Marketing people – big headed, empty headed, or both?

January 10, 2016


I believe that marketing has to be creative to be effective.  If it isn’t creative it won’t sell.  People don’t buy dull.

In my experience, however, many of those in our industry have not equipped themselves mentally to make an effective contribution when it comes to this aspect of the job.  They simply don’t have what it takes to be creative themselves, or to help those that do.

Of course, if you are happy to churn out mediocre work then this is not a problem.  But if you are the kind of person who strives for quality, it’ll bother you.  Personally, it irks me – and I feel the situation has been getting steadily worse for many year.  There are a few sharp, bright and well informed individuals in the industry but they’re becoming an endangered species.  Is this just me being big headed and arrogant, or do I have a point?  Read on and decide for yourself.

Define creative

The Oxford Dictionary defines creativity as “The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.”   In other words it’s the ability to come up with ideas.

So what is an idea?

An idea “is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements” writes famous copywriter James Webb Young in his book “A technique for generating ideas”.

If you follow the logic of this statement it’s obvious that the most creative people are those who have the facility, talent, aptitude, inventiveness (whatever) to spot relationships between different bits of information.  They are just good at making mental connections.

Going further down this same track it’s also obvious that if you want to generate a lot of ideas it helps to have a well-stocked mind.  If your head is stuffed with a wealth of knowledge, and regularly topped by a lively and far ranging curiosity, then the number of possible connections is hugely multiplied.  If, however, your head is empty, then the number of possible connections is limited and the flow of ideas will be meagre.  To use an analogy, it’s hard to cook a creative meal when the cupboard is bare.

Mental shelf stacking

We’re all equally ignorant at birth.  But we have a choice – stay that way, or expand our knowledge.  Your brain at the age of 20, 30, 40 and beyond is largely what you make it.

Stocking one’s mind, if that’s what you decide to do, takes years of hard work and requires an insatiably curious attitude.  You have to do a lot of hunting and gathering to squirrel away all manner of little snippets from wide ranging sources.  Everything, from medieval history to physical geography, detective literature to impressionist painting, and stock market trading to popular psychology, if filed away in the recesses of the mind, can prove grist to the creative mill when the deadline looms.  It’s laborious and time consuming, but essential if you want to develop the facility of producing creative and original ideas on demand.


Look at it the other way around.  Poorly stocked minds are infertile.  Lateral thinking is tough if you have a narrow bandwidth of knowledge.  And thinking outside the box is a waste of time when the only thing you’ve got between your ears is an abundance of nothing.  If any ideas are produced at all they will be derivative, recycled and clichéd.  And if someone else comes up with an idea that has any originality you won’t be able to understand what the hell they are on about.

Dumb and dumber

How many people in the marketing industry today are making this kind of sustained and focused effort to broaden their minds?  Precious few, in my experience.  How many, for instance, have read the James Webb Young book on producing ideas mentioned earlier?  Indeed, how many read regularly read at all?

The media, feeding us a diet of trivia, doesn’t help – watching hours of X-Factor, Strictly or The Great British Bake Off hardly feeds the mind or makes it sharper.  The education system is also to blame, tending to focus almost exclusively on specific job-related knowledge without reference to more general studies.  The result is a workforce whose minds are simultaneously becoming shallower and narrower.  And it’s a situation that’s self-perpetuating.  If everyone around you is becoming slowly dumber then you are unlikely to feel inadequate yourself, so there’s less incentive to feed your head with anything improving.  It’s an environment in which people feel comfortable about being ill informed.  And where someone who enjoys expanding their knowledge is seen as a bit of an oddity.

Let me give you three specific instances of the kind of ignorance I’m talking about – and how they proved detrimental in marketing situations.

The big blank

In the 80’s I was asked by Bristol’s leading design agency at the time to help with an internal communications campaign for the Bristol & West Building Society.  There was a brainstorming meeting with the agency head (now an MBE, for services to design), a couple of executives and about four designers.  After some discussion I suggested that we could “write it in the style of Raymond Chandler”.  There was total silence.  “You know, Philip Marlowe, his detective in novels like “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye”.  Again, not a flicker of recognition.  “You have at least heard of him?”  I asked in exasperation.  It was like looking at a bunch of rabbits caught in headlights.


“OK”, I continued, trying to find a way to get them to understand the style I had in mind, “you’re familiar with the first person narrator approach, where the story is told by just one character?”  Still nothing.  So I tried a Chandler line on them, in Bogart voice: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober and I didn’t care who knew it.”  Blank faces all round.  As a last ditch attempt I said “You’ve seen ‘Bladerunner’, right, with Harrison Ford hunting down the replicants, you know, a hard-boiled detective, that whole film noir thing…?”  They’d seen the film, but had never given a thought to the narrative structure or style (and these are the same people who will now tell you they are expert “brand storytellers”).  Eventually I had to give up – you can’t plant the seed of an idea in minds that are entirely barren.

Yukon what?

