Have you noticed that different professions have their own languages? Technically they might be speaking something approximating English, but their communications are so littered with jargon, if you are one of the uninitiated you may well struggle to understand what on earth is going on.
The advertising world is one such profession. We love our jargon, and to make matters all the more confusing we’re faddish in our use of buzzwords. Someone new to the world of advertising not only needs to learn the entire back catalogue of terms, they also need to keep up-to-date with the latest on-trend buzzwords, or risk looking stupid in meetings. To add yet another layer to the cake of confusion for clients, different types of agencies (creative, media, digital, PR etc…) will have terms that are unique to them. As for those on the agency side they need to learn the language of their different clients, often straddling different sectors. On my first day working on P&G, over a decade ago now, I was given a multi page document listing all the acronyms I needed to know. I’d just come out of a client meeting feeling like I’d moved to a country with a totally different language, that list was my short-cut to becoming fluent.
Working in the world of communications, you’d think we’d value speaking in a way the maximum number of people would understand. However the need to complicate language, in order to elevate certain subjects, is something humans have been doing for centuries. People were killed for the blasphemy of translating the bible into English. Why? Because while all the people were supposed to have faith, they had to have it on the church’s terms. The Catholic church needed to tell them what to think, and the best way to do that was to control the language by elevating it beyond the every day (in their case, by using Latin). History tells us they were right to be worried, who knows what modern Christianity would look like if the “word of God” hadn’t been translated into a language the average person on the street could understand.
I was naïve to believe language was there to help people understand each other. I was being far too simplistic. Language plays many roles, and one very important role is impressing people. By being part of the advertising tribe, you can assert your superiority in meetings by being an early adopter of new cutting edge jargon. Where you may be limited to using old-school jargon, you might refresh it by framing it in unexpected ways. We use language to dazzle, impress and reassure. It establishes us as experts. While the general public may have had enough of experts, they are still very much in demand in boardrooms. Describing a campaign idea using language a child would understand might be a great exercise for preparing a focus group, but clients want the latest, most current jargon, to be reassured their advertising campaign is fresh and exciting, don’t they?
Clients beware. Ad people be cautious. Do not be bamboozled. Otherwise you could end up with a buzzword filled campaign powerpoint document that is more exciting than your actual campaign. There are too many instances of people sounding clever, replacing actual clever thinking and doing. Don’t get me wrong, I know buzzwords aren’t going anywhere, but there are two things I would ask of my marketing and advertising peers:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Risk looking stupid today to avoid doing stupid tomorrow. Whether it is internally or, gasp, in an actual client meeting, if something isn’t clear don’t assume it’s because you need to google the latest buzzword later. Ask the person speaking gibberish to explain what they mean. Allow alarm bells to ring if they can’t, because how are they going to brief teams to execute a campaign they can’t describe in a way others can understand?
- Use buzzwords sparingly. A lot like swearing, the more you do it, the less impact it has. Save it for the end. Use plain English to explain the concept. Let the idea not the words shine. If you really have to, use buzzwords to summarise the campaign idea in a few bullet points at the end, so you end with the reassuringly expert sounding bit. But only if you really have to.
The reality is renaming something doesn’t make it new or interesting. Frankly the relentless quest for new and shiny things in advertising, is often done at the expense of creating something that actually drives the desired consumer response. But that may be a topic for future posts.
A quick question for my readers, if you work in buzzword heavy professions, which would you banish from your work dictionary? I’ve got several myself, but if I had to pick one it would be ‘gamification’. I’ve seen it mangled and misused too many times. To quote The Princess Bride:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”