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Shall We Start Talking About Persuasion Again?
We have created complexity where there must be simplicity, says Neil Dawson
I recently re-watched an interview with Bill Bernbach. He’s talking about the impact of Television on the industry. He makes a statement that has stayed with me. 

“…the persuasion part is going to be the same 100 years from now. The person with talent will be able to persuade and the person without talent won’t, no matter what mechanical devices you bring to them.”

I’m no doomsayer about the business today but I do think we have done what we always tell our clients not to do. We have created complexity where there must be simplicity. 

Speed has become the most vital measure today, getting a message out as quickly as possible and at the moment the audience are best disposed to receive it. 

I buy that. But not at the expense of accuracy and the message being less persuasive than it should be.

Persuasion is everything that we do, from the smallest Gif to a Super Bowl commercial to a statue in downtown Manhattan. Whatever we are creating, in whatever medium, there are only three questions that need answering: 

What do we need to persuade people to do or think?

What emotional idea can we think of to persuade them to do or think differently?

What is the most persuasive way of delivering that message?

N.B You may have noticed I’ve snuck the word ‘emotional’ in there. Any idea that is going to persuade needs to touch people emotionally in some way.

One of my favourite examples is for the British Metropolitan (London) Police Force.

The Met were charged by the Government with reducing theft by a significant percentage. I forget the number but it was a specific target. Let’s say 15%.

So that was the business objective. That’s what the agency and client would be judged by.

They came to BMP to work out what SINGLE message they could put out to the public. 

The planners went about their work. They came back with their conclusion: the message should focus on burglary at home. Muggings were too random, Industrial theft was too complex. 

The agency went back to the Met and asked one question, “If homeowners could do one thing to protect their homes, what would it be?”.

“That’s simple!” said the Met. “Install window locks.”

So, out of this a simple brief was born to persuade homeowners to install window locks. 

Over to the creative department. In those days, long before digital, the campaign was scheduled for print, TV and point-of-sale. The creatives came up with an impactful idea for its day. In all media it featured Magpies rather than real intruders. We see the birds, famed for stealing shiny objects, entering through even the smallest of windows. They then fly and flutter around the room stealing in a very unnerving Hitchcockian way. The same static image of Magpies was used in print and crucially point-of-sale at DIY stores.

This persuaded because of its simplicity of message. It persuaded because it was impactful. It persuaded because it had an emotional impact.

The other word in Bernbach’s statement that struck me is ‘talent.’ New technology has given many people the confidence to come forward as Writers or Photographers or Film Makers. This dumbing down of tech is great but as Bernbach says, it’s no substitute for talent. 

Unfortunately in our game it has perpetuated the myth that it is now far easier ‘to be creative.’ 

Having a camera doesn’t make one a Photographer, no more than having a blog makes you a writer. Without the talent, skill and understanding to create something amazing, you are just the same as the rest of us. An amateur. 

My favourite example to demonstrate this is an ad Clive Pickering and I wrote for American Airlines with Jeremy Craigen.  

The brief was a simple one – less seats, more room. A simple, persuasive thought. 

AA had removed over 7000 seats from it’s fleet to give everyone more room.

The idea was simple. Or ‘really dull’ if you believed our MD Ross Barr.

The ad consisted of the discarded seats being reused in a multitude of different ways. In truth, on paper it did sound dull. 
We spoke to several different Directors. And many came back with really good responses. We settled on Fredrick Planchon at Academy. With a combination of art direction, grading, cinematography and music, Fredrick brought the ad to life in a way that few others would.  You need to learn those skills. Or have that talent. That doesn’t come from simply having access to new kit. 

Fredrick made me look at Director’s’ reels in a totally different way from then on. I looked for the difference between a good, solid Director and a Film Maker. Someone who could bring that magic to the screen.

I remember seeing the first cut of the first commercial we created for Philips in 2007. This was a big deal as I’d made some strong promises to my new clients. Fortunately I was working with another Fredric at the time. Bond on this occasion. Sitting at Marshall Street Editors, Tim Thornton–Allen (another legend by the way) hit the play button. It’s difficult for an edit to move someone who has been on the shoot seeing it come together, but they managed it. It was a really touching, truthful story. Several years on it almost brought Eddie Izzard to tears when I shared it with him. 

To persuade takes talent. It takes skill and craft. And it can take time. The best of today’s work is still amazing. Think John Lewis, Under Armour and Loteria de Navidad. But I also see a trend where work hasn’t had the time or craft it needs to make it truly persuasive. 

And that reflects badly on the brand.  

I think clients are starting to realize that speed is taking a toll on the quality of message that’s being put out there. A message that could be far more persuasive if given the time and care. 

As Bernbach said all those years ago. We may now have new and different tools to create a persuasive message but ultimately the task is still the same. 

Neil A Dawson 2017

Neil is GLobal Executive Creative Director at Nissan United, TBWA

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