Strategists play many roles. They’re ethnographers, data analysts, futurists, reporters, market researchers, game theorists. Take your pick.
But in recent years, one thing that’s been lacking is a more fundamental role: that of critic.
Strategists, I believe, need to have an aesthetic - a well-informed perspective on what makes something good or not good. There’s a lot of mediocre creative work out there, and strategists have an important part in shaping that work. After all, one of the strategist’s fundamental responsibilities is to shape messages and make sure that work is 'on strategy' and 'on brand'.
But work can be on strategy and on brand and still fail. Frequently, this failure comes when work is lacking a sound aesthetic. It’s common in an agency to hear complaints about how clients make subjective judgements and don’t know how to judge quality work with clear sensibility. But before we criticise clients, we need to look in the mirror.
This is especially true for strategists. Strategists are thoroughly trained on how to apply insight and put it to work in inspiring briefs.
We should be turning that same discerning eye to creative. In my work at Barkley, I look for several things in compelling creative: originality, verisimilitude, clarity, richness, and - for lack of a better word - taste.
So let me play critic for two unrelated works:
For one, I intensely dislike the movie Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s story, filmed over 10 years, about one boy growing up from age 7 to 18. Film critics - and audiences - fawned over it. I could never figure out why. I thought it a frightful bore.
I’ll grant some originality to the film, following the same actors for 10 years. But this was also a one-trick pony that was nothing special. A movie is a series of scenes, and each scene needs to be well constructed in every way.
This is where Boyhood fails. Scenes are dull, robotic, and lacking in richness. One bad scene after another makes for a bad film. I’ll give it some points for originality and a few for verisimilitude. Some people who saw it told me they loved Boyhood because they saw glimpses of real life in it.
But I always posed them these questions: How real is the film when scenes lack any real body? How much better could Boyhood have been if each scene were constructed with much more care, more richness? The creators of Boyhood failed in this respect - they made a gimmick film with no depth.
Let’s take something more current - Nike’s Kaepernick spot. It’s widely praised and has unquestionably made an impact. I don’t dislike it as I do Boyhood, but I believe it could be a lot better.
There are two big flaws: originality and clarity. It’s built around the idea of 'don’t let anyone tell you that you’re crazy'. That’s fine - but wow is it an echo of Apple’s 'Crazy Ones' manifesto from the late '90s.
Lack of clarity is where it falls apart. A narrator - not initially identified as Kaepernick - calls on athletes to 'dream crazy', aspire to achieve what others think impossible. Then we see it’s our culture’s current most renowned protestor. He looks at us and tells us to do something crazy, 'even if it costs everything'. Huh?
That’s where there is a disconnect. Dissent is dissent; it’s not reaching for the impossible. And it’s not crazy, it’s bold. Kaepernick took a knee because he believed in an inalienable right. You don’t reach for your rights. They are yours. That’s defending a belief, it’s not aspiring to achieve.
Nike manipulated the story. Their brand is built on aspiration and accomplishment. 'Dream Crazy' is not protest. It’s not dissent. It had impact only because of Nike’s inertia. But Nike has the power to get us to listen to them by just by showing up.
Did they 'dream crazy' when they made 'Dream Crazy'? Nike muddled its message, losing aesthetic points for me. They were on brand, but they were off the mark.
This is where I think a strong aesthetic is so important - and where strategists need to speak out. You are there to apply the consumer’s eye to creative work before the consumers will ever get to see it. You owe it to both brand and consumers to bring them closer together.
David Gutting is SVP/Director of Intelligence at Barkley