A few years ago, I ran into an old friend whose advertising career had taken off. I complimented his campaigns. He complimented my firm’s design work. However, his praise came with a caveat I’ll never forget: "But clients still need ideas. That’s why they come to ad agencies."
It was a disappointing comment to hear. It suggested that he thought ideas could only come from ad agencies. It also suggested that he saw design, to quote critic Ralph Caplan, as "exotic menials" — workers focused on low-level objectives. Essentially, we’re considered the "Make It Pretty" department.
However, designers are playing a much bigger role every day and everywhere. We’re transforming capital investing. We’re innovating ways to address city crime. We’re improving the patient experience. We’re distributing solar energy to impoverished areas. We’re creating more sustainable urban developments. We’re transforming democracy. We’re involved in everything from parks to parkas and logos to logistics. At the heart of each effort is an idea that drives the work.
But it’s a different kind of idea from the one my friend referenced.
The functional purpose of advertising is simple: to make memorable content that persuades people. Story is the right tool for this purpose. It fuses information with emotion. It’s why writers have been the lead dogs at agencies for decades. It’s why ad agencies soared with television. It’s why their content production revenues are growing today. It’s also why ad men and women say, "everything tells a story" — even if it doesn’t. In advertising, "idea" only means "story."
For nearly 100 years, that conception was fine. The battleground was the consumer’s mind. The enemy was other brands. The prize was consumer preference. And the best weapons of mass persuasion were stories.
Today's business environment, however, is different. It’s complex. It’s volatile. It’s a chaotic soup of out-of-context information and dizzying perspective shifts stirred by the incessant overturning of hard-fought knowledge, business models, customer relationships, and market positions. "Change has never moved this fast and will never be as slow again," says Jennifer Morgan, president of SAP North America. John Chambers, ex-CEO of Cisco, predicts that 40% of today’s leading companies will be dead in a decade. Forget keeping pace. These leaders struggle to simply make sense of it all.
Trying to solve these higher-order problems with stories is the equivalent of trying to extinguish a forest fire with a show tune. Clients understand that. It’s why they’ve invited agencies to present more appropriate ideas. But clients keep aren’t getting them.
"We want to connect to our customers in a new way," expressed a Fortune 100 brand manager. "But every time we ask our agency for a proposal, it comes back as advertising. I’m sick of it. I am ready to break our contract at any cost because they just don’t get it."
A new class of problems requires a new class of ideas. What’s needed are "desired-state ideas" — the kind in which design firms specialize.
Take Ford. Historically, it’s been among the biggest spenders on story ideas. But the business is being rocked to its core. Consumer technology brands have infiltrated the driving experience. Telsa made electric cars sexy and viable. RelayRides introduced shared mobility. Zipcar made not owning a car feasible. Meanwhile, Google and Uber are eradicating the act of driving.
Ford realized it no longer had clear answers to the basic questions that had given it direction for 100 years: What business are we in? What is the value of driving? What does it mean to drive? How should cars be built? Is selling cars a sustainable business model? To solve these puzzles, the company invested heavily in design.
Now, why would a global corporation in the throes of an existential business crisis turn to exotic menials in the "Make It Pretty" department? Because fundamentally design is change management.
The field sits alongside the sciences and the humanities as one of the three traditions of inquiry. The sciences answer, "What is true?" They hunt for facts through the measurable and testable. The humanities answer, "What matters?" They find meaning through the critical and speculative. Design — or, more appropriately, the designs — answer, "What is desired?" They make the ideal concrete through the integration of aesthetics (what we want), ethics (what ought to be), and reason (what needs to be). In other words, design is process of turning a confusing situation into a desired situation.
Ford now leans on design to discover the shifting meaning of what a vehicle is and to pinpoint what the desired-state of mobility might be. Its experiments range from on-demand busing to overcoming growing traffic congestion in cities. Could the company’s growth come from services rather than manufacturing? Might cars be reframed as APIs that other companies tap into? As Fast Company notes, it’s being considered: "Imagine a car being less like a box you buy that gets you from one place to another, and more like a computer you sit at, filled with apps for biding time as you’re driven to work."
Though Ford’s designers haven’t found their desired-state idea yet, the companies that find theirs reap enormous benefits. As Ford, Google, Microsoft, Apple and many others have proven, desired-state ideas trump story ideas as the lifeline leaders seek to escape the chaos wrought by incessant change. Through them, confusion becomes clarity. Paralysis becomes action. Change becomes possible.
That’s why clients should come to design firms first. Desired-state ideas solve the problems that matter most and give clients something to turn into a story.
Leland Maschmeyer is co-founder and chief creative officer of Collins.