Efficiency v effectiveness

When I left art school, I went for a lot of interviews up and down Madison Avenue.

The new, hot young agencies were all following Bill Bernbach’s model, putting art directors and copywriters together in their own offices.

They were the agencies where all the best work was being done.

Then there were the older, bigger agencies that had worldwide networks and massive New York offices.

They were stuck in the past – copywriters sat on one floor and art directors on another.

The copywriters sat in endless chest-high cubicles, each with an IN and OUT tray.

Traffic would drop a brief into their IN tray.

The writer would type a headline, body copy, suggested visual, and put it in their OUT tray.

Traffic would collect it, take it to the art directors’ floor (where they all sat in rows at drawing boards) and drop it into an art director’s IN tray.

The first time the copywriter would see their ad was when it ran in the press.

Same for TV, the first time the writer would see their script was on the box.

The reason for this was it was the fastest, most efficient way to get ads out the door.

One floor of people talking to clients, one floor of people booking space, one floor of people writing ads, one floor of people doing layouts.

Breaking people up into separate functions meant a lot more work got done a lot faster.

And that’s true, as long as the work you’re doing is identical, every time.

It’s not a new idea – Adam Smith had it on the first page of Wealth of Nations in 1776.

"I have seen a small manufactory where 10 men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about 12 pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of 4,000 pins of a middling size. Those 10 persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of 48,000 pins a day. Each person, therefore, making a 10th part of 48,000 pins, might be considered as making 4,800 pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, they certainly could not each of them have made 20, perhaps not one pin in a day. That is certainly not the 240th, perhaps not the 4,800th part of what they are at present capable of performing in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations."

So, just like pins, if you want to mass-produce advertising, it’s the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way to do it.

Open-plan desks in open-plan offices – you can fit more people in more cheaply, and crank out ads in the shortest possible time.

But what if we don’t judge ads by how fast we can crank them out and how much money we can make by running a production line?

What if the client wants something that isn’t identical to everyone else?

Then we may need to do more than just put beanbags, cappuccino machines and table football in reception.

Then we may have to start doing advertising, one at a time – not mass-produced.

Starting from a point that not all problems are identical, so not all solutions will be identical, that means the process can’t be identical, so we can’t make ads on a production line.

Of course, there are lots of clients who don’t have the time to do it properly.

The space has been booked before the creative brief has even been written.

So they do need a conveyor belt cranking out ads.

And that’s okay, as long as the ads don’t have to do any more than just fill up space.

As long as they don’t have to achieve any sort of business result.

As long as they’re being judged on efficiency, not on effectiveness.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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