The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Stop Treating Us Like Sheep.
October 24, 2007, 7:15 am
Filed under: Comment

sheep walking

So over at Mr Deviant Dodd’s wonderful blog, he has written a post about marketing to woman – or more specifically, marketing tampons to women.

Well saying he’s ‘written a post’ is abit of an exaggeration because all he’s really done is show a commercial … but it does raise a massive point as regards communicating to women.

Recently I got asked by a journalist what I thought were the ‘tricks’ to communicating effectively to women … and my simple response was to stop treating them as either bimbo’s, Mum’s or ball breakers.

One of the things I hate about my industry is its obsession with the ‘lowest common denominator’.

I appreciate our job is to help our clients get rich so you need an idea that has relevance to the widest group of people as possible, but to treat the genders in such basic terms is offensive and makes a mockery of planning, insights and creativity.

Just like men actually aren’t all slobs, fools or hunks … women aren’t all one-dimensional individuals … however if you look at the majority of communication today, that’s exactly what you see.

Z Channel

A while back I watched a great documentary called Z Channel.

Z Channel was a pioneer in the US cable television industry and was instrumental in developing people like Quentin Tarantino’s love of films.

One of their philosophies was to target the highest common denominator rather than the lowest – resulting in them showing one of the most mixed bag of movies you could ever imagine in your life – because they said they would rather have smart, influential people watching their programmes than a bunch of folk who only have it on as background noise.

There was method to their madness because not only did it result in more and more people actually subscribing to their channel … but their ad revenues went through the roof as more and more advertisers paid huge premiums so that they could ‘speak to’ this highly influential group of consumers.


And here’s the thing … the ad industry needs to start adopting this approach before it’s too late.

This focus on gutter insights and communication is doing everyone harm … the clients, the agencies and the consumers … because less and less people are paying any attention to what we are saying anymore.

The industry is becoming over reliant on special effects to ‘stand out’ because the messages we express tend to be limited to a bunch of ‘product features’ [that the client is insistent on spouting] rather than a simple message [or story] that is interesting, relevant, entertaining, true [to the product and the consumer] and motivating.

One of the greatest projects I’ve ever worked on was a tampon brand in Australia.

sin titulo

Over 6 months I watched the entire age spectrum of tampon users/buyers talk about all elements of their lives [and for girls starting their periods either earlier or later than everyone else, it was heartbreaking hearing the suffering and self doubt so many of them went through] and one thing was very, very clear – they didn’t want television commercials, especially those that talked about ‘product features’ or ‘freedom to parachute from a plane or forget all rollerskate down the street in your hotpants.

This was especially prevalent with younger women … who were often incredibly embarrassed if a tampon commercial came on while they were in the company of male members of the family.

Infact our recommendation was that if any television commercial HAD to be made, it made no reference to ‘product features’ [the ad we created just showed a woman walking down the street in a white dress – and you’d be amazed at how powerful this message was to women] and we used more innovative and direct channels to convey the benefits of the brand to the customer.

Did the client take any of this on?

Of course not … they had a product they wanted to shout about … a product they wanted to show off … a product they needed the ‘trade’ to know they were promoting … so the actual needs and wants of the consumer were pushed into the background [or re-expressed so they answered the ego-demands of the client ] resulting in

[1] Us being sacked

[2] Them producing the sort of cliché driven drivel you saw back in 1982

[3] A brand that died

Robot Attack! How adland sees society?

I was once asked by a researcher to name the single most important thing about the person I loved.

I answered by saying that if there was only one thing I loved about the most important person in my life, then they didn’t deserve to be that special … and my point is that the industry [and I include clients in this] needs to remember each and everyone of us is multi-dimensional so to only focus on the bland and the overly generalistic is short-sighted both interms of effective communication and true brand building.

32 Comments so far
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You are a true gemini Robert. You can write the most silly posts one day then write something as powerful as this the next.
This is you at your best: provocative, pragmatic, insightful, passionate and empathetic and I hope as many people read this post as possible because there’s so much to be learnt, starting with the danger of gutter insights. (I love that phrase)
I like both sides of you, but this is the one that is the most interesting and thought provoking so I encourage you to do more of it because it’s great to read and learn from.

