There’s no debate: there are lots of advertising strategies that work

I once had a gig teaching debate and classical rhetoric to high school students. The neat thing about policy debate is that you have to see and present both sides of every issue. Not just grasp both sides: see both sides, believe both sides.

You can’t debate effectively if you’re just a cynical mouthpiece for something you don’t believe in. Winning requires adopting the framework, the paradigm, and articulating its strengths: the impacts of its methodologies, the power of its logic. In policy debate, you don’t have the luxury of deciding you are right, and then always claiming the high ground on the basis of correctness. You have to learn to invoke reason and internal logic, not authority. You also have to develop enough emotional strength — poise — to admit the weaknesses of your own favorite arguments, and to honor the strengths of your opponent’s substantiated claims.

Even when you continue to disagree, there is no authenticity in your own perspective if you lack the breadth of mind to see and admire much of your opponent’s point of view. It’s hard for kids, and after watching the bias of lots of parents while judging these debates, I began to conclude it’s nearly impossible for adults to learn these skills. But for the kids, it’s really cool to watch as, through this unnatural process, they morph into maturity. Not all debaters get it, but it’s really awesome to see young people awake to the ways in which an approach they want to hate might be superior to their preferred position.

This morning was a good reprise of that way of thinking, as I introduced myself to several different flavors of advertising agency. In the past, many of the agenices I’ve worked with seemed to prefer control of the ideas they espouse to authenticity and true persuasive clout. They wanted to put words into people’s mouths, rather than let them speak their mind and heart. But agencies are maturing with the rest of our culture, and I see a number of winning strategies working.

Whenever artists or creatives get together, they love to espouse the theories of their art. Every creative firm — or university, political party or musical genre for that matter — has its own ethos, paradigm, worldview. So as creative guns looking for an army, it’s important to realize there are lots of different ways we could be used in battle.

At one agency, I stated how impressed I am with their focus on marketing metrics. For them, communication is a scientific challenge, not an artistic adventure. In this view, it’s irresponsible to throw money at a communications problem without knowing precisely how the effort is changing perceptions and behavior. They are the Einstein who says “God does not roll dice” to the Niels Bohr-like creative innovators. [Bohr theorized, based on the work of Heisenberg, that you can’t look at an electron without losing track of its energy level and direction. Time proved Bohr right and Einstein wrong]. For this agency, to be professional means to decide ahead of time where our audience is, what will move them, and then introduce the persuasion vectors needed to effect that precise change. It strikes some of us as mechanistic, but the fact is a lot of valid results can be achieved in this way. And I love the precision of numbers, even if I sometimes doubt their accuracy.

At another agency, I commented on how refreshing it is to see a shop that lives or dies on the strength of its creative product. For this group, metrics aren’t in place to drive the campaign car… they’re just the GPS.  The creative team does the driving, as far off the roadmap as the clients will let them stray, and they use more intuition and artistry than science to evaluate the messages they create.

There is strength and power in each approach, and I can argue for or work on a team with either strategy.

And both teams can win. Both approaches are capable of recognizing the character basis of an authentic brand. Both approaches can move opinion, can improve sales or attract new customers. Both approaches can tell stories, deliver great creative, and frankly both approaches can completely miss the mark through any number of purely human foibles.

For me, the ideal approach involves a synthesis of both traditional camps, and that’s a balance that’s mighty tough to achieve. No one person can hit that balance. Only an eclectic team that brings multiple personality types to the process … and listens carefully before acting.

If the balance is struck, it won’t just be that creative and research learned to play nice together. From the top down, such an organization would have to make the toughest quantum leap of all: down to a lower orbit, from speaker to listener, from driver to passenger. In that climate, everything is tougher: writing, teaching, parenting, governing. Thomas Friedman is right: the world is flatter than ever….

Still, there are lots of winning strategies, so as long as we can either focus on great creative, or put the destination ahead of the fun along the way, those of us who create in the world of ideas will be able to find a niche.

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