How Planning Skills Can Save The World For Fun And Profit



Brian recently won the Bronze Admap prize for his piece on how transactions aimed at creating wealth for brands can have a secondary consequence in putting something back into society. These consequences can be magnified by harnessing the will of the populace – the commons.

In the 1880s Abram Lyle was just another Quaker steampunk industrialist with big sideburns and a top hat. He was a thrifty and religious Scot who looked after his workers and his pennies. Lyle’s company sold sugar, and there was one thing that drove him mad about the process: waste. After the sugar canes had been refined, his workers had to pour the gloopy leftover crud into the river. Not only did this pollute the Thames – the crud actually didn’t taste bad. So Abram invented a barrel that filtered the sticky by-product of his sugar refinery. Instead of pouring it away, he started to sell it to his workforce at cost. Word got out about ‘Goldy’, the delicious stuff brought home by Lyle’s staff. Never one to miss an opportunity, the canny Scot tinned it. The product, and Lyle’s packaging design, with its rotting lion corpse and biblical quotation, is still sold worldwide. Lyle’s Golden Syrup features in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s oldest brand.

Just think. One of the world’s most resilient brands was created out of a pollutant. Lyle did more than turn harm into good. He turned it into profit. I think that there’s a systematic way to do that. And planners are uniquely well positioned to make it happen. To understand how, I’ll talk about the future, but first I’d like to take a detour via medieval cattle farming. Bear with me.

The tragedy of the commons

Imagine you’re a farmer in Merrie England. You have a couple of cows that are the source of your wealth, keeping you in pointy shoes and conical hats. Your cows graze on common pasture, like everybody else’s. Nobody

owns the common land, nobody looks after it particularly. What is there to look after? Cows eat. Grass grows.

Then one day your cow has a calf. Now you have three cows. You are 50% richer. Of course, the common land is being slightly more grazed on, so that makes you slightly worse off as well. But only maybe 0.5% worse off. Obviously that’s a trade-off worth making. So all the other farmers make the same trade-off, and each cow adds substantially to their wealth while slightly subtracting from the abundance of the common land. Until one day, the common land gets overgrazed. Cattle starve, people starve, everybody becomes much worse off.

This example (more imaginary than historical it turns out) was used in the 1960s by eco-economist Garrett Hardin to explain how innocent actions by individuals affect the wider world . When a farmer raises a cow and sells it at market, or to a witch for magic beans , both sides benefit. However bystanders can also be affected for better or worse. A cattle market can turn a village into a boomtown. A giant can tumble from a beanstalk and crush your house.

Economists call the unintended consequences of a transaction, ‘externalities’. Negative externalities help create wealth for the brands and customers making a transaction, but they spoil the world slightly for everybody else. Hardin cited overfishing, traffic congestion and even advertising (which he named as a kind of ‘pollution’) as forms of negative externalities.

Since Hardin’s original essay, economists and public policy makers have tried to limit negative externalities by taxing them. But what if there were other ways of thinking about the effects of brands on the commons? What if we saw the commons as an opportunity, not a victim? An economist sees a pollutant. A more creative person sees a cake ingredient.

Listening to the voice of the commons

Mass production made brands’ transactions into a largely one- way conversation. You could have a Ford in any colour so long as it was black. The consumer movement in the 1960s changed that, and the rise of account planning reflected the desire of brands to engage with the ‘voice of the customer’. Now there’s a third voice that needs to be heard: the voice of the commons. It’s a voice that’s been getting louder for decades, from the environmental movement to campaigns for fair wages in the developing world to the ‘Occupy’ camps and the online vigilantism of Anonymous.

But few brands have brought those insistent new voices into their decision making process. It’s time for that to change. Planners were once at the forefront of the consumer revolution – it’s shameful that they have lagged behind the revolution of the commons.

When brands listen to the voice of the commons, they find massive opportunities. Google, one of the most successful brands of the new century, has profited from a commonly held good (the world’s freely available data) while also improving it, making it accessible and understandable for everyone.

