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The imperative of not being earnest

Phil Adams is planning director at Cello Signal. Follow him on Twitter @Phil_Adams

I had a client once who was an earnest young chap. He was so earnest that, unbeknownst to him, his nickname at the agency was Shackleton. He was earnest beyond his years, prematurely earnest, a young urban professional fogey.

One day whilst crossing the car park en route to a meeting, we paused at his 3 Series BMW for him to retrieve his briefcase from the boot. It was like he had done a supermarket sweep at the City Airport branch of Waterstones. There were a dozen hard back management bestsellers in there, enough populist business school titillation for a good year of intellectual onanism.

I don’t have any issue with someone showing an interest and reading around their subject. But the trouble with intellectual onanism is that it can make you blind to what really matters. A thirst for knowledge combined with a lack of experience is a dangerous combination. You run the risk of outsourcing your world view. And when you do that you quickly end up outsourcing your opinion on everything.

You also become prone to over-analysis, which is the arch enemy of creativity. Strategic rigour is all well and good but the best creative strategy is simple and profound. The same applies to the best advertising ideas. Over-analysis is a parasite on creativity, not a catalyst for it. Beware the earnest young brand manager.

I’ll say it before you do. Earnestness is not the sole preserve of the client community. There are plenty of earnest young things in agencies too. I think it’s a phase. Professional puberty. Those horrible, awkward years when your career experiences growing pains. The desperate quest to be taken seriously causes you to take everything too seriously, including yourself. Your always-on quest to demonstrate how clever you are makes you a nuisance at conferences. Regurgitating third party theory without any original insight or interpretation makes you a bore.

Marketing careers have their own version of the Gartner Hype Cycle. What follows is written with brand managers in mind, but there is a similar pattern for us agency folk. I was a ridiculously evangelical account manager once upon a time, or a sucker for every brand I worked on as my wife was never slow to point out.

So let’s start with the Peak of Ridiculous Evangelism. Your professional life is a Lego Movie; everything is awesome. The brands you work on are simply the bestest thing ever. You throw yourself into the tedious minutiae of brand management with the boundless, unquestioning enthusiasm of a Stepford Labrador puppy. You are the victim of a self-inflicted perspective lobotomy. You are incapable of audience empathy and you only entertain the most rose-tinted of brand insights. Nothing else computes. You are a monomaniac. Your lack of perspective makes it unlikely that you have much to offer by way of creative strategy. But your naive fervour means that you will pledge your undying support to an idea if it is deemed to be worthy of your precious brand. It’s a great idea. Just grab it and run Forrest run.

There follows the descent into the Trough of Premature Earnestness (see above). Good ideas die the death of a thousand over-analytical questions. Your target audience descriptions bear little resemblance to the people who actually buy your products, but they have a lot in common with the person you wish you had been (a sporting 2.2 from a Russell Group university at which they (you) played drums in a half-decent indie band following a gap year in South America). You write open letters, which is a horrible way to misspend your youth. This is your career nadir. The only way is up from here.

You climb out of this abyss via the Slope of Blind Ambition. You emerge from the damp, chilly gloom of your earnestness, blinking as your eyes adjust to the piercing light of your newfound focus and drive. This is less of a slope and more of a career ladder. The game of corporate life. It is the time to put away foolish things. You are more of a business person than a brand person. Tactical short term sideways moves to broaden your experience with a view to long term advancement. You keep your nose clean. You distance yourself from failure. You make yourself synonymous with success. Your agency knows that its job is to make you look good, which might, if they are lucky, be by way of a great advertisement or a famous and fame-making new campaign.

If you are one of chosen few you reach the Plateau of Secure Graciousness. You were selected (naturally) to enjoy your golden years in these sunny uplands. You were the fittest and you survived. Now you thrive. You bask. You are so moneyed super-achiever. You have nothing to prove. You can embrace and espouse naive intelligence. You are secure and gracious and bestow credit where credit is due. Far from feeling threatened, you enjoy and embrace the alternative perspective of your trusted agency advisers on matters of business context and on strategic issues which lie upstream of marketing and advertising.

As we agency types stumble along our own version of this undulating and sometimes undignified path, it is possible to do great work with our client peers at any stage of the cycle. But the associated challenges and the likelihood of achieving greatness both vary considerably.

Of the four brand management tempers – evangelism, earnestness, ambition, graciousness – I would say that earnestness is the most dispiriting. It is a passion killer. It kills the passion of ridiculous evangelism and it temporarily kills the creative soul.

May your trough be shallow and narrow.

Phil Adams is planning director at Cello Signal. He can be found tweeting here

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