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A Structural Flaw

  |  March 13, 2002   |  Comments

Ask questions. Expect answers. Don't settle for the geese, the salmon, or 'bidirectional change propagation.'

Imagine a bit of optimization technology called, say, "Snorgletux." (I know, the name sounds like that of a cute cartoon character that will finish its serviceable life as a green doll in a future McDonald's Happy Meal. But don't be distracted.)

Snorgeltux is serious business. Legions of programmers have spent months working on it. The company has said, publicly, it's betting its future on Snorgletux.

And who wouldn't? It's got algorithms here, intelligent agents there. It's all built on an industry-rocking Web services framework that will simplify integration and enable your suppliers to know things not just in real time but in surreal time.

In fact, your suppliers are going to know things before even you know them.

Plus, it allows for something called "bidirectional change propagation" throughout your value chain (and you thought that was still illegal in several southern states).

Snorgletux 1.0 is almost ready for launch.

Not too surprisingly -- indeed, it almost goes without saying -- this grand innovation is something that must be thrust upon unsuspecting markets, because, well, no one has bothered to ask any users if they really want or need such a thing.

The chief architect of Snorgletux, a mysterious, large man with only one extended eyebrow and one name, Ginderpinthas, scoffs at the mere suggestion of predevelopment market research.

"What would you ask? How would they understand it?" Ginderpinthas asked (actually, they weren't queries so much as authoritative noises), while wolfing down half a package of chocolate Pinwheel cookies.

Your marketing team has arranged for a series of "product briefings," during which the ad agency will become familiar with the basics of Snorgeltux.

In coming weeks, you expect to see iterations of launch-related marketing materials: print ads, Web content, brochures, e-zine sponsorship copy, and, yes, a series of email messages, including a FLASH-based teaser to your customer base and an invitation to an upcoming Webcast featuring Ginderpinthas himself.

Let's now put this scenario on pause and make a few quick predictions:

  • The campaign creative concept will feature an evocative image of geese or salmon (but not Rotarians at a convention) yearning to return home.
  • Alternately, it will feature a bedraggled, overweight, and pasty-faced systems administrator with funny glasses.
  • You like geese and salmon and systems administrators. You even like Rotarians (what's not to like?). You especially like the fact geese and salmon and systems administrators are tangible and somewhat familiar, as opposed to Snorgletux. After all, you are only marginally conversant in approximately 20 percent of what Snorgletux is designed to do.

I hope, by now, some of you out there are having a good chuckle. Perhaps others of you are having a good wince.

I've drawn this scenario from real life.

On several occasions, I've been the copywriter at a series of new product briefings. (In other words, I've grown accustomed to the company of my own ignorance.)

I've been the creative director when all that was on the table was just so many geese and salmon and pasty-faced systems administrators. Why was that all that we were coming up with? Easy. We had just a 10 percent understanding of that 20 percent of the product our marketing contact was only marginally conversant in. It's the law of diminishing returns.

I've been the marketing consultant who asked the dumb question: "So is there market research to indicate there's a strong need for this product?"

Now I'm the part-time columnist who thinks we've gone just about as far as we can with this way of working: agencies with clients and marketers with technology product development teams.

The Ginderpinthas-es of the world need to be greeted with a little less kowtowing. They need to be reminded their lustrous vision alone is not enough.

Technology marketers need to stand toe to toe with development teams and insist on clarity. Clarity is not the product of a lower form of thought.

Agencies and their clients must endeavor, at every turn, to create collaborative, mutually respectful relationships that allow one to not just play the fool but to be the fool -- without fear.

In the current climate, it's no surprise technologists often view marketers (and their supporting advertising agencies) as mere beauticians.

It's time to revisit the wellsprings of creative thought. Curiosity is one such wellspring: that desire to know new things and revel in details rather than flee them. When dealing with complicated topics, the use of an instructive analogy is another wellspring.

There is a kind of creativity (and real joy) that can only come from in-depth knowledge. (I think every Ginderpinthas knows this. It's his little secret. He would do his work for free -- or for just enough to keep up to his elbows in Pinwheels.)

Let's change the way we work.

If we continue down the current path, we will keep getting insubstantial campaigns with the geese and the salmon, concepts easy for creative teams but structurally weak. (The best ideas are those that are premised on the real benefits or features of a given technology.)

If we keep going where we're going, even our little email messages will be as dead as many of our public spaces. In truth, they already are. Have you noticed nine-tenths of the business email you receive sounds as canned and devoid of spontaneity as state radio in the old Soviet republics?

Although this isn't the right forum for this lament, I worry about the way we use our words and the hollowness of our public speech, of which advertising is just one form. Words sometimes become hollow husks, things left after life has moved on.

One chilly March morning, over two decades ago, my favorite professor walked into our class and prompted us to reflect on the everyday miracle that is speech and conversation.

It is amazing, he told us, to listen to someone as their words tumble from them. They create instant structures, find new passages in their own thoughts, and punctuate these on-the-fly compositions with curious silences.

Amazing. Yes.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Maher

Chris Maher is president of FOSFORUS, an Austin-based company that provides business-to-business advertising, media, marketing and interactive services. For seventeen years, Chris has been a top creative director and agency principal. His campaigns have generated a cumulative total of $200 million in technology sales for companies like Dell, Tivoli, Microsoft, i2 Technologies, ClickCommerce, and FreeMarkets.

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