How not to think: the new book that shows the secrets to making brilliant work

Les Binet and Sarah Carter's latest work, How Not to Plan - 66 Ways to Screw It Up, reminds us of the important universal truths that marketers forget at their peril.

This summer, just as the nation was starting to have a heatwave-induced collective breakdown, something rather strange happened.  

No, not England making it to the semi-finals. A book was launched: How Not to Plan – 66 Ways to Screw It Up, by Les Binet and Sarah Carter in partnership with the APG.  

Now, I can understand if you’re now feeling mildly underwhelmed. Most business books are tedious. And the ones on marketing are typically full of nonsense. But I’d urge you to suspend your cynicism. Quite simply, these are the most important and inspiring 300 pages you’re likely to read in the next 12 months.

Like a lot of brilliant things, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense here. After all, on the face of it, it’s a technical manual for strategists, organised around nine chapters in the planning cycle. So you might think it’s a bit dry or niche.

Yet, what’s brilliant is that it’s exactly the opposite. Born from real client conversations, this is a tour de force calling out all the myths, misunderstandings and nonsense that gets in the way of doing our jobs well. The stuff that leads to strategic drift, barking-mad briefs and bad creative, that sends us scurrying down rabbit holes and into the arms of mediocrity.

Instead, the book reminds us of the important universal truths. Truths that we – and marketers – often forget at our peril.

Such as falling into the trap of "macho" marketing language. All too often, we agree briefs talking about "transforming" a category or leapfrogging a competitor, but hardly ever about nudging or reassuring. Yet the reality is we rarely convert from one brand to another in a Damascene way. As Andrew Ehrenberg puts it: "Your customers are the customers of other brands who occasionally buy you." The best we can realistically hope for is strengthening a weak loyalty of habit.

Or the persistent belief some clients have that they can defy marketing gravity, spending ever less but hoping for better results. Yet data shows us that, no matter how thorough your objectives or good your creative work, a campaign simply can’t deliver unless it reaches enough people. There is no substitute for spend.

Or reminding us that we forget the main reason people choose brands is so that they don’t have to think; brands offer mental shortcuts that make purchase decisions easier. These are shortcuts that science shows are guided by gut intuition and emotions, not logic – yet we still waste far too much time thinking about rational propositions.

Or highlighting that, when it comes to creative, it’s sensible not to make sense. It didn’t "make sense" for Cadbury to sell chocolate with a drumming gorilla or for Aleksandr Orlov to have a Russian accent. Yet those kinds of meaningless distinctiveness are exactly the details that give brands a competitive edge. So we should all focus less on trying to say something different and much more on the tiny executional details that help us say something differently.

Or reminding us that, in reality, our competition isn’t other brands; it’s being relevant to people's lives and the things that matter to them – their hopes, fears, families, friends and celeb gossip.

In short, it’s just the sort of thing the industry needs – a riot of rare smarts that tells you exactly what goes into making brilliant work. Do yourself a favour – don’t just read it or give it to your strategy team. Give it to your client. Chances are you’ll create something brilliant.

Dom Boyd is chief strategy officer at Publicis London

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