Within our industry, Faris Yakob is well known as a high performance cognitive athlete. He is one of the most consistently interesting, stimulating, provocative thinkers around. His work draws an eclectic variety of sources, from evolutionary psychology to poetry to pop culture. He’s also given a lot of thought to what makes a healthy information diet. So I’m delighted he’s agreed to contribute a post to this series – and to answer our Info Diet Q&A. Enjoy!
- Ian Leslie, APG Guest Editor
I recently wrote a series of articles trying to establish a framework for a balanced media diet. It is one of the most popular concepts I have developed, based on coverage and readership in just a couple of weeks.
In order to save time, instead of recapping a bunch of existing thinking, here they are, go read them, I’ll wait…
Probably not, that’s fine, read them at your leisure. Or don’t. You just need to know that research shows that some media makes you feel bad, some makes you feel better. Some makes you smarter, some fill your head with falsehoods. Like the food pyramid I stole the framework from, stuff at the top is bad for you and should be limited, stuff at the bottom is good and should be increased.
I had just finished writing them when I got this brief:
"Cognitive Fitness for Planners". How can we organise our intellectual lives - our information diets, our mental habits - in a way maximises our brain power?”
Synchronicity strikes when you are exploring an idea whose time has come.
A PLANNER’S MEDIA DIET
The thesis behind our creative consultancy is that one cannot invent without inventory. That’s what Genius Steals means. We took the name from a fauxtation ascribed to Picasso but actually derived from T.S Elliot discussing how one can judge creativity without relying on subjectivity. Good poets draw from diverse inspiration, borrowing from authors “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
That’s the rule of thumb. Diversity and breadth, because seeing patterns in different things is abstraction, the basis of creative thinking. The more diverse the inputs combined together, the more creative the idea. Your job as a planner is to provide the right inputs.
So what you should you consume and how much?
I think about media across various vectors, speed and effort especially. Easy, fast media is useful for consuming the now but slow, harder to consume media is better for building the structural foundations of your thinking.
For planners, fast media is our trade press. If one wants to work in an industry, it behooves one to know how the industry is talking about itself. It is also, of course, social media, because it’s our job to understand the mediascape. The Planning Pyramid recommends limiting fast media consumption for your psychological wellbeing.
On occasion an uber-planner will be asked on Twitter what to read to get up to speed by a young or hoping-to-be planner and will receive the snappy “anything except a planning or advertising book” in response. As the author of one, I simply cannot agree. One must read closely for the accumulated insights of those who came before, lest we make the same mistakes and discoveries every generation. Then we must consume more widely.
I do not believe a strategist can ignore either side of the planning equation, brand or comms, regardless of specialism but there is far more to it than that. Craft skills alone are hollow without humanity to inform them. So read more advertising books than trade press but not as much as other books.
Planning sits at the intersection of some of the most complex ideas in the human experience. Decision making and behavioral economics, creativity, commerce, culture, organization and management, communication and media theory, technology, design and pubic speaking. We can begin there.
To get started: Thinking Fast & Slow [Kahneman], A Technique for Producing Ideas [Young], Cultural Strategy [Holt & Cameron], The Org [Sullivan], Convergence Culture [Jenkins], The Information [Gleick], What is Strategy? [Porter], The Art of Looking Sideways [Fletcher].
However, do not forget fiction, which develops empathy, a key planning skill. I will not presume to tell you what novels to read, only offer a suggestion that helps me. If you aren’t enjoying it, stop and pick up another. I aim for a 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction.
Graphic novels tell stories in a different way and have much to teach about pacing and deck design. I recommend Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud, a wonderful exploration of the theory of ‘sequential art’. [My love for it is partially why we got Scott to draw a comic for the launch of Google Chrome when they were my client - ideas can come from anywhere.]
Balance out books with podcasts, documentaries, and lectures. Take the time to go see people talk, at industry meet-ups like Google Firestarters, or book signings from authors you like. Public speaking is a craft, so learn from professionals. Then, practice. Speak anywhere, any opportunity you get. Presenting is not a soft skill, it’s mission critical.
We learn different things in different ways and different encodings have different cognitive effects. This, by the way, is one of the key precepts of communications planning. A TV spot and a print ad are not and can never be equal, even if the message and media metrics are identical. A brief is not a briefing.
If it was 10 years ago, I’d say seek out the blogs of the planners you have heard of but no one really blogs much about planning anymore. Adliterate [Huntingdon] and Opinionated Sod [Campbell] are notable exceptions. However, journals like the International Journal of Advertising and WARC’s AdMap continue to feature the most salient opinion, insight and research. [If your agency doesn’t subscribe to any, ask why.]
Brands operate at a socio-cultural level and thus a planner must have an appetite for culture. If the world is talking about The Bachelor, or whatever, you should at least watch an episode. Much of what advertising makes is still film, so it’s worth taking time to watch movies in a cinema, even if just to understand the medium.
As well as breadth, you want depth. If you only consume the ideas that everyone else consumes, you will only think what everyone else thinks. The conversational recommendation to know something about everything and everything about something is a great start. You should indulge your own exotica, be it Hong Kong vampire comedies or French New Wave, manga or music documentaries. A planner should have something interesting to bring the to table that no one else knows, every single time.
Is that enough? It’s never enough. Everyone says the key skill is insatiable curiosity and that means you are constantly learning, and loving it.
Play games, they help you build different cognitive models of behavior. Computer games are the dominant medium of our age. Board and social games help develop understanding of social group interactions. Go to events, understand how experiences unfold and impact audiences; this is another medium you will be planning for in your career. Check out Secret Cinema and any Punchdrunk production, take clients and colleagues with you. We enjoy Burning Man and have taken clients there with us twice on inspirational excursions into liminal space. You don’t need to go to an art rave in a dessert, but you do need to get out of the office, and out of your comfort zone. As Tom Peters says “Innovation is easy. Hang out with weird and though shalt become more weird. Hang out with dull and though shalt become more dull.”
Learn to talk to strangers. Not in interviews or focus groups, but in life. Since we spend most of our lives in offices or consuming media, this is the one to look to grow the most. My wife [who is American and unembarrassed] and life on the road have helped me develop this skill which often does not come naturally to English people. [Watching the English - The Hidden Rules of English Behavior [Fox] explains why.] If you aren’t comfortable around strangers, how can you hope to understand or influence them?
Speaking of living nomadically; travel, as often you can. Around the city and country and across the world. Nothing will teach you more, nothing will so quickly expose the embedded assumptions you have forgotten are assumptions. Habituation makes us blind, new places open our eyes. Find the obvious similarities and differences and then the less obvious ones. See how brands flex and warp around different cultures and become a wiser, less parochial, planner.
Visit art galleries, especially modern art, which is the R&D of humanity.
Talk to your peers, especially those working inside different disciplines and client organizations. One of the most important facets of strategy is understanding how everything works together. One of the greatest skills in a meeting is understanding where your collaborators and clients are coming from. One of the greatest weaknesses is linear ignorance or arrogance.
I was briefed to write 800 words, a standard op-ed, but this op-ed is for planners, so it can and should have more. Longer pieces get more engagement and organic traffic too, so it’s better for the APG. [But since you are a planner, you shouldn’t accept that unless I have evidence to support it. Opinions without evidence have no place in planning.]
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention my book, Paid Attention, which is inevitably the distillation of the ideas I have consumed thus far and started life as a strategy course I developed to teach my planners.
Stay curious and let me know what I missed.
Co-founder of Genius Steals, a nomadic creative consultancy