Nick has kindly given us access to the first chapter of his new book, based on a career of thinking about brands at BBH and his 10 years running the IPA's Excellence Diploma.
Never shy of courting some controversy, he is unsweving in his belief in the brilliance and value of brands, brand thinking and brand ideas, and the need to hang on to this credo is the face of a tsunami of short-term and reactive thinking.
For him the perfect solution is a marriage of the the two. What do you think?
Here's the start of it.......
Has the pendulum swung too far?
I have pushed the Diploma delegates very hard across these 10 years to think about what they believe.
So I guess it is only fair that I kick off their ‘I believe’ pieces with what I believe.
I grew up believing in brands
At its simplest, I believe in brands.
I have spent most of my career thus far sitting at the feet of Messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty.
So baked, even beaten, into my thinking from an early age (I was 25 when I joined) was an unwavering belief in the power of brands and advertising’s unique role in building them.
Every pitch I did over 27 years would first step back to define the client’s business challenges, then step forward to define the vision for the brand that would solve them . Only then would the brand idea be introduced. A brand idea that is -not a script, not a one-off execution!
I remember we presented ourselves, in early agency credentials, as part of the manufacturing process. The BBH building was designed and pictured as a ‘creative factory’; its role to build intangible value. We pitched ourselves at the front of the process, not the back, as integral to the product as the designer building innovation into an Audi.
John Bartle’s favourite proof of the value of brands was the Coca-Cola/Pepsi blind taste test (where famously Pepsi wins in the blind and Coca-Cola wins in the branded test, reversing the results completely). For John it was proof of the power of emotion in shaping how we perceive and read the world around us.
Our favourite brand diagram therefore was a simple ‘rational/emotional yin yang with the brand’s vision at the centre and its rational support and emotional benefits either side. Since those early days I have seen keys, onions , pyramids aplenty, but that simple BBH yin yang brand diagram stripped down and enshrined the simplest definition of a brand . It was enough to drive the rise and rise of Levis , Audi, Axe/Lynx etc - and enough for me.
My belief has grown, not wavered
As my experience and knowledge deepened, so has my respect for the value of brands.
I learned of brand’s ability to sustain a premium, its ability to secure loyalty, to resist competition and reverse the power of distribution. In short, I learned the value of brands to business as well as to consumers. It is easy to forget that during my time I have seen brands become as much a part of balance sheets as any other asset.
And, as the world around me changed, I have seen the uses and benefits of brands multiply. Brands are marvellously adaptive tools. Intellectual Swiss Army knives with a built-in update ability.
For example as the economy became global, I have seen brands give clarity, consistency and leadership across different countries and stakeholders as well as across different brand and consumer histories.
As markets have shifted to service and experience propositions I have seen brands being used to shape and engage company culture as well as consumer culture.
I have seen brands become platforms for innovation as single product brands became, by economic necessity, multi-category.
As the world has gone digital I have seen brands become networks and communities of interest offering peer to peer support and added-value services to its members.
I have even seen brands become the living conscience of companies in a connected world where transparency is a given and sustainable consumption is a must.
In short, I believe brands have utility not just as communication organisers but as alternative CEOs brands can supply vision -a compass to guide a business, a living expression of the contract between company and consumer, a tool to shape the experience of the whole business not just a blind taste test, all stakeholders not just consumers.
In particular, I believe in brand ideas
I believe not just in the power of brands but also the power of brand ideas.
Indeed, I should confess, I love them. I love ideas.
Not executions (though I love them too) but big, fat brand ideas; the bigger the better for me.
So though I am a planner by trade, when I am asked for my CV, I give them ‘my book’ of those brand ideas I am most proud of. Why take Liberty’s?, The Original Jean, The Cream of Manchester, Dedicated to Pleasure, Keep Walking, Dirt is Good.
But I do this not just because I love creativity but more importantly because I feel they are my ultimate proof of whether, as John Hegarty puts it, I have managed to turn ‘intelligence into magic’. For me this has to be the ultimate job of the individual in the business and the ultimate role for, and value of agencies.
If our first job is to help lead client to a clear brand vision I feel brand ideas have a special value beyond the articulation of brand on paper because of three critical qualities:
First, they are the epitome of distillation and reduction. In a world of overchoice they precisely and swiftly picture the choice for the consumer. They are the haikus of brand management and I love haikus.
Second, brand ideas have a public tangibility that any amount of brand diagrams and videos cannot capture. Brands on paper are abstract. Brand Ideas out in the real world are concrete. If brands are conceptual glue brand ideas are tangible superglue.
They are by definition public and therefore accountable for what they promise. That is why the broader media so often hoists a company by its own Brand Idea. There is no place to hide, no way to fudge with a brand idea.
Thirdly, brand ideas by definition are required to engage and be felt in order to cut through . A brand idea might take months to develop (maybe too long?) but they take only moments to enter the head and then live in the heart forever. And that is why I believe in the true leadership power of the Brand Idea to motivate, unify and inspire where charts and insight and brand keys have not. I have found people –internally or externally – tend to prefer to work with an idea, not an explanation, with an emotion not a rationalisation.
