“the purpose-idea”: ten questions for mark earls

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If had to pick the two or three business books that have “changed my life” in the last couple of years, Mark Earls’ “Welcome To The Creative Age” would be on the list, without question. Recently he also published his second book, “Herd”, which picks up where “Creative Age” left off.
In order to turn more people onto his work, I prepared for him ten questions, which like Seth Godin before him, he kindly agreed to answer below. Rock on.

Ten Questions For Mark Earls
1. I remember “Creative Age” sending shockwaves through the British advertising establishment when it first came out in the early 2000′s. You basically came out of nowhere and declared that marketing and branding, at least how we generally defined it back then in the advertising world, was dead. That it was intellectually bankrupt. Care to elaborate?
Thinking back now it must seem a bit odd – a bit presumptious, maybe – to make this kind of dramatic declaration. But remember this was a turbulent period – Fukuyama was declaring the end of history, ideology etc etc. And there was a fresh feeling in the air in Britain – the arrival of a New Labour government after more than a decade in the wilderness felt to many of us like the passing of a baton from one generation to the next. I was having the time of my life working in the crazy creative co-operative St Luke’s, where we were pushing the idea of “What it is to be a creative business” to the limit, and then finding that there were no limits (Apart from ourselves, as it turned out).
Part of my thinking was shaped by all of this contextual stuff, but I think the most important thing was the realisation that the cluster of ideas we sold as “marketing” was basically the product of a particular time and place (they bear the cultural and intellectual imprint of mid-Century, Midwest United States) and not some collection of eternal and irreducible truths (like the laws of Maths, say). This – and my day-to-day experience trying to use these old ideas to shape creative communications and behaviours that really work – led me to work out what was wrong AND offer something that better reflected what we’ve learned about humans, business and creativity over the last half-century.
2. You were the first person to make me actually ask the question, “When I say ‘Brand’, or ‘Branding’, what do I actually mean by that? Do brands actually exist as we say they do, or are they just a mental construct to make us advertising types sound more clever in client meetings?”
So here’s Mark Earls, this highly respected British brand guru, getting paid lots of money to better articulate the idea of ‘The Brand’, and suddenly you’re telling your clients, “Hey, you know all that clever ‘Brand’ stuff you’ve been paying my agency lots of money for? It’s actually all a load of crap.”
So I’ll ask you the same question your clients undoubtedly asked you: “Why is it crap?”

Let’s start with the good stuff about “Brand”: it’s clearly a popular idea, it’s spread far and wide into politics and self-help books. It’s useful, in that it allows us to talk about the cluster of stuff that floats around reputation and perception and so on. It looks like we can measure it because it’s something that seems like folk out there in Consumerland can talk about.
So what’s wrong with it: well, first of all “Brand” is a metaphor. It’s not a thing, even though we talk about it as if it were: it’s a way of talking as if.
Second, it’s a fat-metaphor: there is no agreed definition, so we can use it to mean just about anything we want – to pre- or proscribe whatever we want. Most brand conversations need an agreed set of definitions or…
Third, “Brand” is what you get as a result of doing great , not a good guide to what to do – it’s the scoreboard, not the game.
Fourth, “Brand” is a distraction from the main game, which is doing great stuff for customers and staff (“baking it in”, as for example the Zeus Jones go on about). P***ing about in Brandland is a good excuse not to really get to grips with the stuff you need to get to grips with, and it tends to lead you off into “communications” rather than actually doing something.
Fifth, “Brand” perpetuates the myths we like to hold tight to, about the power of marketing and communication – sometimes when you hear brand folk talk, they seem to imagine they are sorcerers and magicians, weaving binding spells and illusions. More often than not, they like to use military metaphors. The truth of course is that mostly were neither of these things and have a marginal effect at best.
3. Then after you convinced your friends and colleagues [some of them, anyway] that all this was ‘crap’, the first thing they would’ve asked you is, “Well, OK, so what else ya got? What comes next?”
And your answer turned out to be a big one. A VERY big one, Indeed: “The Purpose-Idea”. I’ve told a LOT of people about the P-I over the years, since first discovering it in “Creative Age”. This time, I think we’d all rather get it from the horse’s mouth. Please explain the P-I to us mere mortals. Thanks.

