The Enduring Power Of Stuff That Isn’t Useful And Why ‘Utility’ Will Not Overthrow Magic

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“A society becomes stagnant when its people are too rational or too serious

to be tempted by baubles”

 Eric Hoffer

Back to the future

Built somewhere between 3000BC and 1600BC, it is believed that the ditch at Stonehenge was dug with tools made from the antlers of red deer and, possibly, wood. The underlying chalk was loosened with picks and shoveled with the shoulder blades of cattle.  As for the stones themselves, modern theories speculate that they arrived from the inland mountains through a combination of roller and sledge overland, and rafts or barges for the journeys along the coast of Wales, and up the rivers of Avon and Frome and Wylye. 

The precise purpose of Stonehenge is still shrouded in mystery and speculation. Some argue that it was a religious site of some kind. More recently, others have argued that the stones were erected for their magical, healing powers. 

Whatever the case, two things are clear. The builders of Stonehenge were proficient and imaginative wielders of tools. They were ambitious engineers. At the same time, it’s evident that in the eyes of the culture that erected them, they were not merely stones. They were much more. In other words, they were able and willing to look beyond their objective reality and invent or divine a realm of meaning and significance that went well beyond what their senses told them was before them. 

Ripple dissolve to the present.

The case for utility

Drawing from the world of software, ‘utility’ - “something useful or designed for use” - is offered up as an alternative and antidote to the perceived inadequacies and dubious practices of traditional advertising. 

In place of advertising’s superficial con-tricks that were based on nothing more than illusion and smokescreen, utility promises products and services that are of real value to people as opposed to advertising’s imaginings and stories. And in place of the merely fictional, it offers something real and authentic. 

That is what any agency that wants to have a future should be producing. Not advertising and image.

Bob Greenberg, CEO of R/GA for example, has dismissed the traditional agency world as being “a business built on surface and bluster.” Similarly, Fast Company has characterized the output of ‘traditional agencies’ as “lathering on a brand message.”  And Adam Glickman has argued that “If agencies want to think more like tech startups, they might focus less on clever storytelling and more on utility.”

The choice of language and metaphor deployed in these arguments is not accidental. Advertising's effects are ephemeral. The ephemeral has no substance. That which has no substance can have no lasting value. Ergo, advertising has no lasting value.

Needless to say, it is this  - the peddling of rhetoric, fashion, and self-interest - with which I wish to take issue.

Let’s put aside for one moment the fact that those who claim that there is no only one, new, true way to undertake business and who claim to be prophets of our industry’s future aren’t dealing in open-minded prognostications but - just scratch beneath the surface or look who’s signing their paychecks - are peddling self-interest. Show me a person who claims “.... is dead” and I’ll show you someone who’s wanting to sell you their own version of the brighter, better future. 

By all means specialise. Our industry offers plenty of scope and opportunity for the specialists. And their focus arguably benefits us all in the end. Division of labour and specialisation as Matt Ridley has pointed out, is after all, the core driver of so much of humanity’s progress. But to demand that we must view the entire world through the lens of the specialist is naive at best and arrogant at worst.  It’s as absurd as if the world’s watchmakers were to demand that humanity’s only metric be time, and dispense with all other notions such as weight, distance, and volume.

Let’s put aside too the fanciful notion that utility is a way through the oversupply and clutter that characterises the marketplace for ‘messages’. Or at least let’s see the supporting data if it’s that obvious. Adam Glickman would have us believe that “in today’s media rich, attention-poor world, offering people something of use is the best way to cut through the noise.” As if those offering utility did so without competitors. As if plentitude and duplication of offer didn’t exist. As if offers of utility didn’t have to fight for attention, time and wallet within the cacophony and bustle of the marketplace, just as everything else we produce must. 

Let’s put aside too the insistence that the assumptions and practices of software development - always be in beta, engage in constant iteration, practice rapid prototyping, test and learn in the real world, develop and release minimum viable product, learn from the lean start-ups, etc.  be the measure of content that is worthwhile these days.

The fact of the matter is that not all content easily lends itself to fast creation, not everything can be released as a minimum viable product, not everything lends itself to being in a state of perpetual iteration, and not everything can be gambled upon with minimal downside.

Take the blockbuster film element from Nike’s Write The Future campaign. Or from the Old Spice campaign. What would the minimum viable version of these have been? How would one have constantly iterated these assets? How could one have placed a bet on them that did not carry vast and very public risk? Or is one expected to have aired the animatic perhaps? Or to have distributed the director’s treatment maybe? Or is one expected to take a step back into the marketing stone ages and endless iterate this kind of content in the virtual and deadly environs of the focus group or copy test? 

