David McWilliams - Q&A with the author of 'Renaissance Nation'

We were delighted to have David McWilliams in for Q&A in February.

He often has us planners kicking ourselves for his ability to create memorable names for Ireland’s emerging ‘tribes’ based on canny observation.

The ‘Decklanders’ and  ‘Breakfast Roll Man’ made their appearance in his first book The Pope’s Children, and his most recent book Renaissance Nation sees the appearance of the ‘Stovelanders’ and ‘Sliotar Mom’.

He’s also a bloody good writer, weaving data and observation into compelling narratives - something every planner needs to be able to do, so sayeth Martin Weigel in this blog.

Here are the highlights from the night’s hugely entertaining and insightful conversation.

Economics is about people

It’s much too easy for us these days to think about economics as numbers and formulas and boring graphs. This makes economics feel much more like a science than it really is. In the end, it’s about applying some scientific principles to understand people. People are odd, so no economic theory is really ever going to understand or predict what we will think, feel or do. But seen as information or indications, understanding basic economic principles and trends, not high falutin’ economics, can really help uncover what’s going on in people’s lives. The thing is, while economic ideas often start with observing what people are already doing, whether that’s in real life or in numbers, and developing hunches about why that might be and examining it.

Look out for ‘weak’ signals that could become trends

Following on from that, always remember: culture is data – don’t underestimate it. ‘Hard’ data is fine, but getting at what’s happening right now, or about to happen means constant observation of so-called ‘weak’ data, which is often so undervalued. ‘Breakfast Roll Man’ came about after David seeing a fella in a service station in the early hours ordering breakfast roll, a pack of Johnny Blue and 3 Actimels! This character struck a chord with the Irish public for a reason – it reflected a lot of people’s experiences.

David also said how he’s constantly looking out for interesting contradictions. The previous weekend, he saw all the cyclists venturing up the Dublin mountains and wrote in his notebook, “100kg of flesh on 80kg of bike”. What is this saying about a particular type of Irish person today, he asked the group. Always have a notebook, and always be looking out for these weak signals. That’s where insight comes from.

‘Notions are great!’ Start with culture

Economics and observing people’s behaviours are two ways to insight. It’s just as important, David said, to unpack a country’s or culture’s value systems. Discussing the role of planning itself and how some might see planners as having ‘notions’, David declared, ‘I think notions are great!’ He went on to say how unpacking this peculiarly Irish phenomenon helps us understand our own value system and cultural beliefs. It’s an informal form of social regulation amidst, what he believes is a ‘deeply liberal’ culture that enables us to be flexibile and to succeed as a society and country. It’s paying attention to all this stuff that, for him, should come first, before getting buried in data to see if your observations stand up to scrutiny, or if more exploration is needed.

Songwriting is the greatest skill to learn from, except copywriting

A bit of flattery gets you places. David told us that if he wasn’t doing what he was doing, he’d be a songwriter, or a copywriter. The data can be right, that’s fine, but it’s stories that connect. Something songwriters do all the time is put two things together that shouldn’t be, like ‘Love will tear us apart’. When you bring two things together that don’t seem to belong together, they create a deeper truth. This is something copywriters also do all the time, ‘and planners!’ we said. This is all built on observation and empathy. Great creative work, whether it’s a song, an ad, or a creative brief,, do this. So look out for things that are true, even if the data isn’t initially there … trust your gut.

Be the lone voice

Whether you’re a public figure, or a planner, there will be times when you’re going against the grain. In David’s own experience, there are typically three responses: first they ridicule you, then they oppose you, then they pretend it was their idea all along. The power of ideas is the most powerful thing in the world, and Ireland is still a very conformist country. One member commented that planners are seen as conventional now, even though the discipline emerged out of a need to rebel against the ordinary.

However, planning is still about using research to understand people and to come up with ideas or thoughts that never existed before, which means planners need to remember their challenger role. David’s advice, based on his experience was to ‘always back yourself’ – take on the world at every stage, no matter what others say. It’s sometimes better to be interesting than right, but trust your gut. There are moments when you know the herd is wrong, and data is fine, but many just won’t trust it, and they need reassurance, and is a tough place to be at times.

Know your limitations

Finally, we talked about humility. As much as a planner’s job might be about advising clients or selling confidence, David reminded us, ‘There’s no such thing as business success; you’re just successful for now.’ We can sometimes slip into over-stating our ability to predict things, especially given our role in selling confidence to clients. If we’re honest, nobody really has any idea what’s going to happen when a brand or campaign hits the market. Of course, we have to try to foresee how things will go, control what we can control, but whether it’s writing about economics, society or launching a brand campaign, we’re always taking a risk – there’s only so much we can know, and we need to own that uncertainty.