It is these three qualities I believe that make brand ideas a unique business tool in our consumer empowered, overchoiced ,lazy ,even cynical world. I do believe that ‘Yes You Can’ still change a market with a great Brand and even more importantly, a great Brand Idea.
I am less sure whether market forces agree with me
So far most of what I have said is uncontroversial.
So let’s see if we can go a little further and create a little more debate.
Even as I/we all admire and proselytise the power of brands and brand ideas I believe market forces beyond our control are pulling us away from putting those beliefs into action.
Sometimes I fear we are in danger of becoming an example of the modern day ‘cookery shows as porn’ inversion – apparently we spend more time watching them than actually cooking! Maybe we are beginning to spend more time talking about Brands and Brand ideas than actually building them.
Indeed, I would go further and argue that those forces are pulling us into a focus on the short-term and the tactical vs the long and broad.
And in so doing these forces are pulling us from our core added value role as client partners -building brands and ideas for the long run.
The Market Forces at Play are manifold
For me there are manifold forces, all acting together, all interacting to seduce us a way from the long and the broad effects of what we do.
In the broader environment I see the rise of economic theories in books like Simenson’s and Rosen’s ‘Absolute Value’ that focus on purchasing as a wholly rational process and brands as losing their purpose ‘in a world where (nearly) perfect information exists’. I love that ‘(nearly)’ in his title!
I see the rise of business commentators such as James Surowiecki of Wisdom of Crowds fame claiming in his New Yorker column that the ‘economic value of brands - traditionally assessed by the premium a company can charge - is waning’ . And our beloved Wired magazine picturing brands as a kind of emotional con that allows companies to live off past performance.
In the media environment I see the rise of just in time targeting that allows us to focus on those in the marketplace now vs those in the future or on the periphery as onlookers.
I see the rise of interactivity that has inevitably drawn our focus onto the final part of the consumer journey into purchase ;-the final click , and the fulfilment of demand vs the creation of it.
I see the rise of promotional offers as a share of total budget. I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review by Teixeira that reported that in 2013 promotional budgets were 2.5 times bigger than advertising budgets ,vs being evenly matched in 2000.
In the research environment I see the rise of research and data tools that focus on the intermediate or immediate effect of any idea-the definition of success around ‘share growth in the next six weeks’ for example or the use of dwell time and click through rates and ‘likes’ without any reference to their long term value.
In the business environment I see the rise of accountability and the need for proof driving us to focus on what we can measure most easily no matter how often we warn ourselves against doing it. As well as the rise of ‘next quarteritis’!
In the management environment I see the rise and rise of a focus on efficiency (particularly in Western, mature markets) in managing costs and resource across all aspects of business but including marketing again with the inevitable focus on tangible short term measures.
I see the rise of procurement on the back of this drive with its focus on unit costs and norms leading to an atomistic approach (as Stephen King put it) vs holistic ,and a focus on implementation and execution hours vs quality of input and long and broad advise.
I see the decline in the average tenure of brand managers and cmo’s leading to stop and start management and discontinuities and the average length of agency/ client relationship dropping in length from seven years and two months in 1984 to just two years and six months today.
These are just some of the market forces I see at play. I am sure you see others.
Together I believe they almost build to a kind of perfect storm of short-termism. Each reinforcing and encouraging the other in a kind of viscious downward spiral into the managing of the here and now vs the long and the broad.
I believe the Forces of the Market undermine our belief in the long term
I believe these forces combine to create foreshortened horizons. Ask most people in today’s brand management world –either client or agency side – and they will admit to a sense of ‘constant running’, even panic, and the dominance of the next deadline. The opportunities for perspective happen only occasionally in one off awaydays quickly to be swamped again on return into the real world of these market forces.
To be clear the forces do not mean to do what they are doing. Each of these forces is a necessary part of the world we live in in business today. Indeed many, particularly the rise of data and interactivity and the media distribution of content, are wonderful opportunities. They are not malevolent ‘agencies’. We are simply the victims of the economic ‘law of unintended consequences.’ variously ascribed to either Adam Smith or ‘Murphy’, depending on how serious we want to be about it.
To be equally clear I am not an ‘either/or’ kind of guy. I believe in ‘and’
Any modern practitioner and professional, and any modern agency has to build the mindset, skills and capabilities to combine and blend these new forces into their thinking and ideas.
They offer us a new golden age of communication where we can create things people want and inspire people to want them, create intangible brand loyalty and the most innovative R&D programme in the world, create desire and fullfill it, target users and potential users efficiently, create emotion and action.
In summary to manage the long and the short, the broad and the particular.
But the Pendulum has swung too far
So I am not trying to go back. To put Pandora back in the box.
But I do believe the pendulum has swung too far.
