Scout Masters

Liz Farrelly talks to the people who define the way you walk, talk, dress, and eat. If you’re still under 35, be warned – someone is watching you

How do you define yourself? By your political persuasion? – after nearly two decades of Conservative rule, is there much point? By sex, race, creed or colour? – this information could be used against you… Or by your age?

Think about it. You adore trainers, so-called alcopops and your Sony PlayStation. Face it, you’re pushing thirtysomething but you’re still a kid. So how old is young? In marketing terminology you’re a “youth” between the ages of 16 and 34. You’re the first generation of Peter Pans who have simply refused to grow up. No need to feel ashamed though because your peer group, the youth market, are the dominant taste-makers who dictate their preferences to consumers from pre-teens to past retirement age. And you’re very good for business! The blurb for MTV Europe’s first youth marketing conference, WORM (Word of Relevant Mouth), held in September last year at the Royal College of Art, spelt it out: “There are 107 million affluent, media-literate young people in Europe today.” The only drawback for marketers is that even though you’ve put responsibility on hold, you’re no pushover. Weaned on TV and advertising, you won’t be patronised with phoney bullshit.

But as far as they’re concerned you are what you eat, drink, smoke, drive, listen to, watch and wear. So stand by your brands. Golden Wonder or Walkers, Coke or Pepsi, people tend to favour one over the other. Alternatively, you may buy stuff because certain products offer the option of self-expression through customisation. Levi’s, Doctor Martens, Adidas and Paul Smith are some of the brands which go beyond being mere labels to become a symbol for a way of life.

If we define ourselves by what we consume, then knowing why particular people make certain choices, and appealing to their aspirations and tastes by talking their language, is a crucial part of the selling game. But trends blossom and die overnight – easy listening may be dead and buried in London, but they’re still grooving away in Norway. Products may be distributed worldwide, but messages have to be tailored to markets which are both local and global. In a word, it’s contradictory.

It’s hardly surprising then that the people who sell us stuff are reconsidering their tactics. Witness a day of youth-oriented overkill at last year’s WORM conference, where Brent Hansen, president and creative director of MTV Europe, promised to reveal to an audience of advertisers and clients “what defines the post-generation, X-generation in Europe today”.

It may simply have been an elaborate ploy, a way for MTV Europe to impress media buyers with how close they are to the proverbial pulse. And it must have gone down well, as they staged WORM 2 earlier this month. What I discovered from both days of multimedia presentations by media wizards, the odd old-fashioned number cruncher and the likes of Malcolm McLaren, was that spying on the young is big and clever business. If you missed WORM, you could have caught Nightwaves in Rimini back in June, Futures in Milan, or a host of others. So, spoilt for choice, I went in search of those in the know, in an attempt to find out how they got there.

Dale Russell trained as a costume designer and has made a career out of people-watching. After establishing the Colour Group, a “directions” talking shop for members of the Chartered Society of Designers, she began advising manufacturers and consultancies on the needs and preferences of consumers. Russell doesn’t restrict her observations to the youth market, “a very derogatory term”, but recognises that a vast swathe of consumers are “seeking identity” through aspiring to youthfulness. “When I was growing up there was a proper way to be a teenager, now they’re non-definable… there aren’t the traditional relationships which you grow in or out of,” she says.

“I’ve always been a voyeur and a magpie. These days I pinpoint trends, realise what exists, find out the rationale behind how and why a product will be used, and recognise needs.” Working with in-house designers for clients such as BT, Rover and Herman Miller, Russell advises on colour, texture, shape and usage, on products ranging from phones and baths to office furniture and cars.

Demonstrating her methods at a CSD event staged in a nightclub, the Leisure Lounge, she treated an audience, predominantly of students, to four screens of choreographed visuals. Focusing on how extremes go mainstream – “underground to overground” – she stressed the importance of visual research to any creative project.

Russell and her helpers had trawled editorial and advertising images, from both current publications and an impressive archive. Then, by referring to previous incarnations of trends, she detected the roots of contemporary fashions, and went on to predict future possibilities. “It’s literally story-telling, I use slides to explain where trends come from and why, and where they’re going. If you watch over a long period you can feel what’s happening.”

And the reason why Russell thinks this knowledge is important? “I believe that being a designer isn’t just about coming up with a product, it’s about coming up with an understanding of needs and preferences, an ethos, or philosophy, for the context around the use of that product.”

From this one-woman outfit based in Cambridge, I moved on to a worldwide network of canny ad people. Magic Hat, set up last year by Simon Aboud and Edward Cotton, is an autonomous off-shoot of McCann Erickson. Aboud, believing that… “consumers are much more complicated than marketing departments want them to be”, threw away the rule book and came up with a riot of new methods for defining and engaging with his targeted youth market. “We educate the client, not by sending out a 400-page report every six months, but by immersing ourselves in situations and media so as to see the way young people look at brands. We do it through the people who are part of Magic Hat, who are young anyway, and bring their experiences to the party.”

