Bless the Weirdo: Creativity and Innovation in Advertising

Peculiar is good, don’t let anyone tell you anything different. Having a skewed take on the world isn’t what you always want or need, but it is important to have free thinkers, dreamers, and mad geniuses in the company mix if you want to break though the play-it-safe realities of most businesses.

Back in the day David Ogilvy wrote a memo to his managers spelling out the characteristics he believed were central for the ideal candidate. “The person is ambitious. The person works harder than their peers—and enjoys it. The person has a brilliant brain—inventive and unorthodox. The person has an engaging personality. The person demonstrates respect for the creative function.” In other words, David Ogilvy was asking for someone dynamic, smart, and creative. Well who isn’t? But to me, the key words here are “unorthodox” and “engaging”. And whether you’re in advertising, product development, or probably any field for that matter, these two words set the stage for meaningful innovation.

The reason I say this is because take together they suggest an ability, and deep-seated need to break through boundaries and look at the world in an unexpected way. In an Ad Week article that appeared this week (and inspired my thinking), the authored phrased it this way: The person is confidently peculiar. And while I love and embrace this idea, it warrants a little deeper examination.

Regardless of the industry, but especially in advertising, lip service is given to the idea that collective thinking should be “inventive and unorthodox,” but it’s not always the case. Indeed, it rarely is. It’s a given, we assume, that people’s diverse points of view, training, interests, histories, and cultures result in original work. But sometimes that work needs to be influenced by peculiarity due to fear.

When we’re faced with the need to live in the question, most people, creators included, experience anything from unease to abject fear and paralyzing anxiety. From a purely biological perspective, acting in the face of uncertainty stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a primary seat of fear and anxiety. That sends a surge of chemicals through our bodies that makes us want to run. So when we start really letting the creative juices flow, we shut down or limit ourselves to staying within psychological and social parameters that are safe.

Additionally, we’re trained to be risk averse. Frequently, the people with power are in power because they are good at process. It’s their job to mitigate risk. And innovative thinking is the definition of risk. What that means is that when you really push the boundaries, you run the risk of being wrong (at least in the eyes of the people who often control your fate). Being wrong and the fear it creates stops us from embracing those strange ways of thinking that help us believe we can break boundaries, invent the next light bulb, and change the world. The result of all this discomfort and fear is that we often exclude the most inventive from the conversation and fall back on what we already know.

Which brings us back to the two words I mentioned at the beginning: “unorthodox” and “engaging”. By unorthodox I mean will to break with tradition, with social norms, with standard practices. These are the people who frequently drive PMs and Account people batty, but they’re necessary to challenge the status quo. Partly it’s to help break through the noise in the moment, but the unorthodox, the half mad, create a liminal state. When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. The result of turning the world on its head for a brief time is to create a “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. The unorthodox position creates a challenge to one’s self and sets the stage for more creative thinking.

Engaging means more than fearlessness and confidence. It means being able to captivate. Without a sense of security in their weirdness, these personalities would suppress the very thing that makes them interesting. But given the chance and space to embrace and even enhance their oddity, these characters are able to inject it into any particular creative pursuit of their choosing. This is what makes the story sing and gives life to the unorthodox approach to solving the problem at hand. Engaging doesn’t just mean entertaining, it means convincing, transformational, and true.

Put together, these two characteristics lead to re-envisioning the world. Because people like this stand somewhat outside the norm, they serve as catalysts and gateways to a creative space we’re often afraid to go. Keep the peculiar, the weird, the unrelenting close at hand. You may not see their value in a clear-cut way but the pay off can be seismic.






Data, Advertising, and the Death of Forests

In every aspect of business right now, companies collect data until they see a pattern that appears statistically significant, and then they use that tightly selected data to drive decisions. The problem is, we assume that the data has merit, that it is objective, and that it holds the answers that will change the way business is done. Data is anything but objective because there are always humans involved. Critics have come to call the problem p-hacking and the practice uses a quiver of little methodological tricks that can inflate the statistical significance of a finding:

  • Conducting analyses midway through experiments to decide whether to continue collecting data
  • Recording many response variables and deciding which to report post analysis
  • Deciding whether to include or drop outliers post analyses
  • Excluding, combining, or splitting treatment groups post analysis
  • Including or excluding covariates post analysis
  • Stopping data exploration if an analysis yields a significant p-value

Add it all up, and you have a significant problem in the way our society produces knowledge. Increasingly, we desperately try to reduce the vast complexity of the world into a series of statistics that we can use to try to comprehend what’s happening. As if staring at the numbers long enough will give us the secrets of the universe. We divest brands of meaning, devalue the art of marketing, and fixate on sample size. But the world is a bit more complex than that. And when we get it wrong, it can be a disaster.

In the second half of the 18th century, Prussian rulers wanted to know how many natural resources they had in the forests of the country. So, they started counting. And they came up with these huge tables that would let them calculate how many board-feet of wood they could pull from a given plot of forest. All the rest of the forest, everything it did for the people and the animals and general ecology of the place was discarded from the analysis.

