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TMW Unlimited’s Tariq Khan: why It’s time to stop the bandwagons, buzzwords and BS

Engagement, Content, Always-on, AI, Omni-channel, Agile, Blockchain, Customer Experience…the list goes on (and on).

How many times have you walked out of a meeting and only had the basic grasp of what people are talking about?

In an era where clients and their agencies are striving to reduce complexity, now seems a good time to test the linguistic crack of digital marketing buzzwords to see if they still reach a high.

Meaningless buzzwords, jargon and hyperbole add unnecessary complication to our communication, yet are ubiquitous in our industry. Even worse, some terms and concepts that once held value have now been drained of their meaning, blunted through misrepresentation and overuse.

This passage, used to describe management behaviour and language in the NHS, equally applies to adland: “New enthusiasms are promoted with high hopes, inflated rhetoric and competitive zeal. These fads are soon abandoned without much regret. With promoters escaping chastisement for their prior hyperbole. Gurus shed failed models easily and embrace newer fashions promiscuously.”

It’s worse at the technology end of marketing, where the appetite for jargon is insatiable. So, in an industry that, ironically, sells its expertise in clarity, communication and connection – why is it so prevalent? In my mind there are a few culprits:

1. Rolling it in glitter – once you’ve spent significant time in the industry you notice old concepts sprinkled with buzzword glitter to make them feel fresh and new again. “Digital Transformation” is a recent example of this. Around eight years ago these were referred to as “Change Programmes”, but a much-publicised statistic from McKinsey claimed that 70 per cent of all change programmes failed, prompting a change in terminology.

2. Showing you’re part of the gang – jargon is sometimes used as a social currency to show you are part of a community, one of the “tribe” engaged in a shared language. For instance: “If your business isn’t agile enough to produce fail-fast disruptive innovation then lets touch base asap.” In the best-case scenario, this can prove to be effective shorthand for experts and, if used correctly and judiciously, an efficient communication tool. Worst-case scenario, it’s the equivalent of your 85-year-old Nan wearing a Stormzy baseball cap to show she’s down with the kidz.

3. A need for certainty – there seems to be an underlying desire to prove that our industry is rooted in science. If we are scientific, so the thinking goes, we eliminate uncertainty. Real scientists know you can never truly achieve this but pseudo-science says that if we define things with complex terminology and give them a score, then we can look as thought we’re really on top of things. The ultimate goal being to provide reassurances that we aren’t operating in an ambiguous environment. Yet marketing is fundamentally about persuasion, which most definitely sits nearer to art than science.

4. Honesty – the most worrying reason we hide behind these words is because we simply aren’t being honest enough. Buzzwords help us to mask what we do or don’t know, and are an easy tool for avoiding conflict and deferring tough decisions. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Björn Lindström, found that a person’s view of what’s morally right is strongly tied to a need for social conformity. In other words, your behaviour is considered more moral the more common it is in your environment. I refer you back to the NHS quote.

Just how do we get out of the cage we have built for ourselves? In the long term the utopian ideal of a more diverse workforce has the potential to help break down some of the “groupthink” element that breeds this sort of language. Perhaps more diversity of thought will bring about greater diversity in language.

But if you can’t wait 50 years for this to happen, then we need to check our egos and be braver about asking questions when we don’t understand. According to Dave Trott, one of the biggest challenges we face is that people would rather sit in ignorance than risk looking stupid. This means everyone needs to raise their hand and take that chance, because as he says, “if we don’t ask questions, we can’t change anything” – and, let’s not forget, almost all agencies want to position themselves as agents of change.

You don’t have to go very far to hear how the modern agency landscape is being squeezed and challenged. With pressures on almost every aspect of the industry, there’s less and less time for the walls, obstacles and barriers that our buzzwords and jargon have had a hand in creating over the past decades. So alongside developing more agile, transparent and collaborative relationships, powered by brand entrepreneurs, it makes sense for all of us to look at clearing out all the bullshit language that’s no longer needed.

Tariq Khan is director of interactive at TMW Unlimited.

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