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

If You Don’t Know Your History, Everything Is The Future …

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When I was at R/GA, we got invited to do a big pitch in China.

I was travelling a lot so asked some of my brilliant colleagues to help me with developing the overall strategy.

When I came back, I found they had done a ton of work.

Huge amounts of research.

Huge amounts of analysis.

Huge amounts of thinking.

It was fantastic, there was just one problem.

It was all wrong.

Not because what they had done wasn’t true or accurate, but simply because they’d fallen for planners achilles heel.

‘What they thought was interesting and new wasn’t interesting or new for the audience they needed to talk to.’

While they will never make that mistake again, you’d be amazed how much this happens.

I used to see it in China all the time.

Westerners coming into the country for the first time and throwing down all the things that they found fascinating without realising what they were saying was just normal life for anyone there.

The vast populations of cities.
The local alternatives to twitter, youtube and facebook.
Wechat’s amazing array of features that are embedded in everyday life.
The incredible migration of the country during the New Year festival.
The amount of money spent on 11.11


It’s such an easy and dangerous mistake to make.

Driven by a pinch of arrogance here … a sliver of laziness there … and underpinned by a big dollop of what I wrote about a while back.

I see it all the time … doesn’t matter whatsoever if it’s strategists talking about cultures of other nations or cultures in other parts of their own nation.

Hell, some of the stuff I heard spouted in London planning circles have been bordering on embarrassing.

From using data without any element of context to allegedly reveal ‘why Northern values are unique values’ right through to a continuous barrage of repurposed and reclaimed ‘trend reports’ which enables them to state with utter certainty they know how ‘TikTok is shaping culture’ … despite never once referring to China, where the platform has been in operation for years and where culture there are literally light years ahead of the West in terms of how they use it and how they are influenced by it.

Seriously, when I see or hear this stuff, I wonder if they realise it say’s far more about them than the people they are supposedly expertly explaining?.

Look, I totally appreciate there are many reasons why this situation is occurring.

And as I said, there are many parties guilty of this situation.

But – and it’s a big but – we, as individuals and a discipline, have to take some blame for it.

Thinking we don’t have to interact with people to talk about people.
Believing having an answer is more important than having understanding.
Valuing individual revelation more than contextual appreciation.

All this does is lead to work that satisfies our ego while boring our audience to death.

We can be great.

We can be valuable.

We can push the potential of creativity.

But it won’t happen if we continue to think if it’s new to us, it must be new to everyone.

17 Comments so far
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Oh this is very good Robert. It is not isolated to working in foreign markets. It also applies to people working in new categories. Doing the research for revelation that doesn’t involve directly dealing with the people who could tell them they’re wrong or they’re being boring.

Comment by George

Yep. Though that situation makes me even more confused because it’s much easier to work out if you’re right/wrong. That means laziness or ego is far more prevalent.

I should point out what I’m writing about is different to being ‘the outsider’ that I always go on about.

Outsiders see the world differently. They understand the context of where people are at but still see different things. New things. Weird things. Which pushes them – and any work they do – to new places. Still connected to culture but from a very different angle.

The people I’m writing about here don’t do any of that. They read/see something for the first time and because they find it interesting, assume everyone will. It’s an easy mistake to make … but do it more than once and then it’s shallow, lazy and ego and they deserve all they [don’t] get. Hahaha.

Comment by Rob

I know why you made that clarification but you didn’t need to.

Comment by George

You just made me think of all the times I did what you’ve described when I lived in Singapore. I’m sure it happened more than I remember but people were being polite.

It’s a great point and a great reminder nothing beats spending time with the people you want to understand better.

Comment by Pete

Yep, me too.

At least in Singapore they told you. In Thailand, they never did. So you would say stuff and only find out you were an asshole about 5 months later.

It’s part of the reason I set up the informant network. People who know – or care – nothing for marketing, but have an intimate understanding of society. They had no problem telling me if I was wrong, but mainly I just listened because as Dennis Thatcher once said,

“Better keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt”.

Comment by Rob

That quote is wonderful. It also reinforces what I imagine being married to the iron lady was like.

Comment by Pete

How will you know they won’t do it again when you’re not at rga?

Comment by Billy Whizz

Hahaha … either are the people it involved.

Comment by Rob

This issue also applies to male politicians wishing to make decisions regarding women’s rights.

Comment by Mary Bryant

Absolutely Mary. To make it worse, they don’t even do any research – it’s based purely on their belief they know better than anyone. Pricks. Literally.

Comment by Rob

Small pricks Robbie.

Comment by Jemma King

Is there a term for a bunch of planners going off in the wrong direction?

Comment by John

Yes. Men. Hahaha.

Comment by Rob

this is less shit than your usual shit. every fucker in every industry is susceptible to this bollocks but planners are the fucking worst. they read a few internet articles and think they know everything and can pronounce their brilliance from their self made pedestal. ignoring the fact its actually made from an old bog roll and some sticky tape. pricks.

Comment by andy@cynic

It’s not just planners but they suck at it.

Comment by DH

Still making friends I see Andrew.

Comment by George

[…] He did this by writing a comment under a Linkedin post I’d put up about one of the biggest mistakes a planner can make. […]

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