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Consumer Behaviour Agencies Internet of Things

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was creating advocates (and why he hates marketing communications)

By Amy Kean, head of futures

April 11, 2016 | 6 min read

There’s certain things we know to be true. The devil wears Prada, for example. He or she lives in hell, in and amongst the fiery pits. And a further undisputed fact is that the devil really, really doesn’t like the world of marketing communications.

We all know the feeling. As a strategist, planner or creative you’re used to brainstorms being unexpectedly derailed by lists of all the things that could possibly go wrong. “Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here” someone will say. And in the same way that “no offence, but…” actually means that you’re about to have your self-esteem ripped apart, “um…. Just to play devil’s advocate here…” is a signal that ‘the devil’ has already won, and you should probably end the meeting now.

In marketing, the devil’s advocate can be the death of some of the most innovative concepts. Famously, the first ever personal computer, created by Simon Wozniak, was rejected by HP five times because the company just couldn’t see the need. And don’t forget that such controversial theories as ‘the world is round’, ‘diseases are spread by germs’ and the concept of evolution were originally shot down, devil-style for being too far-fetched or outside the narrative of popular culture.

Which is why an ad on Craigslist recently sang to me, seeking out individuals to apply for the position of ‘devil’s advocate’, joining a fictional training programme that… well… ruins everything.

“We are looking for qualified and enthusiastic candidates who are interested in our highly specialized Opp-roach program which will train you to become the loud voice in the room that is never required.”

What the ad – which inevitably went viral – does is acknowledge that playing devil’s advocate is seen as a perfectly acceptable way to interact in creative or meaningful environments. That there is in fact social or professional kudos attached to negating new stuff, based on little but feelings and a lack of time to ponder.

From an evolutionary perspective, being negative can actually increase our chances of survival. And avoiding risks, maintaining healthy, consistent emotional levels and hiding at the first sign of an unfamiliar situation were probably a great help on the savannah when death by beast was far more likely.

But more modern studies show that this can also have a negative impact on the receiver – in psychological terms, applying unexpected criticism can lessen emotional connection, damage confidence and in extremes creates a culture of fear. According to the Center for Advanced Research for businesses to flourish, you need a positive to negative ratio of 2.9:1.

Every agency or media organisation has ideation techniques that are designed to get the best out of people, but we also need techniques to critique great ideas, too, rather than relying on a simple like or dislike.

Spot the smart bit: unless your colleague is proposing genocide or going streaking through the office at midday, then there’s likely to be something worth saving about any idea. Whether it’s an insight, a potential partner, a quirk or just a brand new way of looking at a problem, if you try to spot the smart bit you’ll not only have something to build on but you’ll make the person that suggested it feel a bit better about themselves, too. Some companies even insist the words ‘no, but’ be banned and replaced with ‘yes, and’ in any kind of creative meeting.

Have a devil’s advocate meeting: there are a number of brands and agencies who have dedicated feedback and evaluation models in place that prevent this devil’s advocate mentality (I know because I work with some). What the most mature teams will do is have meetings specifically designed to highlight problems and concerns, where everybody is aligned on and prepared for that purpose. New concepts are met with questions, and then time is allcoated to consider the content. Being prepared for a meeting emotionally is often just as important as being prepared mentally.

Testing versus assuming: this is the most important bit – assumption is the best friend of the devil’s advocate. At Mindshare APAC we just released a study on global consumer attitudes towards connecting living and the internet of things. As an insight and data-first agency network, it’s important to see what real people think before we venture opinions about what may or may not work. Among all the hyperbole and assumptions about connected cars, talking fridges and digital toothbrushes we’ve passed the point of our own hypotheses and need substance behind our thinking.

What we found was that APAC consumers are twice as likely than the global average to be excited about the prospect of connected living – especially in markets such as China, India and Malaysia. With just one study we can silence the sceptics, and provide a source of data that now underpina ideation and planning sessions moving forwards. “I don’t think people will like it” is replaced with “what the data says is….” making for more productive and informed discussions.

Smart companies have invested in products that get them better (not necessarily bigger) data. Shopper data, life tracking data, even dark social data that can get us closer to real, fast-moving feedback. In many cases this data can replace the role of the devil’s advocates and promote a more progressive work environment.

It’s easy to believe that your job involves primarily challenging people. To find barriers to change, reasons why tried and tested is best and extol the virtues of ‘not now’. But next time sometime shares a suggestion and you mentally start to list all the ways you don’t like it, think how amazing it would be if that one idea paid off and became the next ‘personal computer’. And put that cheeky devil back in a box where he belongs.

Amy Kean is strategy lead for Mindshare APAC. She tweets @keano81

Consumer Behaviour Agencies Internet of Things

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