The ‘Big Idea’, ‘Originality’, ‘Engagement’, ‘Content’, ‘Storytelling’,  ‘Selfies’ are just a few words, that some may argue, enslave our thinking.

Do they help us be better marketers or do they restrict us? And do we even understand the meanings?

Head Words

Like an episode from Mad Men, the cliché´of throwing in the latest buzz word to look like you are up with the current trends is all too easy to do and it’s all too easy to be fooled into a false sense of security.

If there’s one group of people who are dedicated followers of fad fashions, it’s clients.  Fearful they may be left behind, and their bosses will sack them if they do, many will jump on the latest bandwagon, irrespective of value or evidence of effectiveness.

A great opportunity for those less ethical, “Take the suckers for all you can get, as one agency head I know says.

Everyone’s into selfies at the moment from the Mr Tom posters to the recent cancer campaign (which has been a massive success).

I keep hearing mutterings about iBeacon’s, which is usually followed by, “What exactly is it?”  Which after a lengthy explanation (usually pointing out it’s expensive and unpopular with consumers) is followed by “We’ll pass… so what’s NFC and Proximity Marketing all about?”


I recall a well known drinks brand calling up one day and asking if we could do an App for them. “Sure,” I replied, “what’s the brief?” There was a short silence…”We’re not sure, but we do know we need an app as everyone else has one.” A week later they were asking about ER (I think he meant AR).

Remember Podcasts? Every marketing director wanted one once, now you can’t give them away to clients, they are just history in the marketing timescape.

Then everyone wanted a viral, except 99.9% of virals died before they viralled (I think I just invented a word here, but why not, there’s another dozen being invented every week).

Big Data (an excuse to charge companies big money for making a mountain out of a mole hill of data), Behavioural Economics (a fancy title for consumer psychology) and Ergopsychonomics (how people interact with technology) can make even the dumbest person sound smart if dropped in at the right point in a conversation.

Yep, keeping up with the John Lewis’ means you need to know your stuff, or appear to. Forget pragmatism, or common sense (which is rarely common as Charles Handy points out) as you boss knows no better it’s easy to baffle him with jargon and look good.

Of course technology fads aren’t the only buzz words running around client’s meeting rooms, in adland words are key to the way we think.



Many years ago I did a project with D&AD asking different creative disciples, from advertising to architects, designers to film makes, what the word ‘idea’ meant to them. Some looked blank, “I’m a designer, I deal in colour, graphics and imagery, not ideas,” commented a fabric designer. For almost all other areas it had a different meaning, and if there was one thing we could all agree on, it was that we couldn’t agree on what the term ‘idea’ actually meant.

I’ve been told that the term ‘idea’ was originally created by account handlers at Saatchi’s in the 70s to be able to rationlise the mindless scribblings of creatives into a neat packaged up way. Probably another adland myth.



Choice’ was the word that appeared in the box on the brief marked ‘one word that sums up what we are selling. It could have been ‘freedom’ or ‘variety’ but the planner picked choice. He sighed a breath of relief at having done his job, ticked the box and now he could send the brief into the creative department.

The creative team spent days thinking about ways to illustrate choice. Finally they came up with a dramatization of choice and presented the scamp. To cut a long story short, it went through about 7 variations as each client involved said it wasn’t right, but as is often the case, couldn’t explain why. Surely we can all agree on a brief that distills the proposition into one word? Appears not.

The one word brief was a disaster as an approach. Novel but useless as it fails to understand the psychology of how we think. Why? Because no one had challenged what choice meant. Especially to the consumer. Let me explain…


No matter what word you use we all have our own association with it. Take ‘love. You may think of your beautiful partner, or the love of nature. Others may think of football, a guitar, a holiday, a recent experience. Some may associate it with negative feelings.

I conducted an exercise with a telecoms client who did exactly the kind of brief mentioned above. This is an old technique and one I recommend all planners/account handlers use.

Don’t try this at home but in the office.  Ask 7 people (include your clients) to write down 7 words they associate with the word ‘choice. You can use any word, the default word for workshops to demonstrate how we all have different associations is actually ‘love.

You will be surprise how few words are shared by the seven – usually only two. Typically, you’ll get over 30. The reason is that we all have our own personal portfolio of associations in our head. And our feelings about a word can be very different, some like choice, others fear it – having the biggest choice of used cars can scare a lot of people off, but for some it’s a wonderland.

So the next time you sign off a strapline or a headline, ask yourself if everyone agrees what the key words mean.


Here’s another word that is very over rated, Hegarty says in his little yellow book, “There is no such thing as originality.”  He makes a valid point that most creativity is evolutional, and based on what has gone before. We are not without influence and by nature combine, change, distort, adapt and mash up (there’s another buzz phrase) ideas from a variety of sources. Juts like musicians and writers do. When we talk about originality we are really referring to freshness, finding a different angle. And to keep things in perspective, we are admen (applying creativity to marketing needs) not pure artists.


Today everything has to be ‘engaging’, well that’s common sense because if a piece of communications isn’t it’s going to be ignored. But in reality, it’s not a new term, it was being used back in Victoria times. I remember reading in a copy of Kelly’s Directory (about 1890) advice for advertisers, “The key to a good ad is not to make your name or address the most dominant feature but your offer. However, the offer needs to be engaging. Once engaged the reader will seek out the who and where.

“It’s all about content, people want to read stories”.  Now I’m a great believer in ‘advertainment (even I use jargon) but unless it’s brilliant it won’t work. And there lies the challenge, it’s not about creating stories but amazing stories that you must read and the problem is, brands are crap at it. There’s a dreadful campaign at the moment on pre-roll with women telling stories… yawn! Why would I watch that when I can watch something more interesting like SoulPancake?


There’s a word that now has a thousand meanings, it’s certainly true that one brand’s ethics is not another’s. I am amazed how some brands claim to be ethical yet can’t see that doing good in one area does not offset the bad they do in others.

One weapons company made a claim that their weapons were more environmentally friendly because they contained less lead. Or a toothpaste that was fluoride free and as a consequence added to tooth decay. Or the all in one organic, GM free nutritional drink that encouraged people to eat badly.


The conclusion is that before we use words we should try and really understand what they mean and especially what they mean to others. Not to be a dumb slaves to trends and think throwing jargon around makes us look good at our job. And if you’re going to jump on a bandwagon at least make it the best it could ever be.