I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that I found myself in the unusual position of having to pitch for something. I heard today that didn’t get it. The project was all about running “message development” workshops, and in a thoughtful and courteous rejection email the client explained that she and her colleagues had gone for an agency with an impressively structured and disciplined approach to the task.
If they wanted structured and disciplined, they were right not to choose me. In fact, despite (or because of) my creative background, I do actually believe that creativity requires some structure and discipline. (I always think ofTruman Capote, solemnly sitting down to write at 8.30am every morning regardless of whether he had anything at all that he wanted to write on his mind, and regardless of the severity of his hangover; and refusing to get up from his desk until 12 no matter whether he’d written five thousand words or nothing but the heading “Chapter One.”) But still, I’m more interested in the creative output than the disciplined process, and for that reason alone the clients were right to go elsewhere
But they were right for a more fundamental reason too, although I don’t suppose they know it. Deep down,I don’t really get all this messaging and proposition thing that’s got so big these days. On the client side, half the people I know seem to spend half their time in messaging and proposition workshops – and I haven’t really got the faintest idea what they’re spending all that time doing.
The way I see it, the products and services I buy and use are of two kinds as far as propositions are concerned. The first kind is the bleedin obvious. I’ve just used one of those Vacuvin wine bottle suction pumps that stops the wine in a half-empty bottle from oxidising. I really don’t think we need too long in a workshop to figure that the proposition attaching to these useful items is that they allow you to drink half a bottle of wine and come back for the rest another time without it having gone off.
The other kind is the well-it’s-hard-to-put-it-into-words-exactly-but-I-just-want-one-that’s-all variety. At the moment I’m craving an Aston Martin DBS rather badly. What’s the proposition? Hard to put it into words exactly. It’s just a gorgeous,brutal, ridiculously fast two tons of metal, leather and walnut cappings with Aston Martin logos front and rear. You can spend as long as you like in your workshops, but you won’t come up with a better way of making people want it than showing them a picture. Or even better, a video.
Very, very, very rarely, someone trying to sell you something comes up with a mind-changing proposition. This is so rare that the best example I can think of comes from nearly 30 years ago, when Ken Livingstone was trying to defend the Greater London Council against the Thatcher government’s determination to abolish it. The one great ad in the defence campaign showed a picture of Ken and a headline in which he was saying: “If you want me out, you should have the right to vote me out.” This, brilliantly, was the only message (or proposition – never been too sure of the difference) which Ken could deliver and make hardcore Tories pause for thought: the Achilles heel of the Thatcher campaign was that abolition was undeniably undemocratic.
Would that proposition have emerged from a workshop? I have my doubts, I must say. In my experience of workshops, they’re good at generating armfuls of banality but hopeless at coming up with anything original or interesting.
But that’s not the important question. The important question is whether the current workshop extravaganza produces results that are remotely proportional to the effort.
I’d say not, but I recognise that in saying that I’m probably reflecting the prejudices I formed in my long years on the creative side. These prejudices are basically two:
– whatever the proposition specified in the brief, it’ll almost always be stupid and ill-considered, and we’ll have to rethink it from scratch before we can start working on any ideas;
– and (somewhat contradictorily) that it doesn’t really matter what the proposition is, except insofar as it’s the springboard for a great creative idea. (“Refreshment” was one of the most generic and least interesting of propositions in the lager market, but that’s not a problem when it leads to something as good as “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.”)
Yes, I did notice that these two prejudices are somewhat contradictory. I even said so, look, in the previous para. But we creatives, or ex-creatives, aren’t supposed to be fair and reasonable. Or indeed structured and disciplined. I’m sure you’ll be agreeing by now that my pitch client was absolutely right to go elsewhere.