Just because some content doesn’t conform so easily to advertising’s metaphor du jour and just because it isn’t created in the same way as software and doesn’t work in the same way as software does not mean it is redundant, old-fashioned, or ineffective.  

And let’s put aside too the curiously moralizing voice that enters some of the commentary on our industry and where it’s headed. Fast Company’s ill-informed gushing over an agency start-up  - “this is what an ad agency looks like when it's stripped of Madison Avenue skyscrapers, high-priced creatives on payroll, sushi dinners at Nobu, and two-week shoots at the Viceroy in Santa Monica” - isn’t atypical. The production of bluff and bluster is bloated with unnecessary cost and overhead we’re told.

Of course it’s a naive argument. Investment can only be evaluated relative to its return. Shoots and creative talent are not expensive in the absolute. Indeed depending on how much value they create, they may even prove to be relatively inexpensive.

And it’s false moralizing. Would these proponents have us all enroll in some form of anti-capitalist hi-tech Puritanism, in which everything is useful, everything is inexpensive, and no-one gets paid very much? Needless to say, it isn’t moralizing. It certainly isn’t a coherent socio-economic philosophy. It’s envy. Why oil the wheels of capitalism, if you don’t want its rewards?

Let’s put aside these rhetorical excesses. Because there is perhaps a more substantial - and potentially dangerous - assumption to address.

Namely that the intangible is of questionable value.

The enduring power of the intangible

To suggest that usefulness trumps the intangible is an argument that simplifies the world too much. It denies it complexity and paradox. And in doing so it forgets (or risks dismissing) that just as the people who brought us Stonehenge were both engineers and meaning creators, we all are still born to be both manipulators of tools and meaning. 

And nothing that’s happened in the intervening 5,000 or so years - let alone the last 7 years - has changed our essence. As the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey reminds us:

“Cultural and technical innovations can certainly alter the trajectory of individual human lives. But, while human beings continue to reproduce by having sex and each new generation goes back to square one, then every baby begins life with a set of inherited dispositions and instincts that evolved in the technological dark ages… Let's dream, if we like, of revolution. But be prepared for more of the same.”

To so willfully dismiss the world of the imagined and and the intangible as mere froth, all “surface and bluster” is to do nothing less than dismiss and severely underestimate a fundamental part of what it is to be human. For we’ve always needed to live in a world where there is more to what is before our eyes.  We need this imagined world to give our identities, lives and experiences depth, significance and meaning.  As the musicologist Karol Berger has put it: 

“It would be naïve to think that all that is expected in the appreciation of food and wine or in erotic pleasure is a fine-tuned discrimination of the properties of the object actually out there. Once they transcend mere natural hunger and sexual appetite, once they begin to aim at the pleasures of the table and bedchamber rather than self-preservation and procreation, the gourmet and the libertine (to say nothing of the lover) know full well that the objects they desire are shot through and through with concepts and images, are cultural as much as natural.”

The cultural anthropologist Professor McCracken makes precisely the same argument. Goods are instruments, as McCracken puts it, of the self: “Consumer goods capture us because they capture the meanings with which we construct our lives.”

We can try and dismiss this as froth, surface and bluster, but without such imaginative capital at our disposal, our lives and identities would be significantly impoverished. Imagine a world where what we saw was precisely what we got. To borrow the words of Berger, the intangible and the imagined “keeps our world from being totally ‘disenchanted’, flat, and devoid of significance.” Berger was describing the role of art, but it serves to describe the broader world of meanings that we create for ourselves, including those created by marketing and adland.

Age, gender, occupation, status, duty, class, nation, morality, value, justice, beauty... The world teams with domains of cultural meaning. Every moment of our waking lives is informed and shaped by this world of meanings. We need this stimulus of the intangible to feed our imaginations, to invest the world of objects we inhabit with significance and meaning, and to provide us with representations of other ways of being, other ways of living and behaving. 

And if anyone doubts the potency of the intangible and utility-free, then they might want to have a go at taking themselves to the USA, burning the Stars and Stripes flag in public and report back. Something tells me that they might be not be in a condition to readily debrief anyone on the experience afterwards.

So for all the undoubtedly useful and indeed wondrous things we can create for ourselves, we still need images and representations - the ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’ as one of Muriel Spark’s characters entitled her work of fiction - to feed and supply us with imaginative capital. If we dismiss all this, we dismiss an entire and profoundly important domain of human experience.

The wealth-building power of the intangible

And when it comes to what we in marketing- and adland make, if we dismiss the creation and manipulation of meaning, then we dismiss a hugely powerful source of commercial advantage - the creation and wielding of magic. 

