Transformation tips from the master.Read More
Monty Python’s 100 yards for people with no sense of direction.
Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra’s optimism on Prinsjesdag– the State Opening of Parliament – is all well and good, but there’s a reason why purchasing power is still lagging behind. The business community is holding its breath because a disruptor in a bomb vest could be lurking behind every lamppost waiting to attack your great brand or company. CEOs have their transformation plans ready – that’s not the problem. But the same CEOs can’t sleep at night for worrying about why they just can’t get their thousands of employees to adopt a new behaviour.
McKinsey has ascertained that more than 70% of all transformations unfortunately fail. This is hardly surprising when you consider that, while the CEO can genuinely want change, you’ve got a handful of Santa’s helpers against a gargantuan mass who despise change. Plus there’s another problem on top of this in the Netherlands: the Dutch Disease. Austrian ski instructors know exactly what this means. German or French classes happily file in line behind their instructors like geese all day. But a Dutch skiing class wants to discuss everything beforehand: departure times, the route, coffee and lunch locations, etc. So within fifteen minutes the group is spread out all over the skiing area.
The Dutch business community is just like Monty Python’s 100-yard dash for people with no sense of direction and after the starting shot the runners all go in different directions. Mix this national anarchist trait with the new generations XYZ and you wind up with a fatal cocktail that makes even the Russians shake in their boots.
They’ve now passed the point of desperation in Dutch boardrooms. The board members have read and re-read all the books by Sun Tzu, Covey and Maxwell. They’ve given all the management styles a whirl: management by objectives, by exception, by delegation, by fear and ultimately by looking desperately out of the window. Only to come to the conclusion that the secret of the transformation smiths lies not in leadership, but above all in good followership. So whoever has the most followers wins. And only those who can chart the strongest followers – the internal opinion leaders – gain a grip on their organisation.
And that brings us nicely to the opportunity to preach to the choir. Because I’ll give you three guesses who has more than a hundred years of experience in influencing the behaviour of the masses. Not the McKinsey’s, PWCs or Accentures. Those bright left-brainers know as much about psychology as they do about piano tuning. That’s right, for playing with the minds of the masses, organisations are genuinely better off turning to the advertising agencies. Because we masters of persuasive communication do not care whether you need to bring about a great migration of wildebeests to the store. Or ensure thousands of employees understand and embrace the new company mission. So while the consultancies may have dangerously deep pockets, that can’t take a century of craftsmanship away from us.
We want grapes without seeds, but we are also at the front of the pack in the March Against Monsanto. We want the highest interest rate and interest-only mortgages, but are also the first to bash the banks and to blame everything on them for an entire decade. We jet around the world with budget airlines, but detest the CO2 emissions. We want to buy six full bags of clothes for 20 euros at Primark, but find the 20-cent hourly wage in Bangladesh scandalous. We don’t mind ordering a cement bucket of KFC chicken wings, but we’re naturally also vehemently opposed to the battery chicken industry.
So basically, we want to have our cake and eat it too. But at the same time we laugh in the faces of companies when they’re presented the Wind-Egg Trophy or are publicly exposed and drawn and quartered by critical journalists. We want Alibaba’s highest quality for the lowest price, but we want it in an environmentally – and employee-friendly bag. We want lots for a little without feeling guilty, otherwise we’ll switch to the competition lickety-split.
Marketeers have spoiled their customers to the bone through their customer centricity. They’ve turned them into a bunch of obnoxious, cynical and arrogant ego maniacs through their neuro research, AB testing, user experiences and customer journey officers. Robert Wolcott of the Kellogg School of Management calls it The King Customer Paradox: the more empowered, the more we lose control.
But enough already of that foot-stomping toddler behaviour. It’s time to teach these irritating pubescents a lesson in responsibility. Our Very Hungry Caterpillars are from now on going to have to give up one of the slices in the Cheap-Quality-Responsibility triangular pie. Cheap responsible is fine, but it tastes disgusting. Cheap quality is also a possibility, but it’s people and animal unfriendly. Or quality responsible but then for a euro more. Fait vos jeux. So you either shut your KFC beak or you buy decent products. It might mean you get one less wing or bag, but you will get a good feeling. Rien ne va plus.
‘We fished for tuna and sailed every now and then to the main island of Isabela to pick up fresh vegetables.’ After a hectic career in advertising, the Dutch advertising icon Cees van Staal, who recently passed away, chose to lead a simple life as a yachtsman. The Netherlands’ most successful football coach, Louis Van Gaal, also showed his simple side in a recent TV interview: he spoke candidly about his wife Truus and Peyton Place. It’s also public knowledge that Dutch media giant John de Mol likes to play a round of cards at the campground when he’s not busy snatching stars from rival broadcasting company RTL.
