Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Confidence of Appearing Poor Especially if You Are

Image has been at the centre of my life. I currently work in PR, which is about crafting your image and a good deal of my family has spent time in the advertising industry, which is all about buying images for yourself. With my family embeded in the business of creating images in one way or another, you could call me something of an odd ball in the industry. I am fat, folically challeneged and openly disdainful of social pretenses and yet I chose to remain a small fish in a pond of beautiful and reverant people. 

For the record, I'm not against image. In fact I am all for image and having an image. Life is such that what is percieved has a way of becoming real and so no business or organisation can afford to ignore the management of image making. Unfortunately there are way too many people in the PR industry who have sold the art of creating image as an ego boosting excercise of collecting news clips. Advertising people are even worse - they've sold creativity as an expression of frustrated art work. As such, advertising and PR budgets get slashed in a downturn. I mean, who wants to admit that they paid a gazillion dollars for art work that gets forgotten in the 30 second slot? 

Perhaps its just me, but I don't see enough people in these industries trying to sell the important things they do for businesses. In PR, people get obsessed about glamour shots and somehow things like managing relations gets shoved aside. In advertising, you will never hear the end of how many awards people have won and not enough about how people rushed out to buy the product. We, in the image creating business have shot ourselves in the foot by selling the wrong image of what we should actually offer and its noticeable in a recession. People buy based on relationships - but the PR people only sold themselves as ink gatherers not relationship managers. In a recession people buy products they value but the advertising people only sold themselves as pretty boys not people who make your value shine. You can't be surprised that people want to cut fluff when they can't afford it and the most fluffy people in the room are usually in PR or advertising.

Make no mistake, image is important. The way people react to us depends on how they percieve us and believe it or not, we have quite a lot more control over how people percieve us than we realise. For example, we all dress neatly when we goto work because...well nobody wants to deal with a slob. Then again, if we were in the creative line, we dress down because it gives the sense of being at ease with the world. If you are simply awful ...keep it at home. I believe very firmly in things like having somewhat decent manners - a man with manners gives the impression of being someone worth dealing with.

Where I draw the line with the national obsession with image is when people start adapting personas that are unreal. This is usually associated when it comes to appearing to be rich or at least appearing to be what you think is rich. This obsession is usually costly and unsustainable and when you cannot sustain an image with action, the 'mirage' is cruelly exposed. 

Let's get it straight, I have nothing against a bit of show. If you can afford it, why not have it? Enforced ascetism is no good either. I'm with Vinod who tells the world,"I enjoy my money." Then there's also some credence to the idea that if you believe in something and adapt to certain things, you will achieve your goals. The late Mark McCormick of IMG noticed that Vice-Presidents always associated themselves with other Vice-Presidents and the Janitors also only associated with each other. His practice of giving junior executives titles bigger than themselves helped them grow into bigger people. 

I'm all for it. However, it's got to be real and sustainable. At IMG, those who held titles bigger than their work experience could either grow into their roles quickly or get sacked ruthlessly. 

Simply put, you have to follow the maxxium that "To Thine Ownself be True." Flash and glitz works for Vinod - it's part of his personality. Simple, down to earth modesty works for Arun Jain of Polaris because its who he is. To get these two to try and imitate the other would be a disaster. 

So, the question remains, how do you build your image and the path that best suites you? I'm with Bill Bernbach, the legendary creative director of DDB (he was the B) when he argued that the job of advertising was to kill one's own brilliance and let the brilliance of the product shine through. However, he argued that the brilliance had to be real. A toothpaste that claims to clean "whiter than white" has to  be able to do it. 

However, do we really know ourselves and the brilliant things we can do? Sadly the answer is no. Happily for the economic system, the ad and PR people worth anything can tell their clients the joys and faults of their products and services. As a client, its easy to get so caught up in ones own little world ...and the Ad and PR people who give you the views of the consumer are your biggest allies. 

But what happens when it comes to individuals? For the most part - honest feedback is often ego shattering - just watch American Idol and the faces of kids who were told they were rock stars in action suddenly being told that they sing like shit. 

Nobody wants their ego destroyed - but I think there's something to the idea of being able to help people find the brilliance they never realised they had. 


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