PS: The same goes to pretty much everyone who comments on this blog (esp. Andy, Northern Planner, John and Marcus) Please don’t always go for the funny comment, tell us what you really think because it will be interesting, wonderful and valuable to the rest of us. My Dad side is showing isn’t it?

Comment by George

I always thought George was straight. 😉

This is an absolutely Brilliant post Rob!

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

I love the fact you’ve checked out The Z Channel doco and I love you use them as a role model in this planning rant. For that, I won’t call an Oprah Davies” alert, even though George is being all lovey dovey with you 🙂

Comment by Billy Whizz

I think this is a great post Robert and I agree with George, you should let this side of you out more often, it’s probably why most of us come here in the first place 🙂
I personally don’t believe creativity is dying, I think corporate intelligence is, which is maybe why so much insight and communication stems from the gutter as you so delicately put it 🙂
More posts like this please.

Comment by Pete

rob, can you just stop posting fantastic, insightful and heart-warming posts like this end then ending them with cynic getting the sack or not getting the gig, please? it’s depressing.

Comment by lauren

OK … so basically what people are saying is that 94.79% of what I write bores the living bejesus out of each and every one of you?

In that case, I have achieved my goal, ha!

And Lauren, you’re a sweetie but these things happen and it’s important to convey it because I don’t want people to ever think common sense always prevails because it doesn’t. However for every bad story there’s a shitload of good ones – I guess I just get more pissy when something I have so much faith in, gets bombed for no reason other than ego, narrow mindedness or fear.

While these posts might sound like sour eggs … and maybe there is abit of that … I guess I am just questioning out loud how certain decisions are made and for what reason.

It’s not meant to be depressing, it’s meant to encourage whoever reads this blog to not go for the lowest common denominator and strive to be better, more pragmatic and more helpful to customers and society as a whole.

While cynic has lost quite a few clients in its time … the majority were organisations who came to us and then chickened out when we told them what we believed they should do.

The clients we work for each and everyday have stuck with us because they tend to share our philosophy rather than use us because we’re cheap or have loads of offices … and for that we should all be grateful because in a World of dumbing down, there are still some places that want to help make the World a better place whilst still making a decent profit. 🙂

Comment by Rob

Good post.

Comment by Marcus

These are the posts that kept me here many many months ago.

And although there is quite a bit of “cynic getting the sack or not getting the gig”, the client list on the Cynic website shows the other side of the coin.

Comment by Age

Hurrah. A story with a twist AND a moral message.

Ego is the single most dangerous thing for brands to have. It distances them from their consumer and can ruin great products. Or even worse, it can give them that sense that their cheap tacky FMCG brand somehow is one of the most important things in a persons life…

The point on one dimensional characters is absoutely spot on. Look at most bad ads, a 1-D character is usually at the heart of it. One of the reasons the Dove ads are so good is because not only do they have a positive message, but they show that pretty people dont have to be one dimensional models with no care in the world but their hair colour.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

i know the only care i have in the world is my hair colour…

rob, are you taking my comment as a criticism?

Comment by lauren

So Age is basically saying that if he came to this blog for the first time today – he would probably bugger off because everything I write tends to be a pile of uninteresting poo, hahaha!

Don’t worry about cynic, we’re not living in bus shelters or eating out of dustbins quite yet, infact life is quite rosy at the moment.

To paraphrase a John West slogan, it’s the clients we lose that makes cynic the special place it is, ha!

[NB: Billy, my talk of life being ‘quite rosy’ is not your cue to ask for another payrise 🙂 ]

Comment by Rob

Your job is not to make your clients rich. Your job is to ensure that potential customers fully appreciate how your clients’ products and services can meet their genuine needs in a better way than any alternative. As a result of that your clients may get rich.

You’v all probably seen these videos but a women’s agency in NY makes a similar point –

Comment by John

I’m sorry about my comment. I was feeling terribly hung over at the point of writing it but I’m feeling a little better now and thought I say a thing or two.

