us closer to, or away from, collaboration.

  • Use higher tables and stools instead of traditional (or worse, lower) tables and chairs where you want people to work together: higher tables draw our eyes and hands towards the surface, and make it more immediate to write, draw, sketch.


  • Put ideas and knowledge that you want to share up on the walls, the columns, and all other potential canvas for people to be effortlessly exposed to them. Digital content is great, but it’s too easy to avoid and too hard to dig out. Physical content has an inevitability to it. Just don’t go for lame corporate slogans.


  • Advertise what you’re working on: not the specific deliverable, feature or component, but the intriguing problem you’re trying to address. How do we put a condom in everyone’s pocket? How do we get people to leave a supermarket feeling like they got more than they paid for? Is there something that ice cream wouldn’t improve? These are some of the question that we’ve been working on lately, and they’ve been formulated to capture the attention of lazy eyes. The point is not to get people to provide the answer, but to be interested enough to be drawn towards the project.

Designing for collaboration is first about removing all the processes and constrictions that try to strong-arm people into working together and are actually counterproductive because we have mastered the art of avoiding what is imposed upon us, and even though we may occasionally pretend to collaborate, in reality we’re just sitting next to each other.

We should instead start from naked spaces where our spontaneous will can emerge and be recognized: if we employ really talented people, they will naturally want to collaborate; if we don’t, no mandated policy can make it happen.

Next, we should add small, invisible nudges that minimize the distance from thinking to doing. 

Lastly, we should get out of the way and let them be.

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10 wishes for advertising in 2015



and more importantly…

2. NO MORE 360º





and let’s start shifting our focus…



and that means…






and it’s not just about past versus present…



and really, really…



if we manage to do that, then nothing is impossible. Even…



and finally…



HAVE A GREAT 2015…. 

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Marketing and the sharing economy: get smart before someone else does.


(An edited version of this post first appeared on Campaign Asia)

Here’s a revealing exercise that we never do: the next time we go home, let’s take out pen and paper and start making an inventory of everything we own. How much of it do we use? How much do we need? How much do we want?

This is not a clichéd hunt for the pair of trousers we haven’t worn for the past 7 years, or for the picture frame that we never even unpacked. It’s something more fundamental than that.

Dating back to when our personal understanding of the world was formed, we either had something, or we didn’t.

Of course there were services that we had access to and never really owned, such as public transport, schools and streets, but they were exceptions of such a large scale that we instinctively felt they belonged to a different category. When it came to goods we consumed, we either owned them and used them, or didn’t own them and didn’t use them, apart from occasionally borrowing them from a friend.

As a staple of my formative years goes, that’s how we ended up owning “a fucking big television, cars, fixed interest mortgage repayments, leisurewear and matching luggage, DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning”.

Some of it makes perfect sense, but do we really need to own a drill that we use once every two years, and generally with embarrassing results? How about a lawnmower?

It’s not like we thought it was a good idea at the time:

we knew it wasn’t, but it was the only one we had.

The emergence of the sharing economy over the past decade was built on the hypothesis that the ownership model was not the commercial equivalent of the end of history, but rather an incidental situation dictated as much by the alternative opportunities that we were missing than by the wealth we had acquired: the advent of a networking technology and culture is providing the platform to test this hypothesis and investigate what goods we’re willing to part from, and what instead we will still like to call our own.

While this process is still in its infancy, as changes in human behaviour are much slower than the marketing news cycle, we can already identify some driving forces.

It’s natural to desire

Croesus and Solon — 1624; Gerard van Honthorst; Kunsthalle Museum — Hamburg


Let’s start by dispelling a common myth: the literature blaming advertising for making us “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like” is as large as it is superficial.

The truth is that, despite what we may think of ourselves, advertising is not that all-powerful, and it was never about “inventing desire” as it was about inventing responses to desires people already had. The fundamental human motivations are always the same, and they’re not going to go away: the network economy offers the opportunity to design new solutions to fulfil old desires. A service like “Bag, Borrow or Steal”, for instance, still gives you access to high-end designer handbags that make you stand out, but letting you borrow them on a monthly basis instead of buying them.

Of course, there’s a reason why we could have done this 10 years ago, but we’re only talking about it now.

Events change minds


Environmentally-conscious activists spent the best part of the last decade trying to persuade everyone who’d bother to listen that we should buy less, eat less, consume less: they failed.

Then the financial crisis hit, and the middle- and lower-class in the West found itself forced to downgrade and downscale. When that happened, our brains played a trick on us:

Behavior often shapes attitude more than the other way around, so finding ourselves unable to own more due to financial circumstances made us post-rationalize it into a better option in the first place.

