The Case for Craft: why Big Details are the new big ideas

While SCRUM/Agile and Design Thinking are old news in many sectors, for many advertising agencies this is still the new, emerging model of working. I’m sure you know the mantra’s: interdisciplinary teams, a good idea can come from anywhere, no more silo’s, everyone is creative. Even the cleaning lady may have a great idea!

That’s all true (and if you can get a client to pay creative fees for the cleaning lady, more power to you I guess).

But agencies fail to see what this means for them. They still look through the hyper-traditional lens of old school advertising: concept versus execution. “Don’t get lost in details now, it’s all about The Big Idea!”

Yeah, well, except it isn’t. Not for you. Not any more.

As regular visitors to this blog know, I’m fascinated with Behavioural Economics, the science of influencing behaviour. Understanding how irrational factors can steer decisions. And how small details and little nudges can make a huge difference.

Behavioural Economics teaches us that Everything Matters.

The direction of the gaze of the person in the picture. Which words come first or last in the headline. The physical distance between the ‘from’ and the ‘for’ price. The colour and shade of the Buy Now!-button. The tense of the verbs used. Whether the POP display has round or sharp edges. An odd or even number of bullet points. How warm or cold the lighting feels.

Big Details are the new big ideas.

Factors like these often influence behaviour much more than any Big Idea. They can actually make organizations hundreds of millions of dollars and pounds. Much, much more than most advertising ideas ever do.

When Everything Matters, craft is king.

Not ideation. So by hiring ‘concepters’ with limited craft skills and proclaiming that anyone can have ideas, ad agencies may become of very limited use to marketers very quickly.  Everyone IS creative indeed. So when a company understands Design Thinking, what use would they have for an agency of generalists?

In a world where Everyone Is Creative, externally-hired generalists are useless. Unless you want to run a temporary employment firm.

In a world where Everything Matters, externally-hired specialists are indispensable.

Yes, agencies need T-shaped people. But the T must run deeeeeep. Get people who are obsessed by details. Hire the graphic designer who calls the printer at 5 am because a detail in the colours bothers him. Promote the girl who spends 15 minutes researching the etymology of a word before putting it in her headline.

These are the people who will find your next Big Detail. The one that keeps on growing and growing. Until the details become the idea. In the meantime, if you’re a generalist working at an agency, now is a great time to start applying to client-side jobs.






This Is Your Brain On Brands

A creative director I used to work with, often asked one question in reviews. “What’s the role of the brand?” It’s a great question. And also one I’ve been asking myself as I learn more and more about behavioural economics.

In advertising, the brand has long been a holy cow. No matter how disruptive or forward-thinking an agency is, brands are the one thing thou shalt not disrupt. Kevin Roberts said his Lovemarks concept was about what comes after brands. And then it turned out it was just a new word for, well, brands.

I’ve worked for some of the most powerful brands in the world, from Heineken to Heinz, M&M’s and Coca-Cola. These are brands people will pay to wear on a t-shirt. Should any of these brands be terminated, there will be angry protests. This is close to magic.

Meh or magic?

I’ve also been in tons of marketing meetings for brands that are just below that level. Oh, the brand trees and brand keys I have seen. Rebel brands, challenger brands, heritage brands, jester brands … All with their own brand DNA & DMS, brand values, brand duties, brand equity that must be – ahem – leveraged. You get the gist.

A few years back, talk of a brand bubble first emerged. Great financial value is ascribed to brands. What if they turn out to be overvalued? What if most of them don’t really impact results? What if new ways of shopping render brands redundant? A stock market crash and global recession might follow.

Certainly, many agencies would be out of business overnight. Because agencies still treat brands as the solution to everything. Want to succeed in business? Either be an iconic brand, or hire an agency that can help you become one. Sales targets not being met? Just reposition the brand – again. Loyalty dropping? As Dave Trott said: ‘the answer’s brand. What was the question?’

The A-brand chicken or the A-brand egg?