On an agency scale, Active Disassembly in Toronto works with Sony, Motorola, Nokia and others to redesign their products to be recycled efficiently. They’re designing for the dump (the commons) as well as the store (the consumer) – and they’re winning business off big design companies. Don’t worry. Planners won’t have to re-think their favourite disciplines to bring the voice of the commons into a brand’s strategy. You can use many of your existing skills. Just point them in a new direction. Where do you hear the voice of the commons? It’s all around you. List the externalities of the transactions between your brand and its customers. Who else is affected? What public pools of goods does it draw on, and can it improve? What does it use but not pay for, from clean air to neighbours’ goodwill? What does it make worse? What could it make better? Once you have that list, start to see the transaction through each of those lenses. They’ll throw up a surprising numbers of ways to save the world and make a few quid as you go. Here are a few examples:

Make altruism aspirational

In 2003, Leonardo diCaprio pulled up to the Oscars in a Prius. Taking a Prius to the Oscars involves certain sacrifices. It’s hard to look elegant for the world’s photographers climbing out of a compact sedan. But that Leonardo moment changed everything. Stars in limos looked decadent and out of touch with the realities of the commons: pollution, rising oil prices, gridlocked traffic. This year, many stars are planning on using plug-in Chevy Volts.

Dove grew 17.5% in value last year with a strategy that embraced the commons. It turned its back on the easy gains to be made from celebrity endorsement at the cost of the commons. (Here, the commons are women who don’t look like supermodels, the good being eroded is their self worth.) Instead, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty made all the competing brands seem shallow and self-serving.

The Tata Nano was conceived as a vehicle that would cut accidents on India’s roads. It’s designed to be a safer alternative to loading your family onto the handlebars of a motorbike, at a comparable cost. Unfortunately Tata failed to make ownership of the world’s cheapest car aspirational enough. ‘Despite the clever engineering Tata has yet to crack frugal marketing,’ snarked the Economist. Perhaps if it had appealed to an altruistic aspiration, making India safer for everybody, the car might have sold. The world would be safer, and the Nano brand would have been more profitable.

In The Darwin Economy, Robert Frank describes a great example of rewards for altruism. Getting double booked on a flight is infuriating. Since 1979 airlines have compensated ticket holders who will forgo the convenience of flying right away. They reward them with upgrades on less crowded flights. The commons benefits, as important meetings aren’t cancelled, and planes fly fuller, causing less pollution. Altruistic individuals are rewarded with the airlines’ equivalent of syrup: empty first class seats that are a waste by-product of inefficient scheduling.

If you have a brief for organic food in front of you, you’re going to be faced with a dilemma: consumers vaguely like the idea of organic food, they just don’t want to pay extra for it. Rather than convincing them of the health benefits, think about making it a choice for the good of the commons. Is it about the land, farms, biodiversity? Airlines have made a status symbol out of lying down flat to go to sleep. Surely you can make countryside stewardship into the next It-Cause.

Productise the externality

One of the magical things about New York is the steam that rises up through cracks in the street. It’s even more magical when you know that it comes from the power stations that light up New York. Thomas Edison didn’t like waste any more than Abram Lyle, so he piped steam into Manhattan to heat the buildings. Pollution became a product.

In 1990 Tesco looked at an odd externality: cash. They made so much of the rotten stuff that it cost £3m a year to move securely to banks, created a target for robbers and jammed up the roads with security vans. Their solution: cashback. Every customer was asked if they wanted cash with their shopping. The result: the commons benefited from an extra ATM at every Tesco till. Tesco saved over £2m a year in security and counting fees. An expensive externality became a product. Advertising agencies complain that they rarely sit at the ‘top table’ of their clients any more. That’s because C-suite executives have bigger things to worry about than TV spots. CEOs’ top priority in recent years has been innovation, not ads. Innovation isn’t easy – only 3% of product launches really succeed. If you offer to audit the externalities of a company and turn them into innovative products, that’s a low risk strategy with a potentially high return. Being the voice of the commons could be a planner’s ticket back to the top floor.

