The Invisible Brief

In 1999 Harvard psychologists Christopher Chabris and Donald Simons conducted a famous experiment on selective attention. If you’d like to try the original experiment, you can find it here before I spoil it.

If you're not going to try it, here’s how it works.

Two teams simultaneously pass two basketballs.

Participants were asked to count how many times the team in white passes the ball.

While they are carrying out this task, a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen.

Incredibly, the experiment shows that roughly 50% of participants fail to notice the gorilla even though it’s in plain view for 9 seconds.

Proving that when we are completely engrossed in a task, we are quite likely to miss what’s happening around us.

This metaphor applies very well to business.

Companies get so engrossed in day-to-day operations that they fail to spot important trends.

And get blinded sided by the obvious.

And few things are more obvious than the proverbial 900 pound gorilla.

Blockbuster’s gorilla was Netflix.

RIM’s gorilla was the iPhone.

Groupon’s gorilla is a lack of sustainable merchant benefit.

And this metaphor also applies to advertising on an almost daily basis.

Explaining why 90% of advertising is crap.

Because between the strategy documents, the PowerPoint presentations and media charts, the obvious has gone missing on Madison Avenue and along Shoreditch.

(Not that the condition is limited to London and New York.)

It occurs everywhere the industry is too busy complicating things to remember what a simple business advertising essentially is.

Everywhere agencies fail to recognize the invisible brief.

So here it is made fully visible:

Get noticed and remembered for being relevant.

It’s guaranteed to improve any brief.

And it’s often the only one you need.

Real Street Marketing

The weather has been unseasonably warm here, culminating in a record 25.5°C on March 22. It’s like Christmas in July for one of Toronto’s much maligned and marginalized groups; the panhandlers are back out in force.

These other boys of summer may be underrepresented, but they are highly vocal.

On my 10 minute stroll to and from work through the Annex, one of the city’s prosperous but still gritty hoods, I get a snapshot of marketing at its rawest.

Panhandlers don’t have MBAs or Clios; they have a split second to engage you.

Selling yourself is never easy and as with any trade there’s a knack to it, maybe they can even teach us marketing sophisticates a thing or two.

A Sherlock Holmes story, The Man with the Twisted Lip tells of a protagonist leading the double life of a London beggar while making enough income to also be a respectable country gentleman.

He accomplishes this by virtue of, “A facility of repartee, which improved by practice and made me quite a recognised character in the City.”

The Holmes story chronicles a practitioner at the pinnacle of his trade.

Unlike the first guy I usually pass.

A 20 something, who gruffly demands “Spare change?” and whether you give him any or not, follows up with “Nice day” making both phrases sound like a proposition.

He certainly lacks the silver-tongued delivery of the man with the oversize white cane.

 “Can you spare a nickel a quarter a dime or a dollar?” delivered in the breakneck rhythmic sing-song, if not the accent of a Kentucky horse auctioneer.

I appreciate his attention to syntax, in putting quarter before dime to improve the flow, almost enough to overlook his breaking one of salesmanship’s fundamental rules, by asking a yes - no question.

Then there’s the nondescript guy although that’s not entirely accurate, because I can describe him as the guy with the best tagline.

“Something is better than nothing.”

A line I appreciate enormously for being both optimistic and philosophically unassailable.

I usually pass the 40 cent guy on the way home.

His strategy is one of deceptive simplicity.

“Do you have 40 cents?”

I admire the cleverness of this, because first, by asking for a specific amount he legitimizes his request to some degree.

(A specific amount surely infers a specific purpose.)

Second 40 cents cunningly requires a minimum of 3 coins, greatly upping the probability of getting more, because who is going to search for exact change?

Do I give them money?

Sometimes yes sometimes no.

I side with the character in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, who asserts:

“Begging is a profession, like dentistry, like shining shoes. It’s a service. Every so often you need to get a tooth filled or your shoes shined or to give alms. So when a beggar presents himself to you, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I need a beggar today?’ If you do, give him alms. If you don’t, don’t.”

Put another way, if I’m not in the market for what you’re selling, it doesn’t matter how good your presentation is, I won’t be buying.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate a good one.

And I can think of a few brands that don't handle their messaging with such smarts.