All this is built on a few observations and assumptions. One: a few truly iconic brands make lots of money. It may or may not be a coincidence that these companies also make innovative, user friendly products (Apple) or have stellar distribution (Coke). What came first, the brand or the excellence in other marketing areas? New power brands like Uber, Instagram and AirBnB have reached iconic status with little to no classic branding.

Two: people view your brand as a person. With a personality, a voice, a character. If they like your brand, they will buy your product. Right or wrong? A little bit of both. Research shows that our brains do react strongly to brands we love. Parts of the brain associated with making quick decisions light up on MRI when people are shown their favourite brands.

Don’t order champagne just yet though, traditional agencies. Because this only happens for number one favourite brands. Even well known, trusted second place brands are near-useless in this respect. These brands mainly fulfil another, more prosaic function. This has to do with defensive decision making or satisficing.

Brands: less likely to be terrible

Consumers often choose not the best product, but a product that’s unlikely to be terrible. A name brand signals that a big company has invested lots of money in its reputation. This makes them unlikely to risk poisoning you and blowing it all. Which explains why many consumers have a repertoire of brands within a category rather than one brand they’re loyal to. And as retailers become trusted A-brands themselves, this function loses strength.

Then there’s the brand’s role in alleviating the pain of paying. If we know, like and trust a brand, our brains can handle a higher price. Which is great for margins. In this sense, the brand literally acts like a placebo! However, scientists have not found any proof that our brains actually view brands as persons with personality traits, character etc. To the brain, a brand is a product, not a living being. Which makes all the talk of optimistic and courageous brand personalities seem a little silly.

Part of the solution, no longer ‘the’ solution

Distinctive brand properties still aid memory. They still draw attention. Brands still alleviate the pain of paying. And strong brands still influence subconscious decisions.  In terms of BJ Fogg’s B=MAT model, brands are part of the M of motivation. Which means both marketers and creatives need to broaden their thinking. And start treating brands not as the whole solution, but as one element in a larger mix. That is the role of the brand today.






How To Connect Science and Creativity

Want the bar to yourself at a creative advertising event? Mention science. Creatives of all ages will run like vampires from sunlight. They seem to think science is their kryptonite. Especially once clients ‘get hold of it’.

Then, some neuromarketing researchers claim creative ideas are useless. Just a few rented timeslots on some University’s MRI machine and you’re set. In their minds, this proves the cool kids who went to art school are frauds.

That’s cognitive biases in action.

The creatives cling to the status quo. They have invested time, money, energy and personal credibility in the dogma’s of the creative industry. They battle the safe, rational arguments of clients and account people every day. Talk about escalation of commitment.

The researchers are blinded by innovation. People in marketing often are. Today’s new thing always must kill yesterday’s. Plus as scientists, they’re eager to prove their hyperrational world view.

But wait. Wasn’t creativity about making new connections? And wasn’t science about discovery rather than proving you’re right?

When I studied Dutch Linguistics & Literature, it went without saying that science and art were part of one continuum. One hour we’d be comparing the Wernicke and Broca areas of the brain. The next we’d be discussing the unspoken emotions  in post-war novels. And somewhere in between were Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion.

That’s how I still see it. There’s creativity, and there’s neuroscience and behavioural economics. And where they meet, there’s creative persuasion. Which is what advertising could and should be as we head towards the 2020s

So let me offer three ways to connect science and creativity.

1. Use science as a source of inspiration

For creatives, science shouldn’t mean following linear checklists of proven techniques. I love to read or hear about some research, discuss it with my partner and see where the conversation leads us. Or kick start a creative session by quickly sketching out some scientific insights we might apply. Kryptonite? More like a secret weapon.

2. Use science to understand the creative process

There’s plenty of scientific research into creative processes. And guess what, it pretty much confirms and expands on what creatives have known for decades. Get messy, allow for randomness and happy accidents. Let System 1 do its subconscious work. Tim Harford’s Messy is a brilliant book on this, by an economist no less. Check out the work Srini Pillay too.

