‘When money’s tight and hard to get…’

April 17, 2011

Here’s a thought.  And here’s a place to share it too.  What if consumers.  Wait.  Are people consumers?  Or customers?  Or just people?  It bothers me that I’m not sure, but I’m sure I’m not sure.  I had a good conversation with a friend the other week who extolled the virtues of owning up when you don’t know something, which sounds like good advice to me.  And what do we ever do with the virtues of things except extol them?  In fact, I’ve rarely extolled anything other than virtues.

It was Flann O’Briens death-iversary the other day in case you’re wondering what happened there. 

Back to my thought – and we’ll go with consumers – what if consumers don’t really tell us anything?  And they don’t by the way.  What if a rhetorical question wasn’t rhetorical.  I’m reminded of a research group on sponsorship I attended a while back and the group were asked what they would like to see the sponsor do.  They were completely nonplussed.  They didn’t get it, they didn’t have any idea what they’d like to see from the sponsor – and why would they?  Which reminds me further of the apocryphal quote from Henry Ford.  He said if you’d asked people what they wanted before the invention of the motor car, they’d have asked for a faster horse.  And by god I’d like a horse with air-con, power steering and a decent sound system.

Consumers won’t tell us what they want.  And arguably the more you ask them, the further you get from the real answer.  And isn’t that the rub?  It’s also a bit of a linguistic theory – Saussure’s ideas of signifier, signified and meaning.  The idea that the words we use to represent things are arbitrary, but they’re associated with a common meaning.  But how common is that meaning if that meaning could be different to different people?  I mean is my colour red, the same as your colour red?  What if I describe something as smelling red – or is that just synaesthesia? 

We have to be grown ups about understanding consumers – observe them and figure it out.  That’s our job and that’s the fun of it.  If they just told us it’d be very boring anyway. 

Back when I first got into media I remember reading a year review in one of the marketing magazines where they asked agency heads to speak about the year to come.  And I remember Pat Donnelly saying people needed to be less constrained by research, research, research – instead they needed to start trusting their instincts and being bold and brave.  And I remember feeling extremely indignant at the time, thinking – typical – sure if the research doesn’t tell you what you want to hear, of course, ignore it and pretend that you’re justified in doing so. 

And now I’m not so sure. 

I think media agencies need to start having confidence in their convictions.  Just because we’ve more data and facts and figures than anyone else, we become too reliant on them.  Creative agencies need to be more thorough, logical and back up their reasoning (for trying to flog expensive TV production jobs).  And media agencies need to un-clench and borrow a bit of confidence from their colleagues in creative. 

And, and, and. 

And if I was any kind of slave to convention I’d tie this all back up in a neat bow, re-referencing Flann.  But I’m better than that, I’m able to resist – and sure after a pint of plain, that’s probably what he’d have wanted anyway.

John.

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