On offer are a range of inter-related services. “Trend scouts” in cities around the world compile video diaries and arrange regular sessions with locals to discuss their attitudes on certain issues, while an “A list” of “faces” attend regular “clinics”. The findings of the scouts, staffers and their cohorts are collected in the irregularly published Monthly, a lasered fanzine which doesn’t come cheap. Meanwhile, back at London HQ, they’re busy investigating new media, from the most esoteric garage-publishing to the omnipotent Internet, sponsored compilation CDs, trippy club visuals and “live” advertising.

Presented with a new client, the Magic Hat team develops a strategy working alongside affiliated “partners, not suppliers”. With graphics by Tomato, interior design by Red Jacket and post-production by Digital Domain, the aim is to establish an integrated but credible campaign. Magic Hat’s holistic approach works best for a client thinking in the long-term, cracking new markets, or aiming to reposition a brand – witness its work for Swatch in Russia and Martini in Italy.

With Magic Hat implementing long-term strategies, it’s difficult to judge its success rate. And it seems that, in one quarter at least, scepticism is rife. While clients appear keen on research, the advertising middlemen aren’t convinced. At WORM 2, speaker and advertising guru Tim Delaney emphasised that his agency is intuition-led. But if he doesn’t believe in “methods of analysis”, why was he speaking at a conference dedicated to the topic? A spot of self-promotion, perhaps?

So, can advertising agencies get it right on their own? Dominic Field, account director for Tango at Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury and Partners, explained how he keeps an undoubtedly successful brand fresh in a competitive arena. He’s read the statistics and knows that 16- to 24-year-olds are the largest market for soft drinks, but he’s also sceptical about what he terms “rear-view-mirror research”. “We don’t form a thesis about youth lifestyle and then develop the work and hope the two meet in the middle, because there’s always a time lag. Instead we try a range of different approaches to advertising a product, and see how consumers respond, what surprises them.”

Another option is for the client to dispense with advertising agencies altogether. From graduate trainee at Nestlé to brand manager at Levi’s and now European creative director for seven footwear brands at the Overland Group, Shubhankar Ray develops products, marketing and advertising for, among others, Caterpillar and Travel Fox, both of which he has built into market leaders. He works in collaboration with art director Stephen Male and stylist Simon Foxton, and with creative consultancy Blue Source, who also function as media buyers.

Early in his career, after having witnessed a bunch of suits attempt to sell Kitkats to kids, Ray realised that “youth advertising is patronising, clichéd and formulaic, based on things that are perceived to be cool”. With a shoe designer boss who “went against the grain and opted for a simple work boot as opposed to a white trainer”, the company ethos is all about “giving people freedom”. This is reflected in the Caterpillar ads that feature photographs of “real people” who were asked to model the boots.

But how does Ray know what attitudes are “real”? He travels across Europe and the US, sits in cafés, smoking, drinking and observing. His advice? “Spend less time writing it down and doing presentations and more time observing, it’s fun.” When it’s time to work on a campaign, ideas are discussed, as Male puts it, “for as long as it takes”. But Ray stresses that during the photo-shoot “there’s enough freedom to let it develop, ideas change in the process”. Male, describing his way of working, mirrors Ray’s idiosyncratic methods. “The role of the art director is to bully the client into doing something they didn’t think they wanted to do. In the Travel Fox ads we’re suggesting you can have a good life with the strap line, ‘turn off the television set and go and do something less boring instead’. It’s a fair message, and hopefully, there’s a sense of fun. It’s urging the audience to think, not just consume.” Knowing its audience first hand, the team at Overland is well able to avoid the pitfalls of exploitation.

Ray’s key to knowing his audience is to “be external, take stuff in”, and to varying degrees that’s what Dale Russell, Magic Hat and the Tango crew all do, even though their methods vary. Magic Hat loves its jargon, has impressive statistics at its fingertips and charges fees to match, while HHCL researches its audience’s reaction to finished ads. In general, qualitative research comes out on top over number crunching.

If they share a credo, it’s a simple one. Keep close to the audience for inspiration and feedback, and your message should challenge and surprise. It’s unlikely that their methods will ever replace mainstream market research. But are consumers being better served by these new methods? Or is consumer culture being driven faster and faster by a succession of youthful fads? I’m inclined to believe that if “real” people are being consulted, tailored solutions could create more appropriate products and rid us of crass aspirational attitudes. And the expensive, star-studded conferences? Well, it’s a day out of the office.

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