Steve Henry
May 02, 2013

Steve Henry's Blog: The inefficiencies of efficiency

The author says adland is sinking under a remorseless pursuit of an impossible efficiency; the irony being it is not efficient at all.

Steve Henry's Blog: The inefficiencies of efficiency


In 1776, Adam Smith put forward the theory that the best way to increase productivity in factories was what he called “the division of labour” – dividing the process into smaller specialised segments.

In “The Wealth of Nations”, he described how it took 18 stage to make a pin. (I had no idea it was so fucking complicated. I would have thought you just went out and got a pin; but actually there are 18 stages in making one.) If one man did all 18 stages, he could make maybe one pin a day.

But if the work was split up into different parts, with each worker doing just one  task, they could each make on average nearly 5,000 pins a day.

Now,  the world is split up into those people who go “Wow, productivity just shot through the roof, my profits are gonna explode, I will be able to afford 18 new prostitutes in flats around London” – (if, say, they are a Russian oligarch) and those who go “Shit, it’s bad enough working in a pin factory but if I have to do the same bloody task every minute of the day I’m gonna go mad and shove those 5,000 pins into the buttocks of a passing stranger.”

Even Smithy himself wrote about how “the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations … has no occasion to exert his understanding or exercise his invention.”

This, he admitted, led to “torpor of the mind” and a loss of “tender sentiment”.

I don’t know if you’ve ever suffered from torpor of the mind, but it’s a pain in the arse.

It tends to strike early in the morning when the alarm goes off and you think “oh fuck, I’ve got to go and do one task all day in a pin factory. And I was having a really nice dream where  I invented gravity-defying hopping shoes.”

What’s all this got to do with advertising, you might say ?

Very people are tasked with producing, say, only radio ads. Let alone just pins. But I’m talking about the damage done in the pursuit of efficiency.

We’ve seen the ad industry become a lot more efficient – but at what cost ? Nowadays it can efficiently turn out bland, invisible work faster than at any time in history.

Open-plan offices are an efficient use of space. But they are claustrophobic to work in and you won’t write Mad Men or Silver Linings Playbook while you’re in them.

It’s efficient to get rid of the maverick creatives who come up with the barking mad ideas – until you realise that without that craziness, creativity is just a production line that turns out pins.

It’s efficient not to have breaks – but people need breaks.

It’s efficient to work people really hard producing lots of ideas – but it burns them out, and you lose focus on the really great ones.

Now, I’m not advocating complete lawlessness.

Not unless you’re talking about my gravity-defying hopping shoes. All normal rules are suspended there.

No – you need a structure.  At HHCL, we had very tight processes – because we believed in the concept of “loose-tight”. Tight processes meant we could explore “loose”, i.e. unstructured, thinking.

But crucially those processes were put together by people who wanted to produce outstanding work, not just run their agency on leaner lines than the client’s procurement officers demanded, so that they could make more money.

Quantifiability in itself can damage creativity. Quantifiability leads to the notion that “if you have more, I will have less” – which is often true of  financial matters.

But it isn’t true of happiness, or love, or laughter, or creativity.

Creativity is a luxury and it needs things like – space, and time, and courage, and a sense of playfulness.

The World Wide Web, which is the most creative and amazing tool ever invented by human beings, was built on open-source thinking, i.e. sharing and collaborating. It was built by people like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who didn’t seek to make any money out of it at all.

Compare adland.

Which is sinking under a remorseless pursuit of an impossible efficiency.

And the ultimate irony is that it is not efficient at all. Most of the work produced is as disposable as an estate agent’s door drop. As a result, most clients are unhappy and would move accounts even more often than they already do, if it was easier to do so.

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The article first appeared of

Campaign India

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