A couple of years later I was working with some lovely guys in Bath on a campaign for a software company from California.  The US client referred to the job as “Project Yukon”.  There were about half a dozen of us in the brainstorming session.  I said “maybe we could do something around a map of the Yukon?”  Puzzled faces all around and an embarrassed silence.  Eventually someone said “It’s just a word Jim, a made up word.”  “No,” I replied, “trust me, it’s a place.”  Not one of them believed me – they thought it was just another of my jokes.  “It’s a province, in Canada” I persisted.  “It’s like ten times bigger than the UK.  There was this famous gold rush there about 150 years ago…”


The more I went on the more they thought it was a wind up.  This was pre-google so I asked if they had an atlas in the office.  “Why do we need one of those?” came the reply.  Again, I had to give up.  I still work with them and I think they finally believe me – it’s funny now, but wasn’t helpful back then then.

Christian, Muslim, whatever

A few years ago I came across a website for a data security firm called Saracen.  I was amazed to see that whoever had created the branding heavily featured crusaders on the website.  I dug a little further and found the work was done by an agency in Bath that I was familiar with.

On the agency website I found an item explaining how they’d arrived at this creative idea.   We “created a visual characterisation of the company by taking a modern day approach to a Saracen, who was a medieval Knight.  This along with bold Knights in armour imagery, link the company name, and also highlight protection, security with a touch of humour.”

Oh, so creative – and so ill-informed.  Saracens were not just any medieval knights. They were Muslim knights.  And the knights depicted in the branding were English knights, Christian knights, draped in the cross of St George.  Oops, a company named after Muslim knights but being represented by their Christian foe.


How many people had been involved in that project?  All those at the client end (didn’t they have any idea what their company name represented?!), the agency account people, the designers, the writers, the web guys, the photographer, the models – not one of them had a clue about who was fighting who in the Crusades.  Not only had they all been asleep in history class but they must have also totally disengaged their brains when watching films like Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Blume.  Even more staggering is their sheer laziness – a couple of clicks and they could have checked on Wikipedia, saving themselves a huge amount of money and embarrassment.  But when you don’t know what you don’t know, and assume everyone else is equally empty headed, these mistakes come easy.

Young people nowadays, moan, groan…

So, three separate instances, spread over the past 20 years, that suggest that when it comes to literature/culture, geography, history and other subjects beyond the narrow confines of their job many marketing people are scarily clueless. I could give you countless more, but hopefully these will suffice.  Having said that, three instance over two decades, and all of them anecdotal – hardly comprehensive and objective proof that there has been a steady decline in terms of their general knowledge.

This bothered me.  Maybe it said more about me (arrogant, grumpy, dismissive of the younger generation) than about what was really happening.  But then I stumbled across something that brought me up short – and proved how right I was to feel the way I did.

A message from the grave

My wife was recently sorting some of her deceased father’s papers and came across a preliminary Examination Application Form for The Advertising Association from 1929.  The file also included the syllabus, a 32-page booklet setting out what candidates would be tested on in the Preliminary, Intermediate and Final exams.

1929 advertising course

The beautifully written introduction (a masterclass in clarity and brevity) explains the purpose thus:

“There is an ever increasing demand that young people in or entering the advertising business should produce some proof of their capabilities, and there can be little doubt that in years to come, executive positions will be reserved largely for those who have equipped themselves with the all-round education offered today.  The Association’s scheme will not only do much to increase the efficiency of the younger generation in advertising, but provide employers with a standard by which to judge the abilities and knowledge of men and women seeking employment or preferment.”

Note that the emphasis is on the student to equip themselves.  No blaming your teachers then – the knowledge is freely available and it’s up to you to go get it.  Secondly, note the stress on all-round education.  Thirdly, they mention a standard that’s expected – and I think it would scare the hell out of those entering or working in the business today.

Prepare to be shocked

The Intermediate and Final papers were pretty tough, and focused mainly on industry related knowledge and skills.  Let’s just take a few snippets relating to English at Intermediate level.

Candidates had to pass tests in parsing (including the function of words in sentences), analysis (the relationship of component parts of a sentence), and multiple tests on sentence construction (loose and periodic sentences, position of words and subordinate clauses…).  The composition section included tests on paragraph construction (unity, sequence, variation, devices for effect…).  Then there was a set of punctuation tests, followed by tests in essay writing skills, indirect speech, condensation of matter and precis writing.  How many people in our industry today, from brand managers to marketing consultants and social media experts to account managers, all of whom happily big up their communication skills on Linkedin, would pass that one?

Finally, “Candidates will be expected to answer questions testing their general knowledge of a literary work set for study in each particular year, such as the following:  Macaulay’s Essays, Boswell’s “Life of Dr Johnson” and Morley’s “Life of Gladstone”.  The chosen text for 1929 was J A Froude’s “English seamen in the 16th Century.”  What, you mean I’ve actually got to read a book, a whole book?!  Can’t you just test me on “Fifty Shades of Grey” or something?

