18 Sep 2006

the napoleons - first flight

Yesterday when I left from the Athenaeum, after having listened to “The Napoleons” live in Bucharest, I had this line from “Lock, stock and two smoking barrels” in my mind: “it’s been emotional”. I was actually feeling absolutely amazing, and I can’t even remember the last time when hours had passed so quickly, without me even realizing it.

The Napoleons were Russell Davies (“the Mozart of planning”, as John Griffiths called him), Jeffre Jackson (an amazing planner, who’s now part of the OIA, after having worked for Goodby Silverstein and for Wieden&Kennedy Amsterdam), Ben Terrett (founder of The Design Conspiracy) and Neil Christie (managing director of Wieden&Kennedy London). These guys are brilliant and funny, which was not only obvious from the things they said, but also from the way they presented their ideas, their thoughts, their achievements. I simply did not get bored for a second, maybe for the very reason that they are that type of interesting people who simply get the others interested in whatever it is that it interests them, the kind of people more than worth listening to, talking to and most important learning from.

It feels really difficult to write about the stuff that I’ve learnt during these days, cause I didn’t mark down everything, being sure that most of it will find its way straight into practice. However, I’ll try to sketch some stuff I got out of the presentations.

Russell began his talk in his regular intriguing and pleasant manner, with an Archie Bell & The Drells song which sounded very much like the core of planning: “It’s up to me to come up with a strategy to make you mine [...], Girl, it’s up to you to do what I want you to, to ease my mind [...] There’s no need in teasing […], I need you and you need me”. Then he talked about metaphors. About the magic bullet, which is often used as a metaphor for the message produced; how different do apples and oranges look after they had been hit by a bullet, and how diverse are the reactions of people exposed to a certain message. About tennis balls - another metaphor commonly used to describe how messages should be, saying that if you throw one ball at a person, the person will catch it for sure, while if you throw three balls at a person, the person will catch none. Russell explained how he empirically proved himself the falsity of this assertion and used it as a pretext to show us some funny films that reminded us that people often pay attention to something only once they’re annoyed by it and that people will only watch what they want to watch. I particularly liked the one short which showed two persons in front of each other, one of them throwing one ball at the other one who would easily catch it; the whole process inspired me such boredom and childishness, that it was so obvious why Russell had always talked about the complexity of brands rather than their simplicity. Cause as he was further saying, people actually require complexity, they want depth, humour, subtlety, irony, anger, romance, drama, in other words, they want life and emotions – people don’t come out of cinemas saying: “I really enjoyed the movie. It was so clear”. Which also means that sometimes, good communication doesn’t even need a clear message expressed in clear words to get a brand through to people – we were shown the reactions of people in the street who were stopped and asked to watch a Nike rhythm ad: they danced, they got into the spirit, they even thanked Russell for showing them an ad, for Christ’s sake, in other words, they reacted to a type of communication which didn’t function via words/message.

There was another interesting point about how improper it is to use only words when talking about strategy and communication, and not take advantage of all types of non-verbal means: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

In connection with all the above, there was this great idea that execution is strategic, but we never really talk about it. Which the more I think about, seems more and more true, especially in the context of creating non-verbal communication, so to say; and it is, indeed, one aspect of planning which seems to me less debated than the rest of planning roles. After all, just as Costin put it, planners should make sure that people get the right feeling about the brand, and execution is quite supposed to induce this right feeling(s). Moreover, a lousy execution can totally spoil all the long hours of hard thinking and work behind it. Just as it can totally mislead people about a brand.

Some more thoughts I marked down while discussing the Honda case study would be:

  • One of the best briefs ever – a picture of a Honda’s back with Boring written on it instead of the model’s name
  • If working on a brand which already has a slogan/tagline/etc, find out what it means and figure a way to express it (just like W&K did with “The Power of Dreams” and Leo Burnett did with Bergenbier’s “Prietenii stiu de ce – friends know why”)
  • Writing adjectives about the brands you’re working with means getting more and more the right sense of those brands, but it also means finding conceptual enemies – which I think is yet another brilliant point (i.e., Honda ≠ complacency)
  • Nike didn’t discover the power of advertising, Nike discovered the power of its own voice – be surprising every time you talk to people, have an actual impact
  • While working for Honda, Wiedens used to stick on walls all sorts of things, leave stuck on the walls whatever felt right for the brand, and rip off whatever didn’t feel just as right – actually the very process helped them figure out what actually felt right for Honda, and ended up with “The Book of Dreams”. But the book is not the point. The process is the point.
  • “isn’t it nice when things just work?” – feeling, not message.
  • Nobody talks about negative emotions in advertising – is that stupid or what in a world in which life is full of negative emotions?

Russell ended his first part saying something “and then I became a client and realized all that was bollocks”, which made him talk a bit about organizational needs versus communication needs.

Jeffre Jackson was next with a presentation fairly self-explanatorily entitled “Sell!”, whose starting point was that everything must be sold – in the right way, to the right people. The presentation was a real thrill, cause Jeffre is a real thrill. He gave us several general principles for selling, such as:

  • Separate the idea from the execution
  • Tell them what you’re gonna tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you’re just told them.
  • Give them the tools to sell internally.

And he gave us lots of tips, among which:

  • First sell idea, then execution
  • Idea sheet
  • Shared language
  • Insist on tissue sessions
  • Deliver a “sales pack” along with the work – by the way, think about the lives of clients and always remember that clients have their own clients
  • Don’t skimp on the “other” ideas – like focus on all details and all requirements, not just TV and print, but also think about billboards, packaging etc
  • Report every significant step between brief and solution. Even the dead ends. – help the relationship with the client, build more and more confidence, explain what you think doesn’t work and why and so on.
  • Refer to client research when you can – make friends with their research director
  • understand and communicate what the client wants (not just what’s on the brief)
  • cultivate many sources of information
  • arrange a client-agency outing
  • adapt. Don’t give up.
  • Have the right people explain clients the work (have art directors explain the technical details – they’ll make their choices clearer for the clients)
  • Passion is better than perfection.

Oh…and yet another thing I totally loved was the emphasis on facts such as that great agencies just work harder and that the grass in not greener on the other side of the fence – there is no actual “out there”.

The really funny game we played taught us once again that kindergarten children are the greatest, cause they ask for more, they make more attempts, they learn by doing, work in parallel, embrace failure, as well as multiple iterations.

The open discussions that followed were very catchy and focused on how to keep people inspired, how to fire clients, how to manage the tension between smaller and larger agencies working on an account, “not the best idea wins, the best explained idea wins”, and, very important – decide what kind of business you want to be in.

After which along came Ben Terrett, from “The Design Conspiracy”, another small fantastic gathering of a great bunch of folks, whose aim is to “create intrigue and provoke reaction”. Even through their heat-sensitive business cards. And through their free company fruit policy. As well as through their “finish at 4 PM Friday” policy. And their giving to charity more than 1% of their gains each year. Or their bonuses on employer’s birthday. And so on – great presentation, great ideas, great time.

I can’t believe how much I’ve written – guess it’s just part of the enthusiasm. The truth is that even if I knew about most of the things I’ve marked down, it still felt great to hear those guys talking about them. Hopefully, the post on the second day will be shorter :D. Huge thanks to the Napoleons and huge thanks to you, Bogdana ! :)

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