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The outlaw in advertising

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Spanish Nobel Literature Laureate and poet, Juan Ramon Jimenez, said: “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”

Differentiation is the reason for a brand’s existence. Differentiation is, therefore, the basic responsibility of a brand’s advertising.

So why do so many ads look the same? Especially, as Jim Aitchison says: “The less an ad looks like an ad, the more likely it is to get noticed.”

If everyone is zigging, and following certain prescribed rules, then the only sensible thing to do is to zag. Be a contrarian. An outlaw.

“I have no use for rules, they rule out the brilliant exception,” said the great Ed McCabe, himself the most disciplined of copywriters.

Like any workmanlike craft, you have to learn the rules before you know how to bend them; but the Outlaw is not about mere rebellion.

Every category has its own set of unwritten advertising conventions on how it should look. It takes a brave client to break out, but that’s what you have to do to stand out.

But who in their right mind would want to violate The Law of selling? Well sometimes it is not or “pure” brand issues; but, surely, there must always be a direct causal connection between those strategies and selling something in the immediate, foreseeable instance, even if it is only a notion or an emotion?

Can you violate The Law of Simplicity and still succeed? Perhaps, would be the honest answer, but it costs big money and a relentless disregard for basic professionalism. It’s one Law I would never break intentionally, and still expect a good ROI.

How about The Law of Positioning? Violate it at your utmost peril I think. What about The Law of Relevance?

Borrowed interest in a valid creative technique, but unless the ultimate “pointy” of the ad is relevant to the market or massages their feelings, well, what is the point? You can do it, but you won’t succeed.

The Law of Humour? If being funny makes your product more interesting, empathetic, cool or memorable, then don’t be scared of being light-hearted.

Even in heavy-hearted categories, like funeral parlors, humour can be appropriately disarming and down-to earthily human. It used to be said that nobody buys from a clown; these days, nobody buys from a bore.

The Law of disruption? Break it and blend in: hardly sensible. The 19th-century English artist and thinker, John Ruskin, used to encourage people to draw the world around them. Not to teach them how to draw, rather to teach them about the world.

To paraphrase the late great peter Cook, everything we’ve just told you is a lie, including this.

Sods Law in advertising is that which says: When you have just come up with a brilliant idea, sold it to the client and are about to go into production.

A competitor well immediately publish the said idea an exceptional form far inferior to that which you bad envisaged, causing you to go back to the drawing board from which you came, with the deadline from hell.

Being the tight-ass pedant that I am, I was not wont to submit to generalizations like humour, emotion or simplicity in the pursuit of a “law” of advertising, and indeed others here have sensibly, usefully and certainly much better than I could have, outlined the wisdom of those great truths of advertising, among others.

But I, dear reader, opted out, copped out and frankly chickened out and suggested the title of this article.

This article will not be long. In many ways the point is made by the title. It is naturally about the folly of formulas, the rejection of rules and the shame of the shame of the same.

It has of course to do with the requirement to. “think different,” the necessity to “break the rules” and the desirability of “disruption,” Advertising has always employed the rhetoric of the outlaw and its greatest practitioners and proselytizers, from Ray Rubicam through Bill Bernbach to Jean Marie Dru, have always preached a form of subversion.

Much as we may love the clint Eastwood imagery, the Outlaw is of course not a person. It’s not the mad genius with The Tindersticks CDs in the corner office of the creative department.

Neither is it simply a process, though there are legitimate processes which may arise from it.

And it is definitely not a positioning, a posture or a pose available only to a few preternaturally trendy agencies for a finite period of time (though in the absence of serious completion in the US throughout the 1980s, Chiat/Day flew the Pirate flag for a very long time).

It’s not just something that every agency should have or every agency should do. As a blueprint for creative thinking, “The Outlaw” is a mentality and a belief system that should permeate our industry and inspire everyone in it, if we are to continue to be valuable and valued.

Because of course, as ED McCabe said, creativity remains the last competitive weapon, the last legal means by which one company may gain unfair advantage over another.