But the world proved too unruly. Their data wasn’t perfect. So they started creating new forests, the Normalbaum, planting all the trees at the same time, and monoculturing them so that there were no trees in the forest that couldn’t be monetized for wood. Based on the data at hand they began to transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that could be controlled.

And for the first hundred years or so, the scheme worked. But then the forests started dying. The complex ecosystem that underpinned the growth of these trees through generations were torn apart by the rigor of the Normalbaum. The nutrient cycles were broken. Resilience was lost. The hidden underpinnings of the world were revealed only when they were gone.

Now, take the ad-supported digital media ecosystem. The idea is brilliant: capture data on people all over the web and then use what you know to show them relevant ads, ads they want to see. Not only that, but because it’s all tracked, an advertiser can measure what they’re getting more precisely. And the spreadsheet makes an awful lot of sense at first. Unfortunately, looking at data alone overlooks the peculiarities and complexities of the human experience. Because data is very good at answering how and what, we assume it can also answer why. This is in fact rarely the case.

Advertisers and ad-tech firms want to capture user data to show them relevant ads. They want to measure their ads more effectively. But placed into the real-world, the system that grew up around these desires has reshaped the media landscape in unpredictable ways.

We’ve deceived ourselves into thinking data is a camera, but in fact, it is an engine. Capturing data about something changes the way that something works. Even the mere collection of stats is not a neutral act, but a way of reshaping the thing itself.

There are numerous quotes about how important data is, and how decisions should always be backed by data. Data is one perspective. What your users are saying is another perspective. What you internally want to do is another. What makes financial sense is another. To make a decision you gather the perspectives that matter to you, weight them according to your judgment and then make your call. Data is a false god. You can tag every link, generate every metric, and run split tests for every decision, but no matter how deep you go, no matter how many hours you invest, you’re only looking at one piece of the puzzle.




Shaping Personal Identity through brands

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to asses certain product attributes in a holistically manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process.

Nothing new in that idea. But if we step back a moment and let ourselves expand on that thinking, it opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will tend to choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.

Tourists have been classified by the longevity of their travel experiences, their impact on the communities they visit, their choice of activities, and the level of institutionalization of their movements. “Authenticity” might seem to come into conflict with reality when the mood and continuity are broken. Or it might just be the juxtaposition is our new normal.

Art, Science, and Blurred Lines

Research is not as “objective” as many of its practitioners, and buyers, would like to believe. Certainly this holds true in terms of market research. We construct complex statistical models, fret over the dreaded “leading question” and cloak ourselves in the guise of science, but in doing so we sometimes miss the bigger point – we’re here to discover, innovate and develop real insights. Good research doesn’t exist to validate our worth by positioning ourselves as simple, detached observers of the rational. It isn’t about regurgitating facts (which are not the same things as insights). We often seem to forget that while we strive toward objectivity, the whole enterprise is subject to larger political, economic, and social forces. Paradigms dominate thought and research practices until new paradigms develop. The result is that many opportunities are lost because they simply don’t fit the accepted way of doing things. Hence our propensity for embracing rational, seemingly objective science and dismissing art. But art often includes elements of commentary, irony and critique missing from “serious” research. What if we step back and start to think about how they two can and should influence each other?

First, the arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research, of experimentation and of learning. Rather than focusing on standardization and outcomes, the focus is in the act of creating. This is a significantly different way of thinking because the focus is on the interdependence of symbols and looking for new modes of expression that may well run counter to the hypothesis from which we work. It is holistic and concerned less with constructing norms than it is with viewing norms from an angle, so to speak.

This isn’t to suggest throwing out using systematic investigative processes to uncover behavior and meaning. It is suggesting that we broaden the definition of how we “know” what we know and expand the options both the researcher and the participant have in the field. Using painting or sculpting as a means of articulating an idea, practice or belief engages the participant with the concept in question rather than the researcher or question itself. The interaction is, at the beginning, focused on the interaction between person, concept and medium. As the artwork unfolds, the researcher is in a position to develop new questions, comment on the ideas expressed and explore concepts that 1) might not normally be discussed or 2) might be too sensitive for the participant to normally address honestly. By using art as a means of expression and exploration, both researcher and participant become part of a shared exchange rather than a negotiated one.

But art is more than free expression. It isn’t as simple as putting clay or paint brush in hand. Several traditions of the arts uniquely equip participants and it’s helpful to construct assignments with these in mind:

  • Whimsy: Focusing on radical symbolism, the participant-artist is encouraged to incorporate criteria such as celebration, fantasy and wonder into mundane objects and services.
  • The Outcast Approach: Artistic traditions of iconoclasm allow the participant-artist to take up lines of inquiry and expression that are often devalued by others.
  • The Exalted: The positivist approach and valuing of social commentary means the participant-artist is likely to integrate cultural issues in their work that reflect broader concepts.
  • Steam Punk Wonder: Casting the participant-artist as outside utopian/dystopian discussion around technology and change, means the participant-artist can bring the scientific and technological possibilities to a wider expression unbound by “logical” constraints.


There are of course other approaches to how the stage is set, but the point is simple. Artistic valuing of creativity and innovation means new perspectives can possibilities can be revealed in very evocative ways. That leads to new ways of thinking about what we sell and how we sell it.


