“Meow means woof in cat.”
Years ago, I was asked by a client to write some ads. There was a catch. He wanted me to write ads about nothing. He had no facts to communicate that would persuade anybody to use his company. His competitors had far more advanced platforms and it would be another two years before he caught up. For two years, he wanted feel good ads. His words, not mine. Six months in he called me in to say that he liked the ads but they needed more facts. I said do you have any? He said no. And then he said, you’re the clever creative, come up with a few. We both stared at each other for a very long time.
I remembered this story when I was recently asked the other day why advertising sometimes goes wrong or why it can take so long. My response was to use Susan Sontag’s quote. Words are not things. It is one of my favourite quotes because it explains so much about the business.
If you have been in the business for a while, you will start to see the same words over and over. Here are a few. Real, authentic and fresh. Or phrases like ‘out of the box thinking’. You will see or hear these words fairly often. They relate to how the communications should feel. These words often create the opposite of clarity.
Now, there is nothing wrong with these words. As words. The problem with these words and many others is they either mean nothing or they mean very different things to different people. So, when you try to take them from nice words into actual things you run into all sorts of problems.
Let’s take one of these words as an example. Real.
We all know what it means right. But let’s turn it into a film.
Visually and conceptually, real can mean many things. Should it feel like a documentary or real as in contemporary and what’s happening today? Maybe the gritty reality of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Or, should the people in the film not feel airbrushed? Real characters speaking like real people. Do we mean real emotionally? Or real as in based on a true human insight. Now, that is just one word. And perhaps you can answer all of those questions.
OK, let’s add the single phrase ‘out of the box thinking’. Simple right? Real and innovative. So, show me something that you know is true and honest and something that is new that you have never seen before. That is a little trickier. Let’s ad the words passionate, fun but not quirky. Real, new, passionate, fun but not weird.
Five words in and we are already in deep shit. Yet, there is a greater problem. Almost everybody involved in the process has slightly or very different interpretations of these words. What one person thinks is fun another person will think is very weird. We might think we are all speaking the same language but already translation is required.
This is the great problem with language. It creates the illusion of precision. We think it is a simple bridge from imagination to reality.
And in an industry that single-handedly supports the very wealthy people that make Post-its, this is a big problem. We are very fond of creating lists based on a whole lot of words that we pretend are ideas. We think these words will become a thing. We think this gives creatives direction.
I have just demonstrated with five simple words this is not the case. What language doesn’t address are things like understanding, tonality and intention. These three words are often the reason the process takes so long. Looking at my career and speaking to other creatives these three words are the most frightening of all.
We worry a lot about what we are going to do. But what often causes all the problems is how we do them.
Vague words on a page don’t really solve this.
Making others see exactly what is in your head does.
And often, that, can, be a very slow and strange dance.