Talking the walk
The way we talk about anything defines the way we think about it, and in the end, the way we value it.
This is important, because marketing and advertising are suffering more than they ever have before from a chronic lack of clarity about their meaning, their value, and their purpose.
And yet surely the game is as simple as it ever was. Get people to care about your stuff more than other stuff, so they buy it at a decent price, and may do so again.
There's a lack of precision that underlies our usage of some of the most commonly used words in the business. And like anyone who's not quite sure of what they're doing, we respond by demanding results and value for money.
Let's look at a few repeat offenders and bring a little mental floss into the discussion.
There are almost no consumer brands whose delivered experience matters to the consumer. There are, however, a great many who are grasping the nettle of service innovation and scoring big points.
Too commonly, however, when we talk about experience design, we're talking about a bastard child of interface and/or information design. Good stuff, but at its best it simply "satisfices" the consumer, getting us out of the red of poor user experience, but nowhere near the black of fresh consumer value.
The great brands of this century almost all share a single common attribute ... they empower the consumer, and they do so with services that do more than meet needs ... they change behaviour. In this heady company, experience design is rarely more than table stakes.
Underpinning the wild and free usage of this problem term is the assumption that, at least at the point of contact with a consumer, a brand in some way "owns" their experience. This is dangerous nonsense.
The connected consumer's experience at any moment is a rich palette, a giant pizza of optional choices and selections. Almost every individual brand encounter forms no more than a tiny anchovy on a very thin slice of that pizza.
Not everyone likes anchovies. What's more, as marketers need constant reminding - and this is the main job of advertising - consumers really don't care that much.
We've all been followed around by the exhaust from a search or the momentary exploration of a site. We've all had persistent recommendations that meet a need that was met long ago.
This we might call bad, or toxic relevance. The experience is one of disconnection, of being talked at by an obsessive maniac.
What's good relevance then?
Well good relevance is not, in fact, an advertising concern at all. The fantasy that matching a consumer's profile - or at least the feeble proxy of whatever data we hold about them - in some way creates a value in the communication that would otherwise be absent, needs a firm hand-off.
Relevance is a brand marketing concern: we need to create, position and communicate our offerings in ways that resonate with corresponding consumer needs and desires. This is why we call hitherto unarticulated, important consumer wants "insights". Insights are fresh gaps in the idea market.
But the critical role of brand advertising, interestingly, lies in irrelevance. For this reason, great creative work always rules the roost: it's the alchemy that makes us care when a moment ago, we didn't give a damn. It takes the apparently irrelevant and makes a magical connection.
So, is that resulting connection "good relevance"? I'm still not convinced, and for now I'd be happier with a less precise, more traditional term: impact.
I'm really bothered by this one. Not because great brands and their advertising don't tell great stories that really matter to millions of consumers. That's a given.
Perhaps it's the very fact that this is a given that bothers me. Time and again I've been in meetings, presentations or seminars where something like "omni-channel storytelling" is trotted out like a Very Big New Idea.
I suspect that the villain here is a faulty assumption that, as in days of old - no soap ad, no soap opera - brands and the content they pay for still perform the important role of joining up an otherwise fragmented consumer world.
No. Consumers are already joined up, and the corresponding challenge for brands is to find new, meaningful ways of creating upfront value for them. Treating them like experience-starved media orphans that need nothing more than another story is to fatally miss the point.
The great and still-referenced Nike+ was, and still is (not to mention its offspring, FitBit, Jawbone et al) to paraphrase Le Corbusier, "a machine for storytelling. Lonely, arguably insane runners (myself included, till age and a poor attitude took over) are given a tool to convert their sweaty journeys of personal triumph over adversity into ... well, elegant, well-designed and highly shareable stories of personal transformation.
The stories our brands may have to tell are forever secondary to the rich, potent and pervasive personal narratives that consumers themselves are spinning. We are, and only if we're lucky, the chorus, no longer the leading lady.
It's not for nothing that this awful atrocity has been dubbed "the new c-word".
A well-known contemporary novelist and critic was recently quoted as saying, incredibly, "I just want the opportunity to create great content."
As soon as we use the word, we condemn ourselves to the ranks of those who will never, ever come to grips with the power, the value and the meaning of great music, great stories, great movies and TV, even great dirty jokes and YouTube clips.
"Content" co-opts some of the best, the most important cultural things that we have ever produced, minimises the awful hard work, the creativity and personal risk that it takes to get them, and turns them into files on a server.
It equally elevates utter dross to the level of being, at least when paired with an unsuspecting brand, taken seriously, when it should have been thrown in the bin.
Above all, "Content" is an easy excuse, an apology, for lazy advertising. And by the way, some of the best advertising we've ever seen is entertaining, engaging and meaningful.
So what are we talking about when we use the c-word? Is there a better word out there somewhere?
I really, really hope so.
Every other presentation or report on advertising still begins by referencing - and misquoting - the words of the US department store owner John Wanamaker. "I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half."
The assumption that follows is that this successful businessman was criticising the business of advertising for being somehow inefficient, that he was demanding either a slash of 50% of his investment, or a doubling of impact.
The spirit of this misconception haunts us today, as we repeatedly sacrifice truly great ideas, ideas that have the power to make the irrelevant interruption into the compelling and timely offer by sheer force of wit, at the altar of accountability. The current obsession with targeting (see Relevance above) both feeds and is fed by such thinking.
But Mr Wanamaker was making a far more sophisticated point. He was acknowledging that, in advertising as in so many other fields, art and science will always be uncomfortable but entirely necessary bedfellows.
Of course advertising much pay for itself. But it does so not by swinging to one side or other of the debate, but by forever succeeding in living between the two. When we ignore the imperative of balancing creative impact with business sense, we produce bad advertising that wastes money.
More prosaically, big brains in the absence of big balls are of no use when we're building brands.