Simplicity is all the rage. We spend a fortune trading our pampered life for three weeks of back to the basics in a tent or a bonsai hut. With a croissant with camping butter in one hand and a plastic mug in the other, we ecstatically whirl black clumps of Nescafé. We happily insert a 50 eurocent coin and enjoy a three-minute lukewarm shower in the campground shower facility. It’s just long enough to become nauseated by the eau de toilette wafting out of the adjacent restroom facility. And you’re also standing right in the flow of the floating hairballs because the main drain is obviously in your shower cell. But that doesn’t matter because later today we’ll jump with the whole family gleefully into our inflatable jacuzzi we got at Alibaba.
What’s the point of this self-castigation? Well, people say boredom is good for you and the best medicine for a busy era. Hanging around doing nothing gives your overworked brain some much-needed rest. Holiday life is uncomplicated and as manageable as a dollhouse. At the end of the day we’ve all got a streak of autism.
You don’t have to look far for worn-out clichés during the dog days of summer, but someone who really knows what he’s talking about is John Eastwood of York University in Toronto. Eastwood heads the Boredom Labwhere the phenomenon of ‘boredom’ is scientifically studied. And what do you know: boredom occurs when your activity does not fulfil a natural need for stimuli. And people despise boredom because it inevitably leads to introspection and that is confrontational. So at the slightest risk of boredom, we immediately start playing a game of Candy Crush or scroll across our endless timeline on Facebook.
The moral of this story – it’s admittedly taken a while to get to it – is that we have to dare to be bored. Anyone who escapes into their smartphone the second there’s nothing to do is afraid to take a long look at themselves. And perhaps doesn’t realise that they’d be better off looking for a different partner or career. A new campaign, a repositioning of their brand or a complete transformation of their company. Campers have always known it: Idle hands aren’t the devil’s workshop, they’re the alarm clock of progress!
* This column came about during a moment of boredom at Bakkum campground.
DigitalMarketAsia May 2018
‘Marketeers who have all the answers will fail!’ Tex Gunning – CEO of global fleet management company LeasePlan – said this two years ago at the opening of the Dutch Effie season. It was a call for experimentation and he wasn’t alone in this appeal. All advertising award shows have in the meantime introduced a fully-fledged innovation category. Some even differentiate this into categories such as brand innovation, AR&VR and Artificial Intelligence. Start the tape with case films on Fearless Girl, The Next Rembrandt, Ikea Place... and juries collectively swoon.
Love is also blind. While the Cannes Lions juries have not even started yet, standalone innovations and activations already seem to be emerging as the clear favourite. They overshadow the sustainable, long-running campaigns that we seem to get bored with faster than ever. Innovation rocks, consistency sucks. As if it is easier to score a 9 once than an 8 every year. As if standalone campaign innovations save the day for companies that just manage to keep their heads above water in their red ocean. The interest in experimentation appears to have turned into a bona fide obsession. Because it’s cool shit and consequently goes down a treat at festivals. But it’s also far from the business and often appears to be l’innovation pour l’innovation.
So it’s high time to restore the honour of the consistent brand campaign. Australian marketing professor Mark Ritson wipes the floor with chief gadget officers, digital natives and techno porn: ‘It’s all total fcking horseshit!’ This isn’t because he doesn’t believe in the value of innovation, digital, data, VR and AR. But because he looks solely at what’s best for the business. Interested in innovation without being ashamed of commerce and traditional methods. You can do one thing without giving up something else or, worse yet, demonising it. Effectiveness first. Ritson consequently swears by ‘the boring middle path’. Effectively and eclectically combining the best of both worlds. Mass with micro. Fearless Girl with TV. Brand purpose with unadulterated sales. Celebrities with social influencers. Sinek with Sharp. Quinoa with thick fries. That’s not horseshit. It’s fcking modern with the good stuff from the past.
Over the last 30 years, Martin Sorrell has built up an empire employing 130,000 staff. He undoubtedly viewed himself as king of the jungle. However, ‘The higher the monkey climbs, the more you’ll see of his behind’. And there’s always something that can get stuck to that pink monkey bottom. Some slowed-down iPhones, the misuse of 50 million Facebook profiles. A porn actress, or a little gift from Gaddafi perhaps. So what exactly stuck in Sorrell’s case? There are stories of the alleged misuse of company property and inappropriate behaviour. Did Martin drive the company car on weekends? Did he share a taxi with his secretary after the New Year cocktail party? No one knows for sure, but the good man has been pilloried anyway. Because that’s how we roll in our digital democracy.
Perhaps we should also be examining the integrity of the complainant. Weinstein should hang of course, but those who drag up bottom-pinching incidents from thirty years ago seem to be more interested in publicity and money than justice. So is Sorrell really such a scoundrel, or is he merely being offered up as the sacrificial lamb by his own board? Sorrell’s WPP is now plummeting out of control and has lost half of its stock value. It may well end up being taken over by Accenture, the company that he so grossly underestimated.
