I wrote this piece a while ago. This broad approach to Client engagement has served me well over the years. Most Clients nowadays don’t want outsiders to march in and tell them all the answers to their problems. Rather they’re looking for people to help them articulate and express their vision and opinions.
It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets, strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.
I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?…
But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us. They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.
It’s true, I have considered an alternative career as a bus conductor. And when the 25 year old Millward Brown consultant’s opinion carries more weight, I find myself yearning for a passing Routemaster. But advertising people are inherently positive. And so I reconsider…
I am increasingly of the view that Clients don’t come to us for medicine; they come to us for therapy. And I suspect that our value resides, not as strategic doctors, but as strategic psychoanalysts.
Often a successful modern Client engagement is not unlike a session of analysis. Clients begin with problems. They verbalise their thoughts, they make free associations, they express their fantasies and dreams. We listen, we interpret, we consider the unconscious conflicts that are causing their problems. We help them reach solutions through a process of self-realisation.
Freud, in addressing the unconscious, talked about the need to ‘unearth buried cities’. This doesn’t sound too alien to brand planning.
I should at this point issue a health warning. I’m a Planner from Romford. Whilst I enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method, I can’t claim any particular knowledge of psychoanalysis . For me it’s just an illuminating analogy. Besides, if we were too literal about this, we’d never look a Client in the eye. And I suspect that’s a sure fire way to lose business…
Let us nonetheless consider some of the basic principles that would derive from a psychoanalytic approach to Client engagement…
Set out on a quest for meaning, not cure. The answers to most problems reside in the minds of the Client. We are enabling self-knowledge, helping them to create their own narratives.
Behave as a participant observer, not a detached expert. Analysis only works if we embark on it together, as willing equals.
Embrace free association. Often we are too quick to impose order on our Clients’ challenges. Bear in mind that fantasies and dreams can illuminate unconscious conflicts.
Remember, everything has meaning. Be attentive to behaviour, body language, choice of words and phrases.
Look for meaningful patterns. Consider consistencies, symmetries, repetition. Probe for the meaning within the pattern.
Our time is up…
I used to believe there was only one correct answer to every problem. Now I believe there are many correct answers. The challenge is to establish the correct answer that best suits the Client’s character and personality.
Anais Nin famously once said: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ I’m sure this maxim applies as much to strategy as it does to creative.
First published: BBH LABS 01/05/2013
Read more from Jim Carroll's APG Guest Editorship here