This accelerated our critical view on consumerism, to the point that now, according to “The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy”, a global survey by advertising agency Havas Worldwide, 46% of people in 29 countries ranging from Argentina to Vietnam prefer to “share things rather than own them” and 56% resell or donate old goods rather than throwing them away.

While we’ve been forced into this disposition by events beyond our control, it’s entirely possible that it will leave roots deep in our minds, and we won’t necessarily revert to the same old habits even once we have the means to do so.

After all, just like the financial crisis gave millions of people the motivation to experiment with a new behaviour, that same new behaviour is in turn giving thousands of marketers the right motivation to experiment with new go-to-market strategies. gives you free airport parking by letting you rent your car while you’re away.

IKEA ran a two-week promotion turning its Facebok page into a digital flea market where people could buy and sell used furniture.

UK’s DIY leader B&Q created “Streetclubs”, a service that helps neighbours come together and share tools and other household items.

While these three examples are all enabled by digital technology, it took a double shift in mindset to make them happen: without a crisis that generated talk of a “new normal”, ideas like these might still sit on the fringe of what’s acceptable by mainstream consumers; and in turn, a decrease in traditional spending paired with an openness towards new models gave the most innovative marketers a licence to pursue innovation more radically than they would allow themselves to when the economy was growing.

If anything, what’s holding back more of such experiments on a larger scale is a conservative corporate culture that is fixated on selling the same products rather than fulfilling the same needs, and that underestimates how radically different alternatives can reshape whole industries and leave consumers better off in the process.

A call for “smarter marketing”

This is our brain when we hear the word “New”

This is why the popular call for “smarter consumption” is somewhat misplaced. Consumers respond to the environment they’re provided with, and while they now have a greater power to affect it than ever before, it’s at the same time irresponsible and dangerous for marketers to wash their hands of the problem.

As we said, people’s desires don’t change, and if we don’t find new ways to fulfil them, they’ll stick with the old ones. In particular, as we humans constantly long for all things “new,” fans of sustainability should not delude themselves into thinking that consumers can be convinced to keep what they have until it breaks.

They don’t replace the old with the new because we manipulate them into doing it against their instinct; they do it because it makes them feel good.

We should find ways to generate that same feeling without turning Earth into a waste bin, or we’ll be responsible for it because this is our job, not theirs.

Nobody needs a new tablet every three months, so how do we make old tablets feel new? How do we make a new use of tablets without making new tablets?

And since nobody needs 100 different tablet models, how do we produce just enough to keep people happy and the market innovative, and make a better use of the time and resources we liberate?

These are marketing questions for marketing professionals, and eventually someone will answer them: that’s why “smarter marketing” is not just a moral call, it’s a competitive requirement.

While hotel groups were busy building more hotels because that’s the business they saw themselves in, Air BnB created millions of accommodations without laying a single brick.

H&M increased their inventory without a stitch being sewed by collecting 7.7 million pounds of used clothes to be resold or converted into other products.

The Walgreen drugstore chain partnered with Taskrabbit, an online small jobs marketplace, to deliver over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to customers unable to make it to the store, effectively growing an ubiquitous sales force without hiring a single new employee.

Zopa, the UK’s leading peer-to-peer lending service, has issued loans in the amount of 500 million pounds without branches or upfront capital.

These examples are not about the clichéd “doing more with less”,

they’re really about “doing better”.

An old marketing quote states that “people don’t buy quarter-inch drills, they buy quarter-inch holes”. There are now more potential alternatives to drills than ever, and people don’t even need to buy them. So what’s the smarter way of giving them that hole?

Is Salient the new Viral?

Do you know someone who seems to regularly say exactly what you’re thinking, but using better words? To me that’s (Jed Bartlet and) Martin Weigel. Good thing he has the good taste to voice his opinions before I do, so I can at least avoid the embarrassment. (Although that also implies that he’s either way more efficient than I am to find time for it while producing brilliant work, or he’s just as lazy but gets to those ideas faster than I do. Both scenarios are rather discouraging.)

Case in point, his list of “Words I hate” that I would sign with my own blood (except for strategists: I don’t like “planner” because it leads to an abundance of plans and a shortage of ideas), and his general disdain for Adland rhetoric.

