Author: John Duku, Digital Client Services Manager
What a difference a year makes.
Still perched behind a laptop, yet my surroundings have shifted from a hotel room in Cannes to my quaint flat in Peckham. I have lumbered myself with a literary-based calling, as a result of which I confess to having barely watched 15 minutes of the last television soup du jour, Game of Thrones.
Oops. Boo me.
Having been suitably disappointed by The Hobbit, I think I get the gist: excesses of leather, chainmail vests, CGI dragons and numerous “beots” – the Olde English title for a ritualized boast, vow, threat, or promise. As much as I love Bennett, I find the idea of a beot utterly compelling. Set amongst accompanying tales of one’s past glories, the beot is effectively a proclamation to accept a seemingly impossible challenge, in order to harness vast glory if the task is accomplished.
Eerily familiar to us media folk, no? The beot – or “pitch proposal” as we recognise it – breaks out into three phases:
Pledge: the endeavour of a specific challenge (e.g. bring back the head of the rival King / increase sales Y-O-Y with half the budget)
Speculation of outcomes: the elaborate prediction of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ (e.g. will steamroll our enemies / redefine your business through this amazing opportunity; or will valiantly die trying / will learn much from this, which will inform our future undertakings)
Commissioning to a higher power: the outcome of the challenge is placed in the hands of a higher power (e.g. God / fate / DSPs*)
Is this arrogance? Not quite – plying our trade within a pretty youthful industry, many of us are often in need of leadership. Soldiers in the corporate battlefield feed off such shows of determination, bravery, and character. Further, the beot/pitch brings your intentions to the attention of wider groups – the reason we work in teams is to harness greater problem-solving resources; to ‘properly’ solve dilemmas in a more efficient fashion than an individual could. As championed by Tom Woodnutt, there are few things more natural than sharing; to steal a phrase from his recent presentation here at PHD Towers™, “human mutuality is steeped in animal blood”.
Well, allow me to retort. An ‘anti-pattern’ – a commonly used practice that is ineffective and/or counterproductive in practice – emerges as a result. Those who work within groups often see their constituent members’ ability to think critically diminish over time; the collective desire for ‘harmony’ resulting in defective consensus-driven decisions. The phenomenon occurs within groups small and large, indiscriminately affecting both autonomous groups and groups focused on implementation. At odds with the PHD mission to ‘find a better way’, this suggests we are destined to succumb to a rationalized conformity. This is known in social psychology as “groupthink”.
The level of attractiveness of group members has been cited as a factor (ahem); yet the “collective effort directed at warding off potentially negative views of the group” is the explanation that hits closer to home for me. It has been argued that groupthink was largely responsible for the U.S. administration embarking on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.The negative impact of groupthink also hit both Marks & Spencer and British Airways in the 1990s, as both companies pursued aggressive globalization expansion strategies. Take a look at both companies share prices in 1998/99 if you need. Not pretty.
Fun as this may be to write, why am I bothering? Well, a recent conversation with a colleague stirred memories of an article by Alan Mitchell (Strategy Director of Ctrl-Shift) from WAAAAY back in January 2012 – please read. Mitchell argued that “engagement” is not a metric, but an excuse to avoid the identification of metrics that actually matter (e.g. what actually links ‘cause’ and ‘effect’).
How often do we honestly say what we mean and mean what we say? Riddle me this; is ‘engagement’ more
(a) attention-grabbing and emotionally affecting advertising
(b) winning employees’ hearts and minds to deliver superior customer service, or
(c) involving customers via social media?
Likewise, is ‘brand equity’ more
(a) the emotional attachment of consumers to a brand,
(b) the premium a brand can charge relative to a non-brand or inferior competitor, or
(c) the sum of perceptions, associations, attitudes held about a brand in the head of consumers – the foundation for brand extensions?
I couldn’t tell you either.