It takes two non adfolk to grasp the what should be obvious to all. Thus the writer and critic Judith Williamson (who as a Marxist is no fan of advertising) observes that “All consumer products offer magic and all advertisements are spells.”Similarly, observing the waves of self-doubt and confident prediction making their way through our industry,  McCracken calls for some calm:

“There is some small evidence of panic in the agency world, as if some now believe that "everything they know is wrong" and that the agency world must reinvent itself in every detail. Oh, please.  No one in the world of business understands the process of meaning management as an agency does.  It would be a pity, no, a tragedy, if this great strength got lost in the stampede to new models.  Ideas are quite wonderful.  We would be poor, mere beasts without them.”

Done well, the casting of spells, the summoning of magic, the surrounding of objects with meanings,  “the creation of desire” as Giles Hedger, the Chief Strategy Officer at Leo Burnett London has put it, “and the weaving of mystery and the summoning of visceral and unconquerable impulses through the art of words and pictures... something that is compelling beyond reason” - can transform not merely our experience of goods and services, but the fortunes of the businesses behind them. 

Similarly in a recent interview, the computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author Jaron Lanier seemed to make the case for the weaving of magic, urging our industry not to get too preoccupied with simply building connections between people and technologies. We should he said, not lose track of what he termed the most “romantic” side of advertising - “the most aesthetic, romantic, engaged form of advertising.”

And magic works. 

The IPA’s Effectiveness Awards, the EFFIES, and now the Cannes Effectiveness Lions give us all a wealth of evidence of the wealth-generating power of the intangible and meaningful.  For example, econometric modelling has shown that nothing more than a cute labrador puppy generated incremental sales for Andrex worth ₤300 million between 1982 and 1992. And a drumming gorilla generated £5.22 million incremental sales, and delivered a 5% margin improvement for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

Of course it’s not all about furry animals. Anybody who doubts the power of such magic - such spectacular lack of inherent usefulness, such froth and frippery - need look no further than the market for diamond jewelry. 

Diamonds have (unless you’re talking about industrial diamonds) absolutely no intrinsic utility. But they carry enormous cultural freight and vast emotional power.  It’s a potency that is not inherent to diamonds. It’s something we have willfully invested them with. More specifically, it’s meaning that is the consequence of decades of marketing investment and consumer collusion. The notion of diamonds as symbols of love is an invention. And it’s a game that as consumers, we’ve played along with. As the artist and composer Brian Eno put it “We confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable... It’s us who make those meanings.”

And that meaning has very real and very significant commercial value. Thus, econometric modelling has shown that between 1982 and 2006, meaning creation - delivered by the DTC (formerly De Beers) through a combination of product concepts and “the art of words and pictures” - delivered an astonishing incremental sales effect of $14.7 billion (after the deduction of investment costs) to the diamond retail market.

Now the Nike+ is often touted by the advocates of utility as a fine example of what agencies ‘should’ be producing more of. Yet in praising the undoubted usefulness of Nike+ many overlook the glaringly obvious. That without the accumulated meaning the word ‘Nike’ has the world over, ‘+’ would be a significantly less compelling proposition. 

Utility can of course enrich our lives - whether it makes our experiences more enjoyable, more social, more convenient, more frictionless... But given that there is a marketplace for utility just as there is for everything else we make that is of value to people, the intangibles of brands make those bundles of utility easier to buy, increasing their “saleability” as Stephen King described the role of much of advertising.

It does feel more than a little bizarre to have to restate the case for the transformative, wealth-generating power that lies in the intangible.  Indeed by now it should be an entirely redundant exercise. But when some of our industry’s luminaries spout such extraordinary nonsense as “in the whole history of mass advertising, the number of transformative ideas that have created wealth via advertising you can count on one set of fingers and toes” perhaps restating the breathtakingly obvious is precisely what’s required.

Is it really ‘utility’?

Now it’s obvious that advertising doesn’t have a monopoly on meaning creation. People assemble brands in their minds from the whole gamut of experiences and contact with brands. As Jeremy Bullmore famously observed “people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon... people come to conclusions about brands as a result of an uncountable number of different stimuli.”

We may believe and claim that its power lies in its practical usefulness, but I suspect that if we were to look more closely, we would find that in many instances so-called ‘utility’ is just another scrap from which we build a brand’s story in our minds. 

It is unlikely after all that everyone in a brand’s audience will use its proffered utility.  What proportion for example, of ING’s or Mastercard’s total customer base have ever used their respective ATM-finding app (note the duplication of offer)? We’re not all highly involved in the brand or category all the time. Not everybody is going to be actively in the market for our brand at any one time. And even helpful, convenient, useful utility can require just a little more effort to interact with than passively absorbing meaning.

However, it is likely that much of our audience will see (or hear about) that utility being offered. Even if they themselves do not ever actually use it. And this perspective probably changes how we view at least some of what calls itself ‘utility’.

