It’s tough being a grown-up: the challenges of Middle Age

As part of the course I recently completed on counselling and psychotherapy with WPF in London, I researched and wrote the following essay on Middle Age and the psychosocial issues that arise during this lifestage.  Naturally, being ‘of a certain age’ myself, these issues are close to my heart, not least those related to the infamous ‘mid-life’ crisis.  If you have not yet reached this lifestage, have a read and find out what there is to look forward to.  And if you’re in the thick of it, hopefully this will give a little more insight into what on earth is going on!



Erik Erikson (1902-94) was a prominent psychodynamic psychotherapist who is perhaps best known for defining his eight stage model of psychosocial development.  Erikson believed our ego identity – the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction – develops throughout life, in response to new experiences and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others.

At each stage of psychosocial development, Erikson believed people experience a conflict, and that this conflict must be resolved before the individual can successfully advance to the next stage.  If it is not, the individual carries the unresolved conflict on with them into later stages, where it will resurface in a different context.

In understanding this, I found it helpful to adapt Freud’s analogy of military troops on the march.

We start out in life with a full complement of troops.  As they advance, they encounter conflict.  If they are successful in winning the battle (ie: resolving the conflict) then the troops can move on to fight the next conflict (at the next stage of psychosocial development).  We emerge from the lifestage with psychological strengths that will serve us well for the rest of our lives.

But if the conflict has no clear resolution, we do not develop the essential skills needed for a strong sense of identity and self.  Too many troops are left behind, fighting the old battles, leaving us under-strength when we encounter subsequent conflicts.

It is now generally accepted that psychosocial developments through childhood and adolescence profoundly impact upon our lives as adults – how, if we have not successfully resolved earlier crises, we can get ‘stuck’, and they live on in our attitudes, behaviour and relationships.  This is the material that plays out in our adult lives.  But, what is also clear, is that there are also social and cultural issues that can impact on the development of our sense of self throughout adulthood. 

What we would commonly refer to as Middle Age is termed Middle Adulthood by developmental psychologists and covers approximately the ages of 40 to 65.  But it is probably be more useful to think of this stage as occurring in response to particular life events and their timing, rather than as being so age-specific.

In terms of life events, Middle Adulthood is associated with the maturing of all aspects of life and relationships: the development of a different kind of intimacy with your partner, consolidation at work, the independent growth of your children and their ‘flying the nest’, taking care of ageing parents and helping others through mentoring, charitable work or social bodies.


Middle Adulthood: Generativity vs. stagnation

Office for National Statistics data from 2015 shows that life satisfaction and happiness are at their lowest for those aged 45 to 59; both rapidly improve after 60.

Anxiety ratings also peak between 45 and 59.  After 60, anxiety falls rapidly.

So, between the ages of 16 and 90, there is no age group less satisfied, less happy andmore anxious than Middle Adults!

Why?  As adults move towards middle age they can be increasingly troubled by job insecurity and future career uncertainty, as well as by childcare responsibilities and commitments to elderly relatives. Conflicts between roles can become unusually great in these years, and income can increasingly fail to meet people’s needs.

Erikson believed the crisis in Middle Adulthood is Generativity vs. Stagnation – contributing to the development of others and the society around you vs feeling unproductive and uninvolved in the world.  Success at this lifestage means finding satisfaction in contributing to the development of others and society; failure do this results in self-absorption and self-indulgence.

In exploring this theme, it is helpful to look in turn at the three key spheres of adult life: personal relationships; children and family; work.


Personal Relationships

Research on the quality of marriage suggests a dip in marital satisfaction during Middle Adulthood.

In part, this comes from the amount of plates parents have to keep spinning – with work, with growing children and with ageing parents.  But, while these factors can be regarded as causes of the stresses in intimate relationships, a focus on these activities – on being busy – is in many cases a way of avoiding confronting the cracks that alreadylurk in the foundations of a couple’s relationship.

This can be compounded by the change in sex drive that can occur between men and women at this time, with many men experiencing a declining interest in sex or even declining capability, while many women experience an increasing interest, which can easily lead to tensions in a couple’s relationship.

In psychodynamic terms, many of the big themes can play out during this lifestage.  For example, those who have not addressed issues of trust and attachment arising during infancy can struggle to give their partner space to be themselves or may have a narcissistic concern only for themselves.  Authority and autonomy issues stemming from early childhood up to around 5 years can be seen when disagreements play out old parent-child battles about freedom and autonomy.

It should therefore come as no surprise to find that, in the UK, divorces peak between the ages of 40 and 44.  The average age for the birth of a first child is 28, so divorces are particularly prevalent amongst those with adolescent children, suggesting that the pressures brought about by bringing up teenagers can be particularly effective in prising apart the cracks in a couple’s relationship.


Children and family

The big issue here is how Middle Adults handle the development of autonomy in their adolescent children – whether or not they can come to terms with a loss of control over their children’s lives and step back, to let them develop their own, independent identities.

Issues with cooperation and competition can show up in rivalry between adolescents and their parents.  As Jacobs points out, ‘at the same time as young people are finding work and forming their first relationships, their parents may be conscious of imminent or present changes in themselves.  A mother may be anticipating menopause as a daughter has her first periods.  A father may be aware of his spreading midriff and loss of muscular tone as his son is reaching the peak of his physical fitness’.

