None Of Us Is As Dumb As All Of Us
I “borrowed” that from one of those Demotivator posters. If you’re wondering why someone with my cynical outlook on life needs a demotivation poster, just remember that sad sacks love to wallow in misery. And oh, how I love the wallowing. It’s a great site for realizing just how fucked up so much of the business world is; and this comes from someone who worked in an office full of the original motivational posters that make you want to hang yourself with Roseanne Barr’s thong.
So enough of the horseshit intro; what’s this rant all about?
It was inspired by the recent lump of festering shit designed for Colorado Springs, an abhorrence that slid out of the puckered anus of local “design” firm Stone Mantel (sounds like something cold that supports crap from Goodwill…hmm, the irony).
When I first saw it on The Denver Egotist I thought it was a joke. Nice one! Even worse than the Fort Collins travesty, but there’s no way this malodorous boil is real. Good old Egotist, always one for larks and japes and…
I wasn’t exactly expecting Pentagram quality, but this thing looks like the kind of rotten puke you see in student books; the stuff that means you have to break it to the hopeful brat that they’re better off flipping burgers than polluting the world with their lack of design skills.
Actually, it’s worse. And that’s because it reeks of design by committee.
This is one of the biggest problems I see with the advertising, marketing and design industries. And it’s also prevalent in movies (oh god, the shite movies we now have to endure), music, product design and almost everything else that we encounter on a daily basis. You can see the hands of wannabe artists, designers and writers everywhere, who sit behind a desk crunching numbers for most of the day. But when they get to review work, they get to show just how damned talented they really are.
Design by committee is rife in advertising and design, but could never exist in some professions. Here’s a quick example. Imagine a surgeon performing an operation, only he’s joined by a bunch of other people, including: his boss; a surgeon who hates his guts; an intern; the secretary; the girl from accounting who he’s been fucking at night; and the mailroom guy.
Just as the surgeon is about to make his first incision, there’s immediate opposition.
Asshole surgeon: “Whooah, is that the best place to cut? We need to discuss this at length. And that scalpel is all wrong.”
Intern: “We should probably have coffee and look at these charts I pulled on the best place to make first incisions. It includes new data from focus groups.”
Secretary: “Do we even need to cut him at all? That seems harsh, perhaps we can massage the failing liver back to health and burn some incense.”
Account girl: “Statistically, we shouldn’t even go near this cut. The legal team says it could open us up to lawsuits, and that means more expenditure. We should probably go somewhere private, together, and talk this over.”
Mailroom guy: “Cut him now! Big cut! Let’s see blood!”
Boss: “I say we make a small cut in a different area, one less likely to cause visual trauma, remove a small part of the liver, put a small part of the new liver in there, sew him up and then put this all on the back burner while we wait for the results to come in. Let’s see how he performs.”
Surgeon: “OK…making incision.”
Asshole surgeon: “Hey, we need to talk about the shape of the incision, the depth and so many other factors. We should take this offline and run the numbers.”
You get the picture. It’s ridiculous to think of it in those terms, but it’s exactly what happens in advertising and design. And it’s not too much of a stretch to consider the client and their product as a patient in need of medical assistance.
Their brand is dying, their sales are on life support, they need a solution, and quickly. But opinions are allowed to grow and flourish from all sides. Everyone’s thoughts matter. Even people who have never created an ad, or wrote copy, are allowed to directly influence the copy and art direction.
“How about this headline?”
“Oh, yes Julia I like that. But maybe not so bold, and let’s add a call to action in there along with Justin’s idea about combining those two headlines from the other campaign.”
“Brilliant! Let’s get a focus group together for even more opinions!”
Clients, account managers, planners, they all have their place. But they rarely stay in it. Creative territory, and to some extent the strategic side of the business, seem to be fair game to everyone else. If a creative, like an art director, asked to see the fiscal projections for the next quarter, and supplied a spreadsheet with numbers that he or she liked, there would be hell to pay. But anyone, and I mean anyone, has a valid opinion when it comes to the business we’re trained in.
Oh sure, it’s sometimes disguised as self-deprecating verbiage, but you can see straight through that. How many times have you heard these gems:
“Look, I’m no copywriter but have you tried something like…”
“I’m not a designer, but I’m thinking we could try this color…”
“You’ll figure out how to make this much better, but what about…”
Before you know it, your sketch pad is filled with “suggestions” from the clients and your own management team, and you have to bite what’s left of your tongue, go back to your corner of the office and turn something great into something mediocre. And then repeat the process a few dozen times until everyone can agree that they don’t hate it.
It’s the equivalent of taking a car into the shop with a leaking engine, and picking up a completely jalopy with a new paint job after 3 months and $100k in expenses.
So, how do we solve this?
It’s solvable, but it requires an incredible amount of discipline and trust from both the client and the agency.
First, the client must have one decision-maker. ONE. And that person must be in the loop from the start. That doesn’t mean the CEO, it means one person responsible for signing off on the finished project. That means the CEO and the board has to go with that person’s decision. Like I say, trust. But really, if one retarded monkey had sat down with crayons and designed The Springs logo, and another retarded monkey signed off on it, would it be any worse than the one the fucking committee agreed to?
It also means that the agency must get a very specific creative brief, signed off on by the main decision-maker. And it means the agency must put its foot down when the client asks for god-awful changes. To put it bluntly, fuck them. They don’t know what they’re doing; if they did they wouldn’t need an agency. Steve Jobs said that he refused to test the iPad before it went to market. He knew people don’t know what they want and it would score badly. So he took the “fuck you” path and released it. It’s now the most popular tablet by a large margin.
Jobs also had to put his own money into the infamous 1984 commercial. The committee hated it. He loved it. And we all know how that turned out.
The agency must also put a limit on brainstorms between all kinds of people. A team is great, but I honestly believe three’s a crowd. Bernbach wanted the art director and copywriter to work together to formulate ideas. It worked great. I don’t ever seen great work coming from brainstorms with five or six people in the room. Too many cooks. Too many opinions. Ideas get left on the table because one person in the room isn’t keen. Other ideas get pushed because the group likes them. Generally, when we think in large groups, we play safe and the tepid ideas rise to the top. There are notable exceptions (Pixar), but not many.
If we want less of this Colorado Springs crap, we all need to start putting our own houses in order. Solid direction, one main decision-maker, small teams and no more of these big group brainstorms. Try it. You’ll save time, money and the sanity of the talented people around you.
Felix Unger is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you're ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He has been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.