Interesting versus right – revisited


If there is one defining philosophy of my approach to planning and strategic development it is the mantra that it is vital to be interesting but merely important to be right.

This is based on the observation that those that are preoccupied with finding the right solution very rarely turn up anything remotely interesting. While those that set out to try to find the most interesting solution are very often right too.

And that is important because it seems self evidently clear that being interesting is the social currency of our age.

I was recently asked to talk about this idea to a bunch of young planners at the Cannes Planning Academy and I thought it time to revisit the approach. Because I now suspect that whether you prioritise being interesting or right depends on the kind of value that you want to add.

And value is important because, quite frankly, no one needs planners. Perfectly good and effective advertising is created without planners and before planners emerged from the primeval swamp of JWT and BMP in the late 60s. You only have to look at CDP’s reassuringly expensive strategy for Stella Artois or the legendary work by DDB for Avis and VW to see brilliant and brilliantly effective plannerless work.

If planners aren’t needed, if you can get he job done without us then it becomes essential as a planner that you are adding value to an agency and to the clients business every single day.

And increasingly I think we add values in two different ways.

The first is what we might call constant optimisation. This is what most planners are doing on a daily basis, attempting to optimise an approach or solution to maximise its effectiveness. This might be through monitoring what people are talking about online, undertaking creative development research, understanding how a campaign has performed, building a communications strategy, improving the communication of a piece of work, briefing new work and so on. I see this role as much like that of a sheepdog marshaling a flock of sheep, heading off in one direction to bring the sheep back in the direction the shepherd wants them to go – in other words the course of the brand has been set and our job is to keep it on course. On the whole in this mode it is rather better to be right than interesting.

The second form of value is in periodic disruption. This is when as planners we imagine and construct a new future for a brand or business. A future that creates new value for our clients and in doing so creates new value for the agency. Clearly this kind of value is only delivered occasionally and when a change of direction is required.  The key ingredients in periodic disruption are imagination and audacity and so in this case it’s essential that you are interesting first and a right a rather distant second. I always think that Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron and Foster’s Millenium footbridge are brilliant examples of the philosophy of interesting first, right second. Olympic cauldrons are ordinarily single flames not a flame for each the competing nations, while suspension bridges simply do not have the suspension to the sides to improve the view as Foster’s does.

One of the great skills of a planner is the ability to move between these two different modes at will – to be able to force your brain to change gear when you want it to do something different. Other people in the client or agency team are able to spend most of their professional life in one or other state, planners can never restrict themselves to one approach to delivering value.

This is immensely important to me. As the world around us and notably our CEO’s, desperate to appear modern, insist on dividing planners into a multitude of sub groups and classifications, the reality is that planners are just, well planners and any planner incapable of delivering both optimisation and disruption is no kind of planner to me.

Here are the slides from Cannes

Image courtesy of Stock-free-images

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7 Replies to “Interesting versus right – revisited”

  1. As I’ve deviated away from the standard planning areas of operation over the last few years, it’s become apparent that the place that planning is needed least is advertising. It might be because there’s a signifiant planning ‘flywheel’ effect going on – there’s in-built momentum, in both client and agency side, to do things as if planning was there (even if it isn’t, or it’s poorly done). The machine keeps spinning. Whereas in other parts of businesses, the power of keen planning-style approaches seems to yield greater effects.

  2. Is there ever a ‘right’ solution though?! I think interesting masks right too often in terms of getting to real effectiveness, but also on the flip side interesting can make right…

  3. I think interesting/right is a false dichotomy. Is being interesting AND right impossible then?
    Planners should be something that you also mention in your text: useful.

    1. The point here is that it is possible to be interesting and right. But that this is far more likely to happen if you set out to find the most interesting answer rather than if your obsession is the right answer. Interesting is often right, right is rarely interesting.

  4. I like this relationship between interesting and right.
    I like it because being interesting, while assumptively more subjective, is enduring.
    I like it because right, is based on the assumption that the facts are correct, and is fleeting as new information the next day can make yesterday’s right today’s wrong in an instant.
    Interestingness pushes us somewhere new, rightness typically keeps us entrapped in what we know.

  5. It’s not a true dichotomy, the challenge is to be both right and interesting.

    But as you say, it’s better to start from the ‘interesting’ perspective.

    Dave Trott makes a similar point about creative impact. If something’s not interesting it’s effectively invisible. It’s simply ignored, so whether it’s right or wrong is irrelevant, because it has zero effect anyway.

    Howard Gossage once remarked: “People read what interests them,and sometimes it’s an ad”. That’s still true, even in the wider context of today’s more varied types of brand communications and media channels.

    How to be interesting is, of course, a whole different conversation. One that a lot of clients could benefit from having with their agencies.

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