The tension between adolescents and parents can be such that the departure of teenagers can come as a relief to the parents.  Surveys show that Happiness and Satisfaction improve from 55 onwards, prior to retirement, suggesting that an empty nest is, for many Middle Adults, a happier nest.

However, without the children as a focal point for their lives, some parents have trouble rediscovering their own individual identity, separate from parenthood.  Or, without the children there as a distraction, they find themselves facing previously submerged marital problems.

And it only gets more complicated.  Because, no sooner have they gone, then the children come back!  In the UK today, many socio-economic factors are conspiring to force older children to live with their parents once they are adults, either leaving home at an older age or returning home to their parents after college – this is ‘The Boomerang Generation’.

In the UK, nearly 25% of all adults aged 20-34 live with their parents, and there are 1/2m more doing so now than there were just 10 years ago.  So, if issues of trust and attachment, authority and autonomy, cooperation and competition have not been successfully negotiated by either Middle Adult parents or their Young Adult children, this scenario of kids returning like a ‘Boomerang’ is not going to help.

And then, in the opposite direction, there are the issues arising from the Middle Adult’s ageing parents.  Increasingly, as people have longer lives and live with chronic illnesses and disabilities, Middle Adults find themselves taking care of their ailing parents, a burden that falls much more frequently on daughters and daughters-in-law than it does on men – in the UK, a quarter of women aged 50-64 are carers, an increase of 13% in the last 10 years.

Not only are our elderly parents living longer, we’re having children later – more than half of all births are to mothers over 30.  It’s a perfect storm: an increasing number of Middle Adults are coping with both adolescent children who are struggling to define their own identity and ageing parents who are becoming increasingly dependent.  In the UK today there are 2.4m people who provide support to an older adult with disabilities or chronic illness, as well as care for their own children – ‘The Sandwich Generation’.



It is not atypical that Middle Adults have progressed as far at work as they ever will, and there are waves of younger people coming up behind them.  Job insecurity and future career uncertainty can loom.

Again, there are many modern trends compounding the issue:

  • increasing working hours, with the creeping development of a working culture that looks down at those who ‘knock off’ on time
  • if you lose your job, it is much more difficult to find work in your 40s and 50s – ageism is rife in employment
  • a trend towards contract work, without the benefits and security of full employee status
  • the decline of unions, which has left employees without the support they used to have to fight on their behalf in the workplace


  • the rapidly changing skillsets required by workers in the digital age, which are more native to younger workers but have to be acquired anew by Middle Agers

These changes mean that many of the psychological rewards we used to derive from the workplace, such as a sense of belonging, are fast disappearing, and the scope for Generativity is reducing, with less opportunity to pass on skills to younger people.

Plus, the financial pressures on this age group are increasing, as they have to support their kids through college and try to help them get on the housing ladder, as well as fund their ageing parents’ care needs (if they don’t care for them themselves) and confront the reality that they are not going to be able to fund their own retirement and future care needs.


Mid-life Crisis

Apparently, there is no research evidence that the mid-life crisis even exists.  However, most people in Middle Adulthood will undergo a period of transition, when they find themselves re-evaluating long-held beliefs and values.

A number of factors encourage this process:

  • a growing sense of mortality: you’re more than half way through your life; your parents are sick or have died; you have friends who have died or had serious illnesses
  • your role as caregiver and provider changes, as your children grow and leave home
  • and, critically, you realise you have not accomplished all of your desired goals in life.

The experience of forging your career and bringing up your children can often erode people’s sense of their own identity.  Parents can invest so much of themselves in their children, and see them as extensions of themselves, that, once their children become adults in their own right, they struggle to find their own identity and purpose.  Equally, for many people, forging a career involves being who the company and the clients require you to be – or who you think they need you to be – such that your sense of self is lost.  For many working women, who in the majority of cases still bear the brunt of responsibility for looking after the kids, this makes for a double whammy of an identity crisis.

These issues can come home to roost in Middle Age, as the end of work and parenting comes into view and you wonder what you will be left with; and they will be all the more acute if you still have troops left behind fighting the conflicts that were never resolved in earlier lifestages.

Big questions loom.  Who am I?  What am I for?  What’s the point?

This is the nub of Generativity vs Stagnation.  Do you let go of your past hopes and find peace with a new future?  Or do you cling onto an image of yourself that can never now be realised, and was perhaps never going to be?

There is a need to confront lost goals, or lost possible selves, in order to continuepersonality development.  Successfully resolving the conflict of Middle Adulthood involves reconstructing your goals and investing in new ones, re-envisioning and recalibrating your possible future.

Once we reach Middle Adulthood, time is running out to confront and address the presenting past if one is to create a better future.



Adult Development

Average age of first time mums in England – Mirror Online

Boomerang generation

Crisis in Middle Adulthood: Age 45-65

Development in Early & Middle Adulthood–middle-adulthood

Divorce statistics UK 2015

Erikson’s life stages diagram

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development:

Erikson’s stages

Freud’s Psychosexual stages

Hard Evidence: are age and unhappiness related?

Human Growth and Development

Is work good for you?

Measuring National Well-being: At what age is Personal Well-being the highest?

