Any idea simultaneously held by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove has a strong likelihood of being nonsense. But it’s dangerous nonsense, and particularly dangerous to us in the communications industry, because it seems to be one of our favourite breeds of nonsense.
In our industry, people like to talk about great men and their great ideas. We swap stories round the camp fire of our favourite titan of the industry who didn’t listen to the nay-sayers, who wouldn’t compromise his vision, who did it ‘his way’. Timid clients, spineless suits, sheep-like consumers: these minnows all tried to thwart his lonely genius. But he was greater, funnier, cleverer. He ‘just did it’.
There’s something in this Objectivist account of advertising that doesn’t get said. Why did the client oppose this fountainhead of genius? What were the objections of the ‘petty-minded’? Why wouldn’t anyone pay for his idea to run?
What’s missing from the account is discussion. Decision-by-discussion is the life-blood of our industry, but it’s not very heroic and rarely makes a good story. When the discussion doesn’t go your way, you get to call it ‘dithering’. And everyone knows what we think of dithering.
Why is discussion so important? Because there is more than one way to skin a cat. This may seem like a truism, but it’s not. It’s a fundamental part of life in an organised society. The great Karl Popper posited the idea of a ‘political economy of knowledge’, in which no one individual could lay claim to the possession of the truth. “Our knowledge can only be finite,” he said, “whereas our ignorance is necessarily infinite.” In the face of this partial view of truth, he suggested that we ought to trust in the marketplace of ideas – that different truths ought to compete for our consideration, and rise and fall on their falsifiability and utility. Put simply, he thought that none of us are as smart as all of us.
The implication of this idea of a marketplace of ideas is that the bigger the marketplace, and the more transparent its operation, the more trust you can place in its product. Ideas are suggested, accepted, rejected, refined or reformed. Different perspectives are brought to bear on the same problem. Different assumptions tested, different opinions held. Disputes will arise, because it is possible for intelligent and sincere people to hold different opinions. But if you manage these disputes with skill, new and better ideas can emerge. In the end, successful ideas will have many fathers (and mothers!); the unsuccessful ones will be orphans. By listening, discussing, disagreeing and debating – in other words, by ‘dithering’ – we are far more likely to succeed than by ‘just doing it’.
To apply this thinking to a modern advertising agency, you have to make some pretty radical changes. You have to deliberately invite a wide range of opinions, and be open minded enough to take them seriously. You have to encourage everyone to be a client, everyone to be a consumer, everyone to be a planner, and everyone to be a creative. You have to be brave enough to let go of your ideas, and let other people add to them and develop them further. You have to open up.
This sounds tough; scary even. But like all the truly great ideas, it’s not original. Bill Bernbach used to carry a card with him which he would take out whenever he was debating an idea with a client. The card read: “He might be right.”
Michael Follett is senior VP strategy & planning, DDB Mudra, Mumbai