The board has doubtless reflected sadly on memories of the young, highly successful Sorrell and his aggressive acquisition of JWT and O&M. And decided that it’s time for a hard reset. Understandable, certainly, but it could it be managed with a little more elegance? You don’t just shunt the UK’s longest-serving CEO ever off to the Court of Injustice after half a century of successes. He deserves a festive farewell tour. We should lift him on our shoulders and take him on a parade down the Madison Avenues of New York, London and Cannes. And finally, he should be immortalised in Madame Tussauds, alongside that other well-known Sir, Elton John.
Advertising women on the warpath for equality.
‘Women? You’re better off keeping chickens.’ Our teenage boys are talking about their girlfriends at the dinner table. But as a manager you can’t even think about saying something like that at the office, unless you’re wanting to have a lot of free time on your hands. Kevin Roberts, the well-respected CEO of international advertising group Saatchi&Saatchi, recently said in an interview in reference to gender diversity that ‘the fucking debate is all over.’ And that women don’t mind one bit not making it to the top because they don’t have the ambition for it. The supervisory directors gave him his walking papers the very next day.
Roberts’ comments are now all the buzz in the advertising world. Trade journals went in search of hard facts and interviewed advertising women who have reached the top. There’s nothing wrong with the actual number of women in the advertising industry. But most of them do work in support positions, while not enough work on the creative floor. You’ll run into them in the boardroom, but they’re usually pushing a coffee trolley. A heated debate has now erupted on internet forums between women with short tempers and men with short dicks.
Men are simplistic and think the offering of female talent and ambition is lacking. Women are divided. The women’s libbers are disgusted by the old boys’ network and their tasteless guy jokes. They get each other riled up in a private Facebook group where they can swap sexist comments. The Stockholm complex group sympathises with the oppressor and refers to a macho culture that must bother some men as well. The Realists are self-critical and say they don’t run into a glass ceiling at the office, but at home instead. The path to the top takes a lot of time and energy. So ambitious women have to choose both the right course of study and the right partner who’ll be willing to do half the parenting if kids come along.
It’s remarkable that there are plenty of advertising men who make campaigns in which the woman wears the trousers and the men are the anti-hero in their role as super wuss or ex-millionaire. But when it comes to hiring key employees, they suddenly suffer from the clone complex and choose a non-threatening copy of themselves. Until last week in Rio that is, because there couldn’t be any better advertising for girl power than the Dutch female athletes’ performance at this year’s Olympics. Only the Dutch female horse riders weren’t in the winner’s seat. But, then again, they were riding on stallions. Or – as the women’s libbers prefer it – a castrated gelding.
Unsportsmanlike advertisers sent home.
‘What are you doing Jan?’ We’re in a meeting room just before a major presentation to an important client. ‘Oh, I’m just jotting down some spontaneous comments.’ Colleague Jan always wants to do everything exceptionally well. And perfectionism is also king when it comes to tie-in advertising. Advertisers want to make a spontaneous and up-to-the-minute impression, but they actually make painstaking preparations beforehand.
While the result is often already certain, the timing isn’t. The tie-in advertising for an approaching Eleven City Ice Skating Race or Queen Maxima’s delivery of a baby will have been ready and on the shelf for months if not years. In other cases the timing is certain, but the result isn’t. That’s the way it is with the final of The Voice, the UEFA European Championship and the Olympics. So advertisers come up with different versions and agree with the media that they’ll place the version that goes the best with the result. Once in a blue moon there is suddenly tie-in news that nobody had anticipated. That’s when the fuses in Jan’s brain blow. And that’s apparently what happened to Grolsch beer and Chocomel chocolatemilk. They ran incredibly vicious tie-ins with Dutch gymnast Yuri van Gelder, who was sent home simultaneously with Brazilian President Rousseff.
Isn’t it odd that these large professional advertisers – where everything is laid down in detail in organograms, protocols, codes of conduct and brand books – overstepped the bounds? What could possess advertisers that invest millions in corporate social responsibility to throw their own corporate image to the wind? Isn’t it remarkable that large A-brands suddenly drop their role as sympathetic supporter? A ‘take a bite out of life’ tie-in with Suarez could have been funny, but don’t take the mickey out of our national heroes.
Were the responsible marketers lazing in their hammock by the pool and were the social media juniors left to do whatever they liked? Or did the marketers want to feel young again and get caught up in their Facebook friends’ lame humour? In any event it’s strange. Because marketers know better than anyone that the images of brands and top athletes are vulnerable. They’re built over years and broken in a day. But social media are self-cleaning. After a super short trial, the jury of public opinion gave them such a merciless spanking that they won’t be able to sit down again until Christmas. Just in time to receive the Lead Lion 2016 award for the worst advertising
Amsterdam holds the trumps to become creative capital of Europe.