Middle Adulthood

Middle adulthood development


Olympic Britain

Psychosocial Development in Middle Adulthood

Relationships in Middle Adulthood

Sandwich generation concern is growing – Carers UK

Socio-emotional Development in Adulthood

The Mind at Midlife

The Presenting Past: The Core Of Psychodynamic Counselling and Therapy, 4th Edition, 2012: Jacobs, M

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The 6 fundamentals of effective creative development research


Research is often blamed for the destruction of great creative ideas. And to an extent it’s true: the wrong type of research, undertaken with the wrong aims and executed by the wrong people, can be disastrous. But, handled in the right way, research can make a big contribution to the development of great creative ideas. What is needed to get it right?

1          The right context

Research should never be used as a substitute for judgment or to ‘make’ a decision.

Too often, research is simply a hoop to jump through, or it’s done so that marketing has something to “cover its arse” if things don’t turn out well. This is nonsense. Any member of the marketing team who shirks responsibility for poor campaign performance by saying “The research said it would work” should be fired – you don’t employ people to “do what research says”, but to think and make judgments. Similarly, research should not be used to resolve a disagreement, be it between the client and agency or within the marketing team.

The role for creative development research is to help the client/agency team understand how the ideas are working and hence how they could be optimised in order to deliver fully against their objectives. This applies whether you are researching one idea or several. It’s not a “beauty contest” and you’re not trying to “pick a winner”.

So the context is critical. To get the most out of development research, there needs to be a shared desire on the part of agency and client to learn.

2          The right objectives

It is essential that development research has objectives that it can realistically achieve.

Development research doesn’t tell us what will happen, or what to do; it’s not predictive (nor is quantitative pre-testing, but that’s another story). Respondents can’t tell us what they will do; they can’t even tell us what they think – only what they think they think, which isn’t the same thing.

While development research can tell us the potential of an idea for engagement and how integral the brand appears to be, it cannot tell us how good the branding or impact will be in the finished advertising. Nor is development research in any way the ‘real world’. It’s a lab. Attempts to make it closer to the ‘real world’ are misguided, and often backfire.

But none of this makes creative development research any less valid or valuable. It’s the best way we have yet found to gather the depth of understanding that can enable us to create informed hypotheses about how the finished advertising might work.

The research objectives should reflect this. We are not ‘measuring’ or ‘evaluating’. We are exploring how people process the idea so that we can form a view on how it can best be developed to achieve its objectives.

3          The right methodology

The specific methodology needs to tailored to the needs of the project.

However, more often than not, the stimulating environment of good ‘old fashioned’ face-to-face group discussions remains the best context in which to generate the rich feedback that enables us to understand how ideas are working.

The way in which the creative ideas are explored can be tailored according to the nature of the ideas, with different lines of questioning being adopted for whether they are intended to drive empathy or identification, or work through ‘persuasion’, for example. We can easily provide respondents with scope for non-verbal responses too, where appropriate.

Some clients worry about vocal or opinionated individuals dominating the discourse, but simple Private Response techniques easily overcome this issue.

4          The right stimulus material

I spend a lot of time working with clients and agencies to ensure we are using the right type of stimulus material: material that allows respondents to process the idea as intended, rather than respond to the stimulus.

I have written about this extensively elsewhere, so I will keep his brief. The role of the stimulus is to convey the idea as faithfully to respondents as possible, and this means that the nature of the stimulus may well need to vary from one idea to next. One implication of this is that, in the case of TV, the idea that all the stimulus you are using to explore different ideas must be to same level of finish is nonsense.

Often, less is more. I have found that storyboards and key frames often obscure rather than clarify comprehension of a TV script, and that a vividly written narrative description creates in respondents’ minds a much more faithful impression of the finished ad than a bunch of Magic Marker boards. But, even with narrative scripts, one has to work very hard  on refining the narrative, in order to take out extraneous distractions or, for example, avoid elements that give the game away earlier than the ‘rug pull’ that would occur in the finished film.

To be able to recommend the most appropriate stimulus material and the best way to explore ideas, the researcher must fully understand the ideas they are researching. This means interrogating any previous research as well as getting under the skin of the strategy and the creative brief.

What it should also mean is talking to the creative teams who have come up with the ideas. This sounds like heresy to many and, despite my best efforts, happens all too rarely. And yet, whenever I have managed to make it happen, I have always found it absolutely invaluable, giving me a greater understanding of the idea, how best to convey it, and where the parameters for development lie.

5          The right TIME

Ideally, creative development research should be done when there is still time to fail!

There is little point commissioning research when you don’t have the time to act on the findings. It may be that the creative idea is fundamentally flawed or, worse still, that the strategy isn’t right, necessitating a rebrief. But even if this isn’t the case, you still need to leave enough time to respond to the guidance emerging from the research, in order to optimise the creative work before moving forward to production.

6          The right researcher

Finally, these principles mean nothing without a researcher who understands them and has the skills and conviction to apply them.  The right person would probably be a researcher who has worked with creative ideas for over 30 years and blends creative sensitivity with strategic understanding to provide crystal clear development guidance.

Any suggestions…?

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What do you do when your agency can’t produce the goods?


When a brand’s advertising has consistently underperformed for years, the marketing team’s instinct is usually to blame its agency. But the culprit is often closer to home.

A new client came to me last year with a problem. Their iconic brand has a history of great advertising. However, in recent years, their advertising has been consistently disappointing. The client was looking for outside perspectives on where the problem might lie.

