What is a relationship without trust?

a stock photo of a tuna roll

what the hell does this have to do with trust?

I’ve been wilfully ignoring the Old Spice hype. That kind of makes me a bad creative guy in advertising/marketing terms, because I’m supposed to be hyper-aware of new media strategies, and (I think) because I’m supposed to cheer on successful creative, even if it wasn’t created by anyone I know, out of solidarity, or perhaps good sportsmanship. Maybe I’m a bad sport. I might even be a little jealous. But just to be clear, I don’t dislike the ads. I watched one on YouTube. It was witty and engaging. But I didn’t go seeking out any further ads from the campaign, particularly once I learned they were being churned out at an alarming rate. I didn’t think I could ever catch up, in all honesty. And I’ve got stuff to do. Hell, I didn’t even watch the whole Chad Vader series, and I really liked the first three of those.

But, you know, the buzz goes on, and eventually I was forwarded a link to a “making of” article about the online phenomenon. I was glad I read it, because I learned enough about the campaign to further forestall sitting through it all. But there was a great and almost heartwarming insight in that article. When the answer to “how can you make so much stuff so good and so fast?” gets boiled down, it sounds like this, from Iain Tait, Global Interactive Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy, the campaign’s creators: “There is such great trust.”

And if you abstract what a creative department tries to do for its clients, you end up with that T-word again. Sure, there are different ways of saying it: engage, start a conversation, build a relationship, woof woof arf. But really, every brief could have in it somewhere, “Can you get them to trust us?” Because a relationship with your partner, or with your customer, or with your client, isn’t much of a relationship without Trust.

A while back Alex Bogusky came to town for a talk. And I don’t attend that many talks, because they tend to be quite expensive, and usually focus on broadcast, or have to be broadband enough to appeal to a wide audience and therefore cover a lot of ground that I’ve already researched on my own, or end up being, you know, a bunch of agency reels. But Mr Bogusky is about as close as our industry gets to having its own real-life rock star. I mean, there are probably people who don’t work in the industry who know who he is. And while I knew if whatever it was that made his work great could be imparted in a half-hour Q & A there would be a whole lot more great work out there than there is, I still thought it would be worth my while to go and have a listen.

Plus, I wanted to ask him a question: How do you get the freedom to do the radical things with a brand that Crispin Porter + Bogusky got to do with Burger King? And I did. I said, what, were they just desperate?

Alex replied that no, if you smell that kind of please we’ll let you try anything just help our brand desperation you should back away, because desperation is poisonous. He said what made the BK/CPB partnership work was, to a large degree, having a great open-minded, forward-thinking client who trusted them, and who had faith in their abilities.

Faith is another loaded word of course. Faith sometimes feels like the opposite of empirical evidence, particularly if you follow the monkey trial that’s been going on in the U.S. for 85 years. Faith is usually portrayed as the victim, and empirical evidence the aggressor. Folks come armed with science to destroy faith. Or so some would have you believe.

The fears of the faithful are well-founded. Toe-to-toe, facts will beat faith where the object of faith is unprovable. Not because you can’t be a scientist and a theist. You can; many are. But if you’re starting from a blank slate, and you have the choice between faith and fact, which would you choose? Facts are a sure thing, aren’t they? That’s what makes them facts. If you start with facts, you don’t need faith. (For a wry fictionalization of this principle, may I direct you to Douglas Adams’ Babel fish as proof of the non-existence of God argument).

It may seem odd to compare advertising creative to religion, but the former remains to this day the hocus-pocus of the profession. Every day it gets easier to test, track, measure and compare results. The ability of marketers to measure, and to improve results based on post-analysis, is now their primary selling proposition, and clients are buying. But where does that leave the magic of creative?

Can you test creative? Sure you can. But you have to know exactly what it is you’re testing. You have to isolate your variables or your results are worthless. For this reason, a surprising quantity of testing I’ve seen conducted in the marketing world has a hole in it big enough to drive a bus full of grade 11 science students through. And if your variables aren’t offers, or product features, but concepts, how do you know how many and what variables are involved?

Furthermore, testing creative is only of value if you’re going to be using that creative again in some form, for the same product. So as marketing budgets are more beholden to provable, predictable results, a byproduct of this increased demand for measurability is more restrictive creative guidelines, and more creative presentations that involve discussions of how it has been demonstrated that our target audience responds this way or that way to one stimulus or another. What you get in the end, more often than not, is advertising that is not only undifferentiated within its own brand, but within an entire category.

And as more marketing dollars are taken from non-measurable channels to be piled on the digital and direct response side of the scale, the real stand-out campaigns, regardless of media, will continue to be those that come from trust-based, risk-taking relationships. There’s no way anyone could prove beforehand that a half naked man beating a piñata with a fish in his bathroom would sell aftershave. But it sure as hell got my attention, and if you don’t know already, I’m a pretty tough sell.

In a 2008 career retrospective in Marketing Magazine, Ian Mirlin was quoted as saying:

I think the creatives in my era cared very deeply about what we did. I think we were given more leeway than today. I think we dealt with less research, less fiddling, less risk aversion. I think we dealt with more clients who would stick their necks out.

And this is, for me, the final piece of the puzzle. I’m not suggesting that testing and research should be done away with, or that they should carry no weight in a creative brief. But I think what Mr Mirlin is getting at here is that there is a connection between that trust – that risk-taking, that sticking-out-of-necks – and caring. An expression of trust fosters confidence, and ownership, and can only serve to spur on a creative team to excel. Sure, you’d fire anyone in your creative department who didn’t care about his or her work. But if you knew a way to make the people who care already care more, wouldn’t you want to capitalize on it at every opportunity?

There’s a sushi restaurant in New York where the menu is two words on a chalkboard: “Trust me.” This is essentially a reflection of the Japanese omakase, which can be translated as “it’s up to you” when spoken by the customer, but has its roots in the Japanese word for “entrust.” Your chef chooses what you will eat, and what you will pay for it. As a customer, you get his best quality ingredients prepared in a manner that is an expression of his individuality, his skill, his familiarity with the catch of the day, and his gratitude. His gratitude for your trust.

I think I just decided what I want for dinner.