Think about it. If magician Hans Klok has lost the plot after the triple disappearing act of Cameron, Johnson and Farage. If Grexit scores 5 million search results on Google and Brexit 155 million. If Standard & Poors strips the UK of its triple A rating and sustains the Netherlands’ rating. If Deloitte’s Bart Verschoor says Brexit is the best thing that ever happened to the Netherlands as a trading nation. If Asia, with a total population six times that of Europe, has a penchant for gambling, but steers way clear of political and economic uncertainty when doing business. If you no longer have to sit in a stinky underground to trudge to the office, but can gleefully cycle to work above ground. If you can trade in your hypocritical stiff upper lips for straight-talking bridge-builders. If we’ve got more universities than we know what to do with here in the Netherlands and our students can still speak fluent Cambridge English after guzzling thirty beers. If Hamburg is too boring for multinationals and Paris is a socialist morass of misery. If London sounds glamorous, but in reality you’ve usually got to live in deprived and dismal suburbs like Slought, where The Office with Ricky Gervais was incidentally filmed. If AkzoNobel moves its head office from London to Amsterdam’s Zuidas business district to save an astronomical amount of tax. If the FedEx European head office is located in Hoofddorp on the outskirts of Amsterdam. If Amsterdam is declared the European Capital of Innovation 2016. If Netherlands-based ING and their Amsterdam agency J. Walter Thompson are the big winners at the international advertising festival in Cannes. If Willem Sijthoff and Cor van Zadelhoff convert the old Diamond Exchange into Capital C, a stunning head office of the creative industry. If that sector in the UK is good for 121 billion dollars and if we can cut out twenty or so slices from the pie without being noticed, just as a starter of course. Then creative Netherlands would have to really muck things up not to make Amsterdam the Creative Capital of Europe in short order. Or like the English say: Strike while the iron is hot. So no more handing out honours for Amsterdam Mayor Van der Laan, no more going to Toppers concerts for Prime Minister Rutte and no more appearing on game shows for Amsterdam Deputy Mayor Ollengren. You heard me right. The summer recess has been cancelled with immediate effect. Because the cards are never going to be stacked more in favour of the Netherlands than they are right now.
How a hot new game is getting the whole world moving
There was a time when admen would entertain their clients by taking them out for a night at a casino or strip club, but sadly we left those kinds of antics behind four decades ago. Last Tuesday we found ourselves wining and dining some representatives from an esteemed Southern Dutch beer company at an upscale restaurant. So you can imagine how perplexed we were when one of our guests suddenly shot up from her seat – as if she’d just been bitten by a snake – and shrieked that she’d just “spotted one” right there in the room. Clutching her phone and practically frothing at the mouth, she bounded past the stunned waiters and crisp linen-topped tables. Coming to a halt in front of a distinguished-looking elderly couple, she squealed in what can only be described as pure ecstasy: “Yeah! I finally got him, the Poison Pokémon!” Barely 15 minutes later, we watched as she was carted off in a straitjacket to the nearest exorcist.
It turns out our guest was under the spell of Pokémon Go, an addictive game where players use their smartphones to track down, catch and train virtual creatures in random GPS locations. The game was released in the US, Australia and New Zealand ten days ago and has been taking the world by storm ever since. Just one week later, the game already had more users than Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram and Facebook, making it the biggest mobile game ever released in the United States. The game’s success had added 6 billion euro’s to Nintendo’s market value in a matter of days. With tons of players of all ages venturing out into the world to hunt down the elusive Pokémons, police departments worldwide are working overtime: they have been receiving reports from tens of thousands of locations of suspicious loitering and cars getting backed up on the motorways. A large university hospital in Amsterdam found itself overrun with avid players storming into rooms reserved for rectal examinations in search of a Pokémon called Clefairy. And in the leafy town of Baarn, five young players looking to catch Magikarp in a duck pond got a little more than they bargained for when they stumbled on a dead body instead.
This is the second time Nintendo has managed to pull off something that governments and nutrition centres haven’t been able to do in all their years of fighting obesity: getting young gamers out of their bedrooms and into the world. The first exercise games were introduced by Nintendo Wii (with over 100 million consoles sold to date), and now in just two weeks the same company has managed to persuade millions of kids to head out onto the streets and into the great outdoors. No longer lethargic and pasty-faced, these former couch potatoes are coming home like in the olden days with their cheeks flushed red with excitement. “How was the football?” “No, Dad, I spent all day hunting for Pokémons. Sorry, gotta run!”
Pokémon Go serves as incontestable proof that creativity can change the world. I suggest that you get into your car right now and drive to the nearest Nintendo office to bow down before Pikachu in a saikeirei, Japan’s ultimate sign of respect.