My first response was to ask for a copy of the creative brief to which the agency was working, since this is a key reference point against which all creative ideas must be assessed. I received 4 different documents, each a single PowerPoint slide… this was the first warning sign.

One of these slides was indeed the client’s ‘Creative Brief’ (the client’s, you’ll note, not the agency’s, but that’s another matter). The other 3 slides were:

  • the Brand Positioning, which was intended to underpin all of the brand’s activities around the globe, not just advertising
  • a document that set out how the brand positioning should be ‘brought to life’ in communications (which, for the avoidance of attribution, I will call the ‘Communications Strategy’)
  • a template against which the advertising could be evaluated in research

The first question I asked myself was, “Why four documents?”. Yes, every brand should have a universal Brand Positioning that underpins all its activity. And, yes, this needs to be interpreted in a communications context via a creative brief. But if the Brand Positioning is clear and the creative brief well-written, why would you need a bridging document like the Communications Strategy? And the template against which advertising ideas are assessed should be… the creative brief.  You don’t need an additional document.

The more different documents you have, the greater the opportunity for digression and ambiguity. But, this was merely the hors d’oeuvre in what was to be a veritable feast of strategic confusion.

It is difficult to know where to begin with the litany of offences against communications strategy committed across and within these documents. But I’ll try, starting with the ‘Creative Brief’.

The role of the creative brief is to inspire original and relevant creative solutions, not to tell the agency what to do. Indeed, the best creative briefs are themselves creative: someone has taken facts and observations about the brand, the user and market and thought about them in a lateral or particularly insightful way, making leaps and connections that unlock an inspiring thought to fire the imagination of the creative team.

But apart from being inspiring, a good creative brief has a few, rather more mundane, boxes that it also needs to check:

  1. Clarity: It needs to be written in plain English, with no marketing jargon. As I have discussed in previous posts, the meaning of every word and phrase must be obvious, with no tricksiness and no ambiguity. And, critically, it should be single-minded, with all elements leading irrevocably to a single brand idea.
  2. Coherence: the content of all its components must be consistent and logically related.
  3. Relevance: every element must contribute to the whole; there must be no fat or padding. If it doesn’t help, it doesn’t belong.

Sadly, this creative brief didn’t just fail to tick the boxes; it stamped all over them and kicked the shattered fragments into the long grass.

What we had here is sadly all-too familiar: a creative brief laden with different ideas. No-one had the discipline to be single-minded or filter out the inconsistency and irrelevance. It was probably also a case of too many chefs, each wanting to wedge in their tuppenny-worth. Plus, of course, the dead hand of International Marketing was probably partly to blame for its inarticulacy and lack of focus.

For example, a core idea (amongst several) was cited as ‘The Hero’. Fair enough, provided you define ‘The Hero’, which the section then did… as ‘self-esteem’. I’m sorry, many ‘heroes’ might have self-esteem, but this is not a concept readily linked to heroes, while a hero could easily be driven by low self-esteem. How did those two concepts ever get linked?

However, as if that’s not enough, the document then elaborated on ‘self esteem’: ‘wanting to play your role in your life as well as you can’. What on earth does this mean?! And since when was this related to‘self-esteem’? My dictionary says that ‘self-esteem’ means: ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities’. And none of this has anything to do with ‘The Hero’.

So, what is the idea? ‘The Hero’, ‘self esteem’, or ‘wanting to play your role in your life as well as we can’? These are three different ideas.

And this was just the first section of the creative brief. It only got worse. In total, I counted no fewer than 9 different ideas in this single creative brief.

Of course, apart from clear, coherent and relevant, the creative brief needs most of all to be inspiring. However,  there was nothing fresh or original in any part of the brief; nothing surprising or provocative, and nothing to own.

In short, this brief was totally unfit for purpose. If anything good emerged from the agency in response, it would be by complete chance. One reached the end of the brief with simply no sense of the single idea the brand was trying to convey. No wonder the agency had been struggling to produce any half decent work.

However, when I looked at the other 3 documents, it became clear that this duff ‘Creative Brief’ was merely the tip of the iceberg: 9/10 of this shambles lay hidden beneath the surface, waiting to sink RMS Strategy with no survivors.

  • Not satisfied with having 9 different ideas in the creative brief, further new ideas appeared at random in each of the other documents.
  • No consistent terminology was used across the documents.
  • The brand proposition was a moveable feast – across the 4 documents it was expressed in 6 quite different ways.
  • And not one of the documents delivered against the key needs for Clarity, Coherence, Relevance, and to be Inspiring.

The most astonishing thing here is that these 4 documents came from the marketing team working on an internationally famous brand from a major business with an enviable advertising heritage. What had happened? How could it no longer possess the skills, imagination and intellectual discipline required to write a half decent brief for its agency? How is it that no-one, apparently not even the marketing director, is calling this out. Does this absence of basic ability in marketing strategy run all the way to the top?

So, if your ad agency is repeatedly failing to create good work for your brand, before you start beating them up or thinking of going out to pitch, stand back for a moment and ask some searching questions of your creative brief.

As Luke, the former Head of Insight at Visit Nazareth, once put it: ‘Physician, heal thyself’.

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Why clever communications propositions usually aren’t


It’s much easier to originate a great creative communications idea from a strong proposition. Communications propositions should be as creative as the creative ideas they inspire. Too often, they are anything but.

