Alex Hesz: ‘It’s time to embrace the radical middle’

Brands and agencies should be creating culture, but we’re too busy heading for the comfort of the fringes. We need to look where most culture happens – the middle.

It was perhaps the defining image of Cool Britannia. Noel Gallagher, champagne, no tie, huge eyebrows, chatting amiably to a grinning Tony Blair at a Number 10 reception, the PM’s hands clasped in front of him, head tilted in studied attention. The middle of the middle. A centre-ground politician with a mandate the size of Knebworth, a centre-ground musician who only needed to trot out four familiar chords to send the NME into paroxysms of glee, meeting at the centre of British power. Outside, meanwhile, the tills rung shrill at Tesco and Mondeos flew off the lot.

This was a Britain anchored in the centre. A big tent supported by one big pole, bang in the middle. A time and a place where fringes existed, of course, but only by comparison to that strong centre, enabled by it, protected by it. Everyone knew that true scale came from going down the dotted line. That’s where the votes were found. That’s where the records were sold and the food was bought.

Fast-forward a generation. From politics and sport to music and TV, the centre is in various stages of collapse. In British politics, it’s all but gone, replaced by the Spam-and-Spitfires wing of the Conservative party and a Labour Party that has disappeared into the warm righteousness of student protest. Even in how we shop for groceries, we see clarity and growth from the likes of Lidl and Aldi at one extreme, and Waitrose and premium food delivery services at the other, but the Tesco-coloured centre is in listless reverse. Elsewhere, Spotify lets us indulge our private whims, rather than gathering around waiting for Tower Records to open on the morning of a big release. This is the age of the vanishing middle.

Part of this is born from a boom in consumer choice, of course. Greater options create disaggregated markets and, in turn, fragment audience shares. But that only tells half the story. Because, in parallel, we’re witnessing an unprecedented mass-migration to the margins, a conscious rejection of the middle. Rarified eating habits. Niche motoring choices. Extreme political opinions. That’s the world in which we now live. A gluten-free, hard-Brexit high intensity interval training class where just about any choice is preferable to the middle ground, where any extremity of action wins out over comfortable centrism. It’s all tumbleweed on Main Street.

Except, I’m not sure that’s true.

Addiction to the margins

In the creative industries, we’ve bought it wholesale, this addiction to the marginal. This narrative that ‘mass-market’ is a somehow a pejorative. This super-service to the minority pursuit, the fringe perspective. We see it in innovation agendas, eager to pursue the emerging outlier rather than sure up, or reinvent, the crumbling core. We see it most clearly, of course, in advertising, a simulacrum in which Britain has been recast as a parade of gloriously interesting sub-groups digging ever deeper into their idiosyncrasies.

There are winners from this, for sure. Maltesers pushing disability into the mainstream is, for instance, an enormously positive step and worthy of all the praise it receives. But tech, and the ability to micro-target, is enabling us to flee the mainstream at a whim, with marketers now able to zero in on ever more specific data-driven personas, cleaved from the mainstream on the basis of ever more subjective evidence. Some marketers and, to some extent even media owners, want to feel at home with the brands they support, so build them, erroneously, in their own image; special, niche, specific. Anything but middle of the road.

There is, then, a pressing need to re-assert the attractiveness of the middle, a place where common ground is reached rather than differences exaggerated. That need is felt most plainly in politics, where the newly politically homeless crave the re-establishment of a plausible centre ground on which to meet (this is no unsubstantiated remoan, YouGov said earlier this year the ‘centre’ remains the largest distinct voting demographic in the UK, despite no substantial destination for those votes).

Yet that craving for centrism in politics is a broader template for re-kindling our love for the middle: it’s desirable in Westminster precisely because centrism now carries a welcome whiff of excitement, of urgent purpose. It’s not the safe compromise of interchangeable blue and red. It’s the radical middle, a solution to the challenges of the day, a modern alternative to a pair of unhinged fringes variously bent on their own absurd versions of bring-backery. If there’s to be a fresh political arrival to lure liberal Tories and disaffected Blairites to a new home, then surely that middle-ground radicalism will be what it’s built upon. Not a place of blandness, a place of purposeful unity.

The winning middle

Brands and advertisers can learn from this. The middle remains where scale happens. The middle is where fame happens. Proper, your-mum-knows-about-it, fame. The kind of fame where when you walk outside the office and ask people about it and they know what you’re talking about. So much of what the advertising industry does now, if we’re being honest, fails that most basic test. Deep down we know that. It should give us more reason to pause than it seems to.

The middle remains where scale happens. The middle is where fame happens. Proper, your-mum-knows-about-it, fame.

Simply put, the numbers just don’t back up the extent of our obsession with the outer edges. For every limited batch craft beer, there’s a lot of lager still drunk. For every gluten free loaf, we still get through a whole load of oven chips. This isn’t about traditional purchases versus new ones, either. For every new digital platform we coo over, Facebook remains, in effect, the whole internet for approaching half of all UK internet users, while Twitter is a tiny minority pursuit. Let this final example sink in: Mrs Brown’s Boys continued to rack up comfortably over 10 million viewers right the way into her retirement last year, and was voted the UK’s number one sitcom of all time by BBC website users.

The mainstream is alive and well, we just willfully ignore it, because we are so concerned with not living there. Brexit taught this lesson most profoundly of all. We’re ignoring the mainstream professionally because we so often flinch from it personally.

Advertisers and marketers need to course correct; to steer back in to the centre, listen to what happens there, learn from it, and create work to fit with it. Yet, just as in politics, this can’t just be a Goldilocks, wanting to get to a happy medium at the expense of doing anything interesting or provocative. Our challenge is to find our own equivalent to that ‘radical middle’ that politics is crying out for; a modern, exciting way to serve the majority, to play in the mainstream, to improve the mainstream, without just becoming wallpaper paste.

Resist the comfort of the fringes

It’s happening, albeit infrequently and haphazardly. Bupa’s brilliant ‘For owning the dancefloor’ work earlier this year was an explicit attempt to normalise, rather than celebrate, the niche behaviour of owning health insurance; no longer the category’s usual invitation to be a part of a healthier elite, but rather a tearing down of the barrier between that elite and the mainstream it had previously excluded. Even tech platforms created to super-serve niches, like Spotify, find themselves compelled by the data to throw unprecedented support behind mainstream launches like that of Ed Sheeran. The lure of the middle remains, for those willing to sacrifice the comfort of the fringes.

That’s why winning in the middle is hard; it’s easy to be interesting when you play in the margins, because simply by being there you are standing out, with space and time and the luxury of being able to tell your story to those who want to listen. Jeremy Corbyn’s crowds are real. Yet it’s so much harder to do it in the middle of the road, where the people are, where the money is, where stuff gets properly famous and ‘culture’ has scale not just kudos. Success there, cozied up next to Bake Off, is much more difficult to achieve.

That’s the challenge for brands and agencies now; to embrace the radical middle. Creating culture is precisely what we should be doing, but we shouldn’t forget where most culture happens. Not at the fringes, not at the margins, but in the middle of the middle; Monday night, 9.00pm. The Mrs. Brown’s Boys slot. See you there.

Alex Hesz is chief strategy officer at adam&eveDDB.

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