3. Use science to explain why creative ideas work

Creative gut instincts can still produce effective ideas. But to get them made in today’s corporate environment you need more. A rationale built on solid science will help convince stakeholders. The Affect heuristic, Attentional bias and the Von Restorff effect are just three scientific insights that show why great creative campaigns have worked in the past.




Hey marketer, let’s flip your funnel

Your brand tree was perfect, your content strategy rocked and you micro-influenced the hell out of Instagram. But you’re just not beating the competition. What’s going wrong? Chances are, you’ve got your thinking upside-down.

Question: what’s wrong with this picture?



Fig. 1 ah, the good old funnel.





Answer: nothing. And everything. This is just one example of the many funnel models. They all start with something like Reach, Attract or Awareness. They all end in a tiny triangle for sales or conversion.

As a media or direct marketing model, it’s fine. Send 100 people sales letters, and maybe 5 will buy something. Broad up top, narrow at the bottom. Makes sense.

Here’s the problem. This inverted pyramid is also an accurate reflection of many marketers’ process.

You spend most of your time, effort and money at the top. Building awareness, generating interest. Strategy meetings, brand positioning sessions, thematic campaign pitches. Relatively little attention is given to the end. You know, where the ROI is supposed to be.

The thinking: if you get the top right, great sales results should follow automatically. Ah, but  they don’t, do they? Now you’ve spent a lot of resources changing minds. But you’re not changing behaviour.

As the saying goes, a marathon is won in the last mile. More often, that’s where it’s lost. Most shopping decisions are made in-store. In that very small triangle at the bottom. But wait – wasn’t the end of the funnel the purpose of the whole thing?



Fig. 2

Let me flip that funnel for you.





As Covey said: start with the end in mind. If you plan a trip, you start with the destination and work back from there. Now apply that logic to your marketing strategy. Start your thinking with the first moment of truth, where people pick and buy your product. Or not.

What influences their behaviour? Habits? Laziness? Are they overwhelmed by choice? Swayed by what others seem to prefer? Are they looking for the very best? Or do they choose defensively, picking whatever feels least risky?

Insights and models from behavioural economics, combined with some research will answer those questions. And once we know, we can work our way up. And build a complete marketing strategy that delivers results.

Or maybe we can just solve the problem with some smart, cheap nudges at the point of purchase. Of course, you won’t get THAT advice from agencies specialized in content platforms or TV commercials.

Small adjustments in the amount of choice and the way it is presented have been known to have a major impact on sales. As have smart ways to present prices. In other words: You can change behaviour without changing minds first.

Then a change in brand perception can follow from that. It often will. Humans tend to act irrationally, on impulse. And then post-rationalize their choices. It’s human behaviour.

It’s also very human to hold on to habits and ways of working that have grown outdated. If you want better results though, it may be time to start by changing your own behaviour.







Review: The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker

A lot is written and said about creative thinking these days. Depending on where you’re standing, creative thinking is either:

  • the only skill that can make you a living after Artificial Intelligence has taken over everything else
  • A commodity you can get for cheap through pitches and crowdsourcing
  • Absolutely vital if we want to solve the world’s many problems
  • No longer needed now that we have programmatic ads and neuromarketing research
  • Something anyone in an organization can do if they follow a few simple steps

And then of course there are people like me, who have the word ‘creative’ on their business cards. My experience is that many people can indeed have ideas. But usually they’re the same ideas. And therefore, not very creative.

Compare it to a cartoonist. Everyone is funny occasionally. Many people can draw. But only a handful of people in the world can draw a funny cartoon six times a week. What makes them different?

Dorte Nielsen and Sarah Thurber have a refreshingly smart yet simple explanation of this in their delightful book The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker: How To Make Connections Others Don’t.

They use the metaphor of the shower and the funnel. First, a creative thinker will generate lots of ideas without to much focus or critical thinking. Nielsen and Thurber liken this to turning on the shower. Then, once the funnel has filled, the ideas are filtered until the best remain.