In an earlier blog, I talked about how to originate a great proposition by pushing on beyond your first thought to find a more lateral and inspiring central brand idea.

I highlighted a few communications proposition ‘fails’ – attempts to find an idea at the intersection of a ‘human truth’ (or ‘insight’) and a ‘brand truth’ that failed by being predictable and familiar.

But I would reserve my greatest opprobium for propositions that use wordplay as a cover for their inability to be single-minded.

Try this genuine brand proposition on for size:

  • ‘Deliciously rewarding’

So, is the brand ‘delicious’? Or is it ‘rewarding’?

Clearly, ‘delicious’ on its own doesn’t take us anywhere, since every food brand wants us to think it’s delicious. The person who wrote the proposition probably realised this, hence the addition of ‘rewarding’. But, if it’s ‘delicious’, then it will inevitably be ‘rewarding’, meaning that ‘rewarding’ is superfluous and takes us nowhere.

However, ‘rewarding’ on its own would also be a bit dull and familiar, so it does need something more. But ‘delicious’ isn’t it. Will this food product be ‘rewarding’ because it tells jokes? No, it’ll probably be ‘rewarding’ because it tastes nice…

Neither ‘rewarding’ nor ‘delicious’ should be the proposition, because neither is distinctive or inspiring. Putting them together doesn’t solve the problem. The answer might be to take one of them as the starting point and explore as many lateral ways of spinning it as possible. However, the poverty of thought in this proposition is so profound that the solution is probably to start again from scratch.

Here’s another:

  • ‘Refreshingly different’

It’s for a drink. A core generic benefit of the category is ‘refreshment’. So, there’s no point having ‘refreshing’ in the proposition, unless you can come up with a really surprisingly and distinctive spin on ‘refreshment’.

But this drink is also, apparently, ‘different’. How? Given that ‘refreshing’ is a category generic, it can’t be its refreshing qualities that make it ‘different’. Unless for some reason it’s more refreshing than other drinks. Or is it different in some other way that people might find relevant?

As it stands, with ‘Refreshingly different’, I’m none the wiser as to why I should be interested in this drink.

It seems that the person who wrote the proposition couldn’t work out why I should be interested in drinking it either. Instead, they tried to cover their tracks with a double entendre: ‘refreshing’ means not only ‘thirst quenching’ but also ‘stimulating through its difference from the norm’.  Woh! Clever, huh?

So, what ‘Refreshingly different’ effectively means is ‘Different because it’s different’. Good job.

My old boss, Dave Trott, used a simple analogy when I was at GGT to explain why a proposition needs to be single-minded.

“When are you more likely to catch a tennis ball? If I throw you one tennis ball, or if I throw you three at the same time?”

Communicate one thing and, if you do it in an engaging and relevant way, people are likely to register it. Try and communicate several things, and there’s a good chance they’ll take away none of them.

Trouble is, it takes an incisive mind and real clarity of thought to be single-minded. And these qualities are in lamentably short supply, even in companies that really should know better.

I was party to the Carling pitch a few years back, where the client’s brand proposition was:

  • ‘Refreshingly and brilliantly British’

Let’s pause a moment to take a look at this brilliantly refreshing proposition:

  • 3 different ideas: refreshing; brilliant; British
  • Each of them ambiguous
  • One of them a category generic
  • Blended with excruciating wordplay
  • All within a single four-word proposition.

This is a recipe for an extremely unpalatable dish. For great advertising to come out of this, there needed to be a miracle. The miracle didn’t happen. VCCP had the misfortune to win the account. Unsurprisingly they struggled: a good agency trying to execute a gibberish brand proposition and consequently producing average work. The account moved to Creature in 2013.

Apparently, Creature has been working to a different brand proposition:

  • ‘Refreshingly perfect’

Good luck with that.

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What makes a great communications proposition?


However unfashionable it may be, I am inclined still to think of the ‘proposition’ as being the heart and soul of any communications brief: the single thought that, if absorbed by our ‘target consumer’, will engender the response we seek.

The proposition has to inspire your creative team to produce a relevant, engaging and distinctive communications idea. Your chances of getting a great idea are hugely increased if your brief has an inspiring proposition; without one, you will be relying on good luck.

Writing a great proposition is not easy. It requires the imagination and clarity of thought to be able to sift through innumerable facts and observations about the brand, the user and market and process them in a lateral or insightful way to make leaps and connections that create an inspiring thought.

A great proposition is communications gold. How do we find one?

An inspiring proposition is often found at the intersection of a ‘Human Truth’ or ‘Insight’ and a ‘Brand Truth’ or ‘Product Truth’, ie: what your brand can deliver within the context of human attitudes and behaviour. Each of the following propositions, all drawn from creative briefs I have seen, aim to do this.

  • ‘Everyday indulgence’
  • ‘Modern classic’
  • ‘So healthy… yet so tasty!’

You could argue that each operates at this intersection: identifying a ‘human truth’ (that consumers do not expect to find two specified attributes co-existing within the same product) and challenging it through a ‘brand truth’ (these two ‘contradictions’ have been successfully reconciled within one product).

Are these propositions communications gold? Or are they something altogether less shiny and rather more smelly?

There is an easy test here: what would the target consumer think if they consciously absorbed the communication?