Put really simply, the Purpose-Idea is the “What For?” of a business, or any kind of community. What exists to change (or protect) in the world, why employees get out of bed in the morning, what difference the business seeks to make on behalf of customers and employees and everyone else? BTW this is not “mission, vision, values” territory – it’s about real drives, passions and beliefs. The stuff that men in suits tend to get embarrassed about because it’s personal. But it’s the stuff that makes the difference between success and failure, because this kind of stuff brings folk together in all aspects of human life.
4. I like The P-I. Explaining it to people pretty much has made paying all my bills a lot easier in the the last few years. The Blue Monster was a P-I. When you see a real P-I working in action, it cuts through the clutter and ignites passion in a way that, for the money, your standard “Here’s why you should buy my product” message simply cannot compete with. In spite of this, I see people in the business resist it. Something about it that scares them. What do you think that might be?
Like I say, I think it embarrasses the grown-ups: a lot of folk think business is some separate rational sphere of activity, in which maths, analytics and rational thinking prevail (whether it’s in customers’ or employees’ minds). P-I makes things personal – makes you put your balls on the line. It cuts through the crap of “strategy” and all that pseudoscience that we hide behind.
5. One thing that makes your work so compelling, I believe, is that you have a lot of conversations with people who are NOT in the advertising world, but instead inside the world of academia. You also seem to devour books on social and behavioral sciences. Did these interests predate your advertising career, or did it develop on the job?
I’ve always been interested in how things (really) work but my job has allowed me to indulge that more and more. Over the years, my curiosity has led me talk to folk who don’t have an axe to grind or a vested interest in marketing’s explanations of how things work. So, for example, recently I’ve been working with a great guy, Alex Bentley, who’s an academic anthropologist who specialises in how ideas and behaviours spread through populations. If it works for stone age pottery styles, 21st popular music, dog breeds, charitable giving and marketing jargon – all things that marketing folks’ models can’t or haven’t bothered to do the math for, I think his explanation of how things spread is a pretty good explanation and should serve as a great place to start. If it is also grounded in the consensus in modern behavioural and cognitive sciences about human beings, well again so much the better.
I’ve been surprised how rarely folk do this – looking broadly across other disciplines. At best we take sliver of some experiment we read about in Scientific American Mind, say and force the new thing to support our old ideas. The snake oil salesmen of the so-called “neuromarketing” are one example; the whole “influentials” word of mouth gig is another. On the one hand, it’s a shame; on the other, it allows me to make a good living!
6. Back in the early days of marketing and advertising blogging, it seems that me and my fellow bloggers were taking great and constant delight in declaring that “Ad agencies are dead”. Five or six years later, and they’re still with us. Have they evolved, or are they just living on borrowed time?
Living on borrowed time. Their economic models are screwed. The one thing you read on the faces of the guys (and it is mostly the guys) who run them is “Not on my watch”: They know that a major discontinuity is coming, they know we’re all going over the cliff, and that it’s all going to be different the other side but they just hope to have paid off the school and college fees before then. They’ve done pretty well to hedge all of this with a bit of digital tinkering but frankly they’re too slow, too fat and not set up to embrace what’s next (Which isn’t about messages btw).
7. In “Creative Age”, you destroyed a very sacred cow of the agency world, The Brand. With your second book, “Herd”, you successfully went after an equally massive agency sacred cow: The Idea of Consumer as “Heroic Individual” [Embodied by cultural icons like The Marlboro Man, or the existential athlete wearing Nike's]. Your message seemed to be, actually guys, we’re social animals. We’re social primates; we behave more like chimps and gorillas, more than we behave like lone, cigarette-smoking cowboys. Care to explain the idea further?
Again to simplify: Human beings are to independent action, what cats are to swimming. We can do it if we really have to, but mostly we don’t… Instead, we do what we do because of what those around us are doing (Whatever our minds and our cultures tell us).
So if you want to change what I’m doing, don’t try to persuade me- don’t try to make me- do anything. Instead, enlist the help of my friends…
But not crudely (as in “Recommendation”). That’s just persuasion by another name: another “Push” tactic. I’m convinced the answer lies in creating “Pull” (i.e. Social) forces.
8. Getting to know you over the years, it seems a big part of your schpiel is telling people, namely, people who work for companies, that actually, you know, businesses aren’t machines. Homo Economicus doesn’t actually exist. Actually, companies are the same they’ve always been: Human being collected together for a shared purpose. And until you start recognizing your company’s own humanity, you’re just making it a lot harder than it needs to be. That would be an easy sell to me or the average gapingvoid reader. But how hard is it to sell into a large company, one that’s been doing the same old things for years? Do you feel you’re pushing a boulder uphill, or do you find people pretty receptive to your new way of thinking?
It depends. Sometimes – when times are tough – folk will bite your arm off for anything new. At others, it’s no-change-whatever. Other folk do things the reverse i.e Good times = Experiment!
Also, I try to remember that- as I tell them about their own attempts to influence their customers- I can’t make anyone do anything. They do what they do because of their peers.
In this context, it’s worth pointing out how the world has moved since I started talking HERD. I was on the freakier end of things in 2001-2; now, I’m mainstream enough that young adfolk are forced by The IPA (the British equivalent of AAAA) to study my work. Weird.
9. You and I have both left the ad agency world, me to become a cartoonist, you to become a consultant. That being said, the agency world still exists, it’s still making money, and we still have some dear friends still in the business, who we’d still like to see do well. From what you’ve learned from the ever-changing world we both seem to be living in, what advice would you give our agency friends? What can agency folk do to create value for their clients, in spite of so many advertising and branding sacred cows already having been turned into hamburger meat?
Start making things (rather than communication – communication is not the answer, in fact it’s an excuse).
AND
Work out – like the dudes at Anomaly and Another Anomaly – how to make money from making things.
Also…
Work out how you can make the kind of places that you or I, or the people who clients really value, want to work.
10. Ok, Mr Purpose-Idea Grand Ninja, if somebody asked you what was YOUR OWN, individual P-I, how would you answer them? Just curious.
Helping us all do better stuff by making sure our thinking is straighter.
You see, I don’t have the answers (and even if I did, it’d be pointless telling the world). But I can make you think a bit harder about stuff – I can help you throw away the useless stuff, the stuff you don’t need anymore.
[You can also follow Mark on Twitter here.]

 

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