Sounds familiar? Here’s where it gets really smart. The funnel has to be full before you turn off the shower. Which is exactly my experience. Most people will ‘turn off the shower’ as soon as they have one or two viable ideas.

And they will definitely run for the taps as soon as someone says something silly. “Let’s not get too crazy now, we already have some good ideas!”.

But they don’t. They have some safe, boring, obvious ideas that they’ve lazily fallen in love at first sight with.

I’ve seen countless people go from ‘let’s come up with some great ideas’ to ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ within the hour. Only to be disappointed when they found at least five other companies or colleagues had the same idea, claimed the URL, copyrighted the logo and trademarked the pay-off.

Well at least they’ve learned something. You can’t get from obvious ideas to great ones without travelling through the valley of silly ideas.

But Nielsen and Thurber offer hope for everyone. Based on insights from neuroscience, they explain how new ideas are found by making new connections in the brain.

Sounds theoretical? It isn’t. In fact, this book is filled with fun, practical exercises so approachable I did some with my seven year old daughter, and we had a great time.

And as a creative pro with 20 years experience in creative concepting, I have to say the exercises really work. As management and strategy take up more and more time, there’s a real danger of becoming a bit predictable as a creative director. This book really inspired me to turn on that shower again and let the crazy connections flow.

A die-hard Kindle convert, I’m sometimes a bit bummed by BIS Publishers‘ policy of putting out their excellent books on paper only (I want it NOW dammit, even it’s 2 am!). But I have to say they’ve really gone the extra mile to make the book’s design and inspiring as creative as the content.

In other words: highly recommended reading for both creative professionals and professionals who’d like to be more creative.

Just promise me that from now on, you’ll never again turn off that shower tap too soon.


Behavioural economics explained to creatives

Your brain is a creative team (and art does most of the work)

Let me explain behavioural economics in a way creatives can relate to.

Mr. Kahneman figured out our brains are like a creative team.

One part is like the copywriter. Pretty smart. Analytic. Likes to read. Tends to overthink stuff. Not very fast or efficient. But good to have around.

The other part is like the art director. Intuitive. Emotional. Likes pictures. Lots of experience. Trusts her gut.

Kahneman found out that the art director part of our brain (system 1) does most of the work: about 95%.

She quickly decides what action to take. Then, if necessary, she’ll call on the copywriter part (system 2) to write a clever rationale.

He’ll come up with a story that makes the irrational decision seem rational.

Most of the time, this works very well. But sometimes system 1 makes a mistake and system 2 fails to notice.

When this happens, the brain blindly follows some dumb trend. Overestimates how much it knows. Takes the safe option even though it’s a dumb one. And so on.

In fact, there are over 165 of these different brain bugs and glitches.

And you can use these to your advantage. To change peoples’ behaviour without changing their minds first.

It can even help you sell great ideas to clients.



Review: Pocket Ariely app

Dan Ariely needs little introduction. His book Predictably Irrational is the Songs in the Key of Life of Behavioural Economics: accessible, crowd-pleasing yet profound. And now next to lectures, books, TED talks and YouTube videos, here’s the latest way to learn from the professor: the Pocket Ariely app.

For $1,99 a month, you get video content, podcasts, articles and the opportunity to participate in ongoing research by answering questionaires. As you might expect from Ariely, the content is top notch, though at least part of it may be familiar to you already.

My point of criticism is about the app itself. Behavioural economics is often easier to explain than to put into practice, and this app is no exception. Choice architecture is limited to a few basic categories, each including enough material to induce serious bouts of choice paralysis. No bundling, nudging or defaults to make life easier.

Also, no effort is made to make the user keep using the app. Endowed progress? Commitment strategies? Sunk costs? Dig deep enough and you’ll probably find great content on it. But the app offers no indication of progress, curriculums, badges or certificates. Making it feel more like a stroll through a slightly overwhelming library than a true app-like, addictive experience.

Since the app is free for the first month, I recommend you check it out and see what you think. Even if you agree the app leaves room for improvement, the content won’t disappoint.