CONSIDERABLY MORE TALENTED THAN YOW
- OR WHY BRUMMIES MAKE BETTER THINKERS
By Rory Sutherland, Campaign magazine
I know Dave Trott often writes of the virtues of Londoners in advertising. But, at the risk of disagreement, I would aver that, from a Bayesian standpoint at any rate, Brummies are quite clearly better. It’s true that there are very few people from Birmingham in advertising but what is remarkable is that every single one I have ever come across is spectacularly good. David Watson, Rae Stones, Neil French, Ben Rachel, Trevor obviously, almost everyone from Cogent…. This rule seems to hold true to such an extent I have asked Hamish to create a selective breeding programme for advertising talent on the site of the old Pebble Mill studios near Edgbaston.
Once you have read John Kay’s book Obliquity - a lavishly subsidised copy is available at this event at the IPA - you will understand why this is. It is simply because Brummies, as a product of their insanely complicated road network, have evolved to be brilliant oblique thinkers. Londoners, living at the centre of a hub and spoke system of roads, are inclined to be crass, direct thinkers, which is why they excel at linear activities such as trading mortgage-backed securities and selling knock-off DVDs from market stalls. That’s the way they like to think. If I were to ask a Londoner how they had driven to Wales for the weekend, they would look at me with bafflement before replying “Eh? Dahn the fackin’ M4, innit?” A Brummie, by contrast, understands that every journey is a task involving considerable obliquity and creative thought. His answer (which would run to several thousand words) would explain how he had considered perhaps fifty conflicting variables including time of day, weather conditions, the time the schools close in Kidderminster, the performance of his car and the opportunity to hit the Little Chef at Stourport just around lunchtime. On encountering adverse road conditions, the Londoner would sit in the traffic jam staring straight ahead and occasionally saying “fack”. Not so the Brummie. Realising that perfecting a journey is an iterative process, capable of continual, real-time improvement in response to emerging information, he would continually reasess his strategy in the light of executional feedback, perhaps even trying counter-intuitive methods such as heading the wrong way for two miles up the A44 to avoid the contraflow at Bromyard.
But what really marks out the Brummie as a creative thinker is that he acknowledges that there is “No single right answer” to the problem. Indeed if you were to present two Brummies with the same target destination the likelihood that they would take the same route to reach it is so small as to be almost non-existent. The Londoners, by contrast, would all default to the shortest route, since their position at the centre of a road network has caused them lazily to equate directness with speed, hence limiting their capability for creative or original thought. The Londoner consequently has a love of the single metric, such as “shareholder value”, “distance travelled”, “EBITDA” or “price”, while the superior Brummie brain understands that high quality decision making involves complex trade-offs between often irreconcilable factors - comfort, speed, distance, duration - or brand, profit, customer satisafaction, employee loyalty, R&D and so forth - and that, just as no great journey will result from considering one measure, no great company will be created by the narrow pursuit of profit alone.
From this, I think you can deduce two things. That we should recruit far more Brummies. And also that there are far too few Brummie clients. How do I know this? I know it because, in a recent IPA survey of clients attending the ISBA conference, 50% of clients claimed to believe it was perfectly possible for an agency to formulate a brand strategy when it had no creative department. A finding which suggests that 50% of clients have no idea how to solve problems iteratively or obliquely - (an alarming finding since most problems involving non-mechanistic systems such as human psychology or markets may be incapable of being solved any other way). In fact it suggests that clients have been so polluted by a corporate culture which fetishises bogus logic that the talent for ”giving the appearance of solving problems in a rational way” may have become far more highly developed in business culture than the skill of “actually solving problems”.
The reluctance to acknowledge obliquity in client organisations is a huge problem for advertising and all marketing services companies, since the very act of changing human behaviour is by its nature indirect - seduction being an oblique form of persuasion. However the requirement that no oblique methodology can be accepted as valid in business decision-making causes a spectacular misdefinition of targets and objectives, and brings with it the insanely wasteful activity whereby any solution arrived at through oblique or creative means (ie by Brummies) must then be solved all over again, this time with the pretence that it was solved rationally (by Londoners). As an intellectual exercise it is a little like Donald Crowhurst’s amazing mathematical achievement in back-calculating sextant readings for a position in the ocean that was a product of his own imagination. (Crowhurst would have made a great Account Planner).
I am hugely thankful for John Kay for this book, for it is fabulously valuable for us to have our own methods of advertising problem solving vindicated and promoted by someone with such spectacular respect in the world of business - and who is also doubly valuable to us as a critic of the mania for single metrics such as shareholder value.
I do urge you to attend the launch of his book at the IPA here. So much so that, if your employer will not pay for you to attend, I will find a way for you to attend for free. If everyone in advertising read this book, 20% of our problems would vanish. And if our clients were to read it, the other 80% would get a good deal smaller. National Talk Like a Brummie day was no great success last year. But National Think Like a Brummie Day would be a great idea.
Postscript: Obliquity is also a valuable technique in small things too. Yesterday, I sat down to write an article about Obliquity and it was boring, so I never posted it. Today I started again by writing an article about Brummies. Half way through I realised it was a much better article about Obliquity than the original one.