Whenever Advertising Gets Too Complicated, it’s Probably Gone Wrong

We’ve all met them — and count yourself lucky if you haven’t yet — ad folk, especially account planners who work hard at cultivating an image of being multi-faceted renaissance men. People who claim esoteric interests and would have us believe they are essentially slumming it in their day jobs, selling cars, insurance and cereal.

But FCB’s global planning director Nigel Jones is among the handful who are the genuine article: a man with an incredible array of non-work related interests who nevertheless believes advertising has been great for him. He has been a semi-professional chess player, a “genuinely bad punk rock guitarist” by his own admission and the creator of A Barrel of Nails, a blog concept that stands out even in a world bursting at the seams with ‘song of the day’ Tumblrs. Temporarily offline, it is an ongoing attempt by Jones to chronicle the 50 essential songs for every year since 1910, which marks the beginning of popular recorded music. He’d hit 220 songs before deciding to take the blog offline for a bit — in part because it was time consuming since each entry was accompanied by a 1000 word post. And then there was the rapid pace of technology. Jones admits, “There’s something one year and by the next, it’s out of date.”

A line that wouldn’t be out of place describing changes in the marketing communications industry. The definition and role of planning is frequently called into question, not the least by planners themselves. So, what’s planning according to Jones? “I see myself as a three way bridge between clients, consumers and creative people.” While the core definition of being the voice of the consumer still holds, there are a lot of other things planners need to do. The tools to reach consumers are more complicated, as is what consumers get out of different media.

He says, “I still think my job primarily is about inspiring creative people to create work that resonates with consumers better than the competition and better than what we were doing before.”

A task easier said than done at a time when many creative people still pride themselves on being divinely inspired and not needing any planning inputs powering their most radical creations. It’s a global phenomenon that Jones is no stranger to. He says, “Anyone who is that proud or arrogant needs to think twice about what they are doing. If you genuinely can produce work that’s brilliantly creative and effective in changing consumer behaviour every time you put pen to paper, then you probably don’t need planners. But I don’t know many creatives who can do that and I’ve worked with some of the best.” Dig deeper and the statement appears powered only in part by creative arrogance. Also to blame is the tendency many planners have to give creatives impenetrable briefs and insights. Jones admits “That’s a particular bee in my bonnet. I hate over complicated highfalutin language. I’ve spent my entire life fighting it. Some planners think their job is to look intelligent. And they use long words and complicated language in order to do that.” Instead it’s the people who keep things simple and don’t write 50 words when four will do who are most respected, even by the creatives. And that, in a nutshell is his attitude to the business:

“The beauty of advertising is whenever it gets too complicated it’s probably gone wrong.”

But how does that explain why so many planners opt to be obtuse? Jones puts it down to insecurity: “It’s a very difficult job. You can be exposed quite easily if you haven’t really got a point of view or aren’t contributing. You can’t live without creatives or clients or consumers; you can live without planners. I don’t think you should, but you can. So planners fall back on trying to look intellectual and clever to justify their role and salary. That’s wrong: you just should say things that are relevant and creatives should want to talk to you. That’s a lot better than posturing with language.”

Which brings us to the reason for Jones’ visit to India. He’s pushing the new approach to planning at FCB called Potential Unlocker. It’s driven by the belief that every brief needs to have a fresh piece of thinking; something that makes people sit up and go ‘wow’, we never thought of it that way.’ He explains, “We’ve brought it to the top of our briefs. Once you complete the brief you identify which part has the surprising element and elevate it to the potential unlocker.” Officially launched just three weeks ago in Chicago, it was part of the process that helped the agency bag the Michelob Ultra beer account.

It’s no secret that brands across the spectrum are trying to come across as not just providers of goods and services but entities that care about the world at large. Asked about the strategic underpinnings of this route and which brands it works best for, Jones says, “It’s increasingly difficult to differentiate brands through rational claims. That forces you to find differentiation in a more esoteric emotional area. That’s one of the trends.” The second big trend is the explosion in social media and brands trying to negotiate a role for themselves in that space. Jones signs off with, “The desire to differentiate through a higher emotional purpose is valid. But it’s difficult for brands that haven’t been created to do that or didn’t think that was their raison d’etre twenty or thirty years ago.”

This article originally appeared in the Economic Times on March 25, 2015.

Nigel Jones, FCB’s global chief strategy officer, is a pioneer in the modern art of communications planning.