Information technology, the globalization of the market economy, the liberalization of markets, the fragmentation of media, and the shift of Western consumerism towards experience – and desire-based drivers and away from needs-based drivers, all contribute to the rise in importance of “intangibles” and the primacy of creativity, coupled of course with the ability to apply it as a primary asset of businesses and organizations today.

When I worked in the States in the eighties, I was struck by the open acknowledgement, even by some practitioners, that there were two kinds of advertising.

Creative advertising and “advertising that sells,” whereas in Britain the creative imperative was widely accepted at the time.

I think that since than things have changed for the better in the States, but in these recent straitened times in all of our markets, in which some companies clearly still see creativity as a luxury, the reality is that more than ever The Outlaw mentality is not an option – it is a mandate.

In fact arguably, there is no other industry in which creativity in its broadest sense (which would encompass innovation and even boldness) is such an absolute prerequisite as it is in advertising.

In many other industries which employ creative skills, innovation and creativity are only a part of the product mix. The film industry, while producing highly creative and innovative new films, is also openly enslaved by a successfully formula.

Likewise, the music industry churns out endless “best off” and compilations alongside the genuinely new bands and albums.

Architects, software developers, game designers – have a leading edge and a bleeding edge, but all also have genuine “markets” for the familiar and the tried and trusted.

In other aspects of culture, I many appreciate and thrive on the new and the different (or I may not), but I will certainly at least some of a the time be comforted, reassured and entertained by the familiar, in fact often by the identical. This self evidently can’t be said of advertising at least in principle.

I think it’s less about “in principle” and more about “in theory.” People consume music, film, games, etc. in an open and active marketplace.

They exchange money for them and exert choices and preferences for them. They do not “consume” advertising in the same way – although it exists in the same cultural space – and of course we use this term (to consume) to describe what people do with advertising.

This, while being the bleeding obvious, is at the heart of the creative imperative for advertising and is often overlooked.

Like other aspects of culture, advertising of course operates in the public sphere, but unlike other aspects of culture it is compelled to intrude and will only effectively be “consumed” if it succeeds in doing so in some way.

It makes sense then that the singe qua non of any advertising is to get noticed. Now here’s the science part.

In purely neurological terms, the brain notices what’s different and relegates or files away the familiar.

Suddenly, “resist the usual” becomes less of a folksy slogan than an astonishingly compelling summary of pattern Recognition and Signal Detection Theory, and at least two important and established scientific fields are clearly seen to support The Outlaw mentality for Advertising.

But will this model of advertising survive much longer? Is it surviving now in the cold climate of the early 20th century recession, in the multichannel digital world? When does The Outlaw become The Outcast?

One of the most gleeful and persistent predictions of the last 10 years has been that of the death of mass media and of advertising.

In fact in the firmament of marketing services as a whole, advertising is now pretty much the business that dares not speak its name.

It is deeply unfashionable these days to be optimistic about advertising but I’m afraid I really am.

I once made a speech at a creative awards show in Australia in the zenith of the dotcom boom, which I called Crystal Bollocks.

It was basically a humanistically based rant against the ridiculous, unrealistic predictions of what was going to happen to consumer behaviour and therefore to mass media and advertising as a result of the interner.

It seemed to me and others (though not many of them were vocal at the time) that the market was being completely inflated by confusing the possible with the probable, and assuming that the essential nature of consumers was to be highly rational and highly individualistic.

The consumer was basically a value-seeking missile operating alone. In spite of the frenzy of optimism and excitement it created at the time, the imagery conjured of the future was actually highly dystopian.

Taken to its logical conclusion, it was positively “Vulcanic.” Billions of individuals tapping interminably away at their PCs, reading The Daily Me, ordering more of the same of everything, giving brands they knew and liked occasional permission to send them a new brochure.

Having perfect information at their fingertips, people would endlessly and tirelessly use it to make comparisons and would, therefore, make highly rational “perfect” choices.

Stuck in a turn-of-the-century time warp in which novelty, serendipity and discovery had no place, they would never do anything as quotidian as visit shops or read books or watch TV.

There would be no such thing as mass media, no such thing as broadcast and little occasion for shared media experiences as people endlessly “interacted” with programming or entertainment in real time.