Consider this. By 2010, Best Buy’s Twelpforce had responded to over 29,000 questions and accumulated 26,837 followers on Twitter. But consider this too. It was the largest electronic retailer in the country - it takes a lot of shoppers to generate revenues of $4.4 billion in the month of December 2010. Consider too the sheer breadth of its offering, and that there are 245,267,292 people aged 15 years and over in the United States many of whom will presumably be in the market for some kind of electrical goods. And remember that the service was promoted through TV advertising as well as in-store-messaging. Suddenly it begins to feel as if that utility was actually delivered to and experienced directly by a relatively small population. 

So, it is worth considering whether the mere availability of this service worked to elevate the brand’s reputation as being knowledgeable and responsive amongst a much broader population. Even though they never took advantage of this piece of utility. So was Twelpforce really a piece of utility? Or was it in reality a good old fashioned piece of meaning management? In other words, a piece of advertising.

Let’s go back to Nike again. Where does the true value of Nike+ lie? According to data from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, in 2010 no less than 46,002,000 Americans ran or jogged 50+ days a year. Set against this, Nikeplus.com has a total global membership of close to 2,000,000. So given that the vast majority of the world’s runners clearly have not adopted Nike+, again one has to ask - does the big contribution of Nike+ lie in delivering an undoubtedly brilliant piece of utility to a few millions of committed, serious runners? Or does it lie in what that innovation communicates to the broader market for running gear? And what it does to sustain and bolster Nike’s running credentials - the roots of the company?

Complementary, not competing approaches

“One of the things that separates us from high primates,” Steve Jobs once said , “is that we’re tool builders.” He was right, of course. But what also separates us is that we are meaning builders. As the mystery of Stonehenge demonstrates vividly, we are both wielders of tools and weavers of story. We love the useful and that which extends our powers and abilities. Equally, we continue to be entranced and seduced by the magical.

So to suggest that one approach and skill must take precedence, or that one must overthrow the other oversimplifies the world to the point of absurdity. It is to view the world in all its variety and complexity through the narrow lens of otherwise legitimate and undoubtedly beneficial specialism. It demonstrates an almost willful ignorance of human nature. And most irritatingly of all, it reveals vested interest. 

Show me an adperson who opines that “[insert structure, practice, assumption, or product] is dead” and I’ll show you someone who’s doing nothing more than selling us their shiny new alternative.

But show me an adperson who can cope with the word “and”, who doesn’t find the ampersand threatening, who can accommodate themselves to complementary approaches, who can embrace complexity, diversity and even paradox, and I’ll show you a person who’s honestly trying to make sense of the world and what we do.

Sources

Amanda Feve, Ben Armistead, Daisy Andrewes, Nick Docherty, Richard Oldfield and Stuart Parkinson - the planning Sith and collective hive-mind of W+K Amsterdam

Karol Berger, A Theory of Art

Best Buy, Fiscal December Revenue Summary at: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9NzY4NTV8Q2hpbGRJRD0tMXxUeXBlPTM=&t=1

Jeremy Bullmore, ‘Posh Spice and Persil’, British Brands Group lecture, 2001

Crispin Porter + Bogusky, ‘Best Buy - Twelpforce’, Jay Chiat Strategic Excellence Awards, 2010

Adam Glickman, ‘How Ad Agencies Can Act More Like Tech Startups’, Fast Company, July 18th, 2011 at http://www.fastcompany.com/1767725/taking-ownership-in-ideas-how-ad-agencies-can-really-act-more-like-tech-start-ups

Bob Greenberg, ‘An Adman’s Guide To Survival’, Bloomberg Businessweek, December 5th, 2005 athttp://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_49/b3962042.htm

Giles Hedger, 'Bridging back to Content' at http://adsnob.typepad.com/west-ken/2011/09/bridging-back-to-content.html

Steve Jobs at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hXSfS1i4jU

Jaron Lanier interview at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFj_rqQG4jU&feature=player_embedded#!

Grant McCracken, ‘Meaning Manufacture, Old and New (Significant Objects)’ at  http://cultureby.com/?s=madison

Nike annual report at:  http://media.corporate-ir.net/media_files/IROL/10/100529/nike-ar-20100804/index.html#mark_parker_letter

Running USA's State of the Sport 2011 - Part II: Running Industry Report at http://www.runningusa.org/node/76115#76701

Danielle Sacks, ‘The Future Of Advertising’, Fast Company, November 17th, 2010 at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/151/mayhem-on-madison-avenue.html

Muriel Spark, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

Ian MacDonald and Karen Go, ‘De Beers - Billion dollar ideas’ Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, IPA Effectiveness Awards 2008

Mary Stow, ‘Andrex: Sold on a Pup’ Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, IPA Effectiveness Awards, 1992

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertising