I was 17 and we’d all been to a party in Ilford or Seven Kings or one of those places. It was the early hours of the morning and I was grateful to be squeezed into the back of the car – even though it was the boot of an estate. However uncomfortable the journey, I was at least on my way home, to my own bed.
As we drove through empty suburban streets, Romford-bound, everyone was happily reviewing the evening’s fashion and flirtations, characters and comedy. Suddenly through the chatter I heard the slow velvet tones of Debbie, our Essex femme fatale. Unaware that I was in the back of the car, she was about to offer her opinion on Jim. I was quite impressed that she knew who I was, but also fascinated to hear what she might say.
‘Ah, Jim…He’s nice, but…’
The packed vehicle broke into a chorus of laughter before she could finish the sentence. I was left pondering what might have been on Debbie’s mind. What personality problem, sartorial shortcoming or conversational quirk was she about to reveal? Her incomplete statement suggested to me that I was myself somewhat incomplete, lacking in some vital way. But I didn’t know how. For the following term at school I was periodically mocked as ‘Jim, he’s nice, but…’
Some time later, in the early years of my advertising career, I found myself presenting a panoramic review of the big themes in contemporary culture to my Manchester-based motor insurance Client. I talked about grunge fashion, Gen X slackers and the critical significance of Wayne’s World and Super Nintendo; of the special resonance of Bart Simpson’s shorts and Gazza’s tears. And at the end of the session, my charming senior Client, June, paused for a while and pronounced: ‘That’s interesting, in’t it?’ We moved swiftly on.
I realised with the repetition of this phrase on subsequent occasions that June was happy to indulge my wide ranging cultural critiques, but that she struggled to see any particular relevance to the world of motor insurance. What had any of my social trends and media phenomena to do with comprehensive policies, no claims bonus and third party, fire and theft? I had not offered much by way of implied action and she wasn’t prepared to supply it. My observations were ‘nice, but….’
Over time I realised that I was demonstrating a common shortcoming of the brand strategist. It’s easier to describe change than to explain how to respond to it. It’s easier to step outside the category than to bring the outside world inside. It’s easier to commentate than to advocate.
And yet this is where the real value of our cultural expertise comes into play. Surely the most compelling and exhilarating challenge for a modern strategist is to help brands participate in, and shape, popular culture; to help them join in, not stand on the sidelines watching.
So don’t just tell your Clients that the world is going to be full of robots, 3-D printers and fridges that talk to each other. Help them understand how these and other developments will impact on their brand and their communication; and what they need to do about it.
If you just want to be interesting, become a trends forecaster, a cultural commentator. If you want to work in commercial creativity, you must turn interest into opportunity and action.
I’m conscious that in my short weekly essays I am myself often guilty of giving observations rather than directions; descriptions rather than recommendations. Maybe I’m enjoying being one stage removed from the responsibility of decision-making. Maybe Debbie was right all those years ago: ‘Nice, but…’