To say Charlie Hebdo’s provocative satire is not always understood outside France, is an understatement. See this take on the magazine by Arthur Chu. And its satire was not to many people’s taste in France too, judging by its usual circulation — but of course everything’s different now.
This cultural incomprehension reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when I was simultaneously working for French clients and US ones. For in the grubby business of Marketing, such incomprehension not only causes mutual bafflement, but costs people money.
My French client had asked me to write English copy for several French companies hoping to infiltrate the UK market. I was juggling this with freelancing in a London agency, having been asked in to create concepts for a pharmaceutical product launch for a US-owned healthcare agency.
The French wanted what seems to me to be florid, overwrought copy. I found myself constantly pushing back, and explaining that in the UK if you seem to be trying too hard, the UK consumer smells a rat. For a UK reader, copy that’s forested with adjectives and adverbs can be tiresome to follow. I was assured by my French clients, however, that this was often seen as hard-working, persuasive and – what’s more – beautiful copy in France. Luckily, with lots of explaining and laughing at each other, we managed to reach a compromise – but the process took much longer than it should.
Meanwhile the afternoon teleconferences with the New York office were baffling. The US creative directors were unerringly drawn to what seemed, to my English eyes, crazy ideas. Anything psychological, or on a human scale was instantly rebuffed. One concept, however, that was particularly liked was an apocalyptic earthquake with hundreds of people tumbling into the gaping maw of the splitting earth. This was to suggest the dangers of a medical condition. I sat baffled as the US team earnestly discussed this absurd execution, which also dramatised the problem rather than the solution. It reminded me of the apocalyptic English romantic painter John Martin – but not in a good way.
It goes without saying that the US is full of talented, smart people in agencies, who care passionately about the product and doing the right thing by their clients. It was in the US I first understood that UK creative work can seem half-hearted, underwhelming and small-scale. The reasoning in this instance was that the disease area we were tackling was a big problem to the people who had it. So we should acknowledge and reflect the scale of the problem as felt by the people living with it.
Perhaps it is lazy to say this is about irony. But I honestly believe the UK sense of irony and understatement is at the root of mutual incomprehension of the concepts that ping across the pond in teleconferences Death by PowerPoint and PDFs. I believe that it is assumed in the UK that the audience knows the rules of the marketing game, and not to implicitly acknowledge that means the idea won’t be taken seriously. Some ideas bridge the gulf, of course, but it very optimistic to expect a concept to fly in every territory.
So if these gulfs are tricky in marketing a single product or brand, how much more so are they when entire cultures, countries, religions misapprehend each other. The clue was in working with my French clients, and ultimately with Charlie Hebdo: learn to laugh at them.