That’s why I’ve been scratching my head over his two long posts about Differentiation v Saliency. He makes a great job of combining an extensive range of sources to make the argument that:

  1. Consumers are just not that into brands. Virtually any attempt to engage them in a relationship, join a conversation or expect them to respond to the intricacies of your brand are futile, delusional and egotistic. (Spot on!)
  2. Shopping metrics show that consumers are highly unloyal, purchasing from a basket of brands for each category, and disproportionately rewarding the market leader. Consumer segmentation models that distinguish between the Brand-X woman and the Brand-Y woman are a work of fiction.  (Can’t argue with that…)
  3. This is backed by research showing that consumers can’t differentiate between brands, across almost all brands and categories. Differences in brand attributes are overwhelmingly explained by scale. (Hmm….)
  4. Consequently, our efforts towards differentiation have been misplaced. If consumers don’t spend enough time in their purchase decisions, then there is no point explaining the differences between products. We should get out of the persuasion business. (Hmm hmm…)
  5. We should instead find creative ways to turn our generic, un-ownable products into something exciting and worth remembering. This is what it really takes to trigger a purchase. (Ouch…)

When I first read the articles I couldn’t reconcile how much I agreed with their initial points and how unconvinced I was by their conclusions. I thought it boiled down to a contradiction (Did we fail to create brand differentiation or did we succeed but it was proven worthless? You can’t have it both ways…), but there is more to it. So let’s complicate this:

Brands are not people, my friend

Let’s get the first two points out of the way: most normal people want to engage with other human beings, not with commercial abstractions.  They don’t want to own your brand, nor are they keen to join any conversation with it. Virtually all segmentation models produced by the corporate world are bull-s**t. End of story. I know it, you know it. Let’s move on.

Spot the difference

There’s a difference between saying that brands are undifferentiated and that most brands are undifferentiated. While it’s true that we have plenty of examples of interchangeable brands, we also know some that are wildly recognized as different, with research to back it up: Volkswagen v Chevrolet, Barclays v The Cooperative Bank, Innocent v Minute Maid, Jil Sander v D&G,  Singapore Airlines v American Airlines…

There’s more: there’s a difference between saying that “consumers don’t differentiate between brands” and that “according to research, consumers  don’t differentiate between brands”. The output of a research is only as good as its input. Most brand equity researchers test fundamental category attributes with very traditional questions, and what you get out of it is not very insightful. Take sportswear: if you run a traditional test on items such as “modern”, “athletic”, “successful” you probably get very similar results between Nike and Adidas, with differences explained by the relative size of the user base. But if you instead ask them who would win in a street fight, you get much more revealing results. I know because I asked.

Let’s face it: we’re really not that good

This is a point I feel very strong about. Martin looks at how central “differentiation” is in the marketing textbooks, and concludes that if we failed despite all our efforts, then it must be unattainable. I have a very different point of view: we’ve been rubbish. You only need to walk into virtually any meeting room of virtually any company in the past 40 years to see the same words written on virtually any brand identity model: how many banks are about “fulfilling dreams” and being “by your side”? How many mobile operators about “being better together”? How many posters have we seen with headlines such as “Capture life”? Or “Never miss [X]”? And how many “Inter-racial-urban-young-adults-raising-their-hands-at-a-gig”?

We should take a good look at ourselves as an industry and admit it: garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, some brands make the opposite mistake: in an effort for textbook hyper-differentiation, they look for the tiniest granular ownable property (2% more whatever-unpronounceable-ingredient) and expect that people will care. This is true, but we shouldn’t benchmark our strategies on this kind of rubbish. The quest for ultimate ownability should have been pronounced dead ever since the question “But can’t our competitors also claim X?” first received the answer: “Yes, but they’re not.” Let’s move on.

Let me entertain you (?)

The traditional Christmas cake in Italy is called “Panettone”. It’s a very simple product: a sweetbread filled with raisins and candied fruit that is mostly produced industrially and, to be perfectly honest, is not what you would call an unforgettable culinary experience. It’s mostly produced industrially, and it’s the kind of product you only think about once a year: every Italian family buys one for Christmas lunch or dinner, with an attitude that is more about ticking a box than anticipating a festive delight.

You can now understand the challenge that a friend of mine was faced with a few years ago, while working on a brief for a brand of Panettone that was going to spend the same budget of its 4-5 major competitors, who were targeting the same consumers with the same message (ie. “Yummie!). The fans of “saliency” would advocate saying pretty much whatever you want as long as it’s not repulsive (“we’re not in the message business”), but doing so in a compelling, exciting, memorable way. My friend did something different and, well, complicated things a bit. He bet on the hypothesis that even though Panettone is a tick-boxing purchase, it can be about more than taste: while everyone else claimed yummie, he put all his chips on “soft”. He believed that the weekend before Christmas shoppers would flock to supermarkets and, faced with a half dozen equally legitimate brands and similar packages that all claimed to taste good (who wouldn’t? and how can you believe it anyway?), they wouldn’t know where to turn to. He knew they’d want to buy something that their children wouldn’t complain about, and there was his answer: “soft.” Children like softer cakes more than harder ones. And not just that: old Panettone gets hard, so you can desume that fresh Panettone is soft; as for another non-negative, soft also makes it seem less likely to be dry.

