The language of ideas, the reality of results

  • Advertising
  • March 17, 2010
  • Philip O'Neill
The language of ideas, the reality of results

I’m consistently surprised by how often we use language in ways that undermine our efforts as an industry. It surprises me because communication should be the one thing we nail – clear, precise language that explains exactly what we mean – but actually we’re often pretty bad at it.

On one level I think this is a problem for marketing in general. We’re an industry that’s quite comically inclined to invent language, largely in an attempt to lend weight, substance and (we hope) credibility to what we do. So we’ve invented a language that’s high on complexity and low on meaning (I highlight ‘granular’ and ‘conversation-catalysts’ as recent favourites).

In an attempt to make our discipline sound more like, well, a discipline, we’ve succumbed to the easy temptation to develop an insular language, one designed to exclude. It’s a carefully constructed façade of inside knowledge, based on the flawed logic that if we appear to know something that others don’t then that knowledge must somehow be important and valuable.

On a second level, I think there’s also an issue with the looseness of the language we use to describe what we do. And this is closer to the point I want to make here.

I betray my age when I talk about formative years spent poring over anything I could find on the subject of advertising written by David Abbott, Tim Delaney and Indra Sinha (when he was a humble advertising copywriter). They all wrote about the importance of precision in language, the need for what we write to communicate its meaning clearly and its point powerfully.

But it’s a looseness with language that I think catches us out so often.  The precision we (should) apply when communicating on behalf of our clients’ brands is often lacking when we communicate on behalf of our own.

I think a good example is the ‘ideas agency’.

As a concept it seems to be having something of a renaissance. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve used the phrase myself, as I, like many others, have tried to describe my company in a way that makes it feels bigger, more vital, than just an advertising agency. I also absolutely agree with the endeavour, the goal of being a business that helps clients succeed, whatever form that help might take. I’ve also worked with a number of agencies that deserve the label – brilliant, diverse groups of people delivering a breadth of ideas with the potential to deliver huge client gains. So my issue’s not with the concept, more with how we describe it.

Because I was talking with a friend the other day and he was describing the change he is trying to bring about in his business, to reinvent it as an ‘ideas agency’. What he said didn’t quite make sense, not because the agency in question isn’t capable of delivering ideas both valuable and beyond advertising, but more because of how they’d arrived at ‘ideas agency’ as the description of what they want to be known as.

“We can’t be an advertising agency” he said, “because CEOs aren’t looking for ads. We need to be an ‘ideas agency’ because what they're looking for is big ideas”.

And it was this that didn’t make sense to me, because in my experience I don’t think chief executives want big ideas at all. What they’re looking for is big results. And while I acknowledge that might seem like a rather trivial, cavilling distinction, I think it’s important for a couple of reasons.

We know that the point of ideas is to deliver results. Some chief executives agree (while some, rather cynically, believe that the point of ideas is to be interesting, results being at best a secondary motivation).  But irrespective of the chief executive's view it feels like an example of an industry failing to take its own advice. Aren’t we confusing feature with benefit, something we regularly criticise our clients for doing?

We’ve all told a client at some point that the world at large doesn’t care what they produce, only what benefit they deliver.  We’ve all counseled clients to move past the infatuation with what they do, to focus instead on what their customers need, the problem that they can solve. And I would argue that clients need results. That we know ideas are fundamental to delivering results is our issue. But what matters is that ideas are our feature. Ideas are not our benefit.

To most chief executives, the world of marketing is beset by a frustrating vagueness. It’s not concrete and measurable. It’s notoriously difficult to predict what will work and why. It’s not spreadsheetable, or inclined to accurate modeling. In short, it's a bit nebulous.  Which is also what ideas are. They’re leaps, bridges intended to take you somewhere new (which is the very thing that makes them exciting to us, and dangerous and unsettling to chief executives). But my worry is that our focus on ideas reinforces this sense of vagueness. To them it’s a woolly word describing a nebulous concept. In contrast, results sounds like a precise word describing a concrete concept.

My second issue with the concept of the ‘ideas agency’ is that it highlights a fundamental distinction in what we value.

In the world of agencies, ideas are the currency, the thing most prized, because we believe that it’s ideas that change fortunes. So we like the thought of being an ‘ideas agency’. We do acknowledge that ideas alone are kind of worthless, and that until an idea is executed, made real, it doesn’t have actual value. But ultimately we do believe it’s the idea that matters, and we do love them for themselves. In the final analysis, our fondness for the idea sometimes dwarfs our enthusiasm for the result.

But I’d wager most chief execs don’t see the world this way. They see ideas as the loose start point for results. The idea matters and is necessary, but it’s the execution, the implementation, that matters at least as much. And the focus is always on the outcome. The result is the goal and, in the final analysis, it’s the value delivered by the result that dwarfs the respect for the idea.

And this is where I worry that the language we use undermines us.  Because when we talk about an ‘ideas agency’ we do so based on our world.  And in our world idea trumps result. But when many chief execs hear us talk about an ‘ideas agency’ they interpret it based on their world. And in their world, result trumps idea.

We call ourselves an ‘ideas agency’ because we think it makes us sound bigger. But I worry that to clients it might actually make us sound smaller.

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