Escaping the tyranny of being ‘right’.

I used to say strategy was about making the complex simple, and the simple complex.

Now I think it’s about making the complex simple, and then the simple interesting.

Interesting is where it’s at. Not just for creative inspiration purposes, but for the sake of getting literally anyone to care. 

Because: People. Don’t. Care. About. Brands.

People generally don’t even really care about products. We can talk about the attention economy and we can talk about the perfect balance of short and long term planning and we can talk about the relationships between scale and market share. But at the end of the day advertising exists to get people to remember things and build associations. That’s pretty much it. And both of those require people to care at least a little.

You don’t make people care by being correct. You make them care by being interesting. Take it from me, a former gifted child and recovering know-it-all. Being right is actually pretty easy. 

This is a truth that took me a very, very long time to learn. Because being “right” feels like success, as a strategist. If you can take a product and a market and explain the relationship between them in a way that feels just so, you will be praised for it. Colleagues will like you. Clients will feel like you get them. It’ll make an eventual award submission seem like puzzle pieces going together.

You won’t have helped nearly as much as you could have. Because the strategy being “right”, puts the entire burden on the creative team to make it interesting, and making the right thing into the interesting thing can feel like trying to date a nice person who you don’t have any spark with.

If the standard strategy process is basically Diagnosis (current situation), Strategy (what you want to change and why), Tactics (how you change it), then the role of the insight is to literally take an accurate description of the problem and make it one that people consider worth solving. This may be the biggest unlock for me, when it comes to the endless argument of “what is an insight” - I’ve described it as the “why” behind a human observation, that has a role for the brand or product. My boss/friend/mentor Max describes it as a new or deep understanding that leads to an opportunity. I think these are both good definitions, but hard to put into immediate action. 

A good insight makes a problem interesting. Most problems aren’t actually all that interesting.

A boring problem is “we want to sell 25% more ketchup”.

An interesting problem is “people don’t buy our ketchup because they grew up eating Heinz, ketchup is a comfort food condiment, and comfort food is about nostalgia”.

It’s a lot more interesting to figure out how to overcome nostalgia, and there won’t be a “right” answer. That’s the ticket: if you know your approach is right before you actually do it, you aren’t doing strategy. You’re doing tactics. (That’s not inherently a bad thing, it’s just a thing.)

Asking why anyone should care is the core question of most advertising. It’s what we really mean when we say “single focused message” or “reason to believe” or “a proof point” or even a sale or a discount. It’s all just reasons to get someone to care about something they probably wouldn’t have, otherwise. But that list of reasons to care is generally less effective than actually making the problem interesting.

Some people get this inherently. 

We’re living in a golden age of conspiracy theories, and that’s largely because they don’t only make STUFF interesting, they make the lives of individuals interesting. At a fundamental level, if you believe that the COVID vaccine is a government conspiracy rather than a triumph of science and public health, you have made life way more interesting. You’re wrong, and deluded, and a danger to yourself and others, but you’re also immediately recast in your own mind, as a bold truth-teller who is willing to stand up against the masses.

Conspiracy theories make things interesting by adding layers of mystery, and by allowing adherents to play pretend at being a bold revolutionary hero, while asking no more than hours of time on Facebook and the slow alienation of anyone who loves them.

Lots of standup comedians are great at this, and the connection between insight and comedy is a long standing trope that I won’t go in to, beyond saying one thing: the connection isn’t actually that both jobs are about understanding humans (which is what everyone says). The connection is that both jobs are about getting people to care about the mundane parts of life. 

You don’t pay to hear a comedian talk about relatable things. You pay to hear them take something you can relate to, and make you care about it and respond to it emotionally in ways you historically haven’t.

So. Strategy is about being interesting, more than it is about being “right”. Give that framing a shot next time you have a new project to crack.

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