Where’s the Intuition?

Too many ad people follow a formula, not a feeling

Marketing is no place for people with no stomach for risk. Too much time and energy are consumed trying to prove everything to people who will never get it anyway. If the ultimate goal is faster, better, cheaper advertising, then push out all of the fearmongers. Get rid of the clients who need a focus group to tell them what to order for lunch. Ax the creatives who want the life of an artiste and the job security of a government procurement officer. Downsize all of the account executives who need a few days to get back to you on how they feel about sunshine. These decision-phobics are gumming up the business and killing the very thing that makes the difference between magic and wallpaper: old-fashioned intuition.

Yeah, I know. Praising intuition in these days of strict accountability will cause the marketing scientists among us to break out in nasty rashes. But the time has come to burn all the pie charts and matrix diagrams. Advertising has been taken over by people who believe results are driven by proper accounting. They are the first to call time on the creatives and the last to disagree with the client. All in the name of keeping the business.

Times may be bad, but taste levels are not. What is it about belt-tightening that makes bland, stupid work seem so fresh and insightful? The damage these self-appointed responsibility cops are doing to the effectiveness of their marketing efforts is immeasurable.

The fact is, too many people in advertising today can’t tell the difference between a feeling and a formula. They are naturally drawn to the familiar, because derivative ideas come with reams and reams of reassuring data that can support the wisdom of any flawed decision. Decoding the creative process and assigning values to the various components may be comforting to people who have no marketing instincts, but it is counterproductive and anti-business.

Mankind’s greatest innovative leaps began as highly improbable endeavors. Two lowly bicycle mechanics in Ohio changed the world of transportation. Two nerdy outcasts in California triggered the information age. Some kid with a computer in his bedroom turned the music industry upside down. There were no metrics. No secret shoppers. No mall intercepts. No guys with clipboards measuring “brand magnetics.” Thank God.

The most celebrated acts of creativity in the world are the result of individuals deciding that something just feels right. Picasso did not need a viability study to decide where to apply his brush. And yet his highly unscientific pursuits continue to touch people in ways most ad campaigns never will. Tolstoy did not pass his concepts by focus groups for input. And yet his books and ideas endure.

Advertising is a business of building lasting relationships with consumers, and yet our tactics are becoming increasingly short-sighted, clinical and cold.

Of course, there are great agencies that are great exceptions. But the vast majority of people in advertising are not working on Super Bowl ads. They are working on toilet-bowl-cleanser ads, and their clients and employers believe in driving numbers without driving emotions. Boring the audience has never been shown to be an effective strategy, yet so many research-reliant marketers continue to embrace it as their core philosophy. Those who worship at the altar of the hard sell fail to realize that it is just another way of excusing bad work.

As we are forced to create in an ever-shrinking box of risk tolerance, how many great ideas are getting lost in the shuffle? What percentage of market share do we sacrifice in favor of playing it safe? How many new-business pitches are won by agencies that did the best job of saying nothing disagreeable? How many meetings are taking place right now where the conversation is about rolling back ambitions until the world becomes an entirely predictable place?

Howard Gossage is turning in his grave.