You know, this is actually quite depressing. I’ve sat down and had a little think about the campaigns that have moved me in some way over the last year. And, of all the ads that have run this year in Germany I’ve come up with the grand old figure of none. Zero. Nothing. And having a look at the things I’ve bought this year I’ve bought nearly nothing as well.

If I open up and look at the global stuff I get to see I can only come up with two. And only one of them would lead me to make a purchase.

The first is “The Wind”

And then, of course “Halo 3”

That’s it. All those billions of dollars of spend, and only 1 campaign rings the cash register.

You’re right Rob – something has got to change but isn’t the 1 dimensionality of corporate communications simply a reflection of the corporation itself?

Isn’t it true that to work at Accenture (for example) you would have to be the kind of person who would want to work at Accenture and would therefore demand that Accenture be communicated in such a way?

Isn’t it true that middle to senior management is becoming younger, less experienced (both in terms of work and life) and have a dangerous mix of arrogance and fear?

When you think about it, why bother trying to make them rich? Why bother? If they know they’re so good at what they do, then let them do it themselves. Yes, that’s it! Let them do it themselves.

Oh, but hang on – if we think we’re so super at understanding people and what they need, want, fear and love why don’t we do it ourselves? Instead of working from the corporation – to the brand – to the product – to the communication – finally arriving at people who MAY want to buy it why not go the other way round?

We bang on about understanding people, and we bang on about how unfair the whole world is because the clients are shit and that they make it so hard for us to help make them rich but we never EVER do anything about it.

We could though. We really could. We wouldn’t be an agency anymore mind, but we wouldn’t be making a bunch of corporate toads rich – we’d be making ourselves rich.

We’d be making things the other way around.

We’d be making things for real people.

We’d be making things.

Comment by Marcus

Rather than “go wide” – it’s much better to focus on narrower elements be they product attributes or company stance on an issue and let the people with whom they resonate come to you.

The richness of those messages will ensure a deeper and potentially long-lasting connection and if the client has actually produced something exceptional or made a stand on a worthwhile platform they may also play to a wide audience.

The difference will be that this wide audience will be enagaged whereas the wide audience that is scattergunned with a generalised message will have been spammed. People decide what your client’s b-word stands for – you can rarely impose it on the people.

Comment by John

cynic tampons…. i’d buy em. i think.

Comment by lauren

cynic have the best idea for nappies the world has ever seen Lauren.

Comment by Marcus

True Lauren, but you are an artist so you have an excuse…

Marcus, it would be fascinating to see how that would work.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

i believe you! i was kidding about the tampons, but i agree with you marcus. i swear.

Comment by lauren

Hello Mr Drunkpants! [Now is that John or Marcus?]

First of all I want to say that I believe my/our job IS to make clients rich – that is ultimately why they hire us – however rather than go for the path of least resistence … we do it by developing an idea that truly demonstrates and understanding of societies needs and wants [beyond the category] so that the consumer will naturally fulfill our clients [short and longterm] needs because what we’ve come up with addresses something fundamentally important to them.

And this leads to Marcus’ point …

While it would be great to do all this for ourselves [and with some things we have, ie: Cynic Cards, Cynic Publishing and – even though it was a total fucking disaster, Potent Flicks] the reality is we’re not a multinational and we don’t actually want to be.

I know this is going to sound hippyish and a massive cop out but we actually like the idea of helping others help society to a better place.

Now while this may sound in conflict with my earlier claim about wanting to make clients [and us] rich – it isn’t – there is nothing wrong with making bucketloads of cash, the issue is [at least for us] how you do it and what you do with it once you’ve got it.

Maybe that’s why some of our solutions have been not about ads but about making ‘stuff’ … why we’re designing a motorbike around a countries needs rather than a driver … why we got a client to invest in corporate ‘playtime’ rather than internal posters … why we talk to film directors than just researchers …

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to feel I can physically make something that helps people and society – but whether you call it laziness, being inept or just plain fear – I am more than happy to utilise the inherent talent of my clients and encourage them to be better rather than to try and start everything from scratch myself.

