Frothy Thinking…


A frothy sea. Or, a meringue on a cheesecake base. One or the other.

I’ve been sparked into blogging because of something which has happened to me a few times over the past few weeks, and I wanted to record it, as it made me wonder if our beloved communications industry bears any form of respect, never mind a seat at the top table talking to CMOs or CFOs.

Recently, I’ve been in several meetings where I’ve been asked about my approach to planning, and how I think about strategic problems. It centred on whether I had a ‘set process’ that I used to figure out answers to things. Biting my lip, I explained that no, I didn’t have an ‘INSIGHT-O-MATIC 3000’ (do you?), preferring instead to respond to problems individually, as whilst there are certain commonalities within sector, the context for every problem will be unique.

This answer has never really sat easily with people when I’ve given it, akin to when I talk about my means of coming up with a piece of robust thinking.

Whenever I talk about my own thinking, I’m fond of quoting the best proposition (for MTV’s Aids charity, ‘Staying Alive’) I’ve ever come up with. It’s possibly the only proposition I’ve ever written that actually has that rarest of rare beasts within it, an insight (NB, that’s not to say I haven’t/don’t write good propositions, but I think proper insights are rarer than hen’s teeth).

The time it took me to conceive of the thought? About an hour.

As you’d imagine, that’s also absolutely not what people want to hear. It sounds frothy and shallow. Never mind that I spent two weeks trying to rationalise why it worked/seemed to be right.

Much like the industry’s conception of planners as ‘the clever ones’, it seems people want reassurance that there’s been a carefully thought through narrative to our strategy shaping – namely, that we’ve received a problem, used a clear, structured approach, thought DEEP thoughts over a long period of time, fashioning something based on this, reduced it down, and briefed it / sold it in. Feels reassuring, doesn’t it? Not to me.

Bluntly, I think the latter is more than just disingenuous; it’s downright dangerous.

We’re so keen to prove our worth that we codify our thinking into processes, or tools. Tools that are designed to sell strategy and creative by the pound, and be ‘right’. The truth is, a ‘fame’ approach may well be correct for that battery brand, or it may require a different price point – whatever the solution is, the great lie is that the tool helped us get there.

Not a chance. Coming up with strategy is always far, far more messy than that, and basing our sell on the ‘tool’ that help us get there both sells us short and devalues any piece of original thinking.

Imagine a best case scenario, that you are able to sell a process or a tool. Whilst it’ll work now, in the future your clients will expect a similar approach; you’ll have partly closed the door to selling anything original in the future, or at least have made it very difficult for yourself. It’s why I worry about seemingly robust tools or equations.

The chances are, 95% of the time you’ll be balancing more frothy thinking with deeper understanding. Within communications, we’re in the business of selling solutions which have either never been done before or, at the very least, require something of a leap of faith. Simply put, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

A certain level of honesty with your client should be maintained, and, if possible, an attempt to test and learn should be in the back of your mind. Not ‘lighting lots of fires’ and ‘failing faster’, mindlessly wasting marketing money, but ideas and strategies that have a deeper sense of just how and why your audience/s will like what you’re going to do, and can understand it easily, as Dave Trott points out.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a real risk in relying too heavily on lightweight thinking and not testing your hypotheses – it leads you to the sort of woolly thinking that assumes that twitter is representative of the entire population, or producing ads which only please ad people.

However, there is a role in deploying ‘frothy thinking’ within the strategic process. It gets you away from formulaic work, and enables you to have more honest conversations with your clients. Our job always has some version of educated guesswork, and we’d be deeply naive if we tried to pretend that this wasn’t the case. No process can act as a substitute for a truly lateral thought.

Without this latent honesty, we’ll never secure the seat at the top table we crave. By acknowledging the risk inherent in our ideas, we run the risk of undermining our value as agency people – to challenge and encourage our clients about the future. We should be encouraging lateral thinking, not burying it in a morass of strategic flotsam.