“‘Bloggo Crème: everyday indulgence’. Well, how about that? I’ve always thought that the things that taste most gorgeous are really expensive, so I only buy them on special occasions. But Bloggo Crème has shown me that this doesn’t have to be the case, by being both incredibly delicious and affordable enough to eat daily. Wow, I want to buy some without delay!”

It’s not going to happen, is it?

The problem is, we’ve heard these ‘reconciled contradictions’ a thousand times before – so many times, that they are no longer contradictions, they are the norm. We know that the affordable things that we eat often can be really tasty too; and that healthy things don’t have to taste like rabbit food; and that many brands want us to think they have a design quality that transcends fashion, in contradiction to the received wisdom that the modern world is characterised by the transient and the disposable. So there is no more reason we should believe it for this brand than for any other, and no reason why we should link this proposition to this brand than to any other.

You have to try harder. You might be quite chuffed at finding a proposition that lies at the intersection of a ‘human truth’ and a ‘brand truth’. But, don’t accept the first answer. Push on to see if you can find something better: sharper, more distinctive, more inspiring. Think laterally.

Here are a couple of examples from Mars to illustrate the point. The core proposition for Mars Bar is ‘energy’. This is somewhat bald and generic, however, so one could search at the intersection of a ‘human truth’ and a ‘brand truth’ to find something a little more original and ownable, for example:

Mars proposition diagram

Mmmm. That still feels a bit average, don’t you think? It may be true, but it’s also rather predictable, even a bit worthy, perhaps. Can you see an original, distinctive and entertaining creative idea being inspired by this?

So, why not look at the same thing from a different perspective? What if we thought about how Mars ‘giving you energy to take on the day’ might appear to onlookers, rather than how it affects the person eating it – from the spectator’s perspective rather than the protagonist’s?

Or, what if we thought about the consequences of Mars ‘giving you energy to take on the day’?

Then you might get to a proposition like:

  • If people see you eating a Mars, they will expect much more from you’.

Yes, it’s hyperbole, but hyperbole has long been one of the key levers in the toolbox of engaging, relevant and distinctive advertising.

So, which would you prefer as a brief:

  • ‘Mars gives you the energy to take on the day’


  • If people see you eating a Mars, they will expect much more from you’

Which is more likely to inspire fresh, engaging advertising? When you look at the brilliant ‘Runaway Train’, the advertising Clemenger BBDO Melbourne was inspired to create by the latter proposition, the answer is clear.

The same could be said for Snickers in the UK. The core proposition is ‘Satisfies hunger’. OK, but lots of things ‘satisfy hunger’. How do we make this distinctive and ownable?

What if we think about the consequences of not satisfying hunger. Then you might get to ‘Being hungry can turn the nicest people into grumps’, from which springs the brilliant ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ campaign.

So, where does this leave us?

The first brilliant proposition you write probably isn’t! Does the prospect of having to write a campaign from your proposition excite you? Do you feel you’ve seen communications ideas from other brands that could have been written to this proposition? If you successfully communicated this, how would your ‘target consumer’ respond?

Push on. Take your proposition as just the starting point. Think laterally about its implications. For starters, try these 3 provocations:

  1. What could be the consequences of using the brand?
  2. How would this look to people who aren’t using the brand.*
  3. What would be the consequences of not using the brand?

There are many more ways than these of cutting your proposition cake. But these are a start and, once you push yourself, the ideas will start coming.

Communications propositions should be as creative as the creative ideas they inspire. Don’t settle for less.

* This new Adidas ad appeared just after this post was originally published, and is a good example of pushing the proposition through provocation 2: How would this look to people who aren’t using the brand.

Posted in Advertising, Brand positioning, Brand strategy, Marketing | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

If you can only research your ad idea once before you make it, what research should you do?


A TV advertising idea is rarely so brilliant that no-one feels the need to run some research before they commit the production money. But it is not uncommon that, by the time you get to a script you’re comfortable with, there’s almost no time for research before you have to start production. Or, if you do have time, you may not have the budget. Either way, if you only do one stage of research before deciding to progress, what should it be: quant or qual?

In my view, it absolutely has to be qualitative development research rather than quantitative pre-testing.

As Mandy Rice Davies famously remarked, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”. ‘He’ has, after all, spent most of his 30-plus years in marketing plying his trade as a qualitative researcher.

But it’s true, nonetheless.  Most people in this predicament will run a quantitative pre-test, classically IPSOS Next or a Millward Brown Link Test.  However, it surely makes no sense to run a one-off test from which you will learn nothing about how to develop the ad to maximise its effectiveness.  At best, the ad will receive a good ‘score’, but you still won’t know what to do to make it even better.  If the test gives the ad an ‘OK’ score, you are none the wiser about how to make it better.  And, if it scores poorly, you don’t know whether it’s the strategy, the idea or the execution that needs changing.

The whole purpose of qual is to help us understand how the idea works and give us a clear sense of how it could be improved.  Why would one not want to do this?

If you don’t buy this argument, here are four more reasons why you have to commission qualitative research rather than a quantitative pre-test.

1          You need to research the idea, not the stimulus

Typically, quantitative pre-tests are run using animatics.  Many animatics are just terrible.  Some ideas are almost impossible to represent effectively in animatic form.  You end up testing the animatic, not the idea.