When the CEO of the world’s most famous agency, Kevin Roberts, stands up in front of a room of senior business leaders at the IOD and proclaims brands and big(brand) ideas are dead…
‘Brands have run out of juice. Now the consumer is boss. There is nowhere for brands to hide….the big idea is dead. There are no more big ideas. Creative leaders should go for getting lots and lots of small ideas out there.’
…I guess I just worry.
And when young Diploma delegates follow their leaders and herald the end of strategy and the triumph of tactics, or that long is just a series of shorts, or that we should light lots of small fires and see what happens etc . I guess I just am not surprised.
Maybe we just love anything that proclaims the death of something, that headlines a paradigm shift. We love a good shock to the system, of course. But I fear the market forces are becoming us and our own views. They are becoming our beliefs.
I believe we need brands and brand ideas even more, not less.
In a fast- moving world, in a fragmented world, in a short-fix world there is, I believe, a clear and present danger that the centre cannot hold; that people become confused, that things do not add up, that nothing lasts and that therefore nothing should be built to last. We fall into a kind of existential brand anxiety.
I do not know about you but in this world my answer is to look for things that can create coherence and clarity, that can create meaning, that can integrate a broken world.
I do not think I am alone-our audience needs them too.
And so I would argue that In our world Brands and Brand Ideas are needed more and more to glue things back together - both conceptually and tangibly. We need Ideas to fix it.
Indeed, I would argue for bigger, not smaller, ideas.
If you think of what a brand idea is ideally required to do in today's world it needs to be a be a big one.
It needs to be inspiring enough to create demand and agile enough to exploit it. It needs to be emotional, functional and solid. It needs to engage inside and outside to create loyalty. It needs to spark communications across channels and innovation in product and service.
To achieve this it needs to be baked in to the business idea and become more than an executional tool - more a culture-shaping tool.
In my book, in anyone's book, that is a big idea. Call it by any other name - idea as hardware for software to run on, idea as organizing principle, idea to live by - it needs to smell as sweet. It needs to do the heavy lifting business needs. It needs to be a big, bold, brave, beautiful, bountiful brand idea.
When Stephen Woodford asked me to create and run the Diploma I could not resist his charm. But also I must admit I could not resist grabbing my chance to keep the faith.
By focusing on brands and how to bring them alive, I do hope the Diploma helps in some small way to swing the pendulum back into equilibrium.
In truth, the long vs short debate has to go much broader than the Diploma and we need to ‘sharpen up’ our practises across the board not just in the area of professional development.
If we believe in the Long and Broad we need to provide and publish more proofs of their value in the boardroom. Pieces like Peter Field’s and Les Binet’s IPA The Long and the Short of It need to be added to every year. I would love to see an equivalent piece on the value of communication across multiple stakeholders from consumers to staff to city analysts to management.
And not just around creative ideas but around the value of long- term Branded Media Properties (another thing I totally believe in) and long term conversations vs short term.
We have to build new cases that illustrate how in the modern screen world we can glue together the consumer journey (after all it is only media selling that is fragmented) from famous one to many, to personal one to one.
Indeed I would go so far as to call for more long and broad cases in the IPA Effectiveness Awards -maybe only focus the awards on long and broad?!
Maybe we need to commission and create our own really ‘Long and Broad’ effectiveness cases.
I for one would prefer to learn about the value of Nike having one Brand Vision and one Brand Idea over nearly all my career and across multiple markets both sporting and geographic (even if they don’t need to use the line anymore it is the same territory!) vs Reeboks multiple short terms ideas or Adidas’ idea changeover every four or five years. Or learn more about British Airways ROI on ‘To Fly To Serve ‘ both internally and externally for example in helping them reshape their Holiday proposition as well as whether it improved summer sales or click through rates.
Most critically for me we certainly have to finally ,once and for all, find a new form of remuneration that focuses reward on the long and the broad as much as the short.
And on the back of that develop brand dashboards that balance and relate short and long-term metrics as part of our everyday management of brand ideas.
But within these and other ‘therefores’ (and I would love to hear from you about other ideas you might have) I do believe training our future stars in the fundamentals of what is a brand in the 21st Century? is something we have to do.
Not everyone can have the pleasure of learning from Messrs Bartle Bogle and Hegarty. But they can all study the shared texts, learnings and case histories of our business and of our great and good. And they can all be encouraged to think what they believe on the back of that.
They do not, of course, have to share my personal beliefs about the value of brands and brand ideas.
But I defy them not to! In the last ten years Diploma delegates have offered me many original and fresh perspectives that I have found brand affirming even after my 27 years believing.
I hope in turn they can do the same for others.
On this tenth anniversary we have gone some way to starting a new Brand Belief Movement. I would like the movement to grow. Both broadly by extending the Diploma around the world and around agency groups and inspiring many more future leaders.
But also in the long term by Diploma alumni inspiring others one by one, team by team, agency by agency.
And of course I also hope this book inspires you , dear reader, to think about what you believe is the value of Brands and Brand Ideas and the industry and agencies that deliver them.
In doing so I believe we can tip the balance back to our future.