Daniel Burstein

Informed Dissent: The best marketing campaigns come from the best ideas

“There are no bad ideas.” When I was an advertising copywriter, this is the line we would always use to enter a realm of, essentially, suspension of disbelief and start concepting our next ad. The idea being that, even if I come up with the absolute worse idea, it might spark a concept in my art director partner that would eventually lead us down the road to riches for our client and our names engraved on a gold One Show pencil.

But, of course, there are bad ideas. And according to an article in Ode magazine about research into ways to spur creativity and innovation, those bad ideas are…well…bad…

“These revelations are all the more potent considering that many organizations continue to embrace the ‘brainstorming’ technique developed by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the 1950s. According to Osborn’s now debunked system, criticism and conflict squash new ideas and should be discouraged; in hindsight, those brainstorming sessions of yore were more likely to act as echo chambers in which bad ideas were amplified by fake enthusiasm.”

“In praise of dissent” by Jeremy Mercer

A dissident is here

In essence, to get better marketing work, you must not be pulled into the groupthink.

And, while this is the first time I have personally heard anyone admonish the idea of reality-free brainstorming, dissent shouldn’t be a radically new idea, right?

More than 50 years ago, General Patton said, “If everybody’s thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.” More recently, we’ve heard the bland embellishments to “think outside of the box.” And yet…

So many times we don’t. From the financial crisis to the heap of blasé, color-by-numbers marketing that proliferates across the Web, so many people don’t pop their head out of the cubicle and say, “Our current way of doing things isn’t a good idea.”

Why?

Hang on, Voltaire

It’s not easy now, is it? It’s hard to be the outsider. It’s hard to tell the group, “You’re all wrong and I’m right.” It’s hard to, perhaps, put your job on the line by separating from the pack.

As Voltaire said a few hundred years ago… “Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.” Pretty harsh. Can you imagine how much more biting those words would be if he ever had to ask for a LinkedIn Recommendation from a former co-worker that he publicly disagreed with?

But, perhaps, as with marketing itself, it’s all how you communicate your dissent? Both your attitude and approach? To wit…

So, how do you disagree agreeably?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this as well, but here are a few ways I’ve learned to buck the status quo in my career…

  • Ask questions – “That’s a horrible idea, our audience will hate us for it.” Or… “That’s an interesting idea. How do you think our audience will react if we sell our list to Viagara salesmen from Nigeria?” When you disagree, the last thing you want is a battle of wills, head-to-head confrontation.

    Put your ego away for a moment, and serve simply as the advocate for the idea. The best (and most non-confrontational) way to bring someone along to your side is by giving them gentle triggers to aspects they may not have considered. This way, they are discovering why an idea won’t work, instead of having you ram it down their throats. This also helps them (and you) save face. After all, no one wants to lose a head-to-head battle.

    As in the movie “Inception,” you can’t plant an idea in someone’s head, only introduce the seed, nurture it, and hope to watch it grow.

  • See things differently – In the famous “Think Different” TV ad, Richard Dreyfuss talks about those who “gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels.” You don’t have to be quite that visionary, but simply looking at everyday things in a new way can help.

    Take data, for example. I was very impressed by a comment by Greg Sherry, VP, Marketing and Business Development, Verint Systems. During his MarketingSherpa B2B Summit 2010 presentation, he mentioned that he invested in direct mail because he read in a MarketingSherpa Benchmark Report that less marketers were investing in direct mail. He figured he’d have less competition. How counterintuitive.

    Or in a recent article by Adam T. Sutton about the origin story of Orabrush’s YouTube sponsor channel, which is second only to Old Spice. This small business sponsored market research by a college class and found that 92% of people wouldn’t want to buy this product online, so the class advised against it. One dissident student raised his hand and said, “That means 8% might be interested in buying it online. That’s millions of people.”

  • Let others challenge you – Here’s what Jeremy Mercer advises in the above-referenced Ode magazine article:

    o Have executives lead by example by allowing subordinates to challenge their positions
    o Hold meetings at which diverse perspectives are welcomed
    o Surround yourself with people who think differently than you do.

  • Be right – There’s nothing worse than putting yourself on the line for a cause and being wrong. Don’t create “facts” that support your decisions, base your decisions on the facts. A great way to do this is with real-world, real-time online testing. In this way, you can experiment with your dissident idea as well as the ideas you disagree with and let your customers be the judge. Just make sure you know what those test results really mean.

In the end, you have to be a little bit Patton (the hard-nosed general shepherding an idea past any obstacle), and a little bit Voltaire (the outspoken writer finding creative means around strict censorship to criticize your organization’s dogma).

Related Resources

Marketing Wisdom: In the end, it’s all about…

The Last Blog Post: To understand life is to understand marketing

From Corporate America to Entrepreneur: Giving up steady pay for a steady say

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  1. March 18th, 2011 at 08:53 | #1

    Thanks for some thought-provoking prose, Daniel.

    I’d like to think I have spent much of my 30-year career as a dissident and as a foe of groupthink. And while I wouldn’t change much, I will concede that it has been a double-edged sword for me.

    As a journalist, it led me to page-one scoops but I regularly missed what a lot of my peers saw and reported.

    As a consultant, I have had no difficulty distinguishing the counsel I offer from what everyone else is saying, but I have too often disagreed disagreeably. One of the things that has come with experience and grey hair has been an approved ability to, as you put it, gently bring someone along to my side.

    As an employer, I believe I encourage challenge and debate within my team but I am also sure that some potentially good people have left us because they found the environment too critical.

    As with all things in life, dissent doesn’t have to be a binary proposition.

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