Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part One)

When I first published my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in 2006,  two of the first people to respond publicly to the book — Faris Yakob (then with the London-based Naked Communications group) and Grant McCracken (ethnographer, media consultant, cultural analyst) — came from the world of branding and advertising. I wrote about their perspectives on transmedia branding here at the time (see also Part Two) and I’ve continued to maintain an ongoing correspondence with both of them through the years. They have both had a huge impact on how I think about the world of contemporary advertising practice.

For those of you who know advertising in terms of Mad Men (or before that, Hidden Persuaders), you may be surprised to discover that the advertising industry has produced its own theorists or as Yakob prefers, philosophers, who are helping to think through the ways branding operates in a changing media landscape.  My experience with these thinly ad-men shaped my controversial choice to publish Spreadable Media, which is probably being taught today more often in branding and business courses than in media and communication classes. And I now find myself teaching occasional courses through the Strategic Communication Program at Annenberg and drawing insights from Yakob, McCracken, Robert Kozinets, Budd Caddell, Sam Ford, and many others.

These advertising and public relations gurus are asking hard questions about the future of media, about the value of historic branding practices, about the emancipation of the spectator and the emergence of participatory culture, and much more. And they are writing about such questions for a general readership and thus may have a greater impact on how the public understands these media changes than anything academics are producing.nGranted, they often start from a different vantage point, embedded as it were in the corporate world, but they have also often been ready to question their own values and interrogate their goals in a way that has been fascinating to watch.

When I learned that Yakob has a new book coming out this spring —Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, I asked if he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts via an interview for my blog.  Some of what he shares here may rattle some of your preconceptions; some of it will give you insights into the philosophy behind contemporary branding practices; all of it is thoughtful and engaging. So, this…

You note early in the book that you have been characterized as an “advertising philosopher.” What does that phrase mean to you? What do you see as the value of theory — or philosophy — in the advertising world? 

Advertising is an amateur “profession” – there are no required qualifications to enter the industry, you learn on the job. One of the ramifications of that is that you see a remarkable amount of money spent on what are essentially hunches and bodies of folklore. This is also one of the reasons there are so many vigorous debates in advertising – some of which revolve around seemingly fundamental concepts. So, I’ve always looked to build on a body of theory, academic or otherwise, to provide a foundation for praxis. The role of the “planner” in advertising traditionally includes the responsibility to “make the work, work”. Without understanding how things work, how can we possibly aim to do them well, or make them better?

So an advertising philosopher – self aggrandizing appropriation of an intended insult though it is – looks to build a body of knowledge about how things have worked that we can learn from, together.

On the job training can be excellent for learning how to make advertising, but isn’t very good for learning why, or indeed when, to.

Perhaps we can open this up broader — many of my readers would be interested to know what you see as the potential value of humanistic education for those entering your industry? Grant McCracken has gone so far as to argue that companies should hire a Chief Cultural Officer who helps them to understand how their brands and products relate to the process of cultural change. How would you respond to that idea?

In the UK, advertising was one of the natural homes of those with humanities degrees, alongside journalism, publishing and so on. Advertising obviously deals in relevant concepts, from basic literacy, through semiotics, cultural studies, art, art history, sociology. I like Grant’s book, and a ‘companion’ text by Holt and Cameron called Cultural Strategy. Cultural understanding is a key part of what makes work relevant for a certain time and place. So I see great value in it.

In fact, this is one of the big differences in academia in the UK and USA. Educations in the UK, at least in my experience and I think until today, are aggressively NOT vocational. There is a classist taint to this – the old, red brick [IVY] universities wouldn’t dream of offering vocational courses. This means that big companies have structured robust training programs because an Oxford or Cambridge graduate will definitely not have had any business instruction.

In the USA, there is more of a focus on vocationally learning, even more so now due to the cost of university which makes it sadly a business decisions about lifetime earning impact. And there are post graduate advertising schools, which don’t really exist in the UK as such, to prepare graduates for the jobs.

No doubt some combination of both academic and business acumen is helpful, so I’m a big fan of humanities degrees, perhaps more so because it’s a time to think, not just to sharpen a resume.

Let’s start with some basic vocabulary here. You offer your own definition of brands in the book: “A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers.” Can you break that down for us a bit more? What relationship are you positing here between brands and meaning-making? What stress are you placing here on the role of the consumer in creating or identifying the meaning of a brand? Why is this meaning described here as collective rather than personal or idiosyncratic?

The language we use defines, delineates, codifies captures. The brand idea is a newish one, and you see it sort of evolve along literary criticism lines, from utterance through symbolism to reader response. The big shift in mindset from the 1990s onwards was the acceptance of the role of the audience, the customer, the user, in creating meaning [something that art and literature worlds had considered for a long time.]

So the idea of a brand as distinguishing mark evolved to the engram model – the idea that a brand was a network of associations in the mind of a customer or prospect that gave a product or business some kind of “position” – cognitively, and in the marketplace. This is the idea at the heart of brands – based on the key insight that led to evolution of the strategy discipline: humans naturally anthropomorphize everything, including products they buy. The role of advertising then was understood to be building specific personality associations in and around products and experiences in a more structured way.

My small build was part of an argument designed to connect this conception of brand that marketing people were using to the financial equivalent that CEOs and CFOs look to – that of goodwill that generates financial returns, price premiums and so on.

A brand cannot be exclusively inside a consumer’s mind – it is inherently socially constructed, otherwise it doesn’t have meanings that can be leveraged commercially. A personal meaning only works in relation to cultural meaning, or set of meanings, so meaning itself is also somehow emergent.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: www.farisyakob.com. For more information on Genius Steals head to www.geniussteals.co

Comments

  1. Marcus Kirsch says:

    As much as I am happy to hear someone finally theorising on contemporary advertising and the current digital culture, I cannot help to keep being amazed how much advertising as an industry has been failing to look out of the window and realise how the real world actually works. For someone, who has strategists, creatives and research, its amazingly failing to even have their own employees keep being humans and using common sense, the second the enter the agency building in the morning.