December 12, 2012

Best of 2012: What Makes An Ad Person Exceptional?

Today we continue my pseudo-intellectual quest to avoid work by publishing my second selection among my 10 favorite posts of 2012. It's from February 13, 2012 and it's called "What Makes An Ad Person Exceptional?"

I went out to dinner the other night and got food poisoning. Consequently, I spent the remainder of the night in a cold sweat crawling between my bed and my bathroom.

Fortunately there were some lucid moments that were free of both gastric distress and prayers for a quick death. During one of these moments I had a flash of insight.

For years I have been trying to figure out what makes some ad people so much better than  average ad people. There are some people who are just so superior at it than others.

They seem to have an intuitive understanding of what's going to work and what's not going to work. They are not deluded by marketing banalities or expert opinions. They draw their conclusions from a kind of mysterious personal understanding rather than conventional wisdom. I've spent a lot of hours trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes them exceptional.

My previous theories about this have been too intellectual. I have hypothesized that they have a deeper psychological understanding of human motivation. But I've never really been happy with this explanation. It seems very much like a tautology.

Then the other night, slithering on hands and knees across the bedroom floor, it struck me. There's a much simpler and more satisfying explanation. The attribute that makes some people exceptional at advertising is that they're extraordinary at noticing things. They're prodigious noticers.

They notice what people really do. They notice what people have in their refrigerators. They notice the little lies that people tell themselves and each other. They notice the contradictions between attitudes and behaviors. They notice the small, seemingly irrelevant things that most people don't notice.

Average advertising people are good listeners. Exceptional advertising people are good noticers.

Good musicians have an intuitive quality that is hard to explain. To an average person, a song is a pattern of rhythm and a series of notes. But a good musician can hear and understand the hidden structure of a song. She intuitively understands how the music is built. She can listen to it once and play it.

Good ad people can do the same. They can hear people talk about their buying habits and intuitively understand the hidden structure of their behavior.

I believe this is the result of a remarkable ability to notice things.

Also, I now understand the origin of deep insights -- food poisoning. Next time I get a poop smoothie I'm going to direct my focus toward figuring out where the hell the universe came from and win myself a Nobel Prize.


Unknown said...

The point about 'intuition'...yes, you nailed it. It's all empathy-based. It's natural pattern recognition. The best are like method actors - they can't help but become the person. Not the award show judge or the client - but the person they are trying to reach.

That's what finds an insight and what tells them how to connect it, or how it should be absorbed. It's also about reassembling the random ideas around us to create something new...adding sparks of wit or wordsmithing or visual craft or seamless UX or's just...gut.

But gut is rarely listened to or given any respect by anyone else except those who have it. When you get a rare glimpse of it, you realize not many do have it. Even those who have proven time and time again they do have it still have to explain every gut feel, which doesn't always translate into antiseptic pre-determind 'insight' boxes.

Yet gut is the only thing that really seems to ever work. (Most of the time at least, because even the gut can be wrong).

The problem is, it's unquantifiable, impossible to clone, there's no method or process or system, beyond hiring the right talent. And that talent is expensive. Or eccentric. Or that person who shrugs off all the head-nodding formulas to stand behind what their gut says.

This business doesn't like the idea of 'gut.' No, it's too human and imperfect and prone to whim and emotion and illogical behavior and millions of other silent breezes affecting the unconscious...

...much like the very same people we're trying to reach.


Nicely written, Tim

Steve Schildwachter said...

Fantastic insight. "Noticing" requires one to be aware. A good way to develop awareness is curiosity. As the changes keep coming in adland, curiosity will be more and more a survival skill.
It's the road less taken.