Humankind

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[Note: This review originally ran in Advertising Age on September 20, 2011, and is reposted here by kind permission]

Leo Burnett once said of advertising “Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.” And Humankind by the current Chairman/CEO (Tom Bernardin) and Chief Creative Officer (Mark Tutssel) of that venerable adman’s namesake agency is all those things. And more. And occasionally a little less.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to discuss a book produced by two principals of an agency, a book that discusses that agency’s unique perspective and approach, and which uses examples of its own work as a way to showcase that unique perspective – without acknowledging that, regardless of whatever benefits or insights the reader can glean from it, there is an element of the endeavor that is clearly designed to generate new business. And I don’t think Bernardin and Tutssel would dispute this. Who among us did not see the success that Kevin Roberts had with Lovemarks, a book that Humankind shares not only a publisher with, but also something of size, design and shape.

Thus, Humankind is a way for Bernardin and Tutssel to redefine their agency away from images of the rumpled Midwesterner and his legacy of jolly green giants, enthusiastic tigers and rugged cowboys, to something that reflects the way humans connect with and process advertising today. And while the authors do cite one Burnett quotation about the nature of advertising, by and large he, if not his spirit perhaps, is absent from the book.

What is not absent, however, are marketing concepts of a really exceptional quality from Burnett’s worldwide offices. Concepts like the Hope stores that Burnett developed for the Red Cross in Portugal as a way to completely re-frame for the public the idea of charitable giving. Or like the McDonald’s out-of-home campaign, that featured sundials and turned a video billboard into a tourist activity. Or like Earth Hour for the World Wildlife Fund that engaged, well, the planet earth.

But it is Bernardin’s and Tutssel’s intention not to merely wow you with cool concepts – they want you to understand the thinking behind them. So what is “Humankind”? At it’s root it appears to be an approach. A belief that “modern-day communication needs to be rooted in a fundamental human need.” One that “doesn’t interrupt people, it involves them.” More importantly, however, it seems to be focused on the idea of creating advertising that has a purpose. “Purpose” Bernardin and Tutssel say, “shifts a product from what it does to what it means” – or in other words, moves the conversation from a discussion of what the seller wants to tell you, to what the buyer needs.

Bernardin and Tutssel, however, admit that not every idea gets there. To figure out which ones do, they have developed something called the Global Product Committee, which meets every quarter to evaluate the work. And if all Humankind did was remind us that post-mortems are important, it would have provided a valuable service.

Of course, it does more than that. Because they actually show you the process and the criteria, with actual comments on work that did – and didn’t – make the grade. Not only is this transparency appealing, but it gives readers a ready-made methodology for evaluating and improving their own work.

This is when Humankind is at its best, delivering useful tools and inspiring us to approach the challenges we face in new and refreshing ways. When it’s less good, however, is when it reads like merely an agency portfolio. And while I’m as happy as any other Creative Director to look at someone’s portfolio, I am probably less happy to plunk down $30 for the privilege.

But those are, frankly, minor complaints. Because perhaps the most compelling and exciting thing about Humankind – the book, the work, and the vision – is that none of the ideas celebrated here are media-specific. These are not digital ideas. These are not TV ideas. These are not promotional ideas. These are human ideas, human ideas that engage human beings via the media that resonate with them. That kind of thinking bodes well for the future of advertising. Now we just have to find clients and creatives who can make it happen.

Humankind by Tom Bernardin & Mark TutsselMark Tutssel was published by powerHouse books on 10/26/2010– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here, – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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