Did he convey that in a memorable, compelling ad like the Cadbury Gorilla? Not really, as you can see below. But it was enough for Panettone Motta to achieve record sales that year. And the following. And the one after that.

What’s the big deal?

So why am I writing a ridiculously long post about something that was written months ago by a guy whose other opinions I agreed with before and since? Because I see a risk hidden behind that argument, the same I see in Dave Trott’s words advocating that being interesting is more important than being relevant. It’s not just that there is no silver bullet (but it’s always worth repeating that); it’s also that we fail to grasp the complexity of our job.

I believe that the single most important contribution a creative agency can make to a brand is making it distinctive. Not just distinctive among all the other distractions we’re exposed to today: I agree with that, but it’s not enough. We must also make it distinctive among the competing options that shoppers are forced to consider, especially when they’re frustrated about it.

No one  is happy about how electronics retailers are displaying tens of tens of TVs forming an endless black wall. But this is how things are, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We also can’t pretend that shoppers will walk into an electronics shop and not be shaken by such a wide choice, no matter how preeminent brand X was in their head before they walked in. “Sony Balls” was a great ad not just because it was memorable, but also because it gave shoppers a cognitive shortcut to navigate through that choice: “Colour”.

Martin Weigel recognizes this when he quotes Romanuik and Sharp (Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience, 2004) and their recommendation to consider a range of attributes associated with the brand in any measure of salience, but we should also be aware that this is not very different from what we’ve been trying to do for the past few decades. We simply haven’t done it very well, for many reasons.

If we instead celebrate “saliency” as a Copernican Revolution, the process of dumbing everything down that has been dooming our industry will more than likely turn it into a new buzzword like it did with “viral”, and we’ll soon hear clients asking us to give them something “salient” like they used to ask us for a “viral”: this terrifies me, because the quest for the “new exciting wonder” coupled with the unlimited creative possibilities of the digital age is more likely to produce the the most amazing collective waste of resources that Adland has ever seen than anything really valuable.

I’d rather do what we should have been doing, and do it well: investigate our product; explore what makes people tick; see if there’s a connection between the two; make it easy for them to find it; get them excited in the process, but not more than they’re willing to be.

If we do all this, and we do it well, we’ll make our brands salient. Chances are, we’ll make them viral, too.

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Does advertising even work?

(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

Let’s get to what really matters: does political advertising work? And what can it teach us when it comes to brands?

Last things first: it can teach us a lot. Firstly, it’s a stress test: political campaigns are the most sophisticated form of persuasive communication. Secondly, we have more and better data: very few marketing organizations put as much effort and resources into research as campaigns do; those who do are not as consistent, regularly varying methodology, scope and object of the research depending on quarterly marketing plans; finally, the very few companies with a consistent record of research that allows for historical comparison tend to keep their results confidential. (Data from political campaigns is widely available because it comes partly from academic institutions and partly from organizations that tend to dismantle after one or few political cycles.)

So, back to the original question: does political advertising even work? Or are the billion+ dollars that are going to be spent in a presidential year just a huge waste to keep the networks happy and the pundits employed?


John Sides at George Washington University has summed up decades of scientific research to show what advertising has been proven to do and what it has not, in 6 points. (I dream of the day when Millward Brown will produce something this insightful, concise and solid). Here is what he found out, followed by my considerations on what it means for brands.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar

Not so surprisingly, we are more influenced by ads when we haven’t had a chance to formulate our own opinion on candidates. As time goes by, one of our many cognitive biases makes us more receptive to information that reinforces our opinion and less to that which would challenge it.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent

Again, not such an original finding, but one we should take into account more: no matter how much we like the idea of underdogs defeating established leaders with smart tactics, share of voice still carries a huge weight.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long

Folks in Madison Avenue and DC can recall every detail of an advertising campaign for years, but the truth is that regular people are exposed to an amazing amount of information every day, and even the stickiest ad won’t have a long-lasting effect. According to Sides’s study, “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week”.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t

While negative ads are more easily recalled and can generate intense debate, there is no conclusive evidence that they can win votes.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout

This is easy to understand once we take a healthy distance from the Madison Avenue mindset: something you see on tv today, no matter how brilliant, is unlikely to make you get up and go to a polling station a few days or weeks from now. Direct communication on election day, whether door-to-door or over the phone, is much more effective, and exponentially more so when coming from sone you have a personal relationship with.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really.

Are successful ads about policy or a candidate’s biography? Should they raise fear or hope? Are stats and numbers interesting or boring? Like with so many other things in life, it depends. If there was a silver bullet, both candidates would be firing it at each other, and that would most likely neutralize its effect. But the truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s all about doing the right ad for the right objective at the right time, as defined by our talent and experience, and then hope that it works.


