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

Method Planning: What We Can Learn From De Niro …
April 1, 2014, 6:05 am
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Many, many years ago, a young actor called Robert De Niro went to the Lee Strasberg acting school in NYC.

It was here that he learnt an acting technique that formed the foundation for how he was to approach his craft for the rest of his career.

That technique was called method acting.

Method acting was not created by Less Strasberg – that was a Russian actor and director called Constantin Stanislavski – however he was the one who ultimately gave it its high profile and credibility.

Method acting is based on the actor drawing on their own personal emotions and memories to fully capture and represent the character’s psychological and emotional motives.

To ensure purity of this state and to minimise clichéd or contrived behaviour, actors are actively encouraged to live their life as the character – never breaking their identity until the end of filming – so that they hone their approach, understanding and behaviour to ensure total separation of who they are with who they are playing.

It’s a very confronting and challenging technique however when you look at the work of practioners like Daniel Day Lewis, Al Pacino and countless others, you appreciate the impact it makes on the actor and the resulting impact it makes on the film as a whole.

I mention this because we recently decided to see if this methodology would work for planning.

We wanted to investigate whether it would give us deeper and better understanding.

Whether it would lead to ideas that are fundamentally different to all that has gone before.

And I have to say, while it is still early days, all the signs seem to be very, very positive.

Method Planning

The reason we undertook this experiment is that I’ve always felt our approach to gathering insights has been flawed.

As you know, over the years I’ve tried many different approaches – from talking to prostitutes and car thieves to working with a criminal profiler to develop a technique I call circumstantial insight – however despite all that, I’ve still been painfully aware that many of my viewpoints have been based on ‘interpreting’ others actions and words rather than experiencing them in their purest form possible.

While I still passionately believe these approaches still give us better insight and clarity than things like focus groups – especially focus groups in China – the reality is that so much of what we ‘learn’ is second hand.

So when we were recently given a project that required us to understand the attitudes, mindset and behaviour of entry level white collar employees, I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to explore the method acting approach … which is why for the last 5 weeks, one of my my planners has basically been living someone else’s life.

If you were to go to Wuhan today and speak to the co-ordinators at a large local bank, they would tell you Leon is a new colleague who recently moved from Shanghai to take the first steps on his career path.

They would say this because, to them, that’s exactly what happened.

5 weeks ago we sent young Leon to a temp agency to get a new job.

To ensure he would be put forward for the sort of role we wanted for him, we constructed a backstory that was crafted to make him seem the most appropriate white-collar entry level candidate in China.

That said, we followed the learnings of Lee Strasberg by basing it on his real life because he says that makes the line between perceived truth and real truth more blurred … allowing your ‘character’ to more easily consume your real identity.

Anyway, a week later and after 3 interviews, he was on the train to Wuhan preparing to start a totally new life.

What’s different to this approach – versus adlands much loved ‘ethnographic research’ or just hanging out with various people and/or departments within a clients organisation – is that this has been designed to eradicate any wall that could come between participant and observer … hence Leon isn’t just acting out his new life between the hours of 9am-6pm, he’s sharing a house with them [3 men], eating the same food as them, surviving on the same low salary as them, learning the new banking terminology as them and – most difficult of all – wearing the same suit and tie as them.

Well, not literally the same, but you get what I mean.

4 weeks into the 6 week experiment and his new house mates/colleagues still haven’t got the faintest that Leon is really a planner from Wieden+Kennedy.

Mind you, they wouldn’t even know what a planner or Wieden+Kennedy is if we told them.

That said, it’s fair to say Leon initially found it difficult to maintain ‘in character’.

There were times where he found himself slipping into ‘planner mode’ and then worrying he’d been discovered, but fortunately for him – and us – that doesn’t appear to be the case.

He said the real turning point came when he was told off by his boss for being late and realised he was really living this life and within days, he felt it was all coming to him more easily and naturally … to the point he complained to his new housemates/colleagues about the questions and expectations he was supposedly getting from his parents about his new job.