Second, because the results are something that requires depth and explanation of a symbolic nature, the artwork produced, it by definition communicates research findings in provocative ways that are often far more effective than a the traditional bar graph or interview snippet. The people we conduct research with approach messages, products and problems in ways quite different than those of the people who make and sell things. Artwork serves as a powerful tool in helping consumers and users articulate meaning in a way that businesses can’t ignore.

Of course there are the skeptics who often wonder what contribution artists, both internally and as research subjects, can make to serious research (funny the tables are rarely turned with the artist asking what an MBA or a research guru can contribute to the creative experience). It’s all too subjective, after all, and can’t be readily defined in metrics. But the truth is, art can augment research and its outcomes in numerous ways. First, and perhaps the most obvious, artwork produced by participants can define new questions while conducting the research. This leads to uncovering unorthodox interpretations of products and messages, articulating wide opportunities and perspectives. Valuable lines of inquiry die from lack of support because they are not within favor of particular scientific disciplines. New technologies with fascinating potential are abandoned because they are judged not marketable. I am worried that the invisible hand of the marketplace might not be so wise as many would like to believe. The judgments that make short term sense for stockholders do not make sense for the culture.

I am not suggesting that an objectivist approach be thrown out and that art and science should attempt to become on and the same. However, I am suggesting that the two need not be so separated from each other when we’re looking for insights and information. Research is, or can be, a creative act. The more we separate the two, the less likely we are to make any unique contributions to a business. Just as science strives toward objectivity, art cultivates metaphor, subjectivity and deviation from the rules that govern the day to day existence. The research and insights produced from this way of learning look decidedly different from the deliverables produced by traditional researchers, but therein lies the advantage. The findings provoke and move audiences.


Healthcare and Branding

We all know the perils in marketing healthcare, whether we’re talking about pharmaceuticals, services, or devices. While there is a mythology created about the world’s best clinics and the world’s most affective treatments, the fears people harbor about healthcare tend to drive the conversation – medication side effects, the wait at the office, the horror stories of infection, etc. Healthcare has responded over the years by giving a list of positive attributes about their offerings, whether it’s in the for of drug efficacy and touting the skills of hospital’s staff. Though a necessary element to be sure, this “promise of good” also serves to create a barrier between the makers of treatments, the people in clinical settings, and the people using them. Patients are reminded that they are “foreigners” in another land, healthcare providers are reduced to a series of data points, and care givers are left on the periphery of our thinking because we, as marketers, spend such little time thinking about the nature of identity and how it can be used to enhance an experience.

The ways that health is invoked in the formation of identity and subjectivity is central to understanding how people internalize your brand. This is because identity as it is constructed in relation to the choice of finding a solution to a problem (deciding on a medication, a doctor, a pharmacy, etc.) touches on fundamental issues in social science; namely the workings of power in relation to social differentiation and senses of self and other. Heavy stuff, but the point is simple – healthcare isn’t about a commodity, it is about the people who use it and how they construct their notions of “self.”

It is the verb to identify and not the noun “identity” that opens the richest analytical perspectives. The verb makes identity a process that happens between people, not individuals and the institution. Social identity is a game of playing roles. Offering a list of attributes or services means little in this sense because the decisions about where to go and how to select a product or provider are bound up in interactions, metaphor and story telling. The lists brands and healthcare providers supply differ little from one another in the consumer’s eyes and serve only to enhance the already enormous sense of distance between the healthcare worker and the person seeking attention. Identities work and are worked.

There is often an overlap between the people seeking treatment from the brands used and the people in the medical facility, for people sharing a common problem. Between the two poles of identity politics, the collective social roles of doctor/patient and the personal, different balances are made between common diagnosis and treatment efforts and individual endeavors to rework a devalued identity.  The same can be said about the treatment(brand)/patient interaction. In other words, the lines between healthcare worker (be it doctor, nurse or physical therapist) and the company supplying a treatment are increasingly challenged in an age where identity can be so readily reconstructed according to setting.

Whereas an older generation of social scientists was concerned with the relation between health and bioidentities like race, gender and age, we must now examine the ways that diagnostic technology actually creates social difference and social groupings. Maybe this is beginning to happen even in developing countries: In Uganda, people who have been screened for HIV are encouraged to join post-test clubs. Therapeutic technology can also form the basis for bio-sociality as in the case of support groups for people who have had mastectomies, colostomies, and transplants, or who are on lifelong antiretroviral therapy.

By describing patterns of social interaction morality, and meaning, they suggest the processes through which assumptions and consciousness about health assume significance. They are richly textured because the researchers have talked to many kinds of people and considered the multiplicity of domains in social life. The differentiated picture shows not only the uneven seepage of science and medicine into social life, but also the uneven effects of different social conditions on the possibilities for the formation of health identities.

What all of this means is that the age of commoditized healthcare, like the age of commoditized shopping, is at a crossroads. Smart brand teams will rethink the way healthcare is marketed, focusing less on a list of attributes and sterile claims, and more on the shared experience of the different parties in the healthcare exchange. The doctors in these systems already treat and administer to the “self.” It’s time for the system itself to does the same.