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Google Firestarters

This week saw the return of Google Firestarters and also the return of a format that we've run successfully before based around seven rapid-fire provocations on a theme (subtitled 'The Magnificent Seven'). This time we wanted to broaden the topic out beyond advertising, planning and media which is our normal focus, and so we took ever-changing marketing as our theme. The context for this is a discipline that seems to be changing in quite fundamental ways - or perhaps it's actually not? Addressing this broad subject we had seven amazing speakers with seven very different takes.

First up was Nils Leonard (Creative Founder, Uncommon Creative Studio) who gave a stirring call to arms around how we need to double down on creativity and bravery. The woods are burning and no-one seems to care he said. People are paying money to avoid what the industry spends its time and effort producing. We've reached peak stuff. People wouldn't care if three quarters of brands disappeared tomorrow. And yet we are at our most creative when we are most challenged (he used the analogy of the armada where our own boats were set on fire and sent into the enemy fleet. So many good things, said Nils, come from a reaction to things we dislike. The music industry was ripping everyone off so Spotify. Renting property was a minefield so Airbnb.Banks are annoying people so Monzo. Cable TV was 'drip feeding content like a crack dealer' so Netflix. We need more feeling to what we do - as Charlie Chaplin said in The Great Dictator:

“We think too much and we feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.”

Instead, said Nils, we should get a little angry.

Print the posters you wish to steal. Shoot the films you wish you could watch. Create the brands you wish existed. Make the industry you wish you worked in. 

Next up, Jan Gooding,  Former Gp Brand Director at Aviva,  and Chair, Stonewall gave a powerful talkabout the crisis in trust in the industry. On the surface, a lack of consumer trust doesn't seem to impact financial performance (just look at the banks), and yet trust is more complex that this suggests. We might trust banks to look after our money but we don't trust them to tell the truth. The post-truth world in which we live (a Washington Post analysis of Trump's speeches and public appearances found that he averaged five false facts a day) is creating a very different world in which marketing needs to operate. Creating heightened fragility. A lot of what Jan was saying reminded me of that Ernest Hemingway quote where one character in his books says “How Did You Go Bankrupt?”, and another character says “Two Ways. Gradually and Then Suddenly”. The industry needs to focus on trustworthiness for its own survival. Jan set out four key pillars of trust to bring this to life: Honesty (words and actions must match); Competence (things work, fix the basics); Reliability (on time, with value, openness); Benevolence (good, fair, for a better society).

Radha Davies (who is now at Virgin) took this into an area that we've focused on before with Firestarters - the tricky balance between data and creativity. She used her experience heading up marketing for games producer King (who produce the Candy crush franchise) to talk about how an over-reliance on one side of this balance leads to missed opportunity. King was a very data-driven business, and so needed to learn about the value of brand, and the value of long-term payback. Performance Marketing can drive real business results, but needs to be combined with building brand value. The value of creativity is often, she said, in enabling you to break out of a data-driven loop to make a step change of some some kind. Yet we shouldn't forget the opportunity that can come from de-risking experimentation. Using data-centric language, but fighting for the value of creativity. 

Russell Parsons, Editor, Marketing Week, challenged the whole premis that marketing was really changing. The more things change, he said, the more they stay the same. Marketing is not changing, but marketers are. The environment in which marketing operates is challenging, with stretched budgets, zero-based budgeting, and an increase in short-termism. We need to remember the fundamental value that marketing has to business, and the fact that we should never forget that we are here to sell products and drive profitability. He implored us to not get lost in tactics, and to focus on the fundamentals.

Sally Weavers, Founder at Craft Media London, gave a wonderful talk challenging the industry on how much of what we do is ignored - we should, she said, plan to be noticed. We've become too focused on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness, and great ideas can have the life-force optimised out of them. She used some excellent examples of work that they'd done with fashion brand Collusion, where they used a limited budget to create 'corridors of impact' around certain Universities - this involved literally walking the routes that the students took on nights out, on their way to the University, and looking for the outdoor sites that would make the brand impossible to ignore. And the work that they'd done with consumer brand Which?, where another limited budget was used in conjunction with big, powerful creative to maximise visibility and impact. 

Sinead Bunting, Former VP Marketing at Monster, focused on marketing's future role in society. She talked about how fortunate we are to work to work in an industry that can change behaviour and simplify complexity, but how we need to use that power responsibly to support sustainability. The common view of marketing is increasingly that it is an industry that gets people to buy things they don't need. Increasing consumerism is having dramatic impact on the world. Responsible marketing, she said, has a key role to play in creating movements for good. The world is in crisis and it is up to the industry to choose whether it wants to continue the way it is, or become an industry that can empower positive change. 

Last (and by no means least) to speak was Richard Robinson, Managing Partner at Econsultancy. Richard acknowledged the big shifts that had impacted marketing (digital ubiquity, media fragmentation, always-on CX, D2C, the rise of short-termism) but also noted that some fundamentals of the discipline had failed to change in response. Take for example the always-on nature of customer interaction and experience, and yet the discipline has not change basic working patterns (like journalism has). Econsultancy data shows that half of marketers have no professional qualifications, and academia is not equipping young marketers that enter the industry with the skills that they actually need. Econsultancy surveys show that marketers claim to be the least competent in the areas that they should be the most (like brand management, data and measurement, strategic thinking).

A key problem he said, is that marketers are in cognitive overload right now - they simply don't know what to pay attention to amongst all the noise. Key to finding a way through is are the kind of skills that are often called 'soft skills' (like critical thinking, the ability to embrace change, collaboration) but which are actually essential skills for doing the job well. It was a real wake-up call, and a good provocation on which to end the talks. 

In the Q & A afterwards it was notable how, despite the wide variety in response to the theme, there were some common threads that really stood out - railing against mediocrity, earning trust and respect and the responsibility the industry has to do the right thing, fighting against short-termism, combining the best of the old with the best of the new, how marketers themselves are changing, and how marketing has the potential to be a force for good. 

My thanks to the speakers for such excellent provocation, and to Google for hosting of-course, and to those that came along to join in the debate. It was a truly thought-provoking evening. As always the folk at Scriberia visualised the talks and you can see their graphic below, and in all its glory here.

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