What’s fascinating is how different his attitude and behaviour has become.

While he tells us the stories, challenges and experiences he has gone through [and is going through] he no longer talks about it in terms of observation, but personal feelings. It’s a fine line, but the difference is clear especially when he is expressing the highs, lows, gossip and politics of his new life, because he expresses them with the full force of the emotions he’s experienced or is going through.

There was one point where we were questioning something he had said about this audiences ambitions and he snapped back with …

“Not everyone has the chance to live in the big cities”.

In short, Leon is no longer observing our target audience, he is our target audience and that’s translated into him giving us information and briefs that have opened a whole new world of perspective and opportunity for the rest of us.

Of course we are under no illusion that this is both a risky strategy and a questionable strategy, however despite all the difficulties, complexities and challenges to set it up [not to mention the outrageous amount of time, patience and resilience everyone needs to have to pull it off] I would say Method Planning ™ offers ad agencies a whole new approach to gaining powerful and influential audience insights … though I would suggest the best time to do it is on April 1st because people are way more gullible on that day.

53 Comments so far
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When it comes to gullibility, this is the day when people are least gullible about this blog. We know you’re making it up. On other days, we’re never sure.

Comment by John


Comment by andy@cynic


Comment by andy@cynic

youve just robbed me of having the biggest fucking insult orgasm i could ever fucking have. you fucking prick teasing bastard.

Comment by andy@cynic

That makes me happier than 2 hours in Funan Mall … and you know how happy that would make me.

Comment by Rob

is that photo really one of your planners? did you fucking make him take those photos? i bet you did you genius dictator shithead.

Comment by andy@cynic

It is and I did. He’s now on holiday to try and hide from the shame.

Comment by Rob

It’s not April 1 here so you’re the fool for this Rob. If it was April 1, then I’d be the fool, because I nodded along. The shame.

Comment by Bazza


Comment by Rob

Nothing … NOTHING … makes me so glad than to know this has semi-fooled some of you. OK, so Dodds didn’t bite – but he starts off everything with utter cynicism so that’s to be expected.

And yes, I’m up. I’m in Singapore and speaking at a global client conference shortly and last night, I got the list of other speakers only to discover to my horror, that some of the brands I use as ‘watch outs’ are also speaking. I wouldn’t normally mind, but they get to speak after me and I know how vulnerable that makes me so I’m quickly making some alterations before I go down like a lead balloon.

Anyway, happy April 1 … and as bad as this may be, it’s still had more thought in it than the average FMCG April 1 joke, so surely I deserve something for that. No? Damnit. Ta-ra.

Comment by Rob

I thought it was very good. I just opened the blog knowing that you’d be repeating your past behaviour, so I wasn’t going to believe anything.

Comment by John

By past behaviour, you mean boring people to death?

Comment by DH

dan will be so happy to know the person hes paying a fucking fortune to has time to write this fucking shit.

Comment by andy@cynic

I think the insight you have discovered from method planning is how gullible people are. I fell for it, though in my defence, I was thinking it was riddled with flaws.

Comment by George

suddenly my shares in the happy place look very fucking shaky if mr google fell for this shit, even a little bit. fuck my life.

Comment by andy@cynic

De Niro will be so happy that you’ve exploited him for some childish April fool joke. I fell for it, but I was thinking it was rubbish all the way through it.

Comment by DH

Nice work Mr Evil.

Comment by Pete

This is the very first time I truly got fooled on 1th april since ages. I applauded…

Comment by zhangcheng (@zhangcheng_uk)

What the hell have you done to poor Leon?!

Comment by Britton

What’s the hell has he done to poor Wieden.

Comment by DH

It’s character building Britton. What’s scarier is you coming on here, I thought you had more taste.

Comment by Rob

It works because it is the sort of thing you would do.

Comment by Lee Hill

Yep … to the point I’d actually like to give it a go now and not just because I want poor Leon to be humiliated to a whole different level.

Comment by Rob

I was so excited for a moment Rob!! You bastard!