So what about brands?

There are clearly some major differences, the most significant being that brands don’t have the same amount of public exposure as political candidates: you don’t see Nike v Adidas televised debates in college campuses (no matter how fun that’d be…), and there is no army of reporters documenting their every move. Because of this, advertising is comparatively more important in shaping their image. (Although a case could be made for those brands that are often at the center of news stories, such as banks.)

However, John Side’s research does raise some questions worth thinking about:

1. If ads are more effective when brands are mostly unknown, should we really buy into the idea of lightning many fires and only investing in those that gain traction, or will it be too late by then to make the brand what we want it to be?

2.  If the effects of advertising disappears after a week, should we only produce ads that are engineered to deliver a tangible call-to-action to take the relationship further (eg. buy a product, enter into a loyalty program, download a widget) as opposed to mere brand-building?

3. Should we stop pretending that advertising alone can drive people to retail, and start taking the “lead a horse to water” metaphor more literally?

4. Finally, as none of this is particularly controversial, why are we not doing it?

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What advertising and publishing should both learn

Let’s take a break from comparing advertising to politics, and take a look at publishing instead.

Here what Daniel Victor, social media editor at ProPublica, has to say about this job:

“You need equal attention to the distribution and the reporting aspects of the job. […] The big temptation is to focus more on the distribution than the reporting.”

This sums up very neatly that major problem for advertising today: it’s not the recession, it’s not commoditization, it’s not globalization. It’s spending too much time thinking at how we’re going to distribute an idea via social media/influencers/promotions/applications/younameit, and too little time thinking at the merit of the idea we want to distribute.

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Always-On Marketing: what it is, what it’s not, and what politics should learn from it.

(This is the third post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

What I most admire in political communication, and without any doubt what businesses would benefit the most from, is its pragmatism, its focus on the one thing that matters: voting. Yes, perception, fundraising, volunteering, word-of-mouth are all important, but the only thing that really matters in the end is how many people will turn out on election day and vote for that one candidate.

This is in remarkable contrast with brand advertising, where we plan our campaigns to address KPIs like brand metrics, data capture, website visits or Facebook likes, as opposed to the behaviour that really creates value. Even campaigns rewarded for their effectiveness highlight their business results, but fail to demonstrate how they were engineered around the intended behaviour: more often than not, they highlight a disproportionate effect on the usual metrics (perception, website visits…) and imply that this somehow led to achieving the objective, but in a way that is hard to really pin down.

A good political campaign manager can instead trace the number of votes in each constituency back to the “get out the vote” drives and calls, to the field operations and to media communication within an acceptable degree of statistical significance.

Of course, this is greatly helped by the one key difference between votes and purchases: elections take place in one day, the same for everyone. This makes it much easier to plan investments and messages, concentrate efforts and mobilize voters.

However, is the focus on election day doing more harm than good to politics?


There’s a big literature on how winning elections has gone from being a mean to being an end in itself,  and how governments have failed to execute the policies they were voted for, opting instead to prepare for the next election cycle. What many commentators do not understand is that this is not a triumph of marketing, but rather its failure.

The draining drive towards a cathartic instant when change would happen and a new time would start makes it incredibly hard for politicians to maintain support and use it when it matters even more than on election day: every single day after it, when policies must be passed and enacted through a number of obstacles.

It’s not for a lack of effort: Organizing for America was created precisely for the purpose of mobilizing voters in favour of Obama’s legislative agenda. Yet Organizing for America failed. The greatest support-generating machine in political history failed to generate support for its first major, defining policy: health reform.

I believe this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing (hence its failure): marketing is seen as what leads to a sale. It’s entirely normal then that once the sale is secured, and the elections are won, the best talents move on to the act of governing and policy-making (or backroom politics) until the next election cycle, where they’re brought back into the field to secure re-purchase.

This is a familiar pattern to anyone who runs a commercial business, and this is where politics can learn from Always-on Marketing.

But first we should define what it is.

Always-on Marketing is not monitoring what’s happening and reacting in real time: that’s all right and good, but it’s only tactical behaviour that leads to spot promotions and damage control. It doesn’t affect the fundamentals of the relationship between you, your consumer, and your product.

Always-on Marketing is not pestering your consumers every day trying to engage with them and get them to join the conversation: that’s a childish behaviour that provides no value apart from feeding your brand’s ego.

Always-on Marketing is also not Customer Relationship Management, if by that we mean an effort to provide a satisfactory service and performance in order to secure the next sale. There’s much more to that.

Always-on Marketing is designing your product to be a journey: the product is just the ticket, the real value is in the ride. And your role as a brand is to point out the exciting directions where people can go, and help them get there. Again, the first obvious example is iPhone: the phone is the ticket, but Apple soon moved on to advertising apps, and then games, and then films and tv-series… On a smaller scale, Lurpak is doing the same.

