AdMan: The pitfalls of flattery

Steve Henry, the advertising legend behind “You’ve been Tango’d” and other iconic ads, on why lip service is choking the creative industry

If you want to know the difference between a chimp and a bonobo, you should probably go into a marketing meeting.

You see, bonobos (which look a lot like chimps) have a group structure built around collaboration and general positive intent.

As a friend of mine who studies such things told me recently, bonobos are kind of like hippies.

Except that hippies are usually hairier.

Chimps are much more aggressive. So it won’t surprise you to know that most marketing meetings are full of chimps.

To illustrate this, I can remember going to a series of meetings with one particular client a few years ago. The invariably aggressive tone of the meeting was matched by an inflexible hierarchy - the two things are usually inextricably linked, in my view.

The top guy was always the last to come to the meeting - and in fact wouldn’t leave his office until his PA told him that everybody else was in the meeting room. Having established his superiority in this ridiculous display, he had a flunkey come into the room and pour coffee - but just for him. Everybody else had to bring in their own drinks.

It didn’t matter if you were a CEO or a CCO or anybody else from the C-suite. You were lower in the pecking order than this particular pecker and you had to bring in your own drink.

This guy would then usually respond to any creative presentation by saying “What c*** thought of that ?”  (Yes, he would use the c-word. And no, it wasn’t sweet). Or he might demand “Who’s going to resign for this ?” 

A guy I know got asked this once, and replied quite simply “Well - not me, I don’t work for you”.

This hyper-aggressive CEO was addicted to status.

(He was also addicted to money, once telling the same guy  “London is crap for property, I can’t find a house that’s big enough”.)

And that ego-garbage is responsible for more bad business than anything else, in my opinion.

There was a book which came out recently which suggested that bad decisions in history were often made simply because people’s blood sugar levels were low. I think it’s more likely that terrible decisions are made every day because people’s “Alan Sugar” levels are too high.

Ego and status are the enemies of good thinking. 

To really allow creative thinking to flourish, you need something very different from hierarchies - rigid structures that work well in the army, but then how many great creative ideas have come from the military ?

What I hate is being in a meeting where the top guy says something stupid about a creative idea. It doesn’t matter if he’s misunderstood the idea or if he’s talking complete crap - he’s said it and now his ego is invested in that position…

You can’t just say “you’ve missed the point” - as you could in a meeting of peers. Egos get puffed up and ruffled.

Hierarchy and status are the arthritis of the business world - and flattery is the fuel they run on.

(I’m aware that may be a mixed metaphor.)

Of course, we all love a bit of flattery … just the other day, someone in a meeting told me that I was a legend in advertising. And the gap before I modestly demurred was just long enough to make the point that this was almost certainly a fair evaluation.

But flattery is dangerous. Because it’s tied up with status and ego.

I heard the other day about how Google have brain-storming sessions in which anybody can say anything they like - and in fact everybody is invited to tear new ideas apart.

At first I thought this sounded awful, because I like to work in an atmosphere of support. 

But actually they may be on to something. If you could tell the boss that he’s misunderstood the idea or that he doesn’t understand the first thing about the target market - well that would be great.

Especially as Luke Johnson, the serial entrepreneur, told me a while ago that the average age of boards in the US keeps rising -  as the status-addicts cling onto their fix. 

One company I know is prototyping a new way of working online - so that you join a brainstorming chat room anonymously and you can say whatever you like in it ….

Nothing is perfect. And this latest model would definitely suffer from “troll syndrome” - but what the hell.

It’s got to be better than allowing some CEO to stop fresh thinking just because they’re politically astute or ruthless enough to have wangled some fancy title which they cling onto like an old Labrador with a salivary stick.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and
Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

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