Comment by Jessica Lo

Well given you sit 2 feet behind him you should have known Jessica. Mind you, given you sit 20 feet from me, you should know coming on here has just ruined your reputation. But thank you, it’s made me very happy. Ha.

Comment by Rob

fascinating, fun and weird.. was actually thinking about this a few days ago as well. seems like the ultimate underground mission to understanding a certain group of people

Comment by nik

Errrrm, I don’t know how to say this Nik, but I would suggest you read the last line of the post again.

Comment by Rob

Fell for it
Isn’t it worrying that people who know him better obviously believe rob is capable of anything ?

Comment by Northern

In some weird way, I’m taking all this as a massive compliment … even though I’m sure you’ll all tell me that’s the last thing I should be doing. Ha.

Comment by Rob

Mate, have you ever heard of Bronislaw Malinowski’s Participant Observation™? It’s about the basics of modern anthropology, you know.

The man in his seminal book, Argonauts, wrote something like: “Besides the firm outline of tribal constitution and crystallized cultural items which form the skeleton, besides the data of daily life and ordinary behavior, which are, so to speak, its flesh and blood, there is still to be recorded the spirit—the natives’ views and opinions and utterances.”

I know it’s cool to be illiterate these days but, hey, please.

Comment by guidomercati79

I am completely lost whether you are complimenting my ruse or insulting me … which is probably the best April Fool you could do. Of course if you are insulting me, it means you can’t take a joke and judging by this comment, neither can I.

Comment by Rob

I didn’t know what guidomercati79 is suggesting with his comment, so I asked Sarah (my wife) and she didn’t know and she’s an anthropologist. And the “being illiterate is cool” is plain confusing.

You’re not the only one that had to get up early this morning Rob.

Comment by Pete

Hahaha, I forgot about that. She’s a spy anthropologist as well … even if she can never admit that.

Enjoy trying to get through the day …

Comment by Rob

Thanks for that Rob, that’s likely got all my emails traced for the next 20 years.

Comment by Pete

I see your Bronislaw Malinowski and raise you Orin Starn, whose views on anthropology are more contemporary and relevant to today’s society. What this has to do with illiteracy is anyone’s guess.

Comment by George

what the fuck is he going on about. 2/1 hes a planner at a multinational. with propriety tools.

Comment by andy@cynic

You’re slipping Andy, that was your chance to say planners are tools. Are you OK?

Comment by DH

This is gold.

Comment by JMBG

Love that you did this. Luckily most of my brands want to talk to breathers who aren’t homeless so I’ve been practicing Method Planning for a while.

Comment by ifjq224

How many fell for it then Rob? Apart from the planner groupies who’d fall for a Jean Claude van Damme plot.

Comment by DH

Proof planners are idiots.

Comment by Billy Whizz

BITCH. Fell for it hook, line and sinker. Still a cool idea, though.

Comment by Steve Poppe (@spoppe)

Had me going. Fuck!

Comment by Ciaran McCabe

Very funny honey, but it’s believable because you’ve done much stranger things for real. Happy april fool.

Jemma x

Comment by Jemma King

thats the fucking truth.

Comment by andy@cynic

I cannot tell you how happy I am with how this post went down. What’s even better is that I know some people still think it’s true so there may be a time where it’s quoted as a way to approach research. That would be my dream come true except no one quotes me, except maybe the Judge as he’s about to pass sentence.

Comment by Rob

It gives me great pleasure to say this post has been named the ‘2nd best story’ in Campaign Magazine’s ‘diary’.

Thank you Leon for letting me destroy your career in the interests of a cheap joke.

See the write up of the article here:

Comment by Rob

slow news year.

Comment by andy@cynic

You’ve ruined more careers than Francis Underwood from house of cards.

Comment by DH

Nice reference there. I just watched the original BBC version over Christmas. It’s great. More like a play than the US version, but in terms of two-faced, condescending, manipulator, the BBC guy is head and shoulders above his US counterpart.

Comment by Rob

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