There are obviously some products that are not suitable for this (toilet paper, anyone?), and in particular we can say that Always-on Marketing works at its best with products that are platforms.

Yet too many of them are still not marketed this way, starting from politics.


Politics is fundamentally a platform: a series of relationships between elected officials, activists and voters, that can be used to activate policies.

Looking at it through the filter of Always-on Marketing allows us to bridge the gap between campaigning and governing, and look at the system as a whole, where:

– elections give candidates an opportunity to build the platform

– the strongest platform wins the elections

– the platform is activated by policies, that are at the same time its purpose and its vital support

– if that’s the case, maintaining the platform is as important as using it to activate the policies, so as much talent should go into the former as into the latter

– actually, activating the policies equals maintaining the platform, and the other way around, so the same talent should do both

In  politics, your best policy expert is also your best community organizer.

In business, your best experience designer is also your best evangelist.

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Brand Strategy in Washington, Dc. What advertising can learn from politics. (2/2)

(This is the second post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)

In my previous post I suggested a framework for brand strategy inspired by a model for political communication devised by Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates. It looks a bit like this:

We can use this model to judge the consistency between what some brands are currently communicating and their ideal trajectory.

Let’s start with Mobile Operators: they’re a funny breed, as they all essentially behave the very same way, to the point of even sounding the same. Don’t you see how “we’re better connected because life’s for sharing?”  That’s the sign that all operators have their feet firmly planted on a visionary territory. The problem with this is that they’re all telling slightly different variants of the same story about people and life, one in which their only direct contribution is, well, connectivity: aka, air. They bought so much into the idea that they’re an undifferentiated commodity, that they’re behaving as one: they’re not telling us about who they are (because they believe they’re all the same, so we end up believing it as well), nor about their products (save the regular new tariff…when was the last time you paid attention to one?), nor about why they’re better than their competitors (have they even given up trying to be?). They’re only telling us a human truth, be it that “together we have fun” or that “we are who we are because of the people we met”: that’s all good and true, but it is so with or without them. In other words, they’re selling us a vision that we can’t recognize as theirs, because we don’t know who they are, what they give us, and where that will take us. Things would be different if they worked out a distinctive, credible and relevant purpose for their brand, and then proceeded to position their products and services within that framework. To this extent, it doesn’t matter that they factually run the very same business. Just look at Nike and Adidas: they produce commodities, but refuse to look at themselves as one.

Fast Food chains are in a very different place: they each managed to carve their own distinctive positioning, a remarkable achievement for an industry that essentially sells meat, bread and an undistinguished bunch of toppings. Most of the communication is still focused on product (with the exception of some comparative ads), and that’s a reasonable universal trait of the food industry: it’s what makes us drool, just show it to us and we’ll want one. Now. Having said this, in response to the alleged undeniable obesity epidemics in some western countries, certain major brands have been broadening their product offer to include salads, fruit and other unlikely combinations.  These products have been marketed as evidence of a new vision of healthy/balanced/fresh/you-name-it diet, that is supposed to be more in line with what consumers (and regulators) expect today. That’s precisely the problem: that vision is in line with what consumers expect (from eating in general) and what regulators may  demand (from the fast food industry), but they’re not necessarily in line with the brand themselves. This is an issue of consistency between the brand’s DNA and its vision: no matter how sleek their new shops are, Mc Donald’s still smells of hamburgers. (Much to the delight of many of its fans). On the other hand, a vision built around “fresh” is entirely consistent with who Subway is, and as such they’ve been able to benefit from recent food trends without changing much of their offer. On the other end of the spectrum, Burger King has for a long time stayed loyal to its vision of Food for Men, one that is rooted in their products and their heritage. I’m curios to see what will happen now that things have changed.

Finally, fashion sheds its own peculiar light on this model: high-end fashion is fundamentally tautological, and it finds the justification for its promise within itself.  A certain item is fashionable because it comes from a fashion label. (More precisely, a certain item is fashionable because it respect the canons of fashion. The canons of fashion are as such because they’re established by fashion labels. And fashion labels produce fashion items). In other words, a brand dna is its vision, and the other way around:  think at Armani’s rigorous elegance (with a few exceptions that might end up proving harmful) or Dolce&Gabbana’s decadent taste. Fashion makes itself credible and relevant, so all it has to be is consistent. With the first and fourth step of the trajectory being effectively one and the same, and the third ruled out because fashion brands are tautological and as such can only be compared to themselves, all that’s left is ensuring that all the products, from haute couture collections down to accessories, are consistent with the label’s creative (and symbolic) direction. Unlike what some people think, fashion labels are not recreating themselves every few months in an effort to make their old collection obsolete and get people to buy a new one that they really wouldn’t need: that’s only a skin-deep drama, although an incredibly effective one. Fundamentally they’re the most conservative brands, always true to their core and incapable of evolution. This model visualizes why.

