Painting by W+K employee Storm Tharp
I find myself returning to a comment made by the Portland art critic, D.K. Row, in his review of an art exhibition at Wieden + Kennedy quite a while back. The show features work done by W+K employees, including the very fine painter Storm Tharp.
Row asks, in his review, why Wieden + Kennedy doesn’t get the local respect it deserves as an important cultural force. One of the reasons, he says, is:
“…that in iconoclast-loving Portland, the convention-breaking agency is still, well, an advertising agency.
Call it an existential dilemma. But no matter our culture’s captivation with fame, appearance, the Internet and its transient, twittering pleasures, we have always valued — and will continue to — the notion of authenticity. Wieden+Kennedy, however, practices a form of marketing judo; it makes money on the savvy, insincere business of manipulation and
Manipulated by the evil Dr. Caligari
I am haunted by the phrase “the savvy, insincere business of manipulation and seduction.”
My pondering of Row’s comment dovetails with an internal conversation we had a while ago at an agency brown bag. Someone essentially asked if, in our theory of Brand Culture, we weren’t elevating brands to the level of religion, art, morality, and all the other things that make most human lives meaningful. In other words, were we ridiculously exaggerating the importance of brands?
This is a terribly important question to ask. Because, as a branding agency, we cannot believe anything naively. Every belief we hold must be questioned and challenged in the light of the the average consumer’s doubtfulness and suspicion.
Are we puppets?
Not that people want to be doubtful and suspicious, but they’ve leaned to be – taught by decades of advertising. Too many agencies and clients have believed, either naively or cynically, that they could manipulate people into patronizing their brands. So, Row’s accusation of the category is well-founded. I’m just not sure you can accuse all agencies of manipulation.
At the same time, consumption, fueled in part by brands and advertising, has been blamed for replacing spirituality with a false, materialistic idol.
As far as I’m concerned, this last issue has more to do with a form of capitalism that demands, through the stock market and shareholders, continued growth, which leads to continued growth in consumption. But that, as a topic, is too big to tackle in this blog entry. I do, however, want to tackle the words of Row’s phrase.
First, the word “insincere.” Now, in my past I’ve actually worked with one or two clients who were entirely insincere in what they were selling and how they talked to their audiences. But I considered them the evil spawn of Satan and have never worked with such people again.
So, my clients, for the most part, over 20 years in this business, have been deeply
Did my advertising make you eat cheese?
sincere, whether it’s Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, Tillamook Dairy, Waldenbooks, TriMet, Entertainment Weekly, M3 Snowboards, Allied Works Architecture, Kodak Dental, Integrity Spirits, or so many others.
In all these cases, I believe we helped them communicate their passion for what they do and helped them build stronger relationships with their audiences. Maybe I’ve just taken jobs at agencies which carefully choose their clients, but I have faced only a few cases of insincerity on either the clients’ or the agency’s part in my entire career.
Pollack's No. 5 sold for $140 million.
Now for the word “business.” Yes, unlike art, we operate a business. On the other hand, in what way is art not connected to and dependent upon commerce – specifically the buying and selling of art? I’m not so sure that art can claim to be separate from business. As to whether art IS a business, well, that’s a question for others to answer. But art certainly conducts business. My business is in helping other businesses build relationships with customers.
Peter Moore, the brilliant past creative director at Nike and then adidas, once told me that the difference between art and what we do is that art is about solving your own problems, while design and advertising are about solving your client’s problems.
The word “manipulation” is one which, as an industry, we need to recognize and own the way Germans must own the word holocaust. It has, indeed, been a part of advertising and branding, and still is in some places. I consider it a question of intention. And integrity.
We, as a branding firm, are tasked with deepening the relationship between a brand and its customers. Like any relationship, that can either be manipulative or not, depending upon the people in the relationship. But a relationship, per say, does not require manipulation, except in the most cynical and paranoid
I remember getting into an argument with a post-grad at the Skinner lab when I was visiting my stepbrother at Harvard. This guy was absolutely certain people’s behavior can all be predicted. I stubbornly believed humans were capable of being unpredictable. He countered that our unpredictability could be predicted. So I smacked him. (Not really.)
I guess I’ve never believed that is was that easy to manipulate people. I associate this view of branding with the Hidden Persuaders hoax where the author tried to get people to believe there were naked ladies in the ice of the Scotch ads – intentionally put there to titillate audiences. Talk about paranoid. The book was a bestseller and many people still believe this is what happens in advertising.
It’s kind of an anti-business anti-Big Brother romanticism. Yes, there are people who want to manipulate the masses. But the masses are not that easy to manipulate. And those who say otherwise always seem to exclude themselves, if you’ve noticed. It’s all those other people who are being manipulated.
The goal of manipulation is the lowest aspiration of our field, which, at least from our perspective, is a field that can, at its best, help people find brands which share their value systems. That’s the whole premise behind our theory of Brand Culture.
That said, we just recently hired someone who worked on a multi-national account at a very creative agency where the client didn’t really care about values or relationships, they just wanted his agency to make people buy more of their product. This new employee is excited that our clients are interested in developing a deeper relationship with their customers.
So Row’s accusation, which bugged me so much, is something which still haunts this industry. And, despite our own attempts at ID Branding to do things differently, some people in this industry still dream of manipulation. I don’t think they’ll be effective, but that won’t stop them from trying.
Sad. Somehow I thought we were way beyond this.
But, as with our client, the Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, who are out to change the way people experience healthcare, we can’t change the whole field, we can only change how we operate within it.
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