Certainly they would not be passive consumer or even receivers of advertising, as they would naturally want to edit that out. Their world would be entirely on-demand and customized. And boring, and predictable, and isolated, and of course as it turns out, deeply unlikely.

This vision of the future consistently ignored the social nature of being human and the herd or tribal instinct of the individual human being.

It also completely underestimated the hedonics of the physical browsing and shopping experience and underestimated the ability of conventional retailers to innovate towards this.

It dismissed the entire foundation of the entertainment industry, i.e. that the vast majority of entertainment is lean back not lean forward, because people like it that way.

It ignored one of the driving features of the market economy as defined by Adam Smith, that one of the primary functions of wealth is the display of wealth, and that one of the primary functions of wealth is the display of wealth, and that therefore we must have a shared understanding of what the signifiers of wealth are, i.e. brands and brand values and images.

And it also forgot why brands evolved in the firs place – to make choice more simple in an oversupplied, overcooked world.

Five yeas later, the bubble burst and while many of the frantically predicted effects of he internet are now happening more slowly but for real, they are largely creating shifts in the balance and mix of people’s behaviour rather than changing it completely.

While mass market ratings have declined as a percentage of the whole, TV advertising both here in the UK and in the UK is more in demand and sold for more of a premium than ever.

There are still many shared media experiences and we still have water cooler (or pub or chat room) conversations about ads and programs because of course they are part of our shared culture.

The power of good television advertising, in particular to work broadly over a population and quickly in time, is still dramatically demonstrated everyday by tracking study results.

There are, however, also wonderful new opportunities in other media and in using media and the mix of media differently that are now available which, when The Outlaw mentality is applied, give us even more chances to innovate, add value and have fun doing it.

Creativity and The Outlaw mentality are still essential for the science of advertising to work as moat of it still works on the push model and much of it always will.

Creativity is even more necessary than ever now though as complexity increases as networks of connections, influences and channels multiply, as people’s experience dissects their image of things in more and more ways at more and more points.

Being creative in how you communicate is a much, much more weighty responsibility when “everything communicates.” People’s experience of thing in general and brads in particular is highly imp0ressionistic rather than highly opinionated.

It is also constantly changing and evolving relative to other brands in contexts which we cannot know or control.

Jeremy Bellmore uses the lovely image of a bird building a nest from twigs and found objects to describe this.

A similar argument runs through the work of Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell, which, in this interconnected world, the most important and powerful communication about a brand is that between customers and other customers, rather than that which happens between a brand and its customers.

Communication and specifically advertising has never simply been about the paint job at the end of the production line, but these days that way of the production line, but these days that way of thinking, that way of using creativity is positively dangerous.

In fact, there is one law that I think may be worth codifying at this point and that’s the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” It is no longer possible to simply measure the effects to our intended messages on our intended target, and trade off “conversion” against” wastage.”

We need to understand that any action will have an impact on all recipients and that the negative impact may be as powerful an influence on the many as the positive is on the few.

Why is it still OK for the direct marketing industry to response that a 3% response rate is a good thing if it can be proved to be cost effective? When about the 97% you bored, insulted, misunderstood, inconvenienced or angered in order to achieve it?

A similar argument might be made about advertising which seeks to shock or pander, or indeed advertising which clearly creates a promise which bears no relations to people’s actual experience of the brand.

So the challenges for marketing are far more complex now and therefore the requirement to harness creativity throughout the process is clearly there.

Our industry understands creativity better than most because it has been an imperative for us for so long. We know how to foster, use, manage and reward creativity.

We accommodate The Outlaw mentality, whereas many client cultures would find it alien and the organism would tend to expel it.

The way of thinking that might be termed The Outlaw Mentality, so prized in our culture, should then be even more valued by our clients.

And yet there is a sense in which we are our own worst enemy in this industry; by seeking to become more like them by being seen to be more driven by rationality and accountability when in fact we should be helping them to be more like us.

The two are not incompatible at all. They are just different parts of the whole. As Bob Dylan once said, “Only an honest man can live outside the law.”

Keywords: brand, ads, ad, advertising, outlaw, simplicity, positioning, relevance, humour, disruption, media, TV advertising, customer, marketing.


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