The notion that testing an animatic gets the ‘consumer’ closer to what the final commercial will look like is, in most cases, completely spurious.  More often, it does just the opposite, giving an misleading sense of ‘looking like’ the finished ad, when a respondent is more likely to create a realistic sense of the finished ad in their own mind in response to a vividly written narrative.

I have seen poor results from Link that made no sense to me until I saw the animatic.   The original ad in what became the long running and hugely successful ‘Adam’ campaign for BT is a case in point. The idea showed great potential when I researched it in script form, being found original, engaging and relevant.  But it did not Link Test well, with engagement dropping off quickly over the opening 10 seconds. Mystified at this result, I asked the client to send me the animatic. As soon as I watched it, I could see the problem. The opening section of the commercial consisted of the internal dialogue in Adam’s mind as he sat contemplating his options.  In the script I had researched, this was vividly described, so that my respondents could imagine the subtly changing expressions and body language that would help express Adam’s thoughts and make the opening sequence very watchable. But, in the animatic, the camera slowly zoomed in on a static image of a bloke sat on a chair – no movement, no emotion, no expression. In short, the opening scene of the animatic had none of the things that were clearly essential to engagement, but which would unquestionably be there in the finished film. Once you saw the animatic, it was blindingly obvious why the score was poor: what was being researched was a terrible animatic for a good idea, and people were judging the stimulus, not the idea.

I pointed this out to the client and asked them if they thought the finished film was likely to be like the first 10 seconds of the animatic, or like the first 10 seconds as they had imagined it from the description in the script. The film got made in spite of its poor Link Test scores, and the rest is history.

2          You need to allow the advertising to be processed in its own way, not within a straightjacket

Regardless of the big players’ protestations to the contrary, pre-testing evaluates all ads against essentially the same criteria, as if all ads work in a similar way.  They don’t.  The questions are also highly prescriptive, forcing every ad into a framework that may well be entirely inappropriate for how the specific piece of copy will work.  Much of the time, quant pre-testing measures things because they can be measured, rather than because they are relevant.  To quote my favourite qualitative research guru, Albert Einstein: ‘Not everything you can count counts; and not everything that counts can be counted’.

Qualitative research, owing to the open-ended and responsive way in which ideas are explored, allows for a more natural response that is driven by the way the specific idea works.  In a sense, the ad creates its own agenda, just as communications do in the ‘real world’, rather than having one imposed upon it by a set question protocol.

3          You need to assess the ad against its own objectives, not ‘norms’

Many clients find the ability to score their ideas against ‘norms’ reassuring.  ‘Norms’ are dangerous nonsense.  Even if you compare your ad’s score to other ads in the market, or relative to other ‘fair’ comparison points, this is completely spurious.  Every ad must be assessed in its own terms.  Only if there was another ad for this brand, trying to achieve the same thing at the same point in time against the same target, would a comparison be meaningful.

For example, a pre-testing agency will have a ’norm’ for ‘carbonated drinks’ advertising. Why on earth would it be meaningful to compare the scores for a new Coke ad with ’norms’ derived from advertising for other CSDs such as Pepsi and Rubicon? They’re ads for different brands with different objectives that are intended to work in different ways. What would such comparisons mean?  Not a lot.

The only meaningful way to appraise an advertising idea is against the objectives set for that specific idea.  The ad must always be assessed against the brief, and the brief is unique to the specific ad.  Quant pre-testing does not do this, qual research can.

4          You need to use people who understand their own ‘data’

In my experience, most ‘researchers’ presenting findings from quant pre-testing don’t understand their own data.  For example, I recall the ‘researcher’ in a Link Test debrief giving us a ‘Comprehension’ score that was derived from a question asking respondents how easy they thought the ad was to understand.  This is not the same thing at all: 100% of your respondents could think the ad is easy to understand, when in fact they have completely misunderstood it, and vice versa. When I pointed this out to the guy presenting the slides, he just couldn’t see the difference. His Comprehension score was clearly zero.

I would prefer to use a researcher who has worked with advertising for over 30 years, researching upwards of 1500 scripts, and is trusted by agencies and clients alike for his ability to discern idea from execution and give great clarity about how best to develop the finished advertising.  Can you think of anyone… ?

I realise my entreaties to use qual rather than defaulting to quant may fall on deaf ears. I am all too aware of the pressure in organisations for ‘numbers’ to back decisions. I know that, in many companies, an ad won’t get made unless it passes the threshold test score in Next or Link. I know it’s a brave marketing person who sticks their neck out for understanding rather than percentages. I would simply urge you to screw your courage to the sticking place and let the finished ad’s performance prove that, when you had your back to the wall, your choice of qualitative development research was the right one.

Posted in Advertising, Communications, Market research, Qualitative research | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Social media monitoring and customer service: the answer, or part of the problem?


In an earlier post, ‘5 features of successful social sharing’, I enthused about social media monitoring and how assiduous and intelligent ‘listening’ to people’s behaviour and attitudes around brands and market sectors could inspire effective marketing initiatives.

This is only one of the many ways in which social media monitoring can benefit business. Another powerful way in which it is being used is as a customer service tool, enabling businesses to pick up early on customer criticism and ‘nip it in the bud’, with a public or a personal response.

It is now well understood how effective ‘service recovery’ can leave an initially pissed-off customer feeling more positive about a brand than they did before the problem occurred. So, being able to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion to negative Tweets is critically important.