Saying all that, years ago we were going to set up a little company called THEATRE whose goal was to make dead brands come back to life.

We had initial conversations with Unilever about ‘buying’ some of their old brands off them … but then it all got too hard given we still needed their help interms of manufacturing and distribution.

We did manage a few little things [like bring Weeble Wobbles back to life] but the problem was that the beauty of creation is quite often the smallest cog in the whole process and quite frankly, we all got bored really quickly.

I’m all for cottage industry – as long as we can do it better and more powerfully than the corporations whose distribution model tends to ensure a lions share of opportunity.

I’m ranting aren’t I … sorry!

Comment by Rob

I can see it now,

“Cynic tampons … every c 🙂 🙂 t uses them!”

Comment by Rob

That would just confuse every male on the planet Rob.

Comment by Marcus

Before I discovered he was an alcoholic I wanted to bring back Hoffmeister beer as Hasselhoffmeister

Comment by Rob Mortimer

I think one of the issues is that too many organisations are blinded by this outdated belief that everything must have a ‘USP’ so that when they do communicate, all monies are focused on promoting something that is [1] quite often not that unique and [2] easily copied and then flogged by everyone else in the category.

I remember saying to a client that if they really did have a USP, then it’s probably because no one else wants it – which went down like a bucket of cold sick as I am sure you can imagine.

If companies truly want to differentiate, then they should promote their [demonstrable] philosophy/values/beliefs because not only is this connecting to people on a deeper level, but it is much harder to replicate than a functional, rational USP.

Comment by Robert

The other aspect is (and we’ve talked about this before) the importance of getting in the R&D process as early as possible.

Comment by Marcus

You are so right Marcus … infact in my experience, R&D people tend to very open to agencies involvement because we embrace and encourage their creativity and imagination whereas the ‘corporates’ tend to look at them purely for efficiency benefits.

It amazes me how few agencies ever ask to meet the R&D teams of their clients, it really does.

Comment by Rob

Absolutely, the Nintendo Gamecube / purple discussion.

USP are great when they are based on or backed up with values/beliefs/history. But on their own they have to be spectacular to have much effect.

I do however enjoy reverse USP’s. E.g.: Guinness takes ages to pour, enjoy the wait. Stella Artois is expensive as its so good. etc

Comment by Rob Mortimer

as much as i hate self indulgent planning wank, if you write more of this sort of thing, i wont give you shit. fucking love this post, made me proud and happy and thats from someone especially hard to please at the moment. got to go, got to deal with some fucking stupid cannuks 🙂

Comment by andy@cynic

How adland sees society?

It often calls them consumers. As if they their mouths can be open and shut depending on some messaging. People are herd like creatures but bottom line is that each person is unique. Even those that do their best not to stand out.

A Lovely post Rob. Although society should be able to talk about menstruation without making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Comment by Charles Frith

And to think my lil ole blog started this.

Comment by John

You’re right Charles – society SHOULD be able to talk about menstruation without being embarassed but I reckon ad agencies and clients are the ones who’ve stuffed it up with strategies like LETS STOP THIS BEING A TABOO SUBJECT and then doing ads so awful and insensitive that what they actually do is make them more taboo than ever.

What isn’t confronting for a 25 year old woman IS [probably] confronting for a 12 year old girl and yet all subtelty gets thrown out the window to feed the ego of clients and agencies.

Well, at least sometimes that’s the case!

And yes John, you started it all … which sort of reiterates your ‘creds’ in the deviant sphere doesn’t it, ha!

Comment by Rob

Good point Charles, it shouldn’t be such a hushed up subject matter but it is probably for the reasons Robert has suggested.
Advertising has far more influence than we probably appreciate, especially in terms of subliminal influence.

Comment by Pete

[…] Robert placed an interesting blog post on Stop Treating Us Like Sheep..Here’s a brief overview:I appreciate our job is to help our clients get rich so you need an idea that has relevance to the widest group of people as possible, but to treat the genders in such basic terms is offensive and makes a mockery of planning, … […]

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