Name an invisible problem

Yakult solved a problem that nobody had. Its cultures of microbes supposedly improved the fauna in one’s digestive system. The problem: nobody woke up and thought ‘I wonder if my digestive ecosystem could do with re-stocking’, like we had zoos up our arses. So the marketers concentrated on naming the problem. They called it gut health. It got us thinking about a thing nobody had previously considered to be a thing. Today the probiotic market is worth $18bn in Asia alone, predicted to grow to $42bn by 2016.

The commons benefits from naming problems as well. Take the banking crisis. Various central bankers had tried to sound warnings about the huge amounts of capital that were sloshing around dangerously outside the regulated banking system. But they gained little traction until somebody gave it a name. At the Jackson Hole conference in 2007 Pimco’s Paul McCulley coined the phrase ‘shadow banking’, and officials began to move to regulate dangerous vehicles like CDOs and SIVs. Zipcar, and NetJets are products sold as services. Currently they are niche lifestyle experiments because they’re solutions to a problem that nobody’s clearly defined, or named. Recycling is the same. As economist Steven Landsburg says, nobody quite knows why we do it.

Why has nobody named those problems? If only there were some people who had the smarts to absorb complex dilemmas and resolve them in a punchy sentence. You could turn a worthy category into the next Google, just by naming the problem it solves.

Break down the anticommons

The skills you’ve learned as a planner are valuable to brands. But they could be far, far more valuable to companies, the planet and the human race if you applied them to this next kind of problem.

There’s a cure for Alzheimer’s. All the components for it exist. But the components are owned, in the form of patents, by several companies. And those companies can’t agree to combine them to make a product. Why? Two lawyers wrote a paper that elegantly sums up the problem. If you own something that’s vital to a venture, then you will logically want the majority of the reward. If I have the key to the treasure chest, you have the map and Martin Sorrel is the only sea cap’n crazy enough to make the voyage, then we’re all going to want 90% of the loot. So our adventure will never happen. There are similar patent deadlocks everywhere from aerospace to clean energy generation. Instead of a lush open commons of ideas, they’re all fenced off to form a useless ‘tragedy of the anticommons.’

Breakthroughs like DVD and VHS happened because big brands pooled their patents. The commons benefited from universally available media. DVD boosted the movie and consumer electronics industries. Cheap air travel, indeed any air travel, only exists today because big manufacturers gave up their patents to things like propellers and tailfins as World War I loomed.

Today these deals reach a sticking point because there’s another group that’s unheard. Not the pharma companies or their customers in hospitals. Not even the sick people, but the rest of us. Better treatments mean we all benefit from a more productive population and are spared grief. We deserve a voice in that deal. If you’re a planner, you’ve probably broken deadlocks at big companies before. Often the trick has been to bring in the voice of the consumer. Now think about applying that skill between companies, and to much, much bigger problems. Others less qualified than you are already doing it. Most of them are lawyers.

Lawrence Lessig, brought the voice of the commons to bear on intellectual property law. The result: workarounds that allow us to license our work for others to build on and adapt. Huge libraries of ‘Creative commons’ software have resulted from this, enabling coders to snap together programs in agile sprints rather than marathons. As a result, I am writing this on an app that cost less than a bar of chocolate.

Lessig combines insight, charisma, pitching ability and a dogged commitment to an idea. Kind of like you, gentle reader. Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt made the voice of the consumer vivid and personal for brands. They did it in a world very different from our own. The sheer scale of globalised businesses, and the speed at which they grow, means that externalities don’t stay external for long. Google was started in a garage just over a decade ago. It’s now struggling to buy enough electricity in some US states.

The commons aren’t silent bystanders any longer. They can magnify the power of a transaction or they can negate it. They can create your product free of charge, or they can hack a better one and become your competition. The voice of the commons is getting louder. By listening to it with the intelligence of King and Pollitt we can make the world better and more profitable for everybody: our clients, their customers and the rest of us. Abram Lyle would have approved.

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