First published in BW Businessworld here.
Idi Amin was the President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. In addition to being one of the most brutal despots in history, he’s also famous for his self-bestowed titles. For instance, in 1977, when the United Kingdom broke all diplomatic relations with his regime, Idi Amin declared that he defeated the British and conferred upon himself the decoration of CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire). Post this incident his full self-bestowed title became “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”.
Previously only kings, despots or the elite wielded the power to anoint themselves with vain titles and pompous designations. With social media, that power vests with anyone with a cell phone. Here’s how some people use that power to describe themselves on LinkedIn; Digital Prophet, Thought Leader, Disruptor, Cultural Evangelist, Branding Guru, Visionary, Game Changer, Evangelist of Change, Happiness Mystique, Unicorn Wrangler, World Changer (phew)
While exaggerating capabilities is a common human frailty, this malaise goes beyond social media descriptions. It’s now enshrined in business.
For instance, many marketers write Briefs using profound sounding words or set macho objectives like; ‘turn products into obsessions’ or ‘make customers into fanatics’. Briefs with objectives like this lack both clarity and direction. They are almost Idi Amin-like in their bluster
Idi Amin Briefs are filled with meaningless buzz words, exaggerations and vain aspirations that lack the linkage to strategy. They may also include gauzy rhetoric like ‘get consumers to power conversations with the brand’ or ‘create an engaged community to redefine their world’.
It’s as Oscar Wilde once lamented; I am so clever that sometimes I do not understand a single word of what I am saying.
Another unfortunate consequence of this excessive and compulsive usage of hyperbole is that it has blunted what these words truly mean. For instance, a word like ‘disruption’ or ‘transformation’ may have been used to describe an Einstein disrupting the study of physics with his theory of relativity or a Steve Jobs transforming the music industry with the iPod. Today, these words are tossed around so casually and so often that they have lost their edge and meaning.
While macho language is common, its unabated usage can be dangerous.
In contrast, good briefs are cogent and simple. They spell out the desired business results. As Les Binet and Sarah Carter say in their seminal ‘How Not To Plan’; ‘identify exactly what you need people to think, feel and do in order to deliver those results’.
A good brief also goes beyond stating the obvious, say, grow revenue by attracting new users. It includes information about the strategic choices being made; in identifying a specific consumer set or a user habit from where growth could come from. It may also reframe the problem in an interesting way to trigger a solution, and it also reflects a sense of humility, an acknowledgement that advertising is a weak force.
So why do we see pretentious language, buzz words and Idi Amin briefs? The answer probably lies in what the Godfather, Don Corleone said; confidence is silent, insecurities are loud.