That was just for starters, at Intermediate level.  Other papers at this level included Psychology, the Principles of Accounts, Business Administration, Reproductive Techniques, Media, Layout and Commercial Art, Direct Mail Advertising and Market Research.  The number of tests went on for pages, including everything from “Reason for preparing a layout; what it should convey to the client, the artist, the compositor or printer” to “The span of Apprehension, Misapprehension”, from “Accounts of Joint-stock companies, including issue of shares and debentures, dividends and debenture interest” to “Production of letter-headings by letterpress, litho, offset and full colour processes.”

The final exams covered similar subjects, but were considerably more demanding.  One small section of the English paper required all candidates to be tested on elements of writing a sales letter that demonstrated a grasp of how to achieve “brevity without terseness, tact and courteous expressions, forceful appeal and avoidance of exaggeration”.   How many of today’s copywriters, let alone executives, clients and marketing consultants, would pass that test now?!

Do not pass GO

The most gob-smacking thing for me, however, was the range of general knowledge required at the preliminary exam stage.  The introduction explained that the purpose of these exams was “to ensure that the student has had a good general education and has qualifications that will enable him to apply himself to the subjects included in the syllabuses of the Intermediate and Final courses.”  In other words, don’t even think of applying unless you’re educated to this basic level.

That elementary level, the level expected of any person with a rudimentary education, would stump most people in our industry today.  Compulsory subjects were English, Arithmetic and Geography.  The English test included writing an essay “to test ability to express and arrange ideas” and a test of your ability to precis text.  The Arithmetic test included vulgar and decimal fractions, averages, ratio, proportion, percentages, simple interest, discount, stocks and shares (without a calculator, because they hadn’t been invented).

If you think this is tough then you’ll probably find Geography a real ball-buster.  Candidates were tested “upon a broad study of the general geography of the world” with “the following regions studied in decreasing detail: British Isles, British Empire, Europe, N. and S. America, Africa, Asia, ie pretty much the whole world.  But don’t think you’ll get away with naming a few rivers, mountain ranges and capital cities.  You were tested on “the influence of configuration, climate, soil, and position of regions upon the distribution of occupations, population and trade routes.  Candidates will be tested not only upon the principal geographic facts involved but also upon their power to relate these facts to the various physical features of the regions studied.”  You were also expected to illustrate your answers with sketch maps.

And now, your specialist subject

As well as general knowledge you were also expected to show that you had the ability and application to acquire deeper knowledge in a chosen subject – candidates were required to sit one further paper from a choice of four options.  First off, modern languages – French, German, or Spanish.  You had to translate various passages into English and write an essay on a given topic in that language.  Shit, that’s me out!  What’s the next subject?

Algebra and Geometry, with tests on (amongst loads of other stuff I’ve never heard of) use of logarithms to the base of 10, interpretation and evaluation of formulae, equations of the first and second degree, and two simultaneous equations of which one is of the first degree and the other of the second degree.  And now the Geometry bit – Euclid I-IV with simple deductions, including easy loci and the areas of triangles and parallelograms, of which the bases and altitudes are given commensurable lengths.  Hmm, I ain’t going to be picking that paper – isn’t there something soft like media studies I can just blag my way through?

History.  Hmmm, that sounds a bit easier.  But it’s not.  First of all “The questions will be framed to test general knowledge of history and historical development rather than memory of detail.”  You mean it’s not just a few dates and stuff?  But what period are we talking about?  I seem to remember we did the Vikings, causes of the First World War and something about Henry VIII.  First the bad news:  you will be tested on “the general course of English history from 1066 to 1901”.  You are kidding me!  It gets worse – you also have to make “reference to the contemporary history of Europe and Colonial developments.”  You mean I have to put it in a global historical context?! Now the good news “the paper will be divided into four sections, covering respectively the periods 1066-1485, 1485-1688, 1688-1815, 1783-1901, but candidates will be required to answer questions from only two of the four periods.”  Oh, well, that makes it soooo much easier!  To hell with that for a game of soldiers, what’s the fourth topic?

Chemistry.  And it’s the toughest yet.  There are eight sections.  Here’s just one: “Quantitative interaction of acids with metals and bases.  Equivalents – atomic theory, symbols and formulae.  Boyles and Charle’s laws.  Diffusion.  The more obvious phenomena of electrolysis.  Development of heat in chemical reaction.  Combustion.  Flame and incandescence.”  It gets worse.  “Candidates will be required to give evidence by their answers that they have seen experiments illustrative of all subjects included in the syllabus, and that they themselves have performed a variety of simple qualitative and quantitative experiments.”

We’re all doomed!

Since 1929 we’ve had 85 years of “progress”.  What’s actually happened is that as the technology has become more capable the people have become less so.  Only they’re too lazy, ignorant and certain of their own brilliance to recognise it.


Picture credit “If you think education…:

Picture credit Yukon: Boris Kasimov from flickr