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Brand Strategy in Washington, Dc. What advertising can learn from politics. (1/2)

(This is the first post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)

I mentioned before that US Presidential Elections can be considered the most complex and advanced form of persuasive communication, and as such can offer an interesting framework of reference for brand advertising.

This is true for political campaigns in general, as they all share a number of defining and challenging requirements:

  1. the goal of influencing not just perception, but a specific user behaviour (or actually, two: voting v non voting, and the merit of the vote)
  2. a mix of functional and emotional needs and triggers
  3. a diverse audience
  4. the broadest media environment (earned, owned and all sorts of paid media you can think of, including the not-so-legal…)
  5. a direct, fierce competitive environment where there can only be one winner
  6. a deadline everyone works against
  7. a vast number of stakeholders and influencers
  8. inequalities in resources
  9. formal and informal rules to abide by
  10. a need to respond to unforeseeable and potentially game-changing events
  11. (I could go on, but I think 10 is a neat number)

Looking at the narrative and structure employed by political campaigns can provide an enlightening framework for businesses dealing with some of the issues above.


In their bookThe Spot (1992), Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates identify four phases of political advertising: ID spots; argument spots; attacks spots and what they call “I see an America” spots. (For each phase I’m showing examples from Obama 2008, as the best and most recent example of a candidate going from virtual unknown to frontrunner, and Apple, as the brand with the most strategically solid trajectory.)

ID spots introduce the candidate and establish an initial credibility and positional framework. They’re necessary to lay the ground for future communication, and we can consider them akin to brand ads. They’re particularly important for candidates (or brands) that have little name recognition and need to become popular enough to be taken seriously, or have slipped out of the public eye and need to reaffirm their saliency.  

Argument spots introduce the candidate’s policies, ranging from broad statements to greater level of details, and can be (and usually are) tailored for specific communities and constituencies. We can consider them product ads 

Attacks spots are negative ads aimed at hurting other candidates, and they’re only introduced after a positive profile of the candidate has been established. The fundamental reason for this is that getting someone to reconsider support for candidate Y is only useful if they have an immediate, acceptable alternative in candidate X. They work in a very similar way to comparative ads.  

Finally, the “I see an America” spots invite “viewers to visualize the country as it would be under the candidate’s presidency” (Craig Allen Smith, “Presidential Campaign Communication”). The purpose of the ads is at the same time to move the candidate beyond the phase of conflict making his victory seem so immediate and inevitable that it has already borne fruit, and to reconcile him with supporters of struggling rivals, offering them a future scenario they’d also feel comfortable in. This genre of ads is remarkably rare in brand communication, and rightly so given the mismatch between their ambition and the limited potential that any product has to change the future. However, there are cases of ambitions brands that come up visionary ads painting a portrait of the future and inviting us to step in: most of them are meaningless and easily dismissed, but every once in a while the combination of creative inspiration and an inch of credibility makes them stick.   


What does this mean for brands?

First, it defies the recent marketing myth that states that brands should not talk about themselves, but about consumers instead. If people don’t know who you are or where you’re coming from, it’s very hard for them to grant credibility to anything you say or sell.

Second, it offers a trajectory for brands, and provides a framework to evaluate messages against.

For instance, it captures how Apple went through a phase of birth, decline and re-birth, and this explains why you see two visionary ads: 1984 came on the back of the first few years of success, and was meant to open Apple to a broader audience; the recent iPad 2 ad, while displaying the product, is fundamentally stating an inspiring and approachable brand vision that can make everyone feel welcome. It’s no coincidence it does so with its most ecumenical product, and it represents the culmination of Apple’s rebirth trajectory.

In the upcoming post I’ll use this framework to look at a number of other brands from different industries.

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It’s not about the network, it’s about you.

The first premise to this post is that I’m allergic to debates about the internet killing this or that, of the kind that seem to regularly get online pundits excited, but fail to produce sound thinking.

Consequently, the second premise is that I’m not going to ask “Is the internet killing strategy?”, and I really didn’t think I’d have to write a post such as this: I’d expect that we’d all get very excited with the new toy, and at the same time we’d keep in mind that while marketing is fundamentally changing, the fundamentals of marketing are not.

But then I read “From consumer insights to network insights” (via @BBHLabs) by Patricia McDonald (@PatsMc) and I start feeling uneasy: her core argument is that, because we live in a society that is more connected than ever, we should worry less about “consumer insights” and more about network insights, ie. who is sharing what, why and how.