Referencing philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’, Mitchell notes how we often slip into habits of saying nothing specific to give ourselves room to manoeuvre when scrutinised. Granted, the nature of our jobs sees us frequently called to speak expansively on things we are unapologetically ignorant – such as “digital”, in the broadest sense. Trust me; anyone who tells you they are truly a ‘digital specialist’ is a liar. Experience is one thing, but the field is far too young and fluid at this point for anyone to have mastered anything more than their own opinions.
Our ‘bullshit’ leads to the Woozle effect; wherein “the frequent citation of myths misleads others into believing evidence actually exists, turning non-facts into factoids”. A ‘woozle’ is therefore often created through the (at times subconscious) changing of language from the ‘qualified’ – “it may”, “it might”, “it could” – to the ‘absolute’ – “it is”. Social conformity within our teams facilitates the simplification, alteration and even deliberate ignoring of data which does not support the groupthink – causing us to undertake campaigns directions corrosive to the truth, and to learning.
Sure we are all uber-busy, but there are no silver bullets out there. Like a minibar in a hotel room, some things are too easy to be effective. Edward Tufte covers similar ground in claiming PowerPoint “degrades the quality of information” presented, providing a physically thick yet intellectually thin product. There are apparently c.1m PowerPoint presentations in progress across the globe at any one point, of which it is suggested 70% of slides are forgotten within two days. As with careless beots and KPI setting, the medium corrupts the message. Tufte refers to PowerPoint as the root of all evil – I can barely wait for him to get his teeth into infographics.
No matter how well you get on with your team, any misplaced loyalty that leads you to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions will only result in a loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Developments in the groupthink field suggest groups with many dominant members tend to make more statements of disagreement/agreement; yet exhibit lower states of anxiety and ultimately make higher quality decisions.
Go ahead, rock the boat. You don’t need to be a bad-ass to do this; the term “Woozle” originated from an imaginary character from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. For the unfamiliar, the story details Pooh and Piglet following some tracks in the snow, believed to be those of a Woozle. Encouraged to see the tracks multiply as they continue their pursuit, it takes little Christopher Robin to step in and explain that they have been following their own tracks around a tree.
So before you stand up in a meeting room, hand on heart, to declare your latest beot – please think. Sales targets are not hit through myths of ‘user participation’ and ‘content co-creation’; no amount of rich media will be able to rival a price cut as a sales promotion tool. If there isn’t a wider ambition for your social media ‘work’ – you are spending a fortune to act as a broadcaster that is saying what, exactly? Ask for client data and their participation in KPI setting; they will likely be less averse to it if you can clearly define the point of it all.
Borrowing again from Tom Woodnutt: relationships that lack mutuality tend to be riddled with depression, burnout and feelings of injustice. Cut the bullshit – say what you mean and mean what you say, if you want the relationships that pay the media agency rent to last.
With the 60th Cannes Festival now over and in the books, go ahead and celebrate how ‘engaging’ the twee “Dumb ways to die” video was. But think – if your next media brief is to augment something similar, what do you with it, and why? What do you believe is the right thing to do? What would you do differently?
Oh…pardon me? Do I have a beot of my own to share? Sure, why not:
Off and away I go back into academia; to develop my own point of difference, to transform my ‘job’ into a ‘career’. A gamble? Sure – 41% of Masters Graduates in Denmark are currently unemployed. There are well worn stories of Ph.D. qualified cab drivers in Singapore and near-Nobel Prize winners driving shuttle buses, yet I am a touch more optimistic. The continued success of UK agencies within the Effectiveness award categories provides a slither of hope that my ambitions are not alien.
With any luck, I may also get my book completed and published. Maybe I will find time during Freshers Week to get into Game of Thrones – y’know, to see what the fuss is about. I’ll throw it up to the sardonic hands of fate (and the fruits of my keyboard) to decide where I end up.
So it’s bye from me then. Stay classy media folks; maybe tweet at me sometime.
*forgive my sarcasm.