Bonfire Builders: Mark Earls

This week’s Bonfire Builder is Mark Earls, author of Herd, formerly of St Luke’s, BMP & Ogilvy, and “London advertising scene’s foremost contrarian”… 



What are your thoughts on the social bonfire/advertising fireworks principle of ‘not either/or, but both…’?  A long term proposition, or just a step along the road to something else…

To be honest, I think that you’re right about the need for both, but given human nature I also suspect that there’ll always be more of a need to encourage businesses to do the hard yards of continuous daily interaction.

“Fireworks” seems so much more appealing if you’re in the corner – as does magic, generally – but the real value comes from the daily commitment to the “bonfire” work.  To being open and responsive to the people-what-buy-your-stuff

Equally, I think this plays to the thoughts in my chum John Winsor’s latest book: “Baked In”.  We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that somehow the magic of communication can overcome mediocre product and service delivery. 



Just get the right ad, the right campaign architecture, optimise the spend etc etc… and it’ll be sorted.

The truth is – and always has been, I suspect – that excellent communication can make the best of a bad job but the real value comes from making the job better.

Tesco is a great example here – while advertising has played a role and the strategy is good (though identical to the one that one Safeway received plaudits for in the 90s) the real value is created more in the way they keep on going – working out ways to make things better for the customer.

Bonfire communication enables this kind of approach to business – more two-way, more responsive, more human but much more hard work. By contrast, fireworks communication tends to be prone to the outbound dialling and pointless display!

You speak to a wide variety of folks around the world… who gets it, and who needs to get there quicker?

It’s hard to generalise, but I think in the client community the biggest discriminator is probably those who see making communications as a factory function and those who don’t.

By this I mean those who by dint of volume have had to professionalise and develop processes for communications development.  This tends to embed really unhelpful practices and ideas in the business (like “what’s our message?”) and make it harder to envision other kinds of communication.

It’s also really hard to unpick the vested interests when budgets are huge – large amounts of money makes marketers conservative; they feel the need to not be seen to be p****** it up the wall.

For those who haven’t professionalised communication as a core function of the business, it’s easier to show how the bonfires approach can be embraced without entering the world of sharp suits and flower-arranging. 

Smaller, more entrepreneurial businesses tend to fall into this camp.

I guess the agency model we’ve ended up with doesn’t always help.  I kind of see the purpose of a media agency like PHD being reframed as ‘connecting companies with people’, however that best happens.  It often involves talking to other people in organisations beyond marketing departments though (HR, IT, sales and so on…). 

Is it inevitable that marketing (and agencies) must break out of the ‘mass communications silo’ to take a much more company-wide role?
I suspect you’re right here. Part of the problem for all marketing services businesses is that their ability to create value is often limited by the clients they have – by the marketing clients in particular.

It’s not just creative agencies who come across as florists and astrologers: marketing people are often seen this way by other business functions.

It’s interesting, isn’t it: while marketing’s big ideas are now everywhere (brand, consumer etc), in most organisations marketing is no closer to real leading the company’s activities than it was back in the 1950s and 60s.

One of the central things you talk about in ‘Herd’ is the need to ‘light many fires and see which one(s) take(s)’… 


Media_httpfeedingthep_mghbj’ve you found selling that into marketers who’re used to lighting fast working fireworks?  Any tips?

Boring answer: the place to start is probably by understanding where the marketers are coming from – what the other issues and conversations they are party to which are shaping the context to this particular issue.

Sometimes there’s already a willingness to accept the relative ineffectiveness of past firework activity; sometimes not. Sometimes there’s a willingness to accept the world is complex and inherently unpredictable so you’d better; other times this just scares the bejeezus out of clients.

Find out this kind of stuff and adjust your pitch accordingly.

HERD answer: seeing what other companies are doing always helps. Particularly successful ones.

Finally, what do you foresee in the future for the bonfires and fireworks?

I rather suspect that the future for fireworks advertising is going to be rather less rosy than many imagine.

Of course, we’ll need these gunpowder-fuelled punctuation marks (and shows of corporate virility) but increasingly a combination of the bonfires model and the Baked-In idea (making things better and making better things) are going to prevail.

Less glamorous but rather more valuable to our clients – and for those agencies who do it well, too.