There was a golden age in the agency world when research, strategy and creativity worked together, and brands were build by smart people working in a happy, reckless free-for-all of creativity. (Like all mythic creations, this golden age is heavy on the happy.)
Take Chicago just before and after World War II. Lloyd Warner had taken his position at the University of Chicago in the 30s. (He’d been a graduate student at Harvard in the period 1929-1935 where he was connected both to the Department of Anthropology and the Business School! Like that’s ever going to happen again.) Even as Warner was writing books like American Life: Dream and Reality (1953), he was doing commercial work.
With Burleigh Gardner and William Henry, he created a firm in Hyde Park on 53rd street called Social Research, Incorporated (SRI). This group helped create the focus group, brand image, and other staples of the world of advertising.
Over the next two decades SRI helped to revolutionize the field of market research, transforming its assumptions, methods, goals, and consequences in ways that quickly redirected the world of advertising…according to Andrew Abbott, chair of sociology at [the University of] Chicago.
By the time I started doing commercial work in the middle 1980s, things had change, the world had shrunk, joy was largely extinguished. An age of iron now prevailed. Clearly, dark forces had prevailed. The free-wheeling days of smart people from different fields working together in the creation of novel approaches, this was pretty much over. Now people would open marketing meetings with "what’s the hot button here?"
What happened? Certainly, the b-school continued to treat creativity as an off planet activity. Most brands were controlled by managers who didn’t know or care about the full value that agencies and research could create. Wall Street was tightening the screws. And this discouraged longer term thinking and risk taking. The agencies themselves often demanded that they be left alone to commune with their gods. The rich connections and accomplishments of the Chicago world were vanishing.
"Hot buttons!" What a grim metaphor. It casts the consumer has a mechanical device for which the operating manual has gone missing. How to operate this creature? Say, let get someone to see if there’s a lever or a button? Look for something blinking. Send in the researchers and see. (There is a Ph.D. thesis waiting to happen here. Where did the hot button theory come from? Who invented it? What made the world vulnerable to it? Surely Warner and SRI would have laughed it out of court.)
In the post-Chicago, post-Warner regime, a cycle of diminishment prevailed. Clients asked less of research, research asked less of the consumer, the corporation asked less of the agency, and of course the consumer was diminished most of all. Everyone was holding out. Certain kinds of creativity and innovation were dying out. Sometimes, I lay the fault with the nuclear winter of positivism that prevailed after World War II. Everyone was trying to be as much like a scientist as possible. If marketing professionals could have got a way with lab coats, believe me, they would have. Science has status. Marketing was imprecise and pandering. It is worth pointing out here that it was Chicagoans, academic and industrial, who sustained qualitative methods during the nuclear winter.
At some point, things started to get better. The corporation came to think of the consumer as a more complicating, interesting, intelligent creature. Sometimes this was a humanizing gesture. Sometimes, it was merely a response to competitive pressure.
Funny advertising happened. This didn’t mean that the agency or the client cared about sophisticated meaning manufacture, but at least both were now prepared to credit the consumer with a sense of humor (instead of button). This is the era of Cliff Freeman, among others. The field of design, thanks to the revolutionary efforts of Jay Doblin made a difference. Now the consumer was to be consulted (not examined). Stephen King and account planning happened and eventually found its way to North America. Some of us began to offer ethnography as a new way to talk to the consumer, and eventually P&G happened, as A.G. Lafley blessed the method. And under the stewardship of Russ Belk, Rich Lutz, Philip Kotler, Syd Levy, Michael Solomon, Susan Fournier, John Deighton and Al Silk, to name a few, there emerged better models of the consumer.
Which brings us to what I think I’m doing in Mexico. I am in those homes to capture the consumer in some (but not all) of her complexity, to cast the net wide with a series of questions that would horrify the hot button mechanic. I am asking lots of diverse questions. I am following the consumer any where she is prepared to take me (by direction or implication). I am here to advance my clients interests not by finding a hot button, but looking for a match between all of the cultural complexities of the consumers’ life and all the things the brand and the product are or can become.
Ethnography is pretty good at drawing out the complexity of the consumer. Not of course in the hands of the bargain basement players or the high-charging methodological pretenders, but when someone knows what they are doing, the method is fecund. We are going to sit in someone’s home for a couple of hours and listen to them answer a couple of hundred questions. And every question is potentially a Mississippi. By asking a simple question, we stumble onto a far tributary and by asking successive questions, we begin to see that we are now moving from detail to "something good." If we’re lucky, and this only happens once or twice an interview, we end up all the way downstream, connected now to the very delta of this culture. Now we see what matters. More important, we know why. This is the place for the brand to position itself. This is the place of advantage.
Will I save the world of marketing? Well, not single handedly. But the more we look, the more we find. And the more we make available to the agency and the client, the better and smarter marketing can get. Thus does a virtuous cycle replaces the downward spiral. Everyone gets smarter. Everyone supplies more value to the next party. At least, we hope they do. Clients asked more of research, research asked more of the consumer, the corporation asked more of the agency, and all of us, in concert, supply more to the consumer.
This may seem like an exercise in preaching to the choir. Surely everyone cares about and has committed to a more sophisticated, value adding marketing! Um, I’m not so sure about that. Not if things afoot at the Coca-Cola Company are what they appear to be. Tomorrow, I’ll have a go at this.
Easton, John. 2001. Consuming Interests. University of Chicago Magazine. here.
The Wikipedia entry for Lloyd Warner is here.
For those of you who are following my travels, you will note from today’s photo that I am now in Guadalajara. It has that splashing light of southern California (whereas Monterrey, especially when overcast, had pewter-ish light, which is of course exactly what the heath calls for). I am received by matrons of the house with the grace and good humor that I received in Monterrey and Mexico City, but I think here, perhaps, people are a little more relaxed. Still the numbers are too small to risk a generalization of this kind. One of the joys of interviewing here is that the rooms are usually breezy and bright, the opposite of the Khrushchev kitchens in which the project began, so little, so hot, so little, so hot. The question is who will win the foot race, the powerpoint deck or the exhaustion that always descends in the second week? I have my money on the powerpoint deck.