In an article from today’s New York Times , Steve Jobs makes one of the simplest, strongest cases for not testing creative I’ve seen in a long time. When asked what consumer and market research Apple does to guide the development of new products, Jobs replied: “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” I read this article on a crowded commuter train on my NYT iPhone app, and couldn’t help but smile. A few years ago, I didn’t know I needed the morning paper on my phone. Now I can’t commute without it.
As I do with many creative nuggets, I scribbled these words on an index card and pinned it in plain sight. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Is it possible to set a higher creative bar? Do you feel like walking your last clever but typical marketing campaign behind the barn and starting over? I do.
Whether product development, industrial design or a new ad campaign, the takeaway is that green-lighting creative requires a different set of criteria, and more times than not, that criteria is the pure gut instinct of a slightly obsessed person (a client, an agency, a creative team) driven to produce something totally original. If you don’t believe Steve Jobs, about 90 years earlier, Henry Ford said the same: “If I listened to the public, I’d be making faster horses.”
The takeaway is: embracing, approving, selling and eventually producing creative is an art. It takes experience. It involves risk. But mostly, it’s a desire by a person or a small team to do something really inspiring. You can’t always defend an idea in a pitch meeting, other than saying, “this is just something my friends would love.” Yet, that’s often the best reason for producing it, a gut instinct based on someone’s life experiences that can’t always be put into words. Yet, it’s the perfect reason why something is spot-on. And if that thought doesn’t scare you enough, what else is true is that to succeed in marketing, you basically have to subscribe to this gut instinct theory. (If you own an iPod, congratulations, you’re already a subscriber.) There is no way to measure ideas, least of all by a dozen strangers sitting around a conference room in front of a two-way mirror. That’s a falsely critical consumer environment, and more importantly, not how anyone receives, consumes and shares marketing ideas. No one in a focus group in 1995 could imagine having 10,000 songs in their pocket, not to mention Angry Birds, The Economist and last week’s episode of 30 Rock. No consumer knew they wanted it until they saw it in the real world, until their friends embraced it, until it started bubbling up from the deepest nooks and crannies of pop culture.
This insight that consumers don’t know what they want isn’t new. Back at DDB, I took my standard issue copy of “Bill Bernbach’s Book” to heart, committing it to memory and also committing to its principles. (It’s still the only book any creative needs.) Bernbach wrote: “We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.” He was right then, just as Ford before him and Jobs today.
The answer to all this, ironically, is research. If measuring ideas is the absolute wrong way to judge creative, then research, and tons of it, at the beginning of a project is the exact right thing to do. This is where measurement thrives. Observing trends, knowing technology, understanding passions and identifying media consumption are non-negotiable steps that must be taken on every assignment. Only research can answer questions like, what is the target doing right now? Where will this industry be in 3, 5, 10 years? What trending piece technology can we leverage to make this succeed? You have to immerse yourself in the product, you have to take the factory tour, you have to know the brand, its vocabulary, its fans, its competition, its advantages, its obstacles. Only research can frame the assignment through this process and point creative in the right direction. But at some point, all the research, all the surveys, all the consumer interviews, everything you can possibly know about an assignment has to stop and creative has to begin. And at that point, you have to ask yourself: what does the consumer want that they don’t even know they want?
The answer won’t measurable. You’ll just know it when you feel it.