There are some great examples where companies have screwed this up but, when it is done well, a company stands to win friends and influence people: the customer feels better about the business as a consequence of the fast, personal attention they have received, and the company can gain considerable social kudos that enhances its reputation. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Or is it?

Increasingly, companies are using social media monitoring as a key component in their customer service provision. However, I believe that such an approach carries with it dangers that pose a significant reputational threat to the businesses that employ it. My evidence is anecdotal, but a couple of examples should illustrate the point.


On Christmas Eve 2013, heavy rainfall flooded an electricity sub-station at Gatwick Airport, forcing the cancellation of most of the day’s flights. There was anarchy in Departures, as thousands of passengers, already stressed out by endless delays, were left literally and metaphorically in the dark as they tried to find out what they should do, now that they would not be able to leave on their holidays or travel to see their relatives for Christmas Day.

There was no information on the display boards; airline and airport staff were nowhere to be found, having locked themselves into back room offices to avoid confronting a sea of angry passengers. Fights broke out and the police had to intervene several times to keep the peace.

I was caught up in this melee, along with my wife and 4 children. Our BA flight had been cancelled and we had no way of finding out what to do. Having searched unsuccessfully for a couple of hours to find any information that might help, in desperation I angrily Tweeted BA. Within 5 minutes, BA had Tweeted a response and a brief exchange led to me re-booking for Boxing Day and knowing the course of action to pursue for my insurance claim and to obtain our checked-in baggage.

So, BA had saved the day. However, it may have won the battle, but it hadn’t won the war. While I was relieved at having solved the problem, and quite chuffed at my ‘resourcefulness’ in pressuring BA to respond via Twitter, I didn’t feel better about BA. BA’s rapid answer to my Tweet sat in the context of its complete failure to be proactive in dealing with a crisis that was ruining Christmas for thousands of its customers. Its on-site staff hid and battened down the hatches; there was no information on its website; despite having the email addresses of, I would guess, the vast majority of its customers, it did nothing to update them on the situation or give them the information they needed to address the issue. An isolated customer service ‘success’ with me was a diamond in the tar pit of a massive customer service failure for the bulk of its customers.


Armed with this experience, I knew what to do when BT completely screwed up the installation of business broadband when I moved offices last year. After several fruitless telephone interactions with BT had left me losing the will to live, I pursued the Angry Tweet Option once more. And, again within 5 minutes, I had a named individual who took personal responsibility for solving the problem. Stuart did an excellent job, calling me regularly to update me and energetically pursuing the case to its satisfactory conclusion.

Did such personal, attentive and effective customer service leave me feeling better about BT? Actually, no. And for similar reasons as for the BA example. BT had catastrophically cocked up my order. And Stuart, for all his proactive attentiveness and ultimate effectiveness, could not compensate for the fact that BT’s standard issue ‘customer service’ operatives had eaten up hours of my time being utterly ineffectual. The system was fundamentally unfit for purpose.

My fear is this. Because social media monitoring is such an effective way of picking up customer complaints early and, critically, because it mops up issues that, because they are in the public domain and readily sharable, could quickly escalate if not dealt with urgently, it is swiftly becoming the focus of many business’s customer service provision. But reactive service recovery is not customer service.

I am not, of course, saying that organisations shouldn’t provide highly responsive customer service through Twitter. But what I am saying is that, while social media monitoring is tricky and demanding, it’s actually easier than providing brilliant, proactive customer service in the first place. Reactive social media-driven customer service is just sticking plaster. Admittedly, it’s sometimes sticking plaster with a pretty design that you can show off. But it remains sticking plaster, nonetheless. The fundamental structural, managerial and training issues that gave rise to the problem in the first place still exist.

In fact, it’s worse than that. When a business emphasises reactive social media-driven customer service over the real thing, it runs the risk of engendering greater cynicism and distrust on the part of customers than did the initial service failure. It encourages the perception that the business only ‘cares’ about customer issues when they become public; that, as long as the customer is suffering on their own and social networks don’t know about it, the problem can be relegated; ultimately, that a customer’s problem is only a problem if it goes social.

So, rather than looking smart, modern, efficient and caring, the business, step by tiny step, begins to look a little more cynical, manipulative and insincere.

You can argue that, in a brave new digital world, populated by sophisticated customers who all understand and accept that modern businesses-customer relationships are inevitably framed in a social media context, none of this matters. Sure, some older people who aren’t digitally savvy or au fait with the new order will get left behind, but everyone else will be on board, marching happily into a wittier, more personalised future.

Don’t bet on it. The important stuff is often the hardest. And making brilliant customer service intrinsic to the business, experienced by customers spontaneously at every touch point, is difficult. It’s always tempting to go for the quick solution, to paper over the cracks. But it won’t pay in the long run.

As social media-driven ‘customer service’ becomes the norm, which are the businesses that will stand out? Perhaps it will be those that haven’t forgotten what they are there for: to provide brilliant customer service proactively, as a given, without it having to be demanded by the public, in public.

I for one would rather run a business that was able to trumpet customer Tweets saying “Unbelievable #customerservice from #Movement: @gthebash sorted out a problem I didn’t even know about and gave me a free project. Love ‘em.”, than a Twitter conversation starting “What does it take to get you #bastards at #Movement to sort out my research problem?”

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