I think this argument is partially right, and substantially wrong. Consumer insights and network insights are both valuable and they serve two different purposes at different stages. Seeing them as conflicting fails to acknowledge how three pillars of marketing have not changed:

  1. Competitive strategies are more important than ever. With the explosion of digital, it seems like brand and creative agencies took some time off strategizing: we’ve been experimenting with the new challenges and opportunities set forth by digital, and that was enough to keep us busy. Moreover, doing the right thing for the new digital age was enough to be distinctive and credible: Ideastorm made Dell stand out as a different brand brand because it was the first one to start a frank dialogue with its customers. That’s now one of the rules of the game, like being open, participative, useful, innovative, reactive… We can argue whether these are necessary conditions for a brand to thrive in the XXI century (I don’t think they always are), but they’re definitely not sufficient. It still boils down to how your participative brand is different from all the other participative brands out there. We realized a long time ago that a market where brands try to come up with ever more ingenious ways of telling the same story isn’t as rewarding (and profitable) as one where different brands tell different stories. That is still true today.
  2. A strategy is about what you stand for. Whatever it is (a message, a vision, a product…), a strategy is first and foremost about you. Because that’s what people are interested in, or not. We can fool them by hanging out in the cool places where they hang out, and using the cool language that they use, but ultimately their interest for  us depends on the story we bring to the table: that’s why we have to start from there. The more distinctive, credible and relevant our story is, the more compelling it is. That’s when consumer human insights are precious.
  3. Your strategy precedes and informs your network. Advocates of propagation planning are putting great effort into crafting a framework that helps brands engage with networks (view this to find out more) and that’s having a positive contribution to campaign development. However, the celebration of networks can go too far, leading some to the rebuttal of the concept of media-neutral. While we can all agree that the deployment of a strategy should be devised in a way that best leverages media, I believe that the origination of strategy itself should not take that into account, for a very simple reason: if you base a strategy on the network, you end up with a strategy about the network. And that’s not what you want unless, well, your brand is the network. We have way too many examples of brands offering what proves to be popular social currency online, but failing to produce any value whatsoever for the business, because that social currency is not rooted in a competitive advantage. Let’s be completely honest: whatever brands do, must be beneficial to the business, and the underlying assumption that successful businesses offer products and services that benefit consumers is there to ensure that at the end of they day everyone’s happy. Our job is to use the network to benefit the brand, not to use the brand to benefit the network. If our competitive business strategy is relevant, we’ll make people happy in the process.




A framework of reference

U.S. Presidential Elections are possibly the most complex and advanced form of creative campaigns, as they deal with many of the new and old challenges that we have to face every day, but in a condensed and frenetic fashion: engage different, sometimes conflicting, demographics; steer influence; orchestrate a multi-channel plan;respond to unforeseeable events in real time; change people’s mind and lead them to action…

The team tasked with making sense of this complexity is essentially headed by two figures: a strategist and a campaign manager.

The strategist is in charge of the message, ranging from the overarching campaign theme (what we’d call a brand idea) to the candidate’s stand on policy themes.

The campaign manager is in charge of  the plan: what States are required to reach 270 electoral votes, what resources are allocated to win those States, what team is required to manage those resources.

The two clearly work together, but it’s the message that frames the campaign, and for a very good reason: if you let the message lead, you set the agenda; if you let the network (eg. the media, the activitists…) lead, you’re at the mercy of their own agenda and end up being defensive and reactive. This is neatly summed up in a quote from the West Wing (s07e02): “People think the campaign’s about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself.”

That’s why you need to lead with a message that is based on your competitive strategy: because the question that you want people to ask each other should be the one that is best answered by your product or service.

Replace “strategist” with “brand/account/strategic planner”, “campaign manager” with “media/comm/propagation planner” and “agenda” with “brand strategy” and you have a model that creative agencies can easily relate to.




I’ve never met McDonald, but based on her stellar credentials I’m pretty sure she knows all this. I also believe that she’d agree with the very uncontroversial points I made in a post that I wasn’t even thinking would be worth writing.

If I did, it’s because something has been bugging me for a while: if we spend our time talking mostly about a side of our work, we can end up fostering a culture that believes that that side is what matters most; if we make our case with generalizations, we can end up fostering a culture that is generic.

That puts everyone who writes about, well, anything in a very difficult position, because we don’t want details and exceptions and clarifications to clip the wings of our insightful and inspiring words. At the same time, we have to keep an eye on what the industry is talking about, and raise warning if we think we’re not doing justice to the complexity of an argument.

Every single thing we write online is a new chapter in the planning handbook that people open every day to find some guidance in the choices they have to make. I’d rather put too much into that handbook than leave something valuable out.

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