Is Likeability what matters most? I really don’t think it is.

I watched Mike O’Sullivan’s interview for the Andy Awards today.

I was particularly struck by his answer to the question ‘what keeps you awake at night?’. He talks about ‘likeability’ and the fact that the industry has moved rapidly from a position only a few years ago when ‘likeability’ was judged ‘in our world, based on the stuff we thought was really cool’ but that ‘now we’re judged really quickly through the media …we know whether people like our work or not’.

I get the point he’s making and agree that the spread of ideas is exponentially quicker, and the rate and volume of feedback is that much greater.  And he’s right that this requires what we do to be likeable.  There’s just no reason why people would choose to spend time with an idea they don’t like, and we’re all well aware that people do get to choose.

But there’s a parallel issue that I believe is bigger.  Because the connectedness that enables ideas to be spread, and feedback given, so rapidly also fuels a much greater scrutiny on those ideas (or, more importantly, the brands that deliver those ideas). So while I think Mike’s absolutely right that we have to produce work that’s likeable, I think the bigger pressure is to produce work that’s believable.

Increasingly this is the judgement that people make. While I might like the idea, is it credible?  Do I believe what the brand is saying?  That’s not a judgement of the execution, but of the brand delivering it.  It’s about what’s behind the idea more than it is the idea itself.

I think it’s hugely important because there’s a big distinction between the action that results.  Likeability means I forward something.  Believability means I recommend something.

But there’s an even more important distinction for our industry.  Likeability is something we can strongly influence. It’s what Mike does. Make executions that people like, by, as he explains, knowing what makes people laugh and what makes them cry.  A smart client, a talented creative team and a good agency makes for likeable work.

But ‘believable’ is a whole other matter. We don’t have very much influence on that.  It’s a client responsibility.  We can only work with what they give us, and if what they give us isn’t useful, honest, real, different, valuable, reliable, sustainable etc etc, then we’re kind of screwed. Because it’s not believable, and no amount of likeable advertising can redeem it. If it’s not believable people find out very quickly and share the news very loudly.

And that’s the worrying bit.  What’s changed in the last couple of years is that it’s increasingly about the truth behind the idea, and I don’t think most clients have caught up.  They still believe that they can fudge it, that big, beautifully-executed promises can hide a lack of substance beneath, that executions that are likeable enough can somehow distract people from the hollowness.

And focussing on making likeable executions lets them off the hook.  The pressure, and ultimately the judgement, falls on the agency.  Which, needless to say, is just where a lot of clients like it.

So what keeps me awake at night is the realisation that our industry’s ability to be successful is increasingly reliant on something that we have very little control over.

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Is Likeability what matters most? I really don’t think it is.

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