Madness galore at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity
Retirez vos lacets s'il vous plaît! The guard gruffly tells me to remove my shoelaces. Moments later the cell door slams shut, followed by silence. And yet the week started off on such a promising note, with an educational junket to the annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. You might think that the brains of advertising folk run on a Mad Men-style diet of Jack Daniels and coke, but the mundane reality is that it’s drab machine coffee that keeps most of us going. Spending our days as we do searching, so to speak, for that one elusive truffle in the Dordogne, it’s important that we fill our minds with new impressions every now and then in order to keep our ideas fresh.
The current trend at Cannes is advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. Conventional ads tell you that the product they’re pushing is so fabulous that you immediately need to make your way to the nearest shop stat (“I’d walk a mile for a Camel”; “Finger-lickin’ good”). But advertising has turned into a win-win world in recent years where products must combine commercial success with added value to society. South African beer brands developed a beer mat that tells people if their drink has been spiked with a date rape drug. While Toyota Australia transformed its LandCruisers into roving emergency communications hotspots for the vast sections of the outback that have no mobile coverage. And let’s not forget the grand winner of this year’s festival: ING’s ‘Next Rembrandt’ campaign. A computer scanned all Rembrandt paintings for use of colour, brush strokes and dimensions and printed an all-new ‘Rembrandt’ in 3D. It’s safe to say the advertising creatives of the future are more likely to be engineers than art school graduates. And next year’s Grand Prix will undoubtedly go to Puma’s tear shirt. A football shirt that spontaneously gets ripped apart as soon as the opponent approaches. Card provokers, like Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, can save themselves the trouble of diving and faking an injury.
But while Cannes Lions may provide plenty of food for the mind, it’s less kind on the wallet. On the chic Promenade de la Croisette, a beer and two olives will set you back 15 euros, while the nightly rate at a hotel averages € 400 and an all-access exhibition pass sells for a whopping € 2,500. Madness, “Croisette syndrome”! One could be forgiven for thinking that the champagne cooler, bathrobe, hairdryer and flat-screen TV in the hotel room are included in the price, but as it happened, the customs officer at Nice Airport begged to differ. After enduring a cavity search and spending the night on a straw mattress, I’m nonetheless flying back to Amsterdam contented. I may have missed out on the goody bag this time, but I came away with a head positively brimming with ideas.
Everybody has a connection with Johan Cruijff. Football fans, journalists, Amsterdam and … advertising agencies.
‘Yeah, I didn’t catch his name, but just take the call,’ snapped the receptionist at the Lowe Kuiper&Schouten Amsterdam advertising agency in 1992. The creatives had come up with an ad for ABN AMRO featuring a photo of Johann Cruijff and had given me the task of gaining his permission. ‘Hi, this is Johan. I thought I’d give you a quick call about your letter and that picture.’ So while all the big Dutch news, talk and late night show hosts, Amsterdam Mayor Van der Laan, Ajax, Dutch football expert Henk Spaan and Camp Nou are tumbling over each other to share the best quotes, anectodes, pictures and video clips, even this unsporty and lowly account boy had a connection, with Johan.
Celebrities are a godsend for advertising agencies. You can earn a buck on the back of their celebrity and reputation. And when it came to Johan, you stood to earn a mountain of mullah. Because while Rembrandt, Anne Frank, Van Gogh and Heineken might be world-famous, they pale in comparison to Johan. ‘Where you come from?’ ‘Netherlands??’ ‘Holland?!, Ooooh you mean Crojff? Yo friend, you want coffee, cigarette??’ Around the world doors opened, with Johan.
Johan in turn liked to make a buck or two off the big advertisers. He announced a new timetable for Dutch Rail. He was the face of the Bruguer paint brand in Spain. In an ABN AMRO commercial he had to admit that The Bank turned out to know more about finances than he did. Even though he preferred to go solo, he also did one-two’s with Van Basten for Eurocard Mastercard. And with footballer TV presenter Jan Mulder for ING Bank. In the late 1970s Johan starred in an ad with the heading ‘Smoke wisely’ and a pack of low tar and nicotine Roxy Dual. He later switched to Chupa Chups lollipops. And condemned cigarettes in an anti-smoking campaign with the brilliant line that football had given him everything and smoking had almost taken it away from him. Decades of great advertising, with Johan.
The loss of Johan touches us all. Advertising agencies have lost an inimitable copywriter and influential Dutch celebrity. But we’ve also lost the creator of the universally revered ‘Agile and Scrum’ working method. Bigwig management gurus and expensive McKinseys lay claim to this method that calls for speed, agility, teamwork and provocation. But we’ve been familiar with it since 15 November 1964 – the first time Ajax1 played, with Johan.
Save a life in 5 minutes at www.nhsbt.nhs.ukRead More
You had two leading shipyards in Rotterdam back in the golden age of Dutch shipbuilding. They were located near each other, only separated by a stretch of water. There was a telescope in each company’s boardroom. They used it to keep a close eye on each other. So they knew exactly how many employees they had and what kind of ships they were building on the other side. And, not unimportantly, they could also keep track of the secretaries’ skirt lengths.
That’s how these two shipbuilders kept each other in balance for decades. Until that day that was always destined to come. So one morning the directors, by this time plump and podgy from living the good life, looked through their telescope viewfinder and saw a ship made in Taiwan sailing into the port. It’s a new model of ship that is twice as big for half the money. It was a massive blow that they couldn’t overcome.
These days we call it a ‘Kodak moment’. Dictionaries have had to change the definition of this term from ‘memorable moment’ to ‘a big and cumbersome company sinking in quicksand due to a lack of innovation’. New examples are added to the thesaurus every day: a American Apparel moment, Quicksilver moment, Nokia moment, Groupon moment and maybe even a Shell moment before long. The moral of the Kodak moment is this: real danger doesn’t come straight at you, it sneaks up on your from the side. That’s how the smartphone took over the camera market. Uber took over the taxi market, Zalando the shoe market, Netflix the TV and movie market and Tesla the car market. On Cyber Monday alone, Amazon sent more than 35 electronic items per second.
They’re ultra-fanatic companies on a mission. Intent on smashing the established order to smithereens. So if that established order knows what’s good for them, they’d hire their own destroyers. Young blood-thirsty sadists, a whole gang of them. Company thugs with only one aim: to get paid for destroying their own company. They erect an impenetrable front against blind love for the company, product and themselves. And keep the company fit, agile and alert. More companies should take a walk on the wild side of sadomasochism. Because if Marquis de Sade had been in that boardroom, Taiwan wouldn’t have stood a chance. Nokia would have introduced the iPhone killer this month. And Kodak would still be synonymous with a wonderful and old-fashioned photo moment.
Master baker Van Der Meulen asked us to make a TV commercial 20 years ago. Apart from the revised packaging, there wasn’t anything new and there also wasn’t any money. The master baker must have thought ‘a good start is half the work’. But the creative team wasn’t going to chicken out. So a month later the commercial already aired on Dutch TV. We see a picture of the new packaging and hear a voice-over say: ‘Van Der Meulen’s crackers are now placed horizontally rather than vertically in the new pack. You’re probably wondering: what difference does it make? Well, a huge difference. It means the crackers are totally laidback when you get them. Plus they’re already in the spread position.’ And that’s often the way it goes. Clients drop by to share their visions of innovation with electrifying enthusiasm. But innovation takes time and money, so it often doesn’t go much further than a few modest innovations along the lines of ‘with Jojoba’, ‘10% more peanuts’ or – yeah, you better sit down for this one – ‘now in raspberry flavour’. So they expect the advertising guy to present these breakthroughs in a really revolutionary way. And even though he’s happy to do this, people also want to be treated to a true innovation every now and then. Like for instance the new Het Parool – an Amsterdam evening newspaper that started out as a resistance newspaper during WW II. The editor-in-chief wants to step out of the crowd of upbeat human-interest-and-other-stuff newspapers. So no old wine in new bottles. But new journalists, columnists and sections that bring back the old fearless Het Parool pen and point of view. It even inspired a billboard at no place less than Times Square in New York. Coincidental or not, we stumbled across another world-class innovation on the West Coast this week – the new Barbie. After 57 years of anorexia and a wasp waist, the new Barbie is curvy. Now that’s innovation we can grab and run with: ‘Barbie, now with 10% more boobs and buttocks – absolutely free!’ So life is always good when you’re an advertising guy. Either you get to be the first to discover the most fantastic innovations. Or if there don’t happen to be any at the moment, you get to really put your creativity to the test. Or at least get to scramble up a Columbus’ Egg.
In recent months we’ve seen a number of remarkable hellos and goodbyes of advertising icons. Coca-Cola was no longer as happy as it once was with its campaign. So after 7 years of prosaic advertising, it said goodbye to the ‘Open happiness’ theme. Coca-Cola will now focus on life’s little pleasures. And Axe deodorant stopped being a chick magnet. The Axe man must dare to believe in himself, without any help from the outside, and definitely not from a can of deodorant. The leading character’s large nose doesn’t stop him from being lucky with the ladies, on the contrary. If only I’d known that 40 years ago. The members of the goodbye club have a lot in common. They’re giving up advertising fairytales and turning their focus more to real life. And the new Axe man works for the same company as the equally imperfect but not unattractive Dove woman. Unilever’s happy couple.
It’s hard to say goodbye. But we’re fortunately getting familiar and trusted advertising heroes in return. Michael J Fox is back from the future in a commercial for Toyota. Thanks to Star Wars, Chewbacca is making a comeback in a campaign for Verizon, Walmart and Vans. And last but not least, Dutch fish finger company Iglo is looking for a new captain. So this all goes to show that we’re wrapping up in the fuzzy warm blankets of old and familiar faces. The only thing that puts a damper on this is that Iglo’s job description says the captain doesn’t necessarily have to have a beard. It seems to me this will cause confusion, particularly among younger viewers. How much change can those little minds take after the transformation of Black Pete into Purple Pete last St. Nicholas Day? Please don't give our Captain Iglo a modern makeover. He and the Gillette man do work for different companies, right?
The arrival of Saint Nicholas – Sinterklaas in Dutch - was more tumultuous than ever before. He didn’t navigate smoothly into the Netherlands aboard his steamboat and then genteelly go ashore on his white horse Amerigo. He instead blew in like a hurricane on the wings of gale force winds. The kindly saint set foot on Dutch ground in the small town of Meppel in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands and was almost blown into the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The climate had been unsettled even before his arrival due to the international Black Pete debate. The United Nations, the Dutch Council of State, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Saint Nicholas news presenter Diewertje Blok have all put in their two cents worth.
But advertising agencies have wisely stayed out of the fray. They know how to tackle ‘delicate topics’ such as athlete’s foot, impotency and feminine soap. But they are steering clear of the Black Pete issue. If the Benetton campaign was still around, we’d have seen Saint Nicholas on a black horse with a White Pete in tow. But this year there was a deathly silence: Black Bleep. And maybe that’s a good thing too. The Saint Nicholas holiday on December 5th is good for a half billion euros’ extra revenue every year. That’s why marketeers want to lay low.
Albert-Heijn supermarkets issued their employees a special Black Pete manual. The traditional climbing Petes that climb up and down four floors in the atrium of Amsterdam’s top department store de Bijenkorf in the heart of Amsterdam were spray-painted gold overnight. ‘In order to highlight the department store’s premium image.’ Yeah, right. Household goods chain Blokker is keeping Pete black, but without the big lips. It turns out that Pete isn’t an African name. And the Saint Nicholas News Bulletin – yes there is a news programme devoted to Saint Nicholas while he’s is in the country – features only chimney Petes: white by birth, black by soot.
Dutch mega webshop Bol.com dared to make a little bitty Pete joke. But everybody else is living by the ethos: ‘Don’t rock the steamboat’. Advertising producers may have an image of being rebels, but in reality they’re pretty much scaredy cats. And don’t forget that when it comes to image: what goes up can come crashing down. And an image riding on the back of Saint Nicholas’ loyal horse Amerigo can tumble to the ground in an instant. But regardless of all this hoopla, the Dutch will celebrate the only real children’s holiday on December 5th. So enough already with the saint bashing. Otherwise Halloween will come in and take it over. And then we won’t throw pepper nuts, but pumpkins instead. Won’t paint our faces with soot, but instead cover them with lots of gory blood and scars. As if that’s a celebration to write home about.
Rudely awakened by the deepest recession in our careers, we’ve left the beaten marketing and advertising tracks behind us once and for all. And we’ve now collectively gone off road to explore new ways to reach and entice the target group. Marketeers exclaim when briefing their agency that they’re going to do things totally differently: ‘A touch-up? No way, we want a complete makeover!’
So we run like a herd of wild wildebeests across the steppe in search of new territory where the grass is greener. We overhaul processes. Fewer layers, greater agility. We don’t sell, we engage. We replace scripts for commercials with authentic recordings. And we don’t talk about ourselves, but make the customer’s experiential world our epicentre. We ask ‘What’s your story’ and we’re ‘Invested in each other’.
Marketing communications have got a new groove that feels fresh, genuine and meaningful. So at least there’s one bright side to the bleakness of the recession. We’re already being bombarded with new-fashioned cases at the Cannes Lions, ADCN, Esprix and Effie. And even old-school commercial breaks somehow feel new with un-advertisingish campaigns from John Lewis, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Delta Airlines.
But not all that glitters is green in this new emerald pasture. If we just let ourselves go with the flow, we’ll all end up at the same place. Somewhere that’s in tune with the times and that has been verified qualitatively and quantitatively by well-respected research agencies. But where there will – if we don’t watch out – be no room left for distinction and stopping power.
After traditional advertising, uniformity is the new threat. Is half the advertising budget being wasted? If only we were so lucky! Recent research into the effectiveness of communications in the UK has rendered some terrifying results. About 4% of all advertising in the UK is recalled positively, 7% negatively and 89% isn’t recalled at all. So let’s not let new paths, technologies and the related jargon lull us to sleep. Storytelling, crowdsourcing and behavioural economics: it will lead to nothing without differentiation and excellent execution.
Anybody who wants to make it onto the Effie stage with contemporary advertising is going to have to give himself one last kick up the ass. And combine the new age with surprising and stunning impact. Only then will we be able to keep the UK figures safely at bay.
Companies are gushing about customer centricity these days. The customer has to be at the heart of everything and must always come first. But don’t let customers catch wind of this. Because they’ll wonder who used to come first. And will hold marketeers to their word. Because customer centricity isn’t measured in words, but in deeds - especially when things go wrong.
And it’s a certainty of life that things can and do go wrong. At some point a plaster will fall into the soup or a mouse will get into the dough. Companies used to turn crimson in shame, keep ‘the incident’ under wraps and would under legal duress place an itsy bitsy ad in the back of the paper. But they now seem to be shameless. Millions of things, from tins of soup to Toyotas, are recalled. And they don’t do it secretly, but in a big, in-your-face and compelling way. They don’t just give you something for your trouble. No, they run an image campaign designed to underscore the brand and company’s customer centricity. Recall campaigns are no longer produced by fear-struck company lawyers, but by sly marketeers. It’s just a matter of time until a big supermarket chain takes out full-page ads in newspapers to recall its dwarf cucumbers because the poor things may have stood in a draft in the warehouse. The most wasted day of all is one in which you have not recalled something.
Unfortunately airlines haven’t reached the same altitude of customer centricity. Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport takes the cake with 70% of all flights being delayed and 20% being cancelled. So when smoke started coming out of the volcano in East Java in early August, the holiday fun was well and truly over. Whole families were stuck for days or even a week. No announcements, no apologies and no control over the hysterical situations at the airport. Everything was swept under a Balinese rug of volcano ash and circumstances beyond their control.
Commercials for Asian airlines unfailingly showcase serene stewardesses. Air princesses with customer centricity in their DNA who pamper passengers from head to toe and cater to their every whim. With the promise of such boundless customer-friendliness for travellers who haven’t suffered a delay, you’d expect happy endings in the galley for those who have had a 70-hour delay. Or at least a plastic bottle of wine on the return flight. Or – Asian modesty is contagious – a personal mea culpa e-mail. But none of that happened – nada. It seems their customer centricity is also seriously delayed.
ABN AMRO hired a biologist a couple of crises ago. A nice enough guy in his early thirties who had one sole responsibility: to ask the question why. They were particularly scared to death of him in the marketing department. Not a single statement, argument or decision could slip by without the biologist asking the dreaded question: Why? The ensuing answer was always something along the lines of ‘that’s just how it works at The bank’ or ‘that’s the way we’ve been doing it for a hundred years’. But our biologist wouldn’t be put off that easily. So he’d immediately fire another question: ‘Why does it work that way at The bank?’ The answer he’d get to this question never satisfied him, so he’d ask another why question and another and so on. The biologist was a thorn in the side of apathetic bankers. His colleagues thought he was an overpaid pushpin, but he was probably worth his weight in gold.
During a marketing training weekend, the same biologist surprised everybody with a story about the lemming – an ugly, mouse-like rodent. He told how scientists had always been mystified by the mass lemming migration. The entire population of these creatures march in a line across huge distances, regardless of the obstacles and barriers. Rivers, steep cliffs - it doesn’t matter – these animals will go through hell and high water. Hundreds of thousands lose their lives. But the biologist told them scientists had only just discovered that lemmings aren’t as crazy as they seem. You see, species usually move in a circular manner. So when the grass is finished in one place, they move to the next patch and consequently expand their territory in circular movements making it bigger and bigger. The point is that if you were to roll out this circle, it would cover a much greater distance than the straight line of the lemmings. A bit of quick statistical math reveals that the lemming population has a spectacularly better chance of survival. After all, there is a considerable risk that a population that moves via the long circular motion will run out of fertile fields and die. So while the lemming population might be thinned, with maybe three-quarters of it drowning, these fatalities literally form a bridge for a small group of strong survivors – even if it’s just a male and a female – who can get back to munching away and reproducing in a brand new green world.
The story left us slightly emotional and it was now our turn to ask the biologist a why question. Why did he tell us this story? He saw it as a metaphor for the marketing world in which everything always moves ‘circularly’. One step left, one step right. If we make tomato soup, we let ourselves go and concoct a Chinese version while we’re at it. And besides regular spaghetti, we’ve now got wholegrain spaghetti too. We get all exotic by adding aloe vera to shampoo. We innovate in mouse steps. So the moral of the biologist’s story is don’t keep muddling along. Don’t stack SKUs, but seek out new deltas. Hire a biologist that will pry open the rusted processes and arguments using a can of WD40. A guy who will massage the marketers’ tensed-up shoulders and let them get back to daring to make a real difference. En route to greenfields with fresh potential. Growing towards the light and moving like a stripe towards the Effie Awards podium. The lemming, it’s ugly but it gets you there!
Dick van der Lecq, CEO/ DDB